Sea to Sky Gondola takes you to heaven
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
SQUAMISH, BRITISH COLUMBIA — I could never imagine a view would compare to the sight of Lake Louise from atop one of its surrounding mountains in Banff National Park — until I witnessed the scene from the summit of Mount Habrich.
Named after the local resident who first marked trails on the peaks in Squamish, Mount Habrich became accessible to large numbers of visitors in 2014 when the Sea to Sky Gondola debuted. It has been one of the greatest successes in the Canadian tourism industry in recent years, attracting more than 300,000 visitors in its first year of operation and boosting annual tourism to the Squamish region — which is midway between Vancouver and Whistler on Highway 99, aka the Sea to Sky Highway — by more than 40 per cent, according to the gondola owners.
From the summit lodge, visitors can see the view of Howe Sound, a scene that presents some of the finest eye candy in southern British Columbia. The glacier-fed waters are blue-green, similar in colour to Lake Louise, the famed attraction that has been at the heart of Alberta’s iconic tourism marketing for decades. While the mountains around Howe Sound aren’t as majestic as the Canadian Rockies and Howe Sound isn’t a secluded lake in the hills, but rather a waterway that connects with the Pacific Ocean, the sight of green hills, turquoise waters, blue skies and white clouds is comparatively breathtaking. As a traveller, it’s what you desire and what makes you feel fulfilled for having made the trek.
Squamish Attraction Delivers Thrills
At the Sea to Sky Gondola, the summit lodge allows you to luxuriate in the scene thanks to a lovely 6,000-square-foot deck complete with patio chairs, fire-top tables and comfortable seating. The lodge is so popular with local residents that it has become the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights, with musicians gathering to ignite the scene with art and culture.
This year, the Sea to Sky Gondola added another unique attraction, the fifth Via Ferrata in Canada. The “iron road” is a circuit around the mountain that allows amateur climbers to feel the thrill of hanging off the side of a cliff, but doing so without ever being in serious danger. Via Ferrata users are harnessed to a rope that slides around the route and can use handholds pressed deep into the cliff to securely climb the mountain. I’m no fan of heights and I found this activity nerve-wracking but far from terrifying. Eric Dumerac is the entrepreneur who built the attraction and he is keen to put his guests at ease, reminding us numerous times about how safely secured we were to the mountain and watching carefully to make sure we handled the 90-minute trek without trouble.
An avid mountain climber who runs Mountain Skills Academy, Dumerac built the Via Ferrata with the aim of introducing the activity to a much broader audience than mountain climbing has enjoyed. Via Ferrata is a popular pastime in Europe, where these routes were made in the early 20th century as military forces moved troops and supplies surreptitiously through the Alps and other mountain ranges. Years later, mountain climbers discovered them and turned them into a sport.
Having climbed mountains across the world, including free climbing well-known cliff faces such as the famed Chief that is just north of Mount Habrich, Dumerac wanted to share his passion with the masses. He says his patrons have ranged in age from pre-teens to 70-year-olds. The course includes a steel bench halfway through the climb that allows for a sensational respite where you can dangle your feet above the canopy dozens of feet below while staring out to beautiful Howe Sound — which a couple of decades ago was a rust-coloured, polluted mess — and Mount Habrich’s neighbouring peaks.
It is a dazzling scene that makes you realize that no matter how many mountain adventures there are in British Columbia, there is always room to explore one more.
MORE ABOUT THE SEA TO SKY GONDOLA
Location: 36800 Highway 99, Squamish, BC (see map below)
Getting There by Car: From Vancouver, drive north on Highway 99 toward Whistler. The parking lot for the Sea to Sky Gondola is about one hour by car from Vancouver and is on the right at the first traffic light following Shannon Falls Provincial Park. The main parking lot fills up quickly. This parking map shows auxiliary locations to leave your car.
Getting There by Bus: The Sea to Sky Gondola Shuttle picks up passengers from Canada Place and the Hyatt Hotel in Vancouver and delivers them to the attraction for a three-hour stay. The round-trip cost for the bus, which includes gondola entry, is $69 for adults. To book your fare, telephone 604-892-2551. Other bus options include the new Squamish Connector, which costs just $20 one way (or $25 round trip) from Vancouver. It has limited departures, however. Greyhound and Pacific Coach Lines are other bus operators.
Gondola Cost: Purchase tickets online to save money. Adults pay $33.95 online vs. $37.95 at the ticket window. For full prices, visit the Sea to Sky Gondola tickets webpage. You can also climb to the top of Mount Habrich through a vertical pathway at the back of the mountain. It will take about 90 minutes to two hours to complete the ascent.
Via Ferrata Cost: Adults and Youths between ages 8-18 pay $109 each for the tour, which includes the cost of the gondola ride.