Christy Allan remembers the first time she set eyes on the spectacular panoramic views of Squamish and Howe Sound that visitors would eventually experience at the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola.
“The first time I went to the top and saw the view was in the summer of 2012,” said Allan, director of sales and marketing for the attraction. “We bushwhacked for a number of hours around what is now the lodge site and the Panorama Trail. I was blown away by the views and couldn’t believe what the partners had discovered.”
Fast-forward two years and $22 million later to May 2014, when Allan finally got to see the project transform from dream to reality. A 10-minute scenic gondola ride now offers year-round access to previously inaccessible hiking trails 885 metres above sea level, interpretive walks, a 90-metre long, 65-metre high suspension bridge, and a 9,000 square foot Summit Lodge featuring food service and arguably the best patio in North America.
“When I first went up the gondola and got out on the deck, that was when I knew the gondola was going to be a game changer for Squamish,” she said. “Everything about the construction was first class. I will never forget going up the gondola for the first time over the first piece of granite and then over the trees into pristine wilderness. It was super silent and coming up and seeing Sky Pilot and Co-Pilot looming over the lodge literally took my breath away. All I could think of was that there was so much new terrain to explore.”
But despite Allan’s awe at what had been created, she was still unprepared for the reception and worldwide attention the gondola would garner during its first year of operations. In fact, almost as soon as the attraction opened, Squamish began appearing on prestigious lists of top destinations, including the New York Times’ “52 Places to go in 2015,” which specifically cited the new gondola as a reason to visit.
“This first year has been amazing. We went beyond our forecasted visits and beyond our wildest expectations,” she said. “It put Squamish on the international map… especially the New York Times article.”
But it hasn’t been without its challenges.
“Well, there was the ‘Winter That Never Was,’” said Allan of the recent warm and snow-less season when the gondola’s new tubing park melted away only days after it had opened. “We had to change our focus from snowshoeing and tubing to hiking, and it went well. It still went beyond my expectations, for sure. But every day came with its own challenges, surprises and successes.”
The attraction’s successes, however, should be attributed to Squamish as a whole, said Sea to Sky Gondola’s new general manager Kirby Brown.
“I think it is brash to say the gondola has changed Squamish,” Brown said. “Squamish is already turning into a destination, and I think it is more about Squamish looking for ways to showcase its beauty.”
Although he’s only been on the job for a month and a half, Brown is uniquely qualified to helm the outdoor lifestyle focussed venue. He worked for several years at Whistler Blackcomb, moved on to become the president and CEO at Panorama Mountain Resort and most recently was the CEO of Whistler’s The Adventure Group (TAG).
“I feel like I’ve been built for this job,” he said. “I feel like it is the perfect fit… the people who work here and the product itself.”
Brown said the Squamish community’s support of the project is what has made the big difference in its inaugural year.
“The two things that surprised me the most were just how many people came from all over the world to visit the gondola, and just how supportive and positive the community has been in embracing it,” he said. “You have no idea how much pleasure it gives me to go to a local pub or restaurant and hear someone at another table telling their visiting friends all about the gondola and how great it is. It’s something they’re proud of.”
On May 16, the gondola hosts a first year anniversary event at the Summit Lodge from noon to 3 p.m. to celebrate its birthday with the community.
“It’s going to be fun, but understated,” said Brown. “We will have some cake, reflect on the past, share some stories and have some live music. We’ll also be burying a time capsule and we’re asking people to bring photos and stories for it.”
The time capsule is scheduled to be opened May 16, 2025, on the gondola’s 10th anniversary.
However, Brown and Allan are still focussing on the gondola’s more immediate future.
“For us, the challenge is finding what really fits,” said Brown. “As we’ve done in the past, we want to talk with council about our shared ambitions, and of course we always want to remain respectful of our relationships with the Squamish Nation and the Squamish community. It’s not about building stuff, but rather about fulfilling that dream of connecting people to the outdoors.”
Allan said the possibility of a via ferrata (Italian for “iron road” and consisting of a protected climbing route with a steel cable which runs along the route) in partnership with Sea to Sky Guides would fit the gondola’s mandate.
“I’d also like to see the development of more trails,” she said. “I’d love to see Squamish become a recognized hiking destination.”
Brown couldn’t agree more.
“My wish is to look back a generation from now and be proud we were a community catalyst, and part of the connection to the natural world that directed where Squamish went,” he said. “In the end, the elegant solution to the future of the gondola is bound to the elegant solution to the future of Squamish.”