A New Mega Resort Is Coming to BC

Valemount Glacier Destination could be open and spinning lifts to vast, high alpine terrain by December 2017

PHOTO: Andru McCracken

Even at 70-something years old, wind crust had nothing on Oberto Oberti. The diminutive Italian-Canadian banked turns through shin-deep snow with a breakable plate crust like it was six inches of fluff. I couldn’t decide if I was more in awe at his form or of his vision for this run we were skiing, named Twilight.

Right now, Twilight is a late season favorite for CMH Cariboo, a remote heli ski operation four hours north of Revelstoke, British Columbia. By next winter, however, it could be the backside of BC’s newest ski resort—Valemount Glacier Destination. Last winter, Oberti invited me to Valemount to join a small group in a flight above the proposed resort and to ski some of the runs for a preview of what he has planned. His architecture firm, Pheidias Project Management, based in Vancouver, is guiding the proposal for a group of private investors. With a master development plan approved in August, Oberti said little stands in the way of the resort.

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If Oberti’s name sounds familiar it’s because he’s also involved with Jumbo Glacier Resort, the controversial resort proposal in BC’s Purcell Mountains that is opposed by the majority of residents, environmentalists, and First Nations. He’s been pushing that snowball uphill for more than 30 years. Then, in 2011, he changed course and started working on another project—Valemount.

“Valemount will get built before Jumbo,” said Oberti. His Italian accent lingers. “We have everyone on our side in Valemount.”

If everything goes according to schedule, Valemount could be open for skiing in December 2017. From left: Joe Nusse, Tomasso Oberti, Oberto Oberti, and the head guide of CMH Cariboo. PHOTO: Andru McCracken
If everything goes according to schedule, Valemount could be open for skiing in December 2017. From left: Joe Nusse, Tomasso Oberti, Oberto Oberti, and the head guide of CMH Cariboo. PHOTO: Andru McCracken

In fact, the town brought the idea to Oberti. Valemount sits near the BC-Alberta border, between the 11,000-foot peaks of the Cariboo Mountains to the west and the 13,000-foot Canadian Rockies to the east. It was a railway stop, and then in the ’60s became a logging base and mill town. When the mill shut down in 2007, more than 150 direct jobs were lost and many families uprooted, gutting the heart out of the community of 1,000.

Joe Nusse was looking for a newspaper article idea, not a solution to the town’s financial and demographic woes, when he surfed the web one day in 2011 and came across news of the controversy surrounding Jumbo ski resort. “Our mill closed because it was nothing special,” he says. “I thought, ‘What can we do here better than anyone else?’ Nowhere else in BC has 11,000-foot peaks right out of the valley.” Nusse took his idea of a world-class ski resort to the town council, which immediately backed his idea. Then the 27-year-old called Oberti.

“Valemount will get built before Jumbo,” said Oberti. His Italian accent lingers. “We have everyone on our side in Valemount.”

Oberti was an easy sell. He designs ski resorts among other architecture projects—but he doesn’t pay for them. It took him a few months before he found some private investors to front the money to begin working on the Valemount Glacier resort proposal.

Wiser in the nuances and politics of development from his Jumbo experience, Oberti’s first agenda item was to meet with both local First Nations to get their support. Then, he drew up a plan, one that’s both simple and grandiose. A skeletal lift network will launch skiers from a new village built above the town straight onto a ridge near the summit of 8,661 foot Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Skiers will be able to rip tree runs back down to the valley, explore ridge lines and steep chutes, or drop off the back side into a series of glaciated cirques. At the bottom of the latter, a lift will pop onto the top of Twilight, at 8,301 feet for heli ski-style runs down a glacier and the potential for summer skiing. A long cat track will return them back around to the front. Total vertical will be almost 5,000 feet.

Nusse, now 32, works for Oberti as his man-on-the-ground. He described Valemount as a European-style resort, where adventure and exploration is more important than cookie-cutter groomed runs. “It will be a vehicle into the mountains for skiing, ski touring, mountaineering, and sightseeing,” he said. “Nothing like this exists in North America. It’s going to be one of a kind.”

The skiing off the backside of the proposed resort at Valemount will rival heli ski terrain.  PHOTO: Andru McCracken
The skiing off the backside of the proposed resort at Valemount will rival heli ski terrain.
PHOTO: Andru McCracken

Indeed, as I skied and flew around, the terrain looked like all the gnarliest stuff at Alta, Jackson, and Revelstoke crammed into one area. And then there was another Whistler alpine over the next ridge. It reminded me of heli ski terrain in the Selkirks more than any ski resort I’d ever been to. Plus, considering the large inbounds area, the lift network would be sparse, similar to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, another Oberti creation. The backcountry went on forever, with ice fields and ridges extending in three directions.

When I questioned how the resort will manage the avalanche and cliff danger, Oberti told a rambling story of bringing French ski area executives for a tour of Jumbo and Valemount. They assured him the terrain was totally manageable. He plans to install avalanche control systems that can be detonated remotely to manage more dangerous slopes. But I was left skeptical. Knowing the time avalanche control work can take in the Whistler alpine, I imagined it would take all day after a storm to open Twilight and days to open all the terrain—it’s that complex, steep, and expansive. The North American ski resort model means visitors will expect warnings and signage of all the hazards—they are everywhere. When it’s snowing or the clouds are low, most of the resort will be redundant.

With a plan on paper, Oberti and Nusse took it to the town. Almost everyone was enthusiastically supportive.

The land under the ski lifts will be leased from the province. The resort will own a base village, where Oberti plans to build 2,000 hotel-type beds in phase one and about 300 private residences. The resort’s viability, says Nusse, relies on lift tickets, both winter and summer. Already busloads of tourists cruise past, at least 35 buses per day from June through September, according to a nearby visitor info center. The gondola to the top of Trudeau will run year-round, providing an impressive vantage point of glaciers and mountains, including the massive hulk of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Considering the popularity of sightseeing trams and gondolas in Banff, nearby Jasper and Squamish, Nusse says they expect summers to be busy. Eventually year-round skiing will be an option, too.

In total, Oberti said the first phase of building will cost more than $175 million Canadian over three years. He told me recently the money will come from a group of private investors from Toronto. But back in February, when I was in Valemount, the pitch was more specific: a real estate developer in Toronto plans to use his contact list of investors to create a private trust. Each investor will kick in a sizeable minimum—say $1 million—to fund the project, with an eye on dividends paid throughout the life of the resort.

It’s in the middle of nowhere, five hours from Edmonton, which is the closest major airport, and three from Kamloops or Prince George, both smaller feeder facilities. CMH struggles to get its high-rolling guests to the area.

With a plan on paper, Oberti and Nusse took it to the town. Almost everyone was enthusiastically supportive. More than 200 people—a fifth of the town—would show up for town meetings. When I attend one in February, people wanted to know how to move the approval process along. Another yelled, “Get it built!” Everyone cheered. Oberti said all three main provincial political parties support the proposal. So August’s news of the master plan approval came as an “about time.” It was the last major step in the resort’s approval process. All that remains is a final development agreement, usually more of a formality than an obstacle after the master plan is approved. Oberti expects the government to grant that by December.

Still not everyone thinks a massive ski resort at Valemount makes sense. CMH employees, who aren’t allowed to speak openly about the project, wonder how all the people are going to get to Valemount. It’s in the middle of nowhere, five hours from Edmonton, which is the closest major airport, and three from Kamloops or Prince George, both smaller feeder facilities. CMH struggles to get its high-rolling guests to the area. The existing hotels are already packed with snowmobilers on weekends. And outside of holidays and long weekends, BC’s existing resorts still have room on chairs. Christopher Nicolson, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, says a new resort will steal clients from other resorts more than bring in new skiers.

In response, Nusse sounds like the ghost voice in Field of Dreams: “If we build something amazing, people will come.”