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All through the 1960s through 1980s the public were able to drive to the Singing Pass trailhead at the Garibaldi Provincial Park boundary up Fitzsimmons Creek. The right to do so was assured by Ken Kiernan, Minister of Parks and Recreation as early as 1968 and enshrined as a legal right in the 1982 Master Development Agreement between Whistler Mountain and the Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing. The right has never been extinguished. It is in the public interest and the public entrusts our government to ensure that Whistler-Blackcomb lives up to its obligations. Rupert Merer of ACC Whistler explains.

History of public access to Singing Pass

by Rupert Merer

A number of histories of Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb have been published this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Whistler Mountain for skiing. Whistler is a tourist town which is naturally always trying to sell itself, so these histories have been overwhelmingly positive, about the mountain, the place, the pioneers, the Olympic bids and the skiing. They mention that the first bid for the winter Olympics was submitted when there was only a gravel road to the ski hill, but perhaps this tells us more about how small scale the winter Olympics were in the late 1960s than anything else.

But in all of these brief histories there doesn’t seem to be a single mention of Garibaldi Provincial Park, even though almost all of the good skiing on both mountains is on land that was transferred from the Park.   Even in 1965 most of the skiable lifts were wholly or partly in the Park.

Garibaldi Park was created in 1927. The BCMC played a lead role in persuading the Government to establish the park. They wrote to the Minister in 1915 and persuaded the Alpine club to do the same in 1917. There were already mines in the Fitzsimmons valley at that time. We have a 1928 map of Fitzsimmons Creek which shows a pack trail from Alta Lake to ‘Avalanche Pass’, later renamed Singing Pass. The trail seems to follow the route of the current IPP access road on the north side of the Creek, and it crossed to the south side of the creek at a point close to the new intake. The pack trail provided access to a number of mine workings in the valley.

 In the early 1960 or late 1950s the Fitzsimmons valley was logged right up to the Park boundary, and logging roads were built on both sides of the creek. The logging roads and clearcuts can be seen clearly in some of the early Blackcomb ski maps of 1980 to 1982. Dick Culbert’s climbing guide, from the early 1960s stated that there were roads on each side of the creek to the park boundary. The road on the south side of Fitzsimmons Creek was used by hikers to access a parking lot about 5 km above Whistler’s main day lots. From there Singing Pass is about 7 km and Russet Lake another 3 km so that a hiker could explore beyond Russet lake on a day trip.  The logging road on North side of the Creek was also used by hikers but there was no permanent bridge over the Creek. 

Whistler Mountain originally started operations on the south side of the mountain, because there were a number of mining claims on the north flank.  The original Park boundary was about halfway up the Red Chair, and the Blue chair, the T-bars and the Roundhouse were built on Park land. Presumably Whistler (or Garibaldi Lift Co as it then was) negotiated the transfer of Park land before 1965 when they started constructing the lifts, but official BC topo maps printed in 1967 do not show boundary changes.

Blackcomb opened for skiing in December 1980. On this mountain the original Park boundary ran north- south about one third of the way up the Solar Coaster chair. Without changes to the Park boundary Blackcomb would have been a tiny resort, almost all below 1600 metres.

Between 1966 and 1990 the Park boundary was gradually pushed back on both mountains. It is hard to find any record of these changes, perhaps because negotiations with both Mountains were conducted in secrecy. Providing confirmation of this the original Master Development Agreement for Whistler had a clause requiring that the entire contents of the agreement should be confidential. This agreement, dated 1982, showed that by then the Park boundary had been pushed south by about 2 km to include Whistler Peak. Sometime between 1982 and 1990 the boundary was pushed back to the southeast to include most of the ridge from Whistler Peak to Flute Mountain. In about 2003, the boundary was adjusted, behind closed doors, to provide more space to WB on the summit of Piccolo mountain. Unremarkable mountainside somewhere in the Fitzsimmons valley was traded for prime alpine land on top of the ridge. It was an added insult to make this transaction appear to be a fair trade.

The Park boundary was also changed a number of times on Blackcomb; originally in the late 1970s to allow the initial development of the resort and then between 1980 and 1990 the boundary was moved to encompass the Seventh heaven area, and then in 1989 and 1990 to include the Crystal Ridge area and then Blackcomb Glacier. The latter park was formed because the Government decided to legislate the boundary of Garibaldi Park, and Blackcomb Glacier Recreation Area was removed for the future use of skiers.

The result of all of the transfers is that the majority of Whistler Blackcomb’s skiing takes place on land that was part of Garibaldi Provincial Park before 1966. Without the transfers Blackcomb would be limited to the Excelerator and Wizard chairs, low on the mountain. Whistler would not have the Peak, Harmony, Symphony, Big Red or Emerald chairs or the Roundhouse. The total transfer areas are about 1450 Ha to Whistler and 1650 Ha to Blackcomb.

But the boundary adjustments generally had public support as the 1988 and 1989 public meetings demonstrated. The mountain clubs also supported them with reservations, as a letter from BCMC to the Minister of Recreation and Conservation, in July 1968 shows. However BCMC was concerned that the development of skiing in the Fitzsimmons valley should “ensure preservation of existing access routes into the park (e.g the Fitzsimmons Creek trail to…Singing Pass).” The Minister responded by saying that “We can assure you that no Park Use Permit will be issued to the above company without due consideration being given to the effect that it will have on public access to and within Garibaldi Park.”

They didn’t give such consideration. We have never seen a PUP but when the BC Government signed a Master Development Agreement (MDA) with Whistler in 1982 the references to summer vehicle access were contradictory. The agreement seemed to contemplate hiker and vehicle access in summer but isn’t specific. The access road on the North of Fitzsimmons creek was shown on one of the attached drawings as a ROW but another drawing shows it as a hiking trail. The old parking lot is shown clearly on the main drawing of the resort area.

There was another hiking trail shown in the 1982 MDA which ascended from Creekside to the top and Whistler and to Garibaldi park. This trail seems to have been destroyed by Whistler Blackcomb who have conveniently forgotten of its existence in their MDA.

 But all was well for hikers until 1991 when the Fitzsimmons slump or slide occurred. The slump closed the access road below the parking lot, and later Whistler built a gate across the bottom of it. Was the gate legal? Probably not, because the 1982 MDA required Whistler to provide road access to all parking lots. Whistler then developed the bike park across the access road and took firm ownership of it. The rest of the Fitzsimmons valley was subsequently locked up by the IPP development and the Olympic sliding centre, with the only remaining access the sliding centre road, which had been built for the Olympics with public money.

The options remaining for hikers seeking to enter that Singing Pass area of the park are now:
  • To ride the Whistler gondola, at a cost, and hike over the Musical bumps. However the limited operating hours of the gondola in summer means that a hiker cannot start hiking before 10.30 AM and must be back at the gondola by 5pm. This is impractical for most hikers.
  • Hike from the village parking lots to Singing Pass and Russet Lake. This distance to the latter is almost 15 km. It is shown on all guidebooks as a ‘green’ trail and visitors are often horrified when they come to the slump and find a section of trail which is far harder than other ‘black’ trails in the valley (and getting more difficult). It is surprising that given the concern for safety shown by WB, Whistler municipality and the Ministry of Forests, nobody seems concerned about this hazard.
The distance means that few hikers use this option, and those that do use Russet Lake as a destination, rather than a base for exploring the Park. The first 12 km from the village have few interesting views and one hiker was heard to say “wake me up when we get there”.
In 2014 BC Parks issued their Management  plan amendment for the Spearhead area, which stated, as one of its main objectives  “The following strategies have been identified as high priorities for implementation: Work with adjacent land managers to establish a new vehicle-accessible trailhead on the north side of Fitzsimmons Creek to provide summer access to the Singing Pass Trail.”

This confirmed the objective of their 1990 Master plan that “trailhead access for Singing pass will be upgraded and secured” and that “These objectives are reflected in the general access strategy which bring vehicle access close to park boundaries and then provides low- impact trail access to the park’s more popular features and to wilderness access points.”

After the issue of the BC Parks amendment FMCBC  met WB, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural resources, Sliding centre management , Innergex and BC Parks, but it was evident that the Corporate (WB) and Government agencies had already met and developed a policy, and this was presented to the FMCBC as a “fait accompli”. The FMCBC was told that the sliding centre road was too steep, too busy, unsafe and the curves too sharp for public use. 

FMCBC responded some time later, pointing out that the sliding centre road does not compare with many European or US tourist roads in steepness or the sharpness of its curves, and that even the Duffey lake road is steeper and has sharper curves. The sliding centre road has little traffic. On safety, FMCBC noted that commercial ATV trips use the road (which contravenes the Blackcomb CRA) and the only requirement for renting an ATV is a valid driver’s licence from anywhere. On the ATV trips children hang onto the driver without a seat belt, and on one occasion a child was seen sitting in front of the tour leader, who held him with one hand and drove with the other.

Most serious BC hikers drive access roads that are steep, overgrown and narrow, with water bars, rocks and ruts and sharp blind bends. They are an order of magnitude more difficult than the sliding centre road.

After the FMCBC responded with these comments our invitation to another meeting was withdrawn.

FMCBC members recognize that Whistler Blackcomb has provided huge benefits to the Province, in recreation and tourism. However most of their revenue has been generated on public land transferred from Garibaldi Park, and from the development of the bike park across the old hiking access road. So while WB has been so successful and profitable operating on public land, an unexpected consequence of the Fitzsimmons slump and the Olympics is that public access to the park has been severely restricted, as BCMC feared back in 1968.

The FMCBC thinks that in return for the benefits received from operating on public lands, WB has an obligation to restore public summer vehicle access to a point close to the old parking lot. And the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural resources should honour the pledge make by his predecessor in 1968. Lastly the disposition of public park land should be a public matter and not carried out in secret by Government and Corporations.

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