Anyone who’s hiked it knows the Sea to Summit Trail can be challenging, and at times technical.
But when Shelbee Fulton and her boyfriend, Clay Jalava, completed the 7.5 kilometre hike after a grueling six hours in winter conditions Sunday, the real challenge had only just begun.
“By the time we got to the gondola, it was probably half an hour after closing,” Fulton explained. “We were in no shape to continue hiking. I was in tears. The conditions were horrible.”
But because the couple returned from their hike outside of the operating hours of the Sea to Sky Gondola, which could have downloaded them hundreds of metres in elevation to the lot where their vehicle was parked in a matter of minutes, they were told they could only ride it down if they paid an increased fee to ride.
“[The operator] told us it would be $60 for the two of us, because they charge more for people who show up late,” Fulton explained.
She said the pair had come prepared with enough cash in hand to cover the typical download fee, and that another pair of hikers ahead of them—which had also arrived to the gondola late but had enough cash on hand—were allowed to download.
“I was already in tears from how tired I was from the hike, and at that point I was just ready to break down,” Fulton recalled.
And that extra fee was money both hikers say they were willing to pay, if only they could have accessed the cash.
They say they were directed to a nearby ATM by gondola staff, but the machine was out of service.
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When they weren’t able to withdraw money to give to the operator at the top of the ride, they were told they would have to walk the 11 kilometres down a logging road to the parking lot below, rather than download on the gondola.
“I pointed out the sun was going down,” said Jalava, along with emphasizing to the lift operator that Fulton was not adequately dressed for the winter conditions on the trail they’d have to embark on. “And [the operator] was like, ‘There’s no way she’s going to freeze.’”
So the couple started their trek downhill—but they didn’t finish it.
Ultimately, calls were put in to Squamish RCMP and Squamish Search and Rescue for aid as they attempted to scramble their way downhill in steep, icy conditions. Search-and-Rescue crews ultimately located the pair, with their cellphone batteries close to dying and daylight quickly fading.
“The couple that did walk down the [logging trail], down the back, found themselves in the dark, and not totally prepared. And I believe it was a frightening experience for them,” said John Willcox of Squamish Search and Rescue, who noted another pair also required rescue on the same trail at around the same time on Sunday.
The Sea to Sky Gondola says it’s reviewing its protocol in light of Sunday’s incident—which it admits was an error in judgment on the company’s end.
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“[The hikers were] tired and hungry, and it was after hours. And they were quite obviously ill-prepared to walk out. We should have downloaded them. So, it’s a moment of learning for us,” explained Kirby Brown, General Manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola.
Brown said that, while measures are in place to deter hikers from arriving late at the Sea to Sky Gondola—and expecting a lift down—after operating hours, Fulton and Jalava never should have been instructed to make the trek by foot.
Sea to Sky Gondola staff, including the operators who were on shift on Sunday, will now receive upgraded training and guidance on how to handle making judgment calls in similar situations going forward.
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