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Backcountry huts provide comfort, camaraderie

Mountain huts are not only a place to hide when the weather is foul; they are not only a place where one dries out clothes or cooks a meal, or finds safety when exhausted or injured. Mountain huts also create a magic environment.

Mountain huts are not only a place to hide when the weather is foul; they are not only a place where one dries out clothes or cooks a meal, or finds safety when exhausted or injured. Mountain huts also create a magic environment. Here we experience precious moments.

- Peter Fuhrmann,
ACC President 1984 -1988
Foreword, Alpine Huts in the Rockies, Selkirks and Purcells



Full disclosure — I really love staying in backcountry huts.

Give me the choice between a week at a five-star hotel and just one night in a tiny cabin in the high alpine wilderness with no electricity, no Internet, freeze-dried dinner and a full outhouse barrel that needs to be changed and it's no contest. I'm packing my sleeping bag, headlamp and ear plugs for the hut night.

Backcountry huts are my retreat, where I go to breathe, to inhale fragrant spruce forest after an autumn shower, where I take pleasure in the morning ritual of stuffing lunch, down jacket and avalanche safety gear into my pack for a day's ski tour across a glacier, where I park myself in a well-worn chair in front of the woodstove at the end of a long mountaineering day.

Huts are how I came to be acquainted with The Alpine Club of Canada. A further disclosure — I am an active ACC member; a volunteer trip leader, Mountain Culture Committee member and editor of the Club's newsmagazine, the Gazette.

I've also volunteered with maintenance and construction projects on ACC huts. I've used a nail gun to install ceiling slats, scrubbed kitchens and held an outhouse door in place while volunteers more skilled than I attached it to its hinges. And I gained more than I gave from every one of those experiences.

Huts are also great places to meet new people, and while I enjoy fully those precious weeks I've stayed at privately owned lodges with a set group of companions for the duration, I'll never stop appreciating the mystery of every hut trip, never knowing who I might meet cooking over a propane burner. In remote backcountry huts, I have experienced many special moments.

And I'm not alone.

Visitors to backcountry huts are increasing. In what might be a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, according to the Snowsports Industries of America backcountry skiing gear sales are the only sector of skiing that is growing. Snowshoers, too, are trekking into mountain huts. And outside of the national parks, snowmobilers are parking at their own huts and cabins.

So, with all these users descending on the very places that have traditionally been refuges for those seeking quiet and solitude amidst remote wilderness, are more huts a good thing?

* * * * * * * *

The Alpine Club of Canada operates the largest network of huts in North America. In addition to several drive-to-the-door, front-country hostels and cabins, Canada's non-profit climbing and mountaineering club owns and operates 26 backcountry huts in the Rockies and B.C.'s Selkirk and Purcell mountains. A half-dozen more are run by regional sections including the Jim Haberl and Tantalus huts high above Squamish in the Tantalus Range, which are run by the ACC's Vancouver Section. In the Marriott Basin, ACC Whistler runs the Wendy Thompson Hut.

Across the province from the Joe Lorsa Cabin near Smithers and Jumbo Pass Cabin in the Purcells, dozens of huts, cabins and shelters are operated by local mountaineering and ski clubs on public land, built and maintained by volunteers and donated dollars. The BC Mountaineering Club (BCMC) runs several basic huts which are, like the ACC's and most other club-run facilities, open to anyone for a fee. And they recently acquired a permit to build a new hut at Watersprite Lake near Mount Mamquam.

The government is involved too; in the Diamond Head area of Garibaldi Provincial Park, the highly used Elfin Lakes Hut is operated by BC Parks, plus several basic shelters. And more are planned. In Whistler's own backyard, in February B.C. Parks handed the Spearhead Huts Project a Park Use Permit, bringing the long-discussed construction of three huts planned for the popular 40-kilometre Spearhead Traverse another step closer to reality.

This announcement came just weeks before the ACC opened the doors to its brand new, state-of-the-art Louise and Richard Guy Hut at the des Poilus Glacier. Planted on a rocky shoulder on the western edge of the Rockies in Yoho National Park, it is the fifth in the Wapta Icefields area, providing the "missing link" for those skiing the 20-kilometre Bow-Yoho glacier traverse.

Accomplished on the shoulders of a considerable amount of paperwork and cooperation with park managers, building the Guy Hut cost the ACC just under $1 million. With sleeping space for 18 (mattress pads included) the hut is heated with propane which also fuels stove-top burners. It's built of structurally insulated panels that are mould, mildew and fire resistant, complete with an LED light system that runs on a combination of wind and solar power. The system is monitored from the ACC's national office in Canmore, Alta, with the old tried-and-true propane for back-up. Pots, pans and dishes are supplied, and, of course, there's an outhouse to harness human waste in barrels rather than having campers deposit it on the glaciers. For all this comfort and safety high above treeline ACC members pay $30 a night, the general public $40.

But landing in the black was not the first priority for building the Guy Hut, said ACC executive director Lawrence White.

"I don't know if that was the real driver behind wanting to build that hut," White says. "It was more of a desire to fill that historic and geographical niche, a strategic placement on that traverse. And (the Club's) desire to expand our winter offerings, which fortuitously happened to complement the Yoho Park mandate. It's every bit as much about visitation as opportunity to visit."

When it comes to huts, opportunity and visitation are the raison d'être. Across the board the ACC has recorded a 34 per-cent increase in use in the past five years. Visitors to popular Bow Hut rose from 2,778 in 2011 to 4,261 in 2015. Users at easily accessed Elk Lakes Cabin doubled from 1,313 to 2,621 over the same time period. Visitors to helicopter-accessed Fairy Meadow also doubled from 1,234 to 2,545. Even Glacier Circle Cabin, a remote historic log cabin in Rogers Pass accessed by a long, challenging glacier traverse requiring advanced route-finding skills, saw a rise from nine people in 2011 to 51 in 2015.

"Is hut use increasing? Very much so," White says. "We don't know exactly whether it's due to social media or the 'GoPro' factor, but use is definitely on the rise."

The trend is particularly noticeable with the Club's family-friendly huts, which bodes well for the newly acquired Cameron Lakes Cabin in Waterton Lakes National Park, a winter use-only cabin that sleeps eight with just a two-kilometre approach from the parking lot. At the same time though, the ACC's huts are booked to just 40 per cent of capacity, as demand is often concentrated during peak weeks or weekends. To help balance demand and availability for its most in-demand facilities – Fairy Meadow and Kokanee Glacier for skiers, and the perpetually favourite family-friendly Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara – the Club relies on a lottery system.

"Nobody is interested in a Tuesday in November," White says. "With Fairy Meadow and Kokanee, everyone is trying for the same nine of 23 weeks. And the irony is you can have an equally good experience in December."

For the BCMC, however, building a hut is sometimes a matter of opportunity, as with the case of the planned hut at Watersprite Lake.

"We got a permit for that location, and we decided it's been a long time since the BCMC built a new hut, so we should go out and do it," explains Paul Kubik, BCMC cabins and trails board member. Having received donations from MEC and Concord Pacific, the club's $30,000 share of construction costs makes the project feasible. While the location is not the first choice of all BCMC members due to a lack of challenging climbing options, access will be easier than the BCMC huts at North Creek and Mountain Lake, which see little use as a result.

For the members of the five different groups that comprise the Spearhead Huts Committee (SHC), however, — ACC Whistler and Vancouver sections, the BCMC, the Kees and Claire Memorial Hut Society and the Brett Carlson Memorial Foundation — demand lists high amongst the motivators for the huts' creation. Some 1,000 skiers are now estimated to be making the three-day traverse every winter. On a busy weekend between 300 and 500 people ski beyond the lifts of the Whistler Blackcomb area for backcountry day-tours. On a non-holiday weekend in October, as many as 14 tents have been scattered across the high alpine landscape at the site of the proposed Russet Hut alone.

"We know for a fact there are thousands of people heading into the Spearhead Range every year," says Jayson Faulkner, SHC chair. "The Corridor has had record numbers of visitors the last few years, summer and winter. But with popularity, comes impact. People are pitching tents and pooping and peeing anywhere they want. The impacts on the meadows are not insignificant, and we have to manage that impact. If you don't do something, there will be more degradation."

Building a hut in a place where dozens of people are regularly, randomly camping is a proven way to help manage that impact, he says.

It's also a proven way to keep human food separated from wildlife, which is safer for both.

Protection of wilderness is key to permits being issued for hut construction. The new Guy Hut is open in winter only, due to the area's significance as a grizzly bear migration route in summer. In protected areas, hut proposals require extensive research by biologists as well as experts in environmentally-friendly building techniques.

But once the doors are open, use of a hut comes with responsibility. At ACC huts, efforts are made to schedule volunteer custodians at some of the ACC's busier huts, but for the most part hut users are self-policing, and the effectiveness of that system is often credited to experienced users who are reliable about reporting any deficiencies — and who set good examples.

"The biggest challenge is with new users," White says. "It's not a lodge. You are expected to chip in. Once a person has stayed in a hut a couple of times they get to see what needs to be done — melting snow and keeping the water buckets full, splitting firewood and keeping those boxes full. And the outhouse barrels, well, they're not going to change themselves."

While from time to time poaching by users who have not booked or paid for a spot does occur, again White says the onus falls to users. He then described his own approach; bringing with him a printed list of paid users for the nights he'll be at a facility, and displaying it right on the common room table for all to see.

"It becomes apparent pretty quickly who doesn't have a booking," he says.

Staying in a hut has, by necessity, always encouraged an atmosphere of camaraderie. The hiking, skiing or climbing required to reach a backcountry hut represents a common passion among users. So do the communal chores that are part-and-parcel of hut use. For those who volunteer the elbow grease, power tool skills and paperwork shuffling essential to a hut's construction, the connection runs even deeper. The pride of volunteerism and camaraderie are as much the fibre of a hut as the log beams or communal bunks.

With the exception of Glacier Circle, which was built by a Mr. Fred Pepper who mushed a dog team along with his wife and baby daughter across the Illecillewaet Glacier in 1920, the oldest of the ACC's huts — Elizabeth Parker and Abbot Pass — were built by Swiss guides employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1912 and 1922. While stones at the pass were used for the hut's walls, building Abbot Pass Hut, tucked in a rocky notch at 2,926 metres between Mounts Victoria and Lefroy high above Lake Louise, required ferrying two tonnes of materials up Victoria Glacier on horseback, then up the steeper terrain of the Death Trap on the men's backs.

Through the following decades the ACC built several comfortable valley-bottom log cabin huts, but it was improvements in helicopter technology that facilitated and helped spur a flurry of hut construction in the 1960s, '70s and '80s in remote, high alpine locations.

To this day, two ingredients remain indispensable — volunteer labour and private donations. Manpower, including professional craftsmen and ACC staff, is the number one building cost, followed by helicopter flights, and transportation in general, which varies according to the location of the facility.

"We're all farmers, we're weather dependent," White says. "When we get a summer with a lot of lousy weather, with a lot of rain and we can't fly, we get behind."

The 2015 summer, during which the Guy Hut was built, proved to be exceptionally wet and stormy, grounding helicopters on days they were scheduled to deliver materials. In the end, helicopter costs totalled a third of construction costs. When building anything in such a remote location — the Guy Hut is more than 20 kilometres from the nearest road — unexpected challenges are the norm.

"The reality is flying times exceeded our expectations," says White. "We never factored in that due to elevation, and a shortage of water, we'd have to mix cement at the parking lot, then fly it up and pour it directly from the helicopter. Problem solving becomes a primary asset. When you think about all the moving parts, and that we ran the workplace according to WCB safety codes, and we did it safely with no incidents, that's really impressive."

Prior to its construction, the ACC ran a sophisticated fundraising campaign to encourage members to contribute. Since then, it has established a more formal fundraising program, spurred by a large gift from life-long member Wally Joyce.

"We realized there were other life-long members who felt a deep connection to the Club who needed to know donating to the ACC — which is a charitable organization — was an option," White says. The success of those efforts, he adds, is evident in the new Louise and Richard Guy Hut which is named for the long-time ACC members whose substantial donation facilitated construction.

"The huts don't get built without it (cash donations), but it doesn't stop there," White says. "Programs wouldn't be run. The lights wouldn't be turned on in the office."

And at a national level, the ACC is actively planning to build more huts, with among other things, the help of a PhD student who is currently working to identify and clarify the social science behind hut visitation.

"We're trying to be proactive and anticipate future needs," White says. "Inevitably, with a larger base of users, and more diverse users, there are changes in expectations. For some users, there's an expectation of Wi-Fi in some huts, or an electrical outlet to recharge camera or GPS batteries."

The realities of changing times and habits, lighter gear and growing populations serve to alter users' expectations. Results from a survey of 316 BCMC members indicated an overall interest in their club building more huts, but with decided consideration of size, location and recreation options.

"People in general were in favour of new huts but it had to be the right project at the right place. I don't think people want huts all over the place," Kubic says. Huts the BCMC built in the 1970s were built in an era when users' needs were much more modest, he adds.

"They have higher expectations now," he says. "Our hut at Mountain Lake is a three or four-hour approach to Sky Pilot. I doubt that hut would be built today."

People want to have a base from where they can go skiing for a couple of days, he adds, with good terrain and a nice place to stay. From the BCMC's perspective, the Spearhead area is receiving a lot of damage due to its current popularity, and a series of huts will help centralize that footprint.

"The notion of wilderness is a relative thing," Faulkner says. "B.C. has millions of hectares of big, real, remote wilderness. There are so many places to go if you really want to be away from people. And it's as if the Lower Mainland has discovered the amazing backyard we have. The Spearhead is only 10 kilometres from North America's biggest ski hill. That's not wilderness anymore."

In the larger picture, however, Faulkner suggests more people embracing the hut experience is a good thing.

"The philosophical reality of the huts system is that they allow more people to access wild places, and that can help change their perception of these places. An urban person who has never seen an alpine meadow might not understand why it's important to protect wild places. It's not about dumbing down the experience, but allowing a wider audience to have significant outdoor experiences."


Hut Etiquette – Top 10 Don'ts for hut visitors

by Meghan J. Ward

Do not:

1. Walk through the hut in wet, snowy boots.

Two words: wet socks. The worst. If you make a puddle, or see one, be the first person to mop it up.

2. Burn the reading material.

Burning old newspapers is one thing, but pulling pages out of Freedom of the Hills is darn right sacrilegious. Be a good scout and pack in some paper to get that wood stove going.

3. Cook your three-course dinner without opening a window.

One night at Bow Hut, I was playing a quiet game of cribbage with friends when we suddenly got ridiculously loopy. Within 10 minutes, we were giggling like a bunch of school children. I got up to fill the kettle and realized that all of the burners were on the gas stoves and no windows were open. Hello, carbon monoxide. (Hint: Open a window).

4. Provide a soundtrack.

There's no holding you back from grabbing that old guitar (some huts have them) and banging out a few tunes when the timing is right. But leave your iPhone or boombox (yes, I've heard rumours) at home or bring headphones. Let your fellow hut dwellers enjoy some peace and quiet.

5. Leave the outhouse barrel for the next poor soul.

Yep, it stinks, in more ways than one. And it's easy to pass this job off to the next person. Be a hero and change that thing. Your hut buddies will be eternally indebted to you (though they may not ever give you a high five again).

6. Do not leave your dishes unrisnsed.

A friend of mine once hiked luxury ingredients into Neil Colgan Hut to make the most elaborate gourmet meal you've ever seen at 2,960 metres. He took his first bite and got a mouthful of soapy tasting food. Turns out, the pots and dishes he used were covered with dishwashing residue. He still hasn't gotten over it. Be a champ and rinse like your life depended on it with a tiny drop of bleach to kill germs.

7. Be loud late at night.

Many people use a hut as a base for mountaineering trips and will start their days at 2 a.m. or earlier. An alpine start is harsh enough; it's worse when you don't get any sleep. Let people get the rest they need to push hard the next day.

8. Take over the entire sleeping area.

It might be late at night when you tuck in, but there still may be people scheduled to arrive. Spreading out like a starfish might be cool on your king-size at home, but in these tiny refuges it makes it hard for others to find a bed. Take a single mattress, and leave room for latecomers.

9. Leave your recycling behind.

On my last trip to Abbot Pass Hut, there must have been six or seven water bottles and Powerade bottles left in the kitchen. Either someone was starting a pee bottle collection or couldn't bear the weight of an empty piece of plastic in their backpack. Take out everything you bring in.

10. Leave the hut in worse shape than you found it. 

Sure, you may not be the last to leave, but pretend you are. Sweep that floor, wipe those counters, bring in fresh snow or water for boiling and stack some wood. I bet you'll feel good that you made someone else's trip that much better.

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