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Sleeping around in the backcountry

From the Diamond Head Lodge to the Spearhead Huts Project
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Ski touring is the fine art of suffering, balanced only by a few precious moments of pure ecstasy. For every brief moment of joy during the weightless descent, hours are spent meandering up steep slopes. At day's end, snuggling deep into down bags with the subalpine wind blowing pinecones through the trees, a sense of profound peace settles deep into the psyche.

The Hut is the powder palace of many a low-income earner, that sanctuary from snow where passions and odours mix in the communion with nature. Huts are becoming increasingly popular; on busy weekends it's not unusual to be packed in like rats on a submarine, but everyone is too, too tired to care, face plastered with that wild-eyed grin endemic to all backcountry travellers.

There is nothing more indelibly romantic than the Hut experience. Out in the blistering cold of the winter alpine, the intensity of the blue sky is matched only by the howling winds of a deep winter storm. And when the clouds roll in along the coast, the Huts are havens in the midst of whiteouts and epic snowfall. While alpinists and ski mountaineers dig snowcaves, pitch single-wall tents or forego even rudimentary comfort to bivy out in the elements, the rest of us powder-hunting, skanky ski-touring folk trudge our lazy asses into a warm, somewhat stinky hut, peeling off the sweat-stained layers to steam clothes and smoke bowls in front of the stove, breathing in fumes and downing schnapps.

Ski bums, architects and freaks: skiing at the Diamond Head Lodge

The idea of putting a hut out in the midst of the subalpine wilderness, though embedded deep within the ski culture of the Coast mountains, arose in the European Alps, where the Grünhorn Hut on the Tödi was built in 1863 by the Swiss Alpine Club. Though alpine huts were first built as staging areas for climbers attempting the most challenging summits, as skiing came into a sport of its own in the late 19th century, huts were built at treeline for skiers seeking out the adventure of self-propelled descents.

Joan Mathews, Ottar Branvold and his brother Emil built the Coast Range's first lodge, the Diamond Head Chalet, in the late 1940s. Long before Highway 99 became a four-lane racecourse, skiers took the four-hour ferry through Howe Sound to Squamish, then continued by train to Garibaldi Station, where after an overnight stay they hitched a ride from the Chalet's Bombardier snowcat up past the Red Heather ski area and to the lodge itself. Located just east of Squamish, the Chalet served as the basecamp to a wealth of terrain, including the gentle slopes of Paul Ridge and the more demanding objectives of Mamquam Mountain and Mount Garibaldi. It is also the southern terminus of the Garibaldi-Névé traverse, which like the Chalet, was first completed in the '40s. The Chalet was originally conceived by the Branvolds (Joan later married Ottar) as the first of a series of lodges in what is now Garibaldi Park, linked by hiking trails. Had it been built, the chain might've established a ski-touring classic not unlike the Haute-Route in the Alps.

"Diamond Head was one of the only places to ski," reminisces John Baldwin, backcountry skier extraordinaire and author of the indispensable 448-page Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis (all three editions), who also remembers the Chalet serving "hearty soups" during the cold winters. Jayson Faulkner, Chair of the Spearhead Huts Project, recounts pouring over the journals of the Varsity Outdoor Club and finding himself enraptured with decades of trip reports from outdoor enthusiasts. Male and female skiers alike began skiing in the area in the late 1930s. In the '50s and '60s, these outward bound university students would strap guitars to their backs for the night's starry-lit sing-a-longs. But this wasn't the only crowd that made the trek.

"It's amazing how many people went up there," says Faulkner, who notes how the Chalet attracted international attention, and even the likes of architect Arthur Erickson. Indeed, getting out and enjoying the outdoors in a social manner has long been part of West Coast culture. "In the heyday of Hollyburn Lodge and Grouse Mountain Lodge, which in those days were all backcountry lodges, it was a really popular thing to do."

The Chalet dates from a time when skiing was solely a touring sport. Going down meant getting yourself up, and fat wooden skis with freeheel bindings served both purposes. After skinning up in leather boots, sweaty in lederhosen and woolen sweaters, and after some schapps , it would be time to schuss down, filling in a sitzmark or two so that those following wouldn't flop head-over-heels into the bomb holes.

It made a great first date, as it lasted a few nights.

Ski mountaineering in the Coast Range also saw its start at Diamond Head with missions to Black Tusk, where long before avalanche transceivers, crampons and nylon ropes early alpinists hauled their planks up 3rd class volcanic rock to ski the steeps. Skiing in its inception was not a sport of the overtly wealthy, or at least not those who didn't wish to be seen sweating away with the unwashed masses. In this respect the backcountry is still the great equalizer; only those who throw down the energy on the way up reap that incomparable feeling of tracking untouched lines on the down.

The 21st century renaissance of self-powered satisfaction

This seemingly magical era of ski-touring, before mechanization led us to believe that economic salvation will arrive only with six-pack lifts and free parking, is now experiencing something of a renaissance.

With carbon fibre materials and advanced alloys providing lightweight and strong ski-touring gear, as well as advances in avalanche beacon technology, a greater number of riders are leaving the ropes behind. For one, it is cheaper; with proper training and the gear, it's you, a buddy, some form of transport to the trailhead, and your legs. And without wishing to impart unwarranted criticism, many feel that resorts, even the size of the vast Whistler Blackcomb, are seemingly unable to live up to the promise of their powder publicity. Whatever the case, a growing segment of the skiing populace is turning toward the backcountry. This steadily growing influx of users-the Wendy Thompson Hut is already booked full for Christmas and New Year's-carries with it a greater concern for the maintenance and upkeep of backcountry huts, as well as for overall backcountry safety. Whereas many dedicated backcountry users are educated in rescue, snowpack safety and first aid, many new travellers, especially snowmobilers, are new to the outdoors in general and often unprepared for demanding conditions. With the increase in users a concern for local search and rescue, it means that any discussion of backcountry huts needs to emphasize the proper training and equipment required for travel in backcountry terrain.

Today, the Diamond Head Chalet is a rotting relic of quieter times, and the subsequent Elfin Lakes Hut, built by BC Parks in 1975, has become a popular destination for the uninitiated. It is also one of several huts erected between the 1970s and '90s through the valiant efforts of BC Parks, UBC's Varsity Outdoors Club (VOC), the BC Mountaineering Club (BCMC) and the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC). Not all are as luxurious as Elfin Lakes, which features 34 bunks, self-serve propane heating and hot plates, a wash sink and pit toilets. Many Whistlerites get their first taste of the hut experience in the infamously cold, sometimes rat-infested overnight shelter at Russet Lake, which is why this hut has long been seen as an ideal candidate for replacement.

Birth of an enchainment: The Spearhead Huts Project

"Translating the backcountry experience for others is key to expanding consciousness of sustainable economic models and environmental stewardship."

Jayson Faulkner, Spearhead Huts Project Committee

Between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains lies the great Spearhead Range, a near-perfect horseshoe connecting what are arguably North America's two greatest lift-serviced ski areas. Sitting at the eastern apex of the Fitzsimmons Creek drainage, the huge arc of the Spearhead contains no less than twelve summits and as many massive glaciers, with numerous subpeaks, ridges and valleys. It is a wild and often lonely landscape of volcanic rock and glacial ice, and yet one of the most accessible ski (and backpacking) traverses through challenging terrain on the continent.

Though it is possible to undertake the winter Traverse in a day, many parties opt to spend a night or three in a tent, soaking in the ambience and seeking out the more inaccessible lines that are rarely skied in the far reaches of the range. Yet to ski not just a single peak, but a few of the distant objectives in one outing would require a minor expedition. For this reason, there has always been the dream of installing huts out in the midst of the range.

It is this vision-of a trio of Spearhead Huts-that has been gaining momentum in Whistler's outdoors community. The ACC and its Whistler and Vancouver sections, the BCMC and the VOC all support the project and, despite a history of friendly one-upmanship (the alpinists of yore bagged each other's peaks), the three storied clubs have come together to fully support the endeavour. Likewise, the Kees and Claire Memorial Huts Society and the Brett Carlson Memorial Foundation are also behind the project. As Faulkner says, the project "is a Whistler community initiative" of its outdoor denizens.

"There's always a hesitation when huts go into an area," says John Baldwin. "People look back at the way it used to be. But the reality is that Whistler and Blackcomb are right there, and the Spearheads are popular, and there are already use concerns, and this is one of the fifty top ski trips in North America. So it's a great idea. It makes sense to have huts there."

Support has also been forthcoming from BC Parks and the province. According to Faulkner, meetings with the province in Spring 2011 have indicated healthy support, with government seeing the Spearhead project as fulfilling their mandate to encourage parks usage in an era of declining visits. Faulkner says that the project offers a "sustainable, ongoing use and attraction for parks."

However, it must be emphasized that the project is at a preliminary stage; as Faulkner stresses, it is "far from a done deal." Having passed the initial proposal stage of round one, the Spearhead Huts Project Committee is undertaking a detailed master plan for round two, including appropriate use and terrain studies, safety standards and environmental impact studies. A management plan detailing hut locations and socioeconomic considerations is also underway, which will involve community consultations including First Nations. This is the time where, as Faulkner says, "we have to put the meat on the bone of the proposal for BC Parks so they can act on it." A generous timeline would see stage two submitted to BC Parks in Fall 2012.

Like slow-motion ping-pong, BC Parks will return the Project Committee's serve with detailed feedback for round three. The final round might include addressing engineering and environmental reviews, or executing a needs list to address stage two concerns. If the project is given the green light, construction could begin as early as summer 2012, though Faulkner says that 2013 is more likely.

The cost of preparing the stage-two proposal will be in the ballpark of $89,000 to $100,000, which Faulkner says, will be supported entirely by fundraising (a Vancouver fundraiser is being held November 25th at Performance Works; see below). The organizations involved will also be donating in-kind support. The ACC, for example, has the knowledge and experience of building and maintaining 25 huts throughout Canada. Donations made to the Spearhead Huts Project are tax-exempt, thanks to the ACC's status as a non-profit.

The huts will be maintained through user fees collected through an online registration system, much like what is in place today for the Wendy Thompson Hut in the Duffy region.

We'll put the pit toilet with a glacier view right here...

The first question that users, supporters and critics alike have for the Spearhead Huts project is where they will be built, especially given the complexities of the terrain. There are now some preliminary answers. On the south side, a new hut is slated to replace the existing Himmelsbach Hut at Russet Lake built by BCMC in 1968. On the north side, the proposed location is Pattison Ridge, on Mount Pattison. And out in the midst of the Spearhead, the proposed site is the West Ridge of Mount MacBeth, at the head of Fitzsimmons Creek.

All the huts are situated not only for winter access, but also for summer use, with the proposed establishment of a summer trail network for backpackers. During summer months, all three huts plan to be accessible without the need for glacier travel. Likewise, each hut will sleep around 30 occupants (approximately the size of the Elfin Lakes Hut). The idea, emphasizes Faulkner, is to ensure that the huts are "useful and relevant in 20 through 40 years." Ideally, a caretaker would be onsite for a few months a year.

Safety sessions with SAR

With a projected increase in backcountry users, the proposed construction of huts in the complex terrain of the Spearhead has raised safety concerns. To get a handle on numbers, the Spearhead Huts Committee is installing backcountry access gates at the boundary exit on Blackcomb Glacier and at Whistler's boundary on Flute. These gates will give BC Parks and the public an idea of backcountry usage. Currently, estimates vary widely, with Faulkner saying that some patrollers see "hundreds" of travellers entering the backcountry during peak conditions. This could mean that thousands of travellers are already undertaking trips into the Spearhead yearly, with hundreds if not more completing the entire Traverse.

Any increase in overall visitors-nearly a given if the huts are built-could result in an increase in inexperienced users. "The thing about the Spearhead Traverse is that it's a full-on ski traverse," says Brad Sills, head of Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR). "It's all above treeline. You have to have good navigational skills; you have to have good avalanche avoidance and forecasting abilities. Typically, when you have these hut-to-hut systems, they have guides attached to them. So that would be our concern. That they, in and of themselves, become magnets for people that don't have the requisite skills, so the distances between them become the point where people get lost."

Sills, who emphasizes that he is not opposed to the project, likens the huts to adding new lifts to the mountains. Whenever easier access is granted to new territory, it increases the numbers of inexperienced travellers. "The last thing we want," says Sills, "is a tourist attraction that doesn't adequately provide for the safety of people using it."

The provisio of adequately providing for the increase in traffic is at the core of the Committee's two-pronged strategy to address safety. "No question," says Faulkner. "If you're going to put more people out in complex terrain, you're going to have more incidents. So how do you manage it?" The first step, says Faulkner, is increasing resources for SAR, including hiring full-time BC Parks Rangers. "We know that we're going to need more resources on the ground able to be able to respond," says Faulkner. "Part of this is going to require that Whistler Search and Rescue has the resources they need for what will be an increase in activity-just like North Shore Search and Rescue over the last fifteen to twenty years has had to have a significant amount of investment in resources so they can respond as needed, because of the increased amount of people."

The second step is mandatory education. Though enforcing the requirement of an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course is not feasible nor ultimately desirable-Faulkner raises the point that the backcountry is Crown land, and in the end, telling people they need a course to "walk in the woods... flies in the face of personal responsibility"-Faulkner envisions an online skills component that will have to be passed before users are allowed to register. Similar mandatory education exists for users entering the Grand Canyon, says Faulkner. Users will have to undergo a thirty to forty-five minute educational exercise and pass a series of skill-testing questions before being able to register. The questions would test their knowledge of terrain, avalanche safety, environmental impact and sustainable use practices, as well as cultural engagement with the area, which would allow education in First Nations history.

"It would be a relatively low bar that you could require people to jump over that would benefit everybody," says Faulkner. "They would know what the safety is, that they should carry proper equipment and a cellphone, because there's cellphone range throughout the whole corridor, so if you get into trouble here's the number you can call, so make sure to enter it into your cellphone now -maybe have a Spearhead user App that they could download, that has the numbers in it, that has information and maps on it and all sorts of things."

While mobile technologies are able to perform small miracles in mapping and communications, such devices can lead to overdependence (ultimately, if your GPS and cell/SAT phone are dead, you're on your own). Cellphones are especially tricky things; they can interfere with avalanche transceivers and should be kept off. Yet, Faulkner's comments are suggestive in the need to utilize mobile devices, as they will provide for the broadest possible user base. However it is done, putting into place a mandatory educational component would align itself with best practices in similar areas.

Faulkner also makes the point that snowmobiliers are not required to pass an AST course in order to drive mechanized vehicles in the backcountry. According to statistics released in January by the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), backcountry snowmobilers have accounted for the largest number of avalanche related-fatalities in Canada for the last three years.

The Legacy of the Long Tail

The Spearhead Huts Project arguably showcases the heart and soul of not only Whistler's greatest "resource"-its alpine wilderness of glaciers, peaks, forests, and deep valleys-but that of its culture. Whistler is something of an accident; its Disneyfied village is built upon the old garbage dump; its inhabitants are all exiles of some sort or other, from the early alpinists and fly-fishers to the hippies and Down Under ski and snowboard bums. The vastness of the Coast Range, so tantalizingly close, is at the heart of Whistler's cultural legacy. Should the Spearhead Huts be realized, muses Faulkner, they could become part of the Trans-Canada Trail as its sole alpine section.

The Spearhead Huts also point toward efforts to develop a more sustainable economy centered on what Whistler does best: exposing people to the beauty and wonder of the wilderness. "Aren't the huts a much better use of our land base than industrial logging or mining or motorized activities?" asks Faulkner. If its vision is realized with the passion that its supporters evidently espouse, as one of few such accessible traverses in North America the Spearhead Huts could become something of a model, not only for Whistler's future, but also for sustainable ecotourism worldwide. And that indeed would be a cultural legacy born from freaks and bums.

The Spearhead Soiree Fundraiser is Friday, November 25th at Performance Works in Vancouver. See www.spearheadhuts.org for more info.

=== WEBSITES AND RESOURCES ===

Spearhead Huts Project < http://www.spearheadhuts.org/>

Alpine Club of Canada, Whistler Section < http://accwhistler.ca/>

British Columbia Mountaineering Club < http://bcmc.ca/>

UBC Varsity Outdoor Club < http://www.ubc-voc.com/>

Whistler Search and Rescue < http://www.whistlersar.com/>

BC Parks < http://www.bcparks.ca/>

 

==== BRASS TACKS SNOW SAFETY ====

All travellers should have an AST-1 if not AST-2 course under their belts; both are offered by the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau and Coast Mountain Guides. At least one in your party should have Wilderness First Aid including CPR-C. Carry a wilderness survival kit and medical kit including a SAM splint; check out local retailers Escape Route and Ex-cess Backcountry for the gear. Seek out experienced mentors (buy them beer) and learn from them; better yet, hire a certified Guide for your first trip or two. Do not follow tracks without maps, and a GPS is never a replacement for a compass. All gear is useless without knowledge. Ducking ropes out beyond Whistler Blackcomb can get you killed; every year, it happens. Learn from locals, take the courses, get the gear, and respect the terrain, for it won't learn to respect you. This also means keeping aware of those around you-don't create a dangerous situation for others through poor terrain management and don't get caught in their terrain traps. This is especially important in the high-traffic slackcountry, from the Spearhead off Blackcomb to the Musical Bumps off Whistler.

 

==== THE SEA-TO-SKY HUT CHECKLIST ====

With thanks to John Baldwin.

This list assumes you've got a winter sleeping bag, sleeping pad, appropriate (freez-dried) foods and a stove with fuel (and waterproof matches). But beyond the basics (which for me includes coffee, smoke, electrolyte solution for dehydration, sunblock and schnapps), there's a few amenities that make hut travel much, much more enjoyable:

1. The map and the guidebook description. Government maps are available for the entire wilderness around us from Escape Route in Marketplace, as is John Baldwin's third edition of Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis . Photocopy the guidebook and laminate both.

2. A four-season tent. Yes, if you're heading out late on the weekend to a hut that doesn't take reservations, you might need that tent. And depending on who's there (or who's with you), you might want to camp far away in the woods anyway.

3. Hut booties. The venerable MEC carries cheap booties made from down discards. Don't go to a hut without them.

4. A down jacket. Indeed, down pants might also be in order.

5. Extra fuel. Never trust that the hut will have fuel supplied. Check to see what is on tap: kerosene, propane, white gas, butane.

6. A headlamp. In fact, never, ever, ever head out without one. And spare batteries.

7. Toilet paper. There are enough stories of trying to use snow and pine needles. Not only does it scrape the sensitive bits, but you will go numb and never properly recover, resulting in the need to wear skinny jeans pulled down just above the knees (just look around you-casualties all, I tell you, all those waddling dudes).

8. If you're out for more than a night, a lightweight book. I prefer Philip K Dick or the latest Alpinist magazine. Try Walter Bonatti's Mountains of my Life , and be glad you're a skier.

9. Earplugs. And a spare set. You'll be amazed at the things you'd rather not hear.

10. Guilty pleasures. Whether that be wine, schapps or the fine herbs, pack it in and pack it all out.




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