Sky-high 

Meet the people building North America's most extraordinary hut-to-hut network, the Spearhead Huts

click to flip through (12) STORY BY JOEL BARDE. PHOTO BY FERGIE CANCADE
  • Story by joel barde. Photo by Fergie Cancade

Since the 1960s, mountaineers have imagined a hut-to-hut system that spans the iconic Spearhead Traverse, a 40-kilometre, horseshoe-shaped route that loops around the Fitzsimmons Valley, connecting Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.

That dream is quickly becoming a reality, as construction on the first of three huts is well underway, with a team of paid workers and volunteers now installing the roof.

Located near Russet Lake, the Kees and Claire Hut is not your average backcountry bungalow. When complete, the efficient building will sleep between 30 and 40. Drawn from around the world, visitors will look out at the lake and Fissile Peak through large windows or sit on an elevated wooden deck for their morning coffee. According to many, the project will provide a world-class hut-to-hut experience that is easily accessible from the top of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.

The project is being led by the Spearhead Huts Society, a non-profit registered charity that formally submitted its conceptual plan for the hut network to BC Parks back in 2012.

Made up of backcountry enthusiasts from the Whistler and Vancouver sections of the Alpine Club of Canada and the BC Mountaineering Club, the society views the hut system as a way to increase public appreciation of B.C.'s natural wonders and encourage safe travel through the mountain range.

When Pique asked how it feels to have gotten to this point given the years of hard work that went into it, Jayson Faulkner, chairman of the society, was circumspect.

"It's exciting—obviously," said Faulkner in early July. "But nobody is celebrating because we are not there yet."

It's a complex, time-intensive undertaking—made even harder by this summer's wildfire season, which has limited the group's access to helicopters used to ferry workers and supplies to the building site.

If all goes well, the aim is to open the first hut in early 2019—but there are no guarantees.

Pique joined a recent work shift to get a firsthand look at the project. Over the course of four days, a team of mostly volunteers prepared the hut's septic field system and prepared construction materials and scaffolding.

Made up of a mix of Brits, New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans, it was a diverse group with a wide range of experience. All, however, shared a common goal: To build a project that will live on for years, allowing a wide-range of people to experience and enjoy the glories of the Spearhead Range.

Trevor MacDonald

A former Whistlerite who now lives in West Vancouver, site supervisor Trevor MacDonald has been involved with the complicated build since it began last year.

It's an involved task that requires a very specific mix of skills. "Logistics," explains MacDonald, are a major challenge, as all of the material—from mixed concrete, to the heavy BC Passive House modular components that make up the exterior of the building—are "long-lined" into site by helicopters.

MacDonald, who works two weeks straight before getting a week off, credits staging manager Ronda Ntezel, a Whistler local, for her integral role in the project so far.

"She literally stands on a bathroom scale, and weighs every single thing, from pieces of lumber to rolls of toilet paper, to make sure we're at our optimizing efficiency," explains MacDonald.

The camp operates with a maximum of 10 workers at a time, with the bulk of them being volunteers. That means there's a wide range of knowledge and ability levels, from Red Seal carpenters to those who've never set foot on a construction site.

In the hands of some foremen (who generally aren't known for being the most easygoing bunch), that could be deeply frustrating, but MacDonald relishes the challenge. "It's about practicing patience and assessing everyone's skill level," he adds.

One particularly fond memory came last year, when longtime local mountaineer Karl Ricker joined the volunteer crew. A self-described "peak bagger," Ricker was among the first to navigate the Spearhead Traverse with fellow UBC Outdoor Varsity Club members back in 1964.

"I believe he was in his late 70s when he got here, and he outworked 20-year-olds, hauling rebar, cutting rebar, packing garbage, digging holes," MacDonald recalls.

In addition, Ricker also found time to hike to the top of the nearby Overlord Glacier (a four-hour roundtrip) in order to measure it, something he does annually.

"And he hiked in and out; he didn't fly—with a pack, too."

Fergie Cancade

With a wealth of carpentry experience, Fergie Cancade was a skilled addition to the team. Over the weekend, he built scaffolding, sawhorses, and assisted with the construction of the upper deck of the building.

"I grew up in the mountains," explains Cancade, who hails from Interior B.C.

"It was an important piece of my upbringing, and I think that providing access to the backcountry—like this hut does—is important to everyone."

Cancade also sees his work as honouring the legacy of friend JP Auclair, a Canadian freeskiing legend who died in an avalanche on Chile's Monte San Lorenzo in 2014.

A foundation set up in Auclair's honour, Alpine Initiatives, is supporting the project.

"I'd love to come back on this hut, and definitely on future huts as well," says Cancade, who enjoyed the camaraderie of the experience.

"Ideally, I'd try to come out and work on every hut that they're doing. I think it's an awesome experience."

Henry Van Hell

Leading the septic field project was Henry Van Hell, who travelled from the Duncan area on Vancouver Island to take part.

Van Hell installs and maintains septic fields and septic infrastructure professionally, so his involvement is seen as critical to the success of the project. During the trip, he helped guide people through the work, from how to dig the fields to how to glue together the complicated systems that will transfer greywater out of the hut.

A former member of the Vancouver Island chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada, Van Hell sees the huts as encouraging a healthier lifestyle for Canadians as well as providing a safe "refuge" for people in the backcountry.

In addition to his time—this was his fourth volunteer trip—Van Hell estimates he's donated around $2,000 worth of materials.

"It's a good experience," he says. "You get to see new country. And then of course, there's the helicopter ride!"

April Lane

Managing Amazon's burgeoning grocery business from the online retailer's Seattle offices, April Lane knows a thing or two about organizing projects.

So when site supervisor Trevor MacDonald asked her to take the lead on sealing lumber, she jumped into action, setting up two workstations that were used to carry out the task efficiently.

Getting outside and working with her hands is a welcome change of pace from her regular office job, she explains.

"I really enjoy getting out and building things with my hands," she says. "You get this nice sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, when you see this big stack of wood that you've sealed."

For Lane, who volunteered with her partner, Ethan Kaufman, the chance to give back to Canada's backcountry hut system was an opportunity that couldn't be missed.

"We've used many of the backcountry huts in Canada before, through the Alpine Club of Canada, so we felt that coming up to this project and helping to build it would be a fun way to get into the backcountry and give back," she says.

Bridget Daley

A highlight of the work-camp experience is the food—the hearty meals that break up the day and keep smiles on everyone's faces.

But cooking in the high alpine isn't easy, especially when you factor in the fact that all of the food has to be shipped in by air, there is no electricity, and the environmental footprint left behind must be as minimal as possible.

This job is led by camp manager Bridget Daley, an English expatriate who came to Canada by way of France, where she managed ski chalets. Over the trip, she treated to the group to a series of first-rate meals, including a curry dish and pork roast.

Food is kept in a giant metal cooler that is placed in a drift of snow, which sits under a tarp in order to prevent melting. Operating in a provincial park, there are stringent guidelines for waste, and Daley goes to great lengths to filter out any remnants of food from the greywater.

"It's essential. It has to be done, and I'm very keen to do it. But it means that washing up becomes a more involved task," Daley says.

The Spearheads Huts Society is currently looking for volunteers with experience installing roofs, windows and siding. To pitch in, visit www.spearheadhuts.org/how-you-can-help/volunteer-sign-up/. It's a good time.

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