November 23, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

Sleeping around in the backcountry 

From the Diamond Head Lodge to the Spearhead Huts Project


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.

Readers also liked…

  • Death in the Alpine

    Social media is changing our relationship to risk, with deadly consequences
    • Jun 10, 2018
  • Getting Lost On A Bike

    Mountain biking? Nay. Touring? Not quite. Hiking? Heck no! Welcome to the world of bikepacking
    • Aug 12, 2018

Latest in Feature Story

More by Tobias c. van Veen

© 1994-2019 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation