Building the Himmelsbach Hut

As mentioned in last week’s post about the Wendy Thompson Hut, we’ve got gothic arches on the brain. First built in the 1960s by the British Columbia Mountaineering Club, there are now at least 10 of these structures spread throughout the Coast Mountain backcountry. The first hut, the Batzer Hut, was built near Chilliwack, but was destroyed only a year later by an avalanche.

So the oldest-standing example of this iconic architecture is none other than the Himmelsbach Hut, often known as the Russet Lake Hut or the Fissile Hut due to its location in the Whistler Backcountry. Built in 1967, and completed in 1968, it is a well-known and cherished part of local mountain culture.

The Himmelsbach Hut, nowadays. Jeff Slack photo.

The Himmelsbach Hut, nowadays. Jeff Slack photo.

Fast-forward to late September we received a surprise visit from Barb Diggins of Coquitlam. In tow she carried boxes of artifacts that had belonged to her late uncle Dick Chambers. Dick was one of the most prominent mountaineers on the BC coast in the post-World War 2 era.

He was a member of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club 1946 until his passing in 1999, and served as the club’s President from 1961-1963. The collection includes hundreds of photographic slides, negatives, and prints, mostly of the mountains, but also a number of shots of Vancouver in the 1950s and 60s as well. It presents a valuable window into an exciting time for mountaineering on the coast, perhaps the Coast Mountains’ last truly exploratory period.

We still haven’t had a chance to fully explore the boxes of photos, but we almost immediately came across a handful of slides taken during the construction of the Himmelsbach Hut near Russett Lake in 1967. Needless to say, we were excited. Here’s a few:


Building the Himmelsbach Hut, October 1967.

Building the Himmelsbach Hut, October 1967.

Flying in materials.

Flying in materials.

Materials were staged out of creekside. Note the curved beams that formed the huts frame.

Materials were staged out of Creekside. Note the curved beams that formed the huts frame.

We recently conducted an oral history interview with none other than Werner Himmelsbach, the retired carpenter who was instrumental in designing and  building his namesake hut, and several others of similar design that came later. In a few weeks time we will follow up on this post with some of Werner’s recollections from building the hut, and more of Dick Chambers’ photos.

We will be also producing more content about the rest of the gothic arch huts in the coming months both on this blog and elsewhere, but to whet your appetite, here’s a map showing all such huts that we currently know about. There are probably more. Do you know of any that aren’t on this map? If so, let us know in the comments.

Feeding the Spirit 2015

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We’re excited to once again be hosting Feeding the Spirit, as part of Whistler Welcome Week 2015.

The format is simple. Creekside Market donates a bunch of free groceries, several local businesses donate wonderful prizes, and then we open our doors and invite, well, everyone!

In the spirit of welcoming winter and all the new arrivals to town, we simply want a fun, free evening where people can gather, eat a free meal, and learn a few things about out community. That’s it!

While there is certainly a lot to be learned through exploring our exhibits, we also feel some important lessons about Whistler can be learned by simply hanging out with long-time members of the community. So come, eat, learn, and above all, be merry! See you Saturday!

Special thanks to all our sponsors:

  • Creekside Market
  • Farfalla Hair 
  • Purebread Bakery
  • Splitz Grill
  • Whistler Roasting Co.
  • Nibz Bandanas
  • Lift Coffee
  • Misty Mountain Pizza

“Huts Don’t Build Themselves” – Wendy Thompson Hut Work Day

Every backcountry skier would agree that huts and cabins are a godsend. They offer shelter and improve access to otherwise inhospitable environments, and can become glorious havens of comfort and sociability deep in the mountain wilderness. But, to quote Mitch Sulkers, Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) Whistler section chair, “huts don’t build themselves.”

The Wendy Thompson Hut, nestled into the Coast Mountains' Marriot Basin, roughly 50 km northeast of Whistler as the crow flies. Jeff Slack photo.

The Wendy Thompson Hut, nestled into the Coast Mountains’ Marriot Basin, roughly 50 km northeast of Whistler as the crow flies. Jeff Slack photo.

Nor do they maintain themselves, and beyond wear and tear from users, the harsh mountain environment takes its toll on human structures as well. This summer and fall the ACC members and other volunteers have been working on major renovations and upgrades to the Wendy Thompson Hut, which was built by the ACC-Whistler in 2000. We tagged along on one of their work parties this week to check it out and see exactly what that entails.

After the group all met at the Pemberton heliport, the first group of 5 were flown directly to the hut to prepare the site, especially clearing pathways and digging out work sites in the metre deep snowpack. The rest of us drove to the staging point just off the Duffey Lake Highway and began preparing loads of firewood and building materials that would be shuttled to the hut by the helicopter.

The staging area. Firewood was collected into large mesh nets for transport. Slings were used for stacks of lumber.

The staging area. Firewood was collected into large mesh nets for transport. Slings were used for stacks of lumber. Jeff Slack photo.


Liftoff for the first stack of lumber. Goggles and hoods were mandatory attire during all loading and unloading due to violently blowing snow. Jeff Slack photo.


Off to the hut. Jeff Slack photo.

In total, 7 loads were transported up to the hut. This all happened remarkably fast, thanks in large part to the heli pilot’s considerable skill and expertise. While this was going on, a 3rd group of volunteers began the 3-hour snowshoe trek from the staging area to the hut. Once the last load of materials arrived at the hut (and 2 loads of garbage, construction waste, and unneeded equipment was flow down), the last group of volunteers (myself included) were given a quick, scenic ride to the hut in the chopper.


As the helicopter set down, the area surrounding the hut was already a hive of activity. Jeff Slack photo.

Once we unloaded ourselves and our gear and the heli had set off, work continued in a bustling but orderly manner as there was an ambitious work plan for the afternoon. Some members had already begun work framing a new mudroom inside the hut, there was no shortage of firewood that needed to be moved and stacked, and I joined a group that began work on a new woodshed to keep the firewood dry and protected from the very deep winter snowpack.


Sorting through building supplies in front of the hut. Jeff Slack photo.

Early stages of the new woodshed. Jeff Slack photo.

Early stages of the new woodshed. Jeff Slack photo.


ACC-Whistler section chair Mitch Sulkers and occasional roofer not only oversaw much of the operations, he also put his considerable carpentry skills to good use while delegating the rest of the group. Jeff Slack photo.

After a few frenzied hours light began to fade, flurries started to fall, and small groups began to snowshoe back down the trail to the awaiting vehicles. But not before an impressive amount of work was accomplished, especially considering the deep snow and sub-zero temperatures.

ACC-Whistle members prepare to trek back down. Jeff Slack photo.

The work party prepares for the trek back down. Jeff Slack photo.

It was a wonderful experience to tag along with such an enthusiastic and dedicated group of backcountry folk. Watching the crew at work underscored how much time and effort goes into maintaining our recreational infrastructure, be it huts or trails. If you find recreating in the backcountry rewarding, perhaps you should consider joining a local club and contributing your time as well (one not be a member to join many of these work days).


The second-storey sleeping platform highlights the gothic arch design that one frequently encounters in the Coast Mountain backcountry. Jeff Slack photo.

The new and improved Wendy Thompson Hut will be fully ready to go for the upcoming winter season. It is available only through reservation, which must be pre-arranged through the ACC-Whistler website.  While it is certainly an idyllic bit of mountain paradise, it must be noted that this hut is in a remote and wild setting, and all visitors should be self-sufficient, prepared for self-rescue, and equipped with all the necessary gear and knowledge to contend with hazards inherent to mountain and wilderness environments such as avalanches, extreme weather, and more. 

As mentioned before, the Wendy Thompson was built according to the classic gothic arch design first developed by members of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club in the 1960s and which has been since replicated throughout the Coast Range. The Whistler Museum has a soft spot for these simple, tough, and charming structures, and is currently researching and compiling a comprehensive history of these huts. Look for more related content in the coming months.

Creating the Consummate Ski Village

Building on the post from two week’s ago which examined some of the key influences that informed landscape architect Eldon Beck’s design for Whistler Village, now we will delve deeper into some of the challenges and happy surprises that came to light during the actual construction of the village.

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As Beck recalls, though he had a lot of support and leeway in crafting an initial design true to his personal vision, getting it built was a different story.

Probably the biggest [challenge] was that the various designers with their projects, the architects, were used to doing stand-alone buildings… The requirement that they subordinate their individuality to the totality of the Village was really hard for many to comprehend. We’d set it up, and that’s why we required models. We wanted to see how the models would fit together. We’d get one model, stick it by another, you’d see it didn’t match. We’d talk with them and say, “Can’t you make your roof form fit, can’t you make this happen?” We lost all of those battles.

My first reaction when they were built was to walk around I got probably 40 or 50 slides of mistakes. So I took pictures of all these things that didn’t quite fit. A couple of years later I did the same thing and said, “Well those are really pretty nice.” It was almost the mistakes of not fitting that became human. It was more real and more human because of the imperfections rather than controlled perfection. It was interesting. I had to flip my mind around and say, “Oh, that’s kind of neat.” That really looks like [several] people did it instead of being totally controlled. But that was the big one. Their understanding that they were subordinate to the Village totality was hard for most designers to comprehend.

And so in his typically philosophical manner, Beck learned that relinquishing some control could actually enhance his vision.

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However, not all the unplanned changes pleased him. One notable concern he continues to raise is the impact of some of the larger buildings in the village:

I have not been consulted on any of those. I’ve been consulted on most new things in the Village, revisions within the Village… The problem with the big buildings, when they become vertical, they lose the relationship with the pedestrian level.

Independent-minded builders and excess verticality weren’t the only unforeseen challenges to attaining Beck’s vision. In late 1981, as the village was mid-construction, a massive recession brought much of the work in progress to a halt. Though the provincial government bailed out the village construction, the building environment changed substantially. As Beck recalls,

It is interesting ‘cause it was almost the opposite to the question on over-planning… The controls were eased thinking that by golly if someone can come in and build something, go right ahead. Don’t worry so much about the regulations. So as dearly as I love Al [Raine] and Nancy [Greene], I think that the roof form on their building [Nancy Greene Lodge] was absolutely wrong. And I think it was at that point the Carleton Lodge was built. And I think that violated one of the early premises that that was the town living room. In early plans it was a two-story building, low in profile, so that when you came up the street you could see the mountains. Instead it became a big old block at the end of the street. So the whole west side of Village Stroll I thought was pretty badly compromised by that period of time.

Still, Beck is very satisfied with the final outcome. We’ll conclude with some of Beck’s favourite aspects of the village, as recounted two decades after its initial construction:

Probably the thing that’s most consistent actually is the spatial framework, the pedestrian framework of the Village has really survived. It was organized around views, so as walk at the end of the place, you see a mountain. So the structure of the Village really grew out of that view. That has remained and I think that’s been the thing that’s made it really work very well.

I think Village Square is superb. The scale is right, the life is right, it really works. From there going back, Skier’s Approach to Village Commons, I think that’s probably one of the nicest sections in terms of scale… So I keep pointing back to that one section, saying that’s really what the objective was. I think Village Square is a magical place, it really works well.

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Halloween Inspiration from Whistler’s Past

So, if you were somehow unaware, tomorrow is Halloween. If you didn’t know that, then chances are you don’t have your costume sorted yet. Fret not! The Whistler Museum is here to help.

Just because you’re thinking up your costume last minute doesn’t mean you need to resort to some cliché pop culture reference like Game of Thrones or Matt Damon from the Martian. Whistler’s past is full of great ideas for timeless costumes to impress your friends. As a bonus, your costume can spark intriguing discussions about Whistler’s history at your Halloween party, something we fully endorse.

It’s no secret that Whistlerites love to party, especially when dressing up is involved. Let’s examine some examples of party dress from Whistler’s past.

First off we have the Freaker’s Ball, a party of legendary proportions that occurred in the 1970s in the Christiania Inn, in Alta Vista. Based on a rather freaky song by Dr. Hook, people liked to dress, well, freaky. This could mean anything, basically, which isn’t a bad place to start when trying to come up with up with unique costume ideas.

Mozart, anyone? He was like the classical Taylor Swift.

Is this guy having a good time or what? Buccaneer baby!

Not into the whole hippie thing? OK, let’s go further back in time for some pioneer-era inspiration.

Unfortunately, this next photo from our archives doesn’t have any real explanation. One could even assume that it’s not a costume, but historically appropriate farming attire from the period. We’re not going to dwell on this for too long. It’s a sweet costume idea.

It's Halloween every day in Whistler! (When I first saw this I thought it was a KKK thing, but I think maybe this person is dressed as a wizard).

Know a member of the opposite sex? Well you can always borrow their clothes and dress in drag! These guests at Hillcrest Lodge donned some feminine attire to great effect, freaking out passersby on the PGE railway.

Hillcrest Lodge guests dressed to meet the train

We'll never forget the year Dad put on a one man show of Swan Lake.

Admittedly, cross-dressing is a more interesting costume idea for men, generally. It’s hard for a woman in men’s clothing to look this stunning. I’m sure some creative ladies out there could pull it off though!

Of course, Myrtle and Alex Philip, Whistler’s founding couple, had a distinct sense of style. A quick check through your wardrobe, your tickle-trunk, or trip to the Re-Use-It centre might be enough to pull one of these off. Bonus points for couples who pull of the historic pair.

Myrtle Philip in riding garb. She designed and tailored most of her outfits herself.

Myrtle Philip in riding garb. She designed and tailored most of her outfits herself.

The all-white safari ensemble was an Alex Philip staple. This elegant get-up is sure to impress the ladies.

The all-white safari ensemble was an Alex Philip staple. This elegant get-up is sure to impress the ladies.


A little Myrtle & Alex dress-up inspiration. Photo: Joern Rohde/

A little Myrtle & Alex dress-up inspiration.
Photo: Joern Rohde/

To be fair, these costumes rely on some pretty unique clothing items that you may not have lying around the house. Fair, I guess. Have a bunch of cardboard and some metallic spray paint? Well you can go as the original Creekside Gondola!

You can be the hottest aluminum box at the party!

One bonus with this costume is that the original gondola had a four-person capacity, so you can host your own mini party within the party!

If an inanimate metal structure isn’t your thing, that’s cool. How about a marmot? These fuzzy little creatures are the reason Whistler Mountain got it’s name.

Not feeling energetic? Wear all brown and chill out on a couch. Just like a marmot.

All it takes is some furry brown clothing, buck teeth, and an ability to whistle. You might be dressed as a marmot already, and not even realize it! With the proliferation of animal onesies, this should be easy.

Why stop there. There are plenty of other icons from Whistler’s past that could become killer costumes with a little creativity: Willy Whistler, the Roundhouse Lodge, Black Tusk… BLACK TUSK!!!

Whistler Village Influences

If the twin peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains put our town on the map, then Whistler Village is what keeps it there. It didn’t come together overnight; there were more than a few hiccups along the way, but to this day the village remains one of the defining features of our resort.

In the past we shared some stories from Eldon Beck, the lead architect responsible for the Village’s design. With this post we will delve a bit deeper into Beck’s creative process and the physical reality that it resulted in.

Despite the naturalistic approach, a lot of thought got crammed into Beck's initial designs.

Despite the naturalistic approach, a lot of thought got crammed into Beck’s initial designs.

When asked about the main influences on his design, Beck first pointed to his success in redesigning the village at Vail, Colorado.

My professional training is in landscape architecture…  In 1972 my firm was hired by the town of Vail to do an overall community master plan… It finally turned into resolving horrendous issues they had about traffic and servicing in their village, so the task was to make it a pedestrian village. So I worked for them as their prime consultant for about six years, from 1972-1978. That really was the bulk of my early mountain planning experience.

It was on the heels of this successful transformation of Vail into a more pedestrian-centric place that Beck was solicited for the new Whistler Village.

Lots of attention were paid to ambiance, the flow of traffic, and sight-lines of the surrounding mountains.

Lots of attention were paid to ambiance, the flow of traffic, and sight-lines of the surrounding mountains.

Unsurprisingly he took a similar approach here, to similar success, scrapping the original, grid-style design for his more flee-flowing traffic-free village. Continuing to describe how his work at Vail carried through to Whistler:

Vail did have a fairly important influence, mostly Bridge Street. The shape of the street actually was almost exactly what the shape of the valley suggested.

Going back further, Beck referred to where most influences in the ski world draw from, the Alps…

I’d done a fair amount of European traveling in the mountains, and I was fascinated by villages for a long, long, long time. So both Wengen and Interlaken [in Switzerland were major influences]. I took a lot of pictures there and I used parts of both of them. One as a pedestrian town and the other as a symbol of what a village was with the picture of shops on the ground floor and then the people who own the shops living above it. And so that was kind of the pattern, that’s the historic look of what a village is… The European villages all were shaped by the land. They didn’t violate the land. So to me that was very important. In our continent we tend to dominate the land. We don’t respect it as we should.

And so the Village adopted Beck’s more environmentally oriented design style.

This amazing scale model was produced to help visualize and plan the village before building. Note the planned hockey arena that instead ended up being the Conference Centre.

This amazing scale model was produced to help visualize and plan the village before building. Note the planned hockey arena that instead ended up being the Conference Centre.

The Village Stroll was intended to mimic the meandering curves of a flowing stream. Like an actual river, major bends in the route were conceived as eddies, incorporating open plazas where people could take a breather and watch the flow of traffic stream by.

The meanderings were intentional because, even though they weren’t direct or efficient like a grid, that wasn’t the point. Tourists weren’t here for business, Beck reasoned, but to relax, so a little happy confusion was sprinkled into the design. He wanted people to be able get a little lost in the village and wander aimlessly.

Practical considerations were not lost on Beck however; the village still needed to function. Logistical features such as the commercial loading bays, underground parking, hotel entrances and so on were tucked into back alleys in the Stroll’s many folds, hidden from view to keep the noise and distraction away from the pedestrian zones.

Recognize this spot?

Recognize this spot?


In next week’s post we’ll return to Beck and his reminiscences about the village’s construction and how the reality matched his vision.

Rainbow Lodge’s Tough Transition

The story of Rainbow Lodge, founded by Myrtle and Alex Philip in 1914 and expertly managed for the next 34 years, is among our valley’s most celebrated stories. Less known however, is what became of Rainbow Lodge once the Philip’s decided to give up the tourist trade.

When Vancouver’s Alec and Audrey Greenwood first visited Alta Lake in 1947 the place clearly made an impression on them. Somehow in the process of expressing his enthusiasm for the lodge, the Philips hinted to Alec that they were thinking of selling into retirement. Similarly, Alec had already begun to think of leaving his stressful insurance salesman job in Vancouver. It seemed like a perfect fit.

Within a year the Greenwoods purchased Rainbow Lodge for $100,000 and along with their son Dennis became permanent residents of Alta Lake and the new operators of the iconic Rainbow Lodge.

The entrance to Rainbow Lodge during the Greenwood's tenure.

The entrance to Rainbow Lodge during the Greenwood’s tenure.

Unfortunately, the new tenants arrived during one of the worst spring floods ever. Water got to six inches deep on the kitchen floor and the entire dining room was flooded. Boardwalks outside were floating but would sink with a person’s weight. While they managed to outlast the flooding without any major damage, this certainly put a damper on their arrival.

The cold, wet spring carried into the summer. Guests cancelled by the dozens, and those that did come cut their vacations short. The fireplace had to be stoked twenty-four hours a day; it was the only heat in an un-insulated log building.

"Sit down to a familiar face." Corn Flakes and much more at the General Store under the Greenwood's watch.

“Sit down to a familiar face.” Corn Flakes and much more at the General Store under the Greenwood’s watch.

One day, smoke began to pour from under the floor. Thankfully quick thinking, and some aggressive axe work opened up the floor and fire hoses were used to extinguish the blaze before it spread. The fireplace was built on a one-foot concrete slab sitting on railway ties, which had caught fire. For the rest of the summer there was a twenty-four hour attendant monitoring the fireplace.

Despite these major difficulties the Greenwoods survived their first season relatively unscathed. That fall, with the help of local trapper Bill Bailiff, they had the lodge significantly remodeled. Bill had been a stonemason in England before he immigrated to Canada, and his fireplace was a masterpiece. It was built from river rock from Twenty-one Mile Creek just below Rainbow Falls and the mantelpiece was eight inches thick, cut from a single log from Alf Gebhart’s mill at the south end of Alta Lake. It really tied the room together.

The newly remodelled interior, complete with river-rock fireplace.

The newly remodelled interior, complete with river-rock fireplace.

The Greenwoods successfully ran Rainbow until 1970 when they sold the lodge and retired to Arizona. On September 15th, 1970, the Greenwoods held a closing bash for a select few long-time locals who he affectionately referred to as the “Rainbow Lodge Chapter of the Royal Ancient and Antediluvian Order of Froth Blowers.” Whether or not that was a reference to the biblical flood of 1948, it sounds like a good time.

Sadly, Rainbow Lodge was accidentally burned down in 1977. All that remains of the once-bustling resort are three original guest cabins near the entrance to Rainbow Park.