Tag Archives: backcountry

Building the Gothic Arch Huts

For almost 50 years the Himmelsbach Hut has sat perched near Russet Lake at the head of Singing Pass.  The hut was built by the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) and named after carpenter and long-time Whistler local Werner Himmelsbach.

Construction of the hut was scheduled in September 1967.  Dick Chambers, a member of the construction party, remembered being flown to Whistler by Helijet at the time (for more about Dick Chambers, check here).

Materials for the Himmelsbach Hut, as well as workers, were flown in by helicopter. Photo: Chambers Collection

“The stuff was all in the parking lot – the old Whistler parking lot.  Blackcomb wasn’t developed then, it was still a garbage dump… so we land at the parking lot and the Park Ranger was there, waiting to organize this stuff, and so he flew me in, and the next morning I waited and waited and nothing was happening,” Chambers recalled.

The helicopter carrying a load of material to the site had lost it somewhere on the northeastern side of the peak of Whistler, across from Blackcomb.  The load had not been properly attached and triggered the release mechanism.

“Eventually we recovered that load of stuff by looking in the bush and it wound up at Werner Himmelsbach’s hut covering his firewood because it wasn’t good for anything, you know, it was beaten up,” Chambers said.

By the time the Club was able to rebuild the lost materials, snowstorms had started and members of the construction party decided to pack it up and store it until the following year.

The Himmelsbach Hut under construction. Photo: Chambers Collection

In August 1968 the Himmelsbach Hut was was built over a period of three days and began the busiest three-years of hut construction by the BCMC in its history.  Other huts built by the club include Wedgemount Lake Hut loacted north of Blackcomb, Pummer Hut on Claw Ridge near the Tellot Glacier and Mountain Waddington, and Mountain Lake Hut that sits east of Brittania Beach.

Along with the huts built by the Club, Werner Himmelsbach lent his laminating jig and expertise to the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club.  The VOC, led by Roland Burton, built a gothic-arch hut near the Sphinx Glacier in Garibaldi Provincial Park.  Years later, he assisted the Alpine Club of Canada Whistler Section in the construction of the Wendy Thompson Hut, located in the Marriott Basin.

The Himmelsbach Hut today. Photo: Spencer Jespersen

Over the past several months, I have been tasked with writing, researching and designing a virtual museum exhibit on the Coast Mountain Gothic Arch Alpine Huts for the Whistler Museum (for more on the virtual exhibit click here).  Once the exhibit is complete, the virtual exhibit will be hosted on the Virtual Museum of Canada Community Memories website and will tell the complete story of these iconic structures.  Look for the release of the virtual exhibit in Winter 2018.


Journey To The Sacred Headwaters

In the summer of 2015, two Whistlerites, Bill Moore and Bridget McClarty, separately organized backcountry trips to the Sacred Headwaters region of Northern BC. For Bill and his companions, the mode of travel was on foot, while Bridget took to the Stikine River by pack raft.

The Sacred Headwaters is an area that has been of great significance to the local Tahltan people for thousands of years. Three major salmon-spawning rivers, the Nass, Skeena and Stikine originate here but they are threatened by resource development.


This coming Thursday, Bill and Bridget will be speaking at the Whistler Museum about their time spent is this spectacular, under-appreciated, and threatened part of our province. Entry to this great event will be by-donation, with all proceeds going to the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.

Many of you will recall Bridget from her extremely well-received talk about her involvement in the “Traverse the Coast” ski expedition, as part of our March 2016 Speaker Series “Group Dynamics in the Wild.”

While this is Bill’s first time speaking at the Whistler Museum, he is well-known and respected in the community as an outdoor guide and instructor of great knowledge and experience.

Come share their experiences while helping support the protection of this special place.


Speaker Series – Group Dynamics in the Wild

While adventures amidst rugged, remote landscapes are often pursued to get away from civilization’s petty concerns, rarely does one fully elude them. Unless travelling solo, the human element is inescapable.

Those who have spent time on major expeditions will tell you that group dynamics can make or break a trip just as easily as Mother Nature. The emotional rollercoaster of a true adventure, from the euphoria of the summit to the boredom of a tent-bound week, can forge both the strongest bonds and the deepest disdains.

The Whistler Museum’s next Speaker Series event will delve headfirst into this messy world of human relationships in the wild. We are fortunate to host two accomplished local adventurers who will share stories from some of their wildest ski-mountaineering expeditions, drawing from these experiences to spark a conversation about leadership and group dynamics.


Bridget McClarty working on her tree pose in the Coast Mountains.

Originally from Kitimat, BC, Bridget McClarty’s many adventures include radio-collaring elephants in Botswana, instructing SCUBA diving in the Philippines, and most recently, teaching high school students in Pemberton. Her talk will focus on the leadership lessons she learned while on a month-long ski traverse of the Coast Mountains from Whistler to the Homathko Valley.

Blackcomb Mountain ski patroller Holly Walker has travelled the world as a skier for more than a decade, first as a competitor on the Freeride World Tour, then as a ski-mountaineer in such exotic locales as the Himalayas, Southern Alps, and Mexico. Her presentation will focus on trips to Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains and Tajikistan’s Pamirs, exploring some of the finer points of backcountry partner selection.


Holly Walker earning her turns on Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains.

Expect spectacular photos from some of the world’s wildest mountain ranges, compelling and occasionally hilarious stories from their adventures and misadventures, and an informative conversation about group dynamics that might even come in handy next time you plan on heading into the wilderness and need to find someone to tag along.

Additionally, both speakers will be able to provide a female’s perspective on the generally male- dominated culture of mountain expeditions, especially relevant just a week after International Women’s Day.



When: Tuesday March 15; Doors at 6pm, show 7pm-9pm
Where: Whistler Museum (4333 Main Street, beside the Library)
Who: Everyone!
Cost: $10 regular price, $5 for museum members and W-B Club Shred.

There will be complimentary tea and coffee (generously provided by the Whistler Roasting Company), and a cash bar serving beer and wine.

We expect this event to sell out, so make sure to get your tickets early. To purchase tickets top by the museum or call us at 604.932.2019.


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

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.

“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.”

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. 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 the supplies in front of the hut. Jeff Slack Photo.


Early stages of the new woodshed. Jeff Slack Photo.


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


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.

Speaker Series: Winterstoke

On March 14th, Whistler Museum is hosting a Speaker Series as part of the Winterstoke Backcountry Ski Festival. Organized by international mountain guide and frequent backcountry snowboarder Ross Berg, Winterstoke offers two days of backcountry skills clinics with topics spanning from ski touring essentials to big mountain skiing—crucial and prominent themes throughout Whistler’s history.

Our presenters for the evening are backcountry specialist JD Hare and ski mountaineer Holly Walker.

Having lived in Australia, U.S.A. and France, Holly Walker moved to Whistler at the age of 23. A former competitor on the Freeride World Tour, she switched her focus from freeskiing competition to ski mountaineering in 2011.

Traveling the world in search of abundant pow and remarkable culture, Holly has climbed and skied in the Andes, Alaska Range, European Alps, Cascades, Himalayas, Pamirs and Tordillos. She is sponsored by Mammut, K2, Clif Bar, Smith Optics, Mons Royale and POW gloves.

On top of her mountaineering success, she has had her photographs and stories published in a multitude of magazines, catalogues and websites. Although this may seem like a dream, Holly has had her share of trauma, having suffered a severe stroke, broken a leg, and witnessed the death of a fellow competitor.

Originally from Toronto, Ontario, JD turned to Whistler as a place to call home. At the age of 18, he nearly became the youngest person to ever summit Mt. Logan, but turned back achingly close to the summit, exercising the discipline that would serve him well throughout his career.

JD is a backcountry specialist in the traditional sense, descending peaks all over the world, including mountains deep in BC’s Coast Range. He is also an excellent technical skier with progressive skills and style.

JD Hare skinning with Mount Waddington in the background. Photograph by Jim Martinello, courtesy of JD Hare.

JD Hare skinning with Mount Waddington in the background. Photograph by Jim Martinello, courtesy of JD Hare.

When JD moved to Whistler he delved deep into his passion for the backcountry, making several impressive first descents in the region in his early twenties. From there, he strayed from normality and embarked on spontaneous and unforgettable trips to the high mountains of Central Asia. Trips to Europe and Japan followed, as well as a string of traumatic injuries, before he settled in to raise a family and begin farming his land in Pemberton.

In recent years, sneaking away from the farm, JD has pioneered some exceptionally steep and committed descents in BC’s Coast Mountains, from the Tantalus to the Waddington Ranges, maturing into a bona fide extreme skier.

We are ecstatic to have Holly and JD speak of their epic adventures of ups and downs. Tickets are $7 ($5 for museum members) and are available for purchase at the Whistler Museum. Doors are at 6pm, and the presentations begin at 7pm. There will be a cash bar, and complimentary tea and coffee. Hope to see you there for some brilliant tales from the backcountry.

Does the Backcountry Need Rules?

There’s a reason that the book commonly referred to as “the mountaineer’s bible” is called Freedom of the Hills. One of the main draws of the backcountry is the freedom one experiences there. Free from social constraints, free from the stresses of urban life, and free from many of the written and unwritten law that are necessary to keep society functioning smoothly.  Freedom to enjoy and explore the natural world.


Members of the 1939 George Bury ski expedition to Garibaldi Park, beneath the imposing Black Tusk.

But freedom is always a relative concept. Most laws apply to backcountry areas just as they do in the heart of the city. And for all the much-vaunted solitude of backcountry recreation, most of our excursions are to relatively popular areas that still entail a degree of interaction with other people. With surging popularity, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that, like it or not, backcountry skiing is becoming an increasingly social activity.

Do we need one of these for the backcountry?

Do we need one of these for the backcountry?

Maybe, it follows, more social norms are in order back there. We all know the Alpine Skiers Responsibility Code, that yellow card that lists the rules to abide by when at a ski resort. Well, increasing crowds and associated safety concerns mean a formal backcountry code of conduct may well be in order.

That’s exactly what we intend to produce at our first Speaker Series event of the 2013-14 season.  Featuring a very esteemed panel and a healthy dose of audience participation. we’ll be drafting a preliminary Backcountry Alpine Responsibility Code, or BARC.

BARC Poster2

Ryan Bougie: Blackcomb Avalanche Forecaster, avid adventurer, Coast Range traverser.

Keith Reid: Former president of the ACMG and lead backcountry guide for Extremely Canadian.

Dave Sarkany: ACMG ski guide, mountain instructor, Whistler Search-and-Rescue.

Mitch Sulkers: Avalanche instructor, hiking guide, outdoor educator.

Dave Treadway: Professional Freeskier, Snowmobiler, Pemberton SAR.Gazing up at the north face of Mount Garibaldi.

Cliff Fenner (right) and friend gazing up at the north face of Mount Garibaldi, mid-1950s.

With this well-rounded and supremely knowledgeable panel, we hope to craft a pretty solid document. But we need your help. There will be a large audience participation component. So come armed with your suggestions for the BARC. What do you think? What are your backcountry safety concerns and pet peeves? What rules should we all abide by to keep each other safe, happy, and having fun?