Tag Archives: British Columbia Mountaineering Club

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Early stages of the new woodshed. Jeff Slack Photo.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Mountain Profile: Wedge Mountain

On this blog we try to highlight many of the unique characters in Whistler’s history. Being a mountain community, however, many of the local mountains are arguably as familiar as any person.  In the past we’ve set the spotlight on Fissile Mountain; today we shift slightly northwards to Wedge Mountain.

Wedge is an iconic local peak first and foremost because at 2895 m (9497 ft) it’s the tallest peak around. In fact, it’s summit is the highest point in Garibaldi Provincial Park (not Mount Garibaldi, as is commonly assumed), and all of the southern Coast Mountains. To find a higher peak you need to go the remote Mount Dalgleish, 100km to the north west, or to Mount Baker, across the border in Washington State.

Wedge Mountain is visible from just about anywhere in the valley, Rainbow Lodge and the entire westside have an especially clear view. Wedge is the most prominent peak, directly above the cabin in this photo, it's wedge-like shape quite evident from this angle.

Wedge Mountain (at right, above the cabin) is visible from just about anywhere in the valley, Rainbow Lodge and the entire westside have an especially clear view. The mountain’s wedge-like shape is quite evident from this angle.

The origin of the name Wedge Mountain is uncertain, although it presumably describes it’s triangular, wedge-like shape as seen from the Whistler Valley. The name is probably local in origin (like Whistler Mountain), as this name was already in use when Vancouver mountaineers Neal Carter and Charles Townsend made the first recorded ascent of the peak in 1923. When Garibaldi Provincial Park expanded in the late 1920s, a suggestion was made to rename the peak “Mount Vancouver,” but for whatever reason it never stuck.

Speaking of Carter & Townsend, we have already written about their two-week exploratory mountaineering trip to the region in 1923 which included the first ascent of Wedge (blog article here, full photo gallery here, and a virtual video recreation of their climb, using their own written account here), but needless to say, it was a dream trip.

The view south from Wedge to our familiar W-B backcountry: (l to r) Overlord, Pattison, Fissile, Trorey, Davidson, Castle Towers and Decker.

The view south from just below the summit of Wedge,  towards our familiar W-B backcountry. Charles Townsend, photograph by Neal Carter.

Today, most people know Wedge because of the notorious Wedgemount hiking trail, arguably one of the toughest and steepest around. The trail leads up above treeline to Wedgemount Lake and the Wedgemount Hut, built by the BC Mountaineering Club in 1970 under the guidance of long-time local outdoorsman, environmentalist and community icon Don MacLaurin. The hut is of the same gothic arch design as the Himmelsbach Hut at Russet Lake, and many other backcountry huts in the region.

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The idyllic Wedgemount Hut and Wedgemount Lake, with Wedge Mountain looming in the distance, right above. Jeff Slack Photo.

This is as far as most people make it, and that’s more than enough. Summiting Wedge is a far more challenging ordeal, requiring proper ice and rock gear and the skills to use them, but the standard North Arete route is considered one of the classic mountaineering routes of the Coast Mountains. There are also a number of popular steep skiing lines on the mountain, the most popular being the massive NW couloir visible from Highway 99 at the north end of town.

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Wedge’s massive North face. Jeff Slack Photo.

Few places in our region feel as “big” as the high alpine area around Wedge Mountain, but it is just one of many peaks that make our mountainous milieu special. What mountain would you like to see profiled in a future Whistorical post?