Tag Archives: gothic arch

Building the Harrison Hut

Today we’ll be continuing the story started a few weeks back on the gothic arch huts built by the UBC-VOC.  The tale began with the Brew Hut, built with the $30,000 the VOC got as compensation for the materials used to build the Whistler Club Cabin.  After using one of two pre-fabricated huts for the Brew Hut, the VOC decided to build its second pre-fabricated gothic arch hut north of Pemberton, near both Overseer Mountain and the Meager Creek Hot Springs.

The VOC had originally planned to construct the hut in early September but when September came they were still waiting on approval from the BC Provincial Government.  Conditional approval was granted in late September and the VOC constructed the hut over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1983.  During a work hike a couple of weeks prior VOC members had prepared the site for the build and poured the hut foundations.

The VOC building the Harrison Hut in October 1983. Photo: Jay Page; UBC-VOC Archives, October 1983.

The hut was named in honour of Julian Harrison, a former VOC President who had perished in a climbing accident in California earlier that year.  After construction was completed the Harrison Hut became a huge hit with VOC members.  It was a popular destination in both summer and winter due to its location at the north end of the Pemberton Icefield and, of course, its proximity to the hot springs at Meager Creek.

In August 2010 the estimated largest landslide in Canadian history, surpassing even the Hope Slide in 1965, pushed nearly 48,500,000 cubic meters of rocks and debris down Mount Meager.  The logging roads the VOC used to access the trail to the Harrison Hut were destroyed.

In 2011 VOC members Ben Singleton-Polster and Christian Veenstra began doing reconnaissance for the construction of a new trail on the geologically stable side of Meager Creek and the Lillooet River valley.  This new route to access the hut had two large boulders blocking trail access.  The smaller rock weighed approximately ten tons while the larger rock exceeded twenty tons.  Jeff Mottershead and other VOC members worked at removing the two large rocks in order to build the trail to the Harrison Hut.  For those interested, videos of the rock removal can be found on YouTube here.

The Harrison Hut in winter. Photo: Jay Page; UBC-VOC Archives.

Three years later, the VOC Harrison Hut trail opened in 2014.  Renovations to the hut were needed and these started the same year.  The VOC chose to wrap the entire hut with aluminum siding to protect the wood layer underneath from rot and alpine critters.  They also installed solar panels on the hut to use to light its interior.

This concludes our short series on the gothic arch huts of the UBC-VOC.  If you’d like to find out more about these and other iconic structures in the backcountry, the Whistler Museum will be releasing a virtual exhibit with the Virtual Museum of Canada in Winter 2018.  Keep an eye out for more details.

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The Saga of the Brew Hut Part II

Last week we introduced the Brew Hut, first constructed by the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club on Mount Brew in 1982.  This first hut was moved and reconstructed due to snow creep and accumulation.  With the reopening of Brew Hut II in 1985 the VOC thought that the saga of the Brew Hut was over, though this was not to be.

At the time, Tim Booth wrote in the UBC VOC Journal Volume 28, 1985, “At sunset the Tantalus Range and Cloudburst Mountain were silhouetted, and although the lights of Whistler and Squamish could be seen shimmering below at night, the cabin has a feeling of isolation and tranquility despite being easily accessible.”

The construction of Brew Hut II, 1984. Photo: UBC-VOC Archives.

In the years to follow, trip reports and articles written in the UBC VOC Journal describe the challenges of finding the Brew Hut II, even in the best traveling conditions.  Perhaps because Club members forgot about the hut or because they were busy exploring other areas, the Brew Hut II went through a long period of disuse.

Nearly a decade after the hut had been reconstructed, the Club invested in new materials to repair one end-wall that had been completely crushed by the snow, as well as new roofing materials to replace the leaky rood.  According to Markus Kellerhals’ article in the UBC VOC Journal Volume 37, 1994, “over 40 enthusiastic new and old VOC’ers had signed up to come out.”  These renovations were completed over a weekend in September 1994 and the hut was once again on the Club’s radar.

Five years later, in the winter of 1999/2000, over 7 metres of snow fell and completely crushed the Brew Hut II.  Roland Burton, who was responsible for constructing the first Gothic arch hut built by the Club in Garibaldi Provincial Park in 1969, resumed his status as an active member and led the Club in their investigation into a new site for a hut on Mount Brew beginning in the winter of 2000.

Framing of Brew Hut III underway in 2005. UBC-VOC; UBC-VOC Archives

Near the Christmas of 2004, the Club began the process of constructing Brew Hut III on a new site that had been well investigated.  The Club chose to build a hut using a new hut design modeled after a small car garage with an A-frame rood.  By the fall of 2005, the Club had successfully completed the construction of Brew Hut III.

Brew Hut III has proven much easier to find, even in poor weather conditions.  The new location has not had the same snowfall accumulation and snow creep issues as the two previous locations and the Brew Hut II still stands in its location today.  This concludes the Brew Hut Saga.

Brew Hut III in the winter of 2015. Photo: UBC-VOC; UBC-VOC Archives

This won’t be the last time you hear about Gothic arch huts from us.  Our exhibit with the Virtual Museum of Canada is nearing completion and we can’t wait for you all to get the chance to explore it.  Huts will also be the theme for our upcoming Big Kids LEGO Competition on Tuesday, December 5.  Competitors will have the chance to build the hut or campsite of their wildest dreams and win prizes for their efforts!

Big Kids LEGO Building Competition 2017

You’re never too old for LEGO building!  Our annual Big Kids LEGO Building Competition is back on Tuesday, December 5.  This year’s theme is “Build Your Dream Backcountry Hut (or Campsite)”, so start thinking about what you’d like to see in your own hut!

There are only 25 spots for competitors so preregistration is encouraged.  You can drop by the Museum to reserve your spot or give us a call at 604-932-2019.  Building begins at 6:30 pm and spectators are encouraged!  Registration is $10 and includes 1 drink ticket. 19+.

A huge thanks to our amazing sponsors for prizes:

  • Scandinave Spa Whistler
  • Escape Route
  • Nesters Market

How the VOC Built Its Club Cabin

In the mid-1960s the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) was looking for a place to build a new Club Cabin as the Parks Board was opposed to privately owned cabins operating on Mount Seymour.  The Club set its sights on the newly developing outdoor recreation area, Whistler.  They saw the opportunity as a chance to further the club’s mandate by providing members with new mountaineering, hiking and skiing opportunities.

The VOC Cabin, located in Nordic. Photo: Leveson-Gower Collection

According to Karl Ricker there was no shortage of energetic youth willing to lend a hand.  Whenever there were more workers than could be put to task, which was fairly frequent, he recalls, they would head out on hikes or even on trail-building excursions.  It was during these outings that the old Singing Pass trail received major upgrades and the trail to Cheakamus Lake was built.

The VOC used their own funds and labour, including the services of architect Byron Olson, to build the new Cabin.  The construction of the Cabin took two years from 1965 to 1967.  The Cabin was an instant hit for VOC members and other budget conscious skiers.

The construction of the VOC Cabin involved many of the club members. Photo: Leveson-Gower Collection

By the early 1970s the VOC was struggling to keep up with the increasing operating and upkeep costs and an internal debate began with the Club on letting go of the Cabin.  Some members wanted to build smaller cabins like the Sphinx (later renamed Burton, after Roland Burton who was instrumental in its construction) Hut in Garibaldi Provincial Park.  Others wanted to create a sub-section of the Club that focused on downhill skiing that would takeover operating the Cabin but still keeping it as a Club asset.

To further complicate matters, the UBC Alma Mater Society claimed ownership of the Cabin because the Club had used the AMS, in name only, to acquire the land for the Cabin.  The VOC attempted to obtain $30,000 for the construction costs and efforts made to to build new huts and relinquish ownership to the AMS and ultimately the UBC Ski Club.  The Club battled for five years until a student referendum passed in their favour in 1980.

The VOC Cabin even made it into Ski Trails, a Vancouver based publication all about skiing in the 1960s and 70s.

With the money received from the AMS, the VOC built two Gothic arch huts.  The first hut was built on Mount Brew, located 40km south of Whistler, and the second hut, the Julian Harrison Memorial Hut, was built near Overseer Mountain, north of Pemberton.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for stories related to the construction and use of these two Gothic arch huts.

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.

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.