Tag Archives: VOC

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.

What’s in a Name?

We love place names here at the Museum. Researching place names, even seemingly mundane ones, often reveals unique stories about earlier human encounters with the landscape. Apparently you love them too; two of our most popular blog posts ever have listed the meaning behind some of Whistler-Blackcomb’s ski run names (Why is that Ski Run Called Hooker? & Who Burnt the Stew?)

So we were especially excited with the most recent arrival to our archives: a thick folder featuring maps, name lists, and correspondence by prolific local mountaineer/geologist/Olympian father Karl Ricker, dating from 1964 to the early 2000s. Essentially the file tells the official story behind dozens of mountain, glacier and creek names around Whistler (primarily the north half of Garibaldi Park).

In 1964 Ricker was still a student at UBC and an active member of their Varsity Outdoor Club. That spring, along with other VOCers, he had famously completed the first tour of what they dubbed the “Fitzsimmons Horseshoe Traverse” better-known today as the Spearhead Traverse. (The Fitzsimmons Range and the Spearhead Range extend back from Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, respectively, to form the “horseshoe.” Both these sub-ranges’ names were created by BCMC mountaineers in the 1920s, and officially adopted after Ricker’s 1964 application.)

Of course these intrepid ski-mountaineers set out for adventure, first and foremost. They also recognized, however, that with the development of ski lifts less than 2 years away, these hitherto remote and rarely visited peaks were about to become a whole lot more accessible, and popular. It was time to investigate just what they had to offer.

This exploration, mapping and naming of the Garibaldi Park mountains was the continuation of a process begun in the 1920s by pioneer mountaineers like Don & Phyllis Munday, and especially Dr. Neal Carter. Carter was still active in the naming process with Ricker in 1964, more than 40 years after he began his exploration, cartography, and nomenclature work in Garibaldi Park. 

And so on to the names… Let’s start with the big one: Whistler. The story was already known, but it’s pretty important for us to finally have the official documentation in our archives.

Alex Philip and guest "At the summit of Whistle Mountain," 1920s.

Alex Philip and guest “At the summit of Whistle Mountain,” 1920s.

Locally, the mountain was always known to Alta Lake residents as “Whistle” or “Whistler” Mountain in honour of the whistling hoary marmots encountered by hikers in the high alpine. Somehow this name never made it to the survey officials in Victoria and Ottawa. Instead, this mountain was identified on government maps as “London Mountain,” presumably in reference to the mining claims on the mountain’s north slopes, registered to the “London Mining Group” (they were Brits).

By 1964, of course, high-profile efforts by Garibaldi Lifts to develop a ski hill and bring the Olympics to the southern Coast Mountains were already well underway, As Ricker wrote in his application to the Geographic Names Board,

Despite being published on every map since 1928 as London Mountain, it has not stood the test of time; the mountain is still “Whistler” Mountain to the Vancouver newspapers and to all the advertisements put forth on the development of skiing in this portion of Garibaldi Park. Yet when a newcomer or new park user attempts to find “Whistler” on the map he is faced with unnecessary confusion.

The Geographic Names Board was convinced, and the rest is history.

As for some of the more lyrical names one finds towards the back of the traverse route: 1964 marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of “The Bard,” William Shakespeare. As Ricker noted in his application,

His plays are loaded with a diverse lot of characters; the [naming] committee felt that a few of them aptly described some of the features in the area and that we should contribute to the commemoration of this anniversary. 

The mountains resembled Shakespearean characters? Hear him out:

Mount MacBeth: This hulking pyramid marks “the point of no return” for skiers attempting the full traverse. “Similarly, Macbeth reached a point of no return when he began to kill off his friends.”

Mount MacBeth from Whistler Mountain. Source: Bivouac.com.

Mount MacBeth (the glaciated peak at center/right) as seen from Whistler Mountain. In case “MacBeth” wasn’t accepted Ricker proposed as an alternative “The Fox Ears” due to the appearance of the twin summit. Photo: Bivouac.com.

Mount Iago: While on the 1964 traverse, this peak “appeared to be an impossible barricade to our ski touring party. The summit glacier is criss-crossed with hidden crevasses as well, and as a result the 1964 party was coerced into taking a long detour” (hence Detour Ridge). Later, the party realized that the peak was not so hazardous as suspected, and Ricker drew the comparison with Iago, “a very deceptive fellow in Shakespeare’s Othello.”

Mount Benvolio: The report describes how “when viewed from the north, this peak stands out from Mount Overlord and Fitzsimmons… However, its beauty from afar is somewhat dulled in close up views and its ascent is of no trouble. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the character of Benvolio had similar traits.”

Mounts Angelo and Diavolo, by the way, are not part of this Shakespearean celebration. They were named by Neal Carter in the 1920s. Steep, rocky Diavolo proved a hellish ascent. Its twin peak is snowier and more elegant appearing, and thus earned its name in counterpoint. Ricker heartily endorsed these place names out of respect for Carter, but alo because of their “euphony” (today’s word of the day) especially when combined with their similar-sounding Shakespearean neighbours. (For a great contemporary ski-mountaineering tale from Mount Angelo which adds another layer to this poetic place-naming story, click here.)

There you have it. Who said place names are boring?!

This just scratching the surface of all the great stuff in these folders, there are definitely more blog posts to come. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment below if you’re curious about a specific name or feature, and we’ll see what we can do.

Origins – UBC VOC Lodge

On this blog we have highlighted the pioneer explorations and contributions to the community made by such clubs as the British Columbia Mountaineering Club and the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club. One such club who hasn’t received their due is UBC’s hallowed Varsity Outdoor Club. Formed all the way back in 1917 (and thus, with a fast-approaching centennial) the VOC has helped introduce thousands of youth to Coast Mountain adventure over the years, and was involved in Whistler’s development from the very start.

The VOC were a big part of the growth of ski-mountaineering post-World War Two, and soon began hosting spring skiing camps around Garibaldi Lake. In 1964, one especially adventurous group of students, including one Karl Ricker, embarked on a visionary ski traverse linking Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains, which they dubbed the Fitzsimmons Horseshoe Traverse and now better known as the Spearhead Traverse.

This nine-day epic of the now-popular route has gotten a lot of attention of late, largely due to the Spearhead Huts Project. Perhaps the most eloquent treatment comes from Robin O’Neill’s  short film Breaking Trail.

All this to say that the VOC was ahead of the curve in recognizing the ski potential around Whistler. When development of Whistler Mountain began ramping up in 1965, free land was made available for select ski clubs, with some “badgering” Ricker recalls, to build cabins on ( a shrewd move by Garibaldi Lifts, harnessing the social nature of skiing), and the VOC took full advantage.

From Ski Trails, January 1966

From Ski Trails, January 1966

The Lodge was built entirely using VOC funds and volunteer labour. 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 lodge was ready for Christmas 1965, even if Garibaldi Lifts wasn’t (a story in itself). Undeterred, the many students passing the holidays at the lodge slapped their skins on and toured Whistler Mountain. With runs cut but no lifts turning they had the mountain virtually to themselves!

After Whistler Mountain officially opened in February 1966 VOC’s cabin was an instant hit, both among VOC members and other budget-minded skiers. The next winter, when Ski Trails ran a story about how UBC students had started a petition asking for special student pricing on lift tickets, a VOC rep estimated (unverifiably) that half the skier traffic on Whistler Mountain came from the VOC.

Unfortunately, despite this early success, the lodge underwent some trouble in the 1970s as the VOC couldn’t keep up with rapidly increasing operating and upkeep expenses. Things turned from bad to worse when, despite their massive investments in time and money, the UBC Alma Mater Society took control of the lodge against the VOC’s wishes.

Finally, these issues were resolved in 1980, and the VOC used the settlement money to fund construct backcountry cabins near Mount Brew and Mount Overseer, which complemented their existing Burton Hut on Garibaldi Lake. This was more in line with the backcountry-oriented club anyways.