Karl Ricker has been waiting a long time to hear these words: The Spearhead Huts are a go.
The long-awaited project crossed a major hurdle this month when BC Parks issued a Park Use Permit allowing for the construction of three year-round backcountry huts along the 40-kilometre Spearhead Traverse in Garibaldi Provincial Park. It comes more than 50 years after Ricker and his fellow UBC Varsity Outdoor Club members first conquered the horseshoe-shaped route connecting Blackcomb and Whistler mountains.
“I’m elated, of course, but it is many years overdue,” Ricker said. “The sooner they get on with it the better.”
With the provincial go-ahead, construction is expected to begin on the Russet Hut, which will replace the aging Himmelsback Hut, in the summer of 2017. Huts at Mt. Pattison and Mt. Macbeth will be built following that. The estimated opening of the first hut is winter 2018.*
“It’s really a big deal for us, because it’s something we’ve been working on for almost seven years and it’s been such a tremendous amount of effort,” said Spearhead Huts Committee (SHC) chair Jayson Faulkner.
Once completed, Faulkner said the huts will offer a safe haven for self-propelled mountaineers in both the summer and winter looking to deepen their backcountry experience on one of the North America’s most popular ski traverses.
“It’s providing people with an opportunity to dwell a little longer at some of these places and experience them at a different level, travelling without having to have the same amount of weight they would normally have to carry in that kind of terrain,” he said.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 people are expected to access the huts per year, Faulkner said, with each hut housing up to 40 guests. Planned amenities include a solar power system, LED lights, propane heating and vermicompost toilets.
The Alpine Club of Canada’s Whistler and Vancouver chapters will oversee the operation and maintenance of the huts, with the goal of minimizing the environmental impact on the park.
“Signage and education will be a super important part of that process,” Faulkner said.
The first hut-to-hut system on the West Coast, the project plays into not only the increasing popularity of backcountry recreation as a whole, but also Whistler’s continued growth as a summer destination.
“Ultimately, in the summer particularly, it opens the possibility to reach a broader demographic, especially at Russet Lake, where you could have families come up and stay, which would be easier for them to do than if they all had to carry all the necessary safety gear,” said Faulkner. Work will also likely include the development of several summer hiking trails connecting to the huts.
But with the added backcountry traffic and Whistler Search and Rescue’s (WSAR) resources already stretched thin, will the Spearhead Huts place undue strain on the resort’s volunteer rescuers? Faulkner doesn’t think so.
“With the proper management plan we shouldn’t see any significant increase in incidents or activities,” he said. “In fact we have a better opportunity to respond and assist, and part of that is engaging the (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), who will be out there actively as the best trained people in the world for this sort of thing.”
As part of the safety plan, there will also likely be radio repeaters in the huts in the event of an emergency, Faulkner said. According to WSAR’s statistics, there was an average of 1.3 call-outs per year on the Spearhead Traverse between 2004 and 2014, representing just seven per cent of the group’s total incidents during that time. (WSAR manager Brad Sills declined to comment until he had an opportunity to review the project’s Park Use Permit.)
The system will cost an estimated $3.5 million to complete. The SHC is planning several events and initiatives in the coming months to raise funds for the next stage of the project.
More information is available at www.spearheadhuts.org.
*An earlier version of this article stated the estimated opening of the project was winter 2018, but, to be more precise, it is only the Russet Lake hut that is anticipated to open by that time, with the remaining huts to follow as funding allows.