Every backcountry skier would agree that huts and cabins are a godsend. Not only do they offer the safety of shelter and improve access to otherwise inhospitable environments, they can also become glorious havens of comfort and sociability deep in the mountain wilderness. But, to quote Alpine Club of Canada Whistler (ACC-Whistler) section chair Mitch Sulkers, "huts don't build themselves."
Nor do they maintain themselves, and beyond normal wear and tear from recreational users, the harsh mountain environment takes its toll on human structures as well. This summer and fall local ACC-Whistler members and other volunteers took on a major work project at the Wendy Thompson Hut, originally built by the club in 2000. Earlier this month I tagged along on one of their work parties to see exactly what was going on at the hut.
The day began with an early meeting for the group of volunteers at the Pemberton heliport, after which the first five workers were flown directly to the hut to prepare the site. Chief among these tasks was clearing pathways and digging out work sites in the already metre-deep (and now much deeper) snowpack. The rest of us drove to the staging point just off the Duffey Lake road and began preparing loads of firewood and building materials that would be shuttled to the hut by the helicopter.
In total, seven 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 third group of volunteers began the three-hour snowshoe trek from the staging area to the hut. Once the last load of materials arrived at the hut (and two loads of garbage, construction waste, and unneeded equipment was flown out), the last group of volunteers, myself included, was given a quick, scenic ride to the hut in the chopper.
We unloaded with our gear and the heli 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 framing a new room 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 coastal snowpack.
After a few frenzied hours, light began to fade, flurries started to fall, and small groups began to snowshoe back down the trail to our parked vehicles. But not before an impressive amount of work was accomplished, especially considering the deep snow and sub-zero temperatures.
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. If you find recreating in the backcountry rewarding, perhaps you should consider joining a local club and contributing your time as well (one need not be a member to join many of these work days).
The sum of the work completed this summer adds up to an impressive list of upgrades. The hut has been given a three-and-a-half metre (12-ft.) extension at the front of the building, complete with a new mudroom, a larger kitchen and an improved bunk area. A solar-powered lighting system was installed, and the old kerosene heater has been replaced with a wood-burning stove. A new wood shed was also built and stocked with three and a half chords of firewood, which should last the full winter if visitors use it wisely. Despite the increased space, capacity remains 16, making for a much more comfortable and functional space.
The new and improved Wendy Thompson Hut is now ready to go for the upcoming winter season. It is available only through reservation, which must be pre-arranged through the ACC-Whistler website. The hut fees go directly towards future maintenance and upgrades to the cabin, including building materials and the helicopter flights necessary to get them up into Marriot Basin. Local companies also help out donating time and materials.
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.
The Wendy Thompson Hut was named in honour of a long-time Whistler resident, ski patroller and paramedic who was tragically killed when a medical mercy flight she was working on crashed en route to Haida Gwaii in January 1995. She was an avid backcountry enthusiast, and the hut's construction was funded by her family and estate to honour her memory and serve the outdoor community.
The hut was originally constructed in ACC-Whistler member Tom Dudley's backyard. It was then de-assembled and transported to its alpine setting, with the project wrapping up that autumn before the first snow began to fall.
Built on the classic gothic arch design first developed by members of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club in the 1960s, this style is also exemplified by the local Wedgemount and Himmelsbach Huts among others. Local resident and master carpenter Werner Himmelsbach, for whom the hut at Russet Lake is named, even helped with the construction of the Wendy Thompson Hut 33 years after building his namesake shelter.
This summer's renovation and upgrades are the result of two summers worth of planning and more than 400 volunteer days of actual work on-site, with approximately 40 different individuals contributing their time.
That's a lot of gruelling, unpaid labour.
"The ACC-Whistler really enjoys projects that benefit the mountain and outdoor communities," says Sulkers. "We have an amazing volunteer base."
Another major project they have spearheaded in recent years is the new Skywalk/Don MacLaurin Memorial hiking trail network on the east and north slopes of Rainbow Mountain.
The Whistler Museum has a soft spot for these simple, tough, and charming structures, and is currently researching and compiling a comprehensive history of the more than dozen Gothic Arch huts built throughout the Coast Mountains over the last 50 years. Those with stories to share about the construction of any of these huts, or simply visiting them, is encouraged to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.