Though the first of three huts planned for the Spearhead Huts Project is on schedule to start construction this summer, some questions remain around safety, liability and the project's long-term impact on the environment.
Spearhead Huts Committee (SHC) chair Jayson Faulkner detailed the project's process to the Committee of the Whole on Dec. 20.
Snow clearing and foundation work for the hut at Russet Lake will start this May, he said.
"If we can get the funding in place as quickly as we hope, we could then build the Pattison Hut next summer and we will build the Macbeth Hut the next summer (after that)," Faulkner said.
The committee has 80 per cent of the funds in place for the hut at Russet Lake, Faulkner said, including a donation of $915,000 from the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation announced in June.
A quantifying survey on the budget of the hut valued the build at about $1.7 million, but Faulkner noted there are some key variables that will bring that cost down.
"One of the biggest is the helicopter costs," he said. "Their assessment was done as if we were flying from the valley, and that was probably three or four hundred thousand dollars... we got approval this week from Whistler Blackcomb to assist and facilitate, we'll be staging all the construction from the base of the Harmony Chair, and possibly even from the Symphony Chair, so that saves us hundreds of thousands of dollars."
The survey also calculated labour costs at $55/hr, even though the "vast majority" of labour will be volunteer, Faulkner said.
When you factor in other in-kind donations like windows and solar panels, "the actual cost of the hut is around the $1.3 (million) level," he said. "And we're sitting right now at around $1.2 million in cash that we have in hand, so we're really, really close and we're really confident we're going to close the gap here within the next 30 to 45 days."
The cost for all three huts is in the $5-million range. A crowdfunding campaign was recently launched to help the project meet its goal — head to www.spearheadhuts.org for more info.
"It will be unlike anything else in North America," Faulkner said. "There's every reason to believe that this will become an iconic destination on the West Coast Trail."
But questions remain around safety and liability.
"Can you speak to who takes on the liability for people that are on the trails, and what type of permitting process will you have that sort of allows people to go out, or is it 'the gates are open?'" asked Coun. Jen Ford after the presentation.
Because the traverse is located in a provincial park, people must be responsible for their own actions, Faulkner said.
"Our tenure is only for the footprint of the hut," he said, noting that the committee can't take complete responsibility without having complete control.
"Early on, there was a suggestion that somehow we should be responsible for every person who steps foot in the park, even when you're walking on the trails when you're going to the huts. Well, that's impossible and ridiculous, and the only way that would happen is if we also had absolute control over access," he said. "Not reasonable, not practical, so there is a very clear education program that is a part of the online booking system, about the hazards."
There is also an agreement with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), where beds will be reserved for the guides in exchange for first response.
"The idea there is that the ACMG guides will be there a lot, and they'll be first responders, so if there is an emergency they'll be able to respond very quickly, and they're more highly trained than even most Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) people, and they're very keen on being able to provide that service," Faulkner said.
The SHC also looked at WSAR call numbers in the Spearhead Range from 2003 to 2011, Faulkner noted.
"There were 14 rescues in Garibaldi Park in the Spearhead Range, of which only three were backcountry skiers — all the rest were day skiers that were unprepared heading out of bounds," he said. "That's the problem... backcountry skiers by and large have the equipment, they've got the training and that sort of thing, and I think it's all about education."
A Whistler Blackcomb spokesperson said the company is working with the SHC on its safety management plan.
Environmental assessments have been done for the project, identifying marmot habitats and rare plant species in the area, "so we know where we have to tread really sensitively or not disturb the land at all," Faulkner said.
But Coun. Steve Anderson questioned the need for the project and the impact it will have on the 40-kilometre Spearhead Traverse.
"The huts project is there to serve commercial interests under a thinly veiled veneer of respectability through association with mountain clubs. People who truly love the wilderness want to keep it that way. Huts will forever scar the beautiful alpine environment," he said, quoting a comment from the BC Mountaineering Club's (BCMC) online discussion forums.
"I found most of the comments on the BCMC site to reflect that opinion. There wasn't very many that were in favour of it, and I've done the traverse a few times myself. I really like the way it is," he said. "In any responsible backcountry usage policy, you restrict the numbers of people going in... you don't build infrastructure to handle greater numbers. I've never heard of that. That's just a wrongheaded policy in my opinion."
David Hughes, who represents the BCMC on the SHC and was president of the organization for years, said that opinion doesn't represent the majority of the group's membership.
"We've also had a complete survey of the entire 800 (person) membership and it was over 90-per-cent supported," Hughes said. "We always have these arguments. There is always going to be opinions on these sorts of things. From my personal perspective, I think that one of the reasons we're doing this is to help clean up the environment when it comes to human waste... we've got a lot of people going through there, and there's no place to collect it."