The clap of boots and the squeak of skins are the only sounds up here, save my own breathing. Step by step, I ascend the Trorey Glacier, my eyes scanning the horizon for depressions in the snow. Early season crevasses still linger in mid January, a time when storms are usually rolling through the Coast Mountains, the rope in my pack and harness around my waist a prudent measure I discussed with my party the previous night.
To the south I see ski tracks from the peak of Mount Trorey, obvious heliskier turns given the uniform shape and stacked formation. Ahead to the south east, the northwest face of Mt. Pattison lies untouched, too steep for your average heliskiing client and outside of the guide's risk tolerance. A few hundred metres down the ridge lies the proposed site for one of the Spearhead Huts, which will overlook the Tremor Glacier to the east and Trorey to the west.
We bootpack and scramble up onto the ridge, it's steeper and more rugged this season with the limited snow we've had. Taking a break to hydrate and refuel, I ponder what it would be like to have a hut here with 40 beds, guided groups, as well as warmth and shelter from the elements.
The Spearhead Traverse, the horseshoe-shaped route that links Blackcomb and Whistler mountains via a series of alpine glaciers, was first completed in 1964 by Karl Ricker and three friends from the University of British Columbia's Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC); Bert Port, Chris Gardner and Alistair MacDonald. The party spent its first night where the Rendezvous Lodge now sits, the next day embarking on a nine-day trek past then-unnamed peaks and glaciers. In 2014 Ricker and Port completed the route for the second time to mark their 50th anniversary of the traverse — this time with the assistance of chairlifts at the start and end of the journey.
Today the Spearhead Traverse remains one of the most popular backcountry routes in North America, listed in countless guidebooks and "classic ski touring" lists. In 1991 the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) Whistler section was formed with one of its directives being to revive the concept of building a series of huts in the Spearhead Range to create an accessible, yet adventurous multi-day ski touring experience to rival Wapta Traverse in the Canadian Rockies. The idea stemmed from conversations between ACC Whistler's founding president Jayson Faulkner, climbing veteran Werner Himmelsbach, Whistler's "outdoor visionary" Don MacLaurin and Ricker. The first hut in the area was built at Russet Lake by British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) members — including Himmelsbach and MacLaurin — in 1968, with the long-term vision being to have two more huts along the traverse that Ricker and his party had so strenuously completed in 1964.
Fast forward to 2006, the backcountry skiing movement had exploded in popularity and more people than ever were venturing into the Spearhead via Whistler Blackcomb's lift system.
"We had all seen this extraordinary rise in the popularity of backcountry skiing, and it wasn't going to stop," says Faulkner, who is chair of the Spearhead Huts Committee.
"It was clear by 2006 that there was a lot of people starting to take this up. We said maybe the timing is right for this. If you've got thousands of people doing the Spearhead Traverse, you need to start managing those numbers.
"There's a lot of the history of huts in the Alps, you need to get in there and manage the people, otherwise people are free-camping and pooping and peeing all over the place. Eventually you're going to have to deal with that, otherwise the experience is going to get impacted."
When the Spearhead Huts Committee went public on the project in 2010, the reaction from the ski touring community was overwhelmingly positive, especially from the group of "Founding Fathers" that had paved the way since the '60s.
"Don teared up and said 'I hope I'm alive when you guys get this built,'" says Faulkner.
"That had been his dream since 1966."
It was a dream that MacLaurin would not live to see. He died in May, 2014, aged 85.
"Right out of the gate, we felt (Mt.)Pattison, would be such an amazing place to base out of and do trips out of," says Faulkner.
"We really felt that the first hut ideally should be a hut that provides a tremendous amount of value added for the (ski) touring community."
Pouring over a worn copy of John Baldwin's Backcountry Whistler map, Faulkner points out a handful of other locations that were considered for the Pattison Hut, that he's visited in the summer and winter, which were eliminated for various reasons.
"When we first started talking to BC Parks, something they were adamant about was the additional value the huts would provide in the summer. If we were only going to build them strictly for winter use we wouldn't place them in the locations we've identified, we wouldn't."
Faulkner runs his index finger along the contour lines of Mt. Pattison, which borders onto the massive Tremor Glacier.
"As soon as you start going too much onto that north east side (of Pattison), it makes it impossible to use as a summer destination, unless you've only got mountaineers using it," he says.
"You force people into having to do glacier travel with all the specialized skills and equipment. Then you can forget about the family (market)."
The Pattison site has been the most contentious of the three proposed huts, largely due to the Trorey and Tremor glaciers being prime drop zones for Whistler Heliskiing.
"If you're on this part of the range, there really is no other site you could put that hut," says Faulkner, this time pointing at the bench on the upper section of Tremor Glacier.
"This is a great spot, but the problem is you've got a big avalanche slope right above it. It's also where the helicopter lands, but the biggest problem was the ground, there's no bedrock of any kind. The construction costs there would be really big in order to anchor the hut."
When BC Parks collected user surveys during the Draft Management Plan process for Garibaldi Provincial Park in 2012, only 32 per cent of those surveyed were in favour of heliskiing in the park. Acknowledging the role that Whistler Heliskiing plays in the winter economy of Whistler and the challenges of the operator flying in other tenure areas during inclement weather, Parks has granted a five-year renewal of that Park Use Permit (PUP) to Whistler Heliskiing, which expires in 2016 though it will likely be renewed at that time.
An excerpt from the BC Parks document "Garibaldi Park: Management Plan Amendment for the Spearhead Area," released in February, 2014, summarizes the feedback received from the 2012 survey:
"The ski touring community has expressed concern that motorised heli-skiing access to the Spearhead detracts from the park experience and results in user conflicts. Furthermore, pressures from increasing motorised use in many other areas of the Sea to Sky region make Garibaldi Park all the more important as a non-motorised destination.
"Heli-skiing has been a recreation opportunity in Garibaldi Park for 32 years. Heli-skiing is part of a unique experience that destination visitors to Whistler are seeking, combining one or two days of heli-skiing with an on-mountain experience. While the portion of the heli-skiing tenure within Garibaldi Park is a small percentage of the overall tenure area, it is important for providing a viable heli-skiing opportunity on days of marginal weather when other locations within their tenure do not."
Faulkner is quick to make the distinction of the Spearhead Hut Committee from the "ski touring community" referenced in the Parks amendment document.
"From the Spearhead Huts Committee point of view, we don't have an opinion (about heliskiing in the park)," he says.
"There is some controversy about heli skiing in the park and there has been for a long, long time, for good reason. From our point of view as the Huts Committee, we've made a point of staying out of that debate, because the fact is Whistler Blackcomb and (the Spearhead Huts) are attached at the hip for perpetuity. We will have a mutually beneficial relationship and we will need the goodwill of Whistler Blackcomb to ensure access is maintained for the public entering the park. The fact is Whistler Blackcomb — rightly or wrongly — effectively controls access to the Spearhead both in summer and winter. There are undeniable benefits that will accrue to WB, the resort etc. as a result of the huts. So it really is a huge win-win."
Arthur De Jong, Whistler Blackcomb's mountain planning and Environmental resource manager, is well aware of the sentiment about heliskiing from non-motorized user group in Garibaldi Park, but he maintains that the coexistence of the user groups must be managed.
"It's not just another zone where people say 'why do they need it, when they've got other places to go.' That's not the facts," says De Jong, regarding Whistler Heliskiing's permission by Parks to operate in the Spearhead Range.
"The Spearhead is the ace up the sleeve for the pilot and guide, they don't have to fly over ridges and mountain tops. They can fly straight up the Spearhead watershed, the safest route in uncertain weather."
Being able to offer heli skiing on days with that uncertain weather has been a mainstay of Whistler Heliskiing's business for the last three decades and removing that privilege in one fell swoop would likely have what De Jong describes as a "knock-on effect" to the business of the resort.
"We have to work as good neighbours and develop standard operating procedures that support the highest level of coexistence possible, I know that's not easy," says De Jong.
"The huts will add to the mosaic of experiences that make Whistler great. Heliskiing also is part of that mosaic, that menu of activities make this place world class. We need to respect each other on that so we need to work out operating procedures and partnerships that will allow an effective coexistence. When the weather is clear, I doubt there would be a need to be anywhere in the Spearhead. There's going to be days when the weather is pushing us and we'd need to communicate, integrate and do the best we can."
Now five hours deep into the Spearhead Range, the route is getting more technical. Despite the "low" avalanche rating today, our party is wary of the relatively warm temperatures in the alpine and how long certain aspects have been getting warmed by direct sunlight. The climb up the Tremor and Platform glaciers was routine enough, but crossing the Ripsaw and Naden glaciers we spread out our group to a safe distance from one another, having adjusted our route slightly in lieu of the low snow pack. We've past the point of no return from the Blackcomb side, turning around now would be more travel than finishing the traverse. Avalanche paths surround us and the drainages could easily pull groups into the wrong direction were the weather to sock in. As I descend the Macbeth Glacier en route to Lago, I take solace that one day a hut will perch on a ridge a few hundred metres away, ready to lend refuge to parties this deep into the Spearhead Traverse.
With aching legs we press on, readying ourselves for the final big slog of the day up the Diavolo Glacier.
Concerning the Spearhead Huts themselves, Whistler Blackcomb sees the value in linking their two resort mountains with a multi-day, hut-to-hut ski touring route.
"Holistically, it adds value to our overall resort experience," says De Jong.
"We consider it a very positive endeavour and it adds to the world-class attributes that make us what we are. By geography we are a primary partner, our lift system is integral to the backcountry access. Most guests are not going to carry 40-60 pounds (18-30 kilograms) of gear out of the valley when we provide an escalator to the top floor — the alpine."
By making the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons Ranges more accessible, WB also has to be mindful of the safety concerns that come with increased traffic into the backcountry.
"When things go wrong, we're often the closest response system," says De Jong.
"Safety is our number-one concern, and we are very mindful of the resources and pressures of our very able and capable Whistler Search and Rescue team as well. We're really supportive of the Russett Lake site as being the first proposed site for a hut."
The Spearhead Huts committee originally had the Pattison Hut first in line to add the immediate value to the ski touring user group that Faulkner speaks of, but questions of practicality were raised when BC Parks urged summer access consideration. The Himmelsbach Hut (commonly referred to as the Russett Lake Hut) now sits in disrepair, with both winter and summer campers often opting to sleep in tents instead.
"You build that hut and you'd immediately have good occupancy year-round and (it would) be accessible by a lot of people," says Faulkner.
"It achieves the goal for parks for what is now a defunct and rotten-floored rodent fridge. From a lot of angles it ticked the boxes in a positive way."
As soon as the decision was made to build the first hut at Russett Lake, the whole process of approvals began to accelerate with significantly less political challenge from stakeholders, including Whistler Blackcomb.
The Pattison Hut may have opened up more options for ski tourers, but Russett Lake will build attraction for both summer and winter with much easier access for hikers and intermediate ski tourers. Building the hut-user group could also help with the fundraising required for the other two huts — once people have experienced hut-based recreation in Fitzsimmons Range they will be more likely to get on board with future projects.
"It was a tough decision for us to make, being really passionate folks about the backcountry, but it makes a lot of sense," says Faulkner.
"The main thing is moving the ball forward, we've been at this five years. Five years on the backs of a handful of people on the committee. Momentum on a project like this is really important, you've got to keep it going. This gives us progress in a profound way."
That progress is not just rippling through the local community, but also the provincial government. Jordan Sturdy, MLA for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky, Ralph Sultan, MLA for West Vancouver-Capilano, and Minister of State for Tourism and Small Business, Naomi Yamamoto, pitched the concept of the Spearhead Huts to the BC Liberal caucus. It was received favourably and resulted in additional resources being allocated to BC Parks specifically for the Spearhead Huts project. That allocation lead to Parks appointing retired ministry of environment employee Glen Campbell, who has overseen the planning, building and commissioning of dozens of huts in the province including the Kokanee Glacier Hut and the Conrad Kain Hut in the Bugaboos, both of which are now mainstays of regional visits for recreation.
"That helped a lot because all of a sudden there's one guy vetting us through the process, making sure everything (BC Parks needs is done), and not having long wait times with documents sitting on the corner of someone's desk," says Faulkner.
"At one point (Campbell) said 'people have no idea how popular (these huts) are going to be,' having never seen the Spearhead before, he was totally blown away by it."
With the Park Use Permit for all three huts expecting approval in the spring of 2015 and several fundraising events in the works, the first of three Spearhead Huts may be just around the corner.
We're on the home stretch. The sun dips over the orange horizon as we descend Whirlwind Peak towards Cowboy Ridge — the thought of celebratory burger and beer now hard to shake. A few hundred metres to the north, the dilapidated Himmelsbach Hut stands empty. I've always questioned the need for a shelter here, why I should spend the night in that frozen shack when I can descend Singing Pass and be at my house in little more than an hour. But put a comfortable hut there with bunks and toilets? In that case I'd be more inclined to wake up early for a quick Fissile lap before heading home. The descent down Singing Pass is an ordeal in itself under the glow of headlamps. The whir of snowguns assures me I'm not far away now.
The transition from backcountry glacier to Whistler Village is an abrupt one, the bars full of patrons enjoying an extended après. Maybe spending the night in the backcountry wouldn't be so bad after all.
For more information and updates on the Spearhead Huts project visit spearheadhuts.org.