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WB will donate backcountry ticket sales to Spearhead Huts

First hut of project slated to open in 2019

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Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is throwing its financial support behind one of the most anticipated backcountry projects in recent history. For the remainder of the ski season, WB will be donating 100 per cent of the proceeds from backcountry lift ticket sales to the Spearhead Huts Society's long-awaited backcountry hut system, planned for Garibaldi Provincial Park. The commitment was announced at the society's annual fundraiser, Multiplicity, on Tuesday, April 10.

"We think (the Spearhead Huts) will be an awesome addition to the backcountry experience that we have here," said Rob McSkimming, WB's vice-president of business development. "We think it's a good opportunity to communicate that the backcountry you can access from the lifts here is really amazing, and we just want to be a partner in this because we think this project is good for the community as a whole."

Construction began last summer on the first of three backcountry huts slated for the 40-kilometre Spearhead Traverse, a decade after the concept for the hut network was first introduced.

"It's a three-hut project and we're still fundraising for the first, so any funds are appreciated," said project spokesperson Jamie Bond. "This one's a neat fit because it's backcountry skiers indirectly donating to the project."

The Kees and Claire Hut, near Russet Lake, is expected to open to its first guests in January 2019, if all goes according to plan. The Mount Pattison and Mount Macbeth huts will be built as more funding is secured to cover the remaining costs of the anticipated $5.5-million project.

WB's fundraising will put a small dent in the roughly $300,000 still required to complete the first hut (although Bond noted that that number could change depending on the amount of in-kind donations the project receives.) McSkimming noted that, in the same late-season period last year, WB sold approximately 400 backcountry tickets, worth nearly $25,000. Bond is hopeful the attention the fundraiser garners will help boost that total even higher.

"It's definitely helpful, and any time there's an initiative like this, it's a good reason to refresh the project in everyone's mind," he added.

WB is just the latest donor to shell out for the project. In November, Brian Hill, CEO and founder of retail clothing chain Aritzia, and wife Andrea Thomas Hill, chair of the Cause We Care Foundation, announced a $1.5-million donation that will go towards the construction of the Mount Macbeth hut.

Prior to that, the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation donated US$700,000 to the project in memory of Cornelius "Kees" Brenninkmeyer, 25, and his girlfriend Claire Dixon, 27, who died in a 2007 backcountry skiing accident when their snow shelter collapsed.

Also at Tuesday night's Multiplicity event, alpine accessibility non-profit Alpine Initiatives, formed in honour of late freeskiing legend JP Auclair, committed to raising funds for the project, earmarked for the third Spearhead Hut, at Mount Pattison.

The society has other hurdles to cross beyond the financial to see the Spearhead project to its completion. Whistler Search and Rescue manager Brad Sills voiced his concern last summer over the project's current safety plan, which is still being finalized.

"Our concern is that the huts are at high elevation, and we know the weather in the Spearhead through the winter is terrible. So if we're getting calls and having to fly into these places, we're putting our guys into a lot of risk," Sills said in a July interview. Of particular concern for Sills was the added traffic the huts are expected to bring to an area that is already one of the busiest for search-and-rescue volunteers. Once completed, the huts are expected to welcome up to 7,000 visitors a year.

Bond, who declined to comment in detail on the safety plan with project chair Jayson Faulkner currently out of town, said that work continues on the plan, and he is confident it will satisfy all parties involved.

The Spearhead Huts Society is looking for volunteers to assist with building this summer. Visit spearheadhuts.org to apply.

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