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State of the huts: How your favourite backcountry amenities are adapting to COVID-19

In the Sea to Sky, most backcountry huts will either not open or open with tight rules and restrictions that mean planning well ahead of time

There’s an inherent magic to backcountry huts.

Skins, gloves and an assortment of wet gear lines the walls while a fire roars and exhausted skiers and splitboarders prepare their dinners—which tend to range from dehydrated packages to shockingly elaborate spreads—and recount their day of playing in untouched powder.

No lines. No cell service. Just pure and utter escape—all culminating in a comfortable (if occasionally smelly) setting with friends and strangers who share the same singular passion.  

While that tightknit mixing of people might be part of the charm of a night in a hut, it’s also the kind of social activity the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to avoid right now.

Backcountry experts are all warning of a surge in new users this winter as people grapple to find safe ways to enjoy the tumultuous season head. But in the Sea to Sky, most backcountry huts will either not open or open with tight rules and restrictions that mean planning well ahead of time.

Each organization that oversees these beloved winter gems is facing different obstacles to opening heading into the 2020-21 season.

From dwindling funds to prohibitive safety protocols to lack of resources, Pique checked in to see how each group is handling the challenges.

Alpine Club of Canada, Whistler chapter

  • Hut:  Wendy Thompson Hut
  • Status:  Closed until at least Dec. 10, but stay tuned
  • Check in at: accwhistler@gmail.com

For the first time  in its history, the Alpine Club of Canada’s (ACC) Whistler chapter had to lock the Wendy Thompson Hut this summer.

Located in Marriott Basin, it falls under the jurisdiction of Recreation Sites and Trails BC (RSTBC), which first mandated they close last spring—only not everyone followed those rules.

“There was a fair amount of unsanctioned use of the hut, which is a shame,” says Janice Tedstone, reservations coordinator with ACC Whistler. “We’ve never locked the hut. It was always open. The Thompson family wanted the hut to be accessible. If someone is up there on a day trip and injures themselves, it needs to be open.”

Since first closing in mid-March, ACC Whistler has kept in touch with RSTBC in the hope they could negotiate a suitable safety protocol to open for the winter. Currently, though, the hut is to remain closed until at least Dec. 10 due to non-essential travel orders, the potential increased burden on search-and-rescue organizations, and lack of sanitation, the government organization said.

But, if they are able to open this winter, there are other logistical issues. The organization not only refunded all trips that were booked for the spring (“We were at 100-per-cent capacity into early April,” Tedstone says), but they also offered refunds earlier in the season when the avalanche risk was high.

That added up to $9,000 in refunds, nearly all the money they needed to fly in a supply of firewood and do regular maintenance.

The concern now is if the hut reopens at six-person capacity (compared to the usual 16) those six people will not be able to haul in enough firewood on their own for a safe and comfortable stay.

“If we do open up, people will have to figure out how to heat themselves,” Tedstone adds. “That will be a huge issue.”  

The other concern: if they have to close again after opening and refund money, they will be put into another tough financial situation.

But Tedstone has managed to retain some optimism.

“If it can open in spring and summer and we can get some revenue, that should be enough—along with the funds we have right now—to supply for next year. This year, we’re in dire straits.”

In the meantime, they’re asking to backcountry users to respect the closure of their hut—and others—should it remain closed.

“The key thing is to make a point of having people understand that when we close a hut, they need to respect that,” Tedstone says. “There are a lot of people behind the scenes doing their best to ensure the safe operations of these huts.”

 

UBC Varsity Outdoor Club

The VOC huts  are a little different than most because they’re technically designated as emergency shelters.

“We don’t lock our doors and we can’t legally lock our huts,” says Haley Foladare, access coordinator for the VOC. “We lifted our [voluntary closure] in late June to mid-July. Basically, what we decided to do was release a set of COVID guidelines for huts. It was the typical: social-distance, wear a mask, use hand sanitizer. We can’t manage the number of people in the huts anyways, so we said, ‘If you’re using the huts, please follow these guidelines.’”

However, that’s changed for the winter ahead. “We don’t think there’s COVID-friendly ways for people to use our huts this winter,” Foladare says. “We think there will be a lot of people in the backcountry this winter.”

While the rules are the same for both Brew Hut and Brian Waddington Hut, Brew Hut is facing some extra challenges this year.

In late October, a logging company in the area decommissioned its bridge over Roe Creek (located about six kilometres down the Roe Creek Main Forest Service Road), essentially cutting off easy winter access to the hut and the area. (There is alternative summer access, but the hike in is much harder.)

“Essentially, that hut isn’t going to be accessible this winter unless you’re willing to do a creek crossing on your feet,” Foladare says. “That’s the reality of the situation. We are working on plans for a new bridge. We’re working with other stakeholders in the area. Hopefully in the next year or so [we can build a replacement]. It’s still in the works.”

It’s possible, she notes, that the replacement could be a footbridge rather than a crossing for vehicles.

COVID aside, trying to save access to areas in general has been a challenge, which is why her role was created, she says.

“The community needs to be advocating for access right now,” she says.  “It really is a community effort to maintain access to these places we like to go.”

 

Spearhead Huts Society

  • Hut: Kees and Claire Hut
  • Status: Closed, but possibly opening this winter
  • Check in: spearheadhuts.org

Jayson Faulkner is not   exaggerating when he says you couldn’t have picked a worse season to open a new backcountry hut.

The Kees and Claire Hut, which officially opened in September 2019, might have been off to a good start in the fall, but then a particularly horrendous avalanche cycle hit, followed, of course, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were operating at 90-plus-per-cent occupancy until COVID hit and we had to shut down in the middle of March,” says Faulkner, who chairs the Spearhead Huts Society. “We had bookings until the end of May and then beyond. All those had to be cancelled. It was as bad as it gets. We couldn’t reopen because of the BC Parks closure. That was really unfortunate.”

But in August, they managed to reopen with strict rules. Only 16 people in a single group were allowed and they had to book Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights to allow for the hut to be cleaned between guests.

The hut capacity is usually 38 people.

“We were immediately booked pretty solid for those small groups,” Faulkner says.

Then they were thrown another wrench. Their insurance was due at the end of October. Initially, it had been a couple thousand dollars, but now the bill was coming in at closer to $50,000 or $60,000. (That’s due to several outside global factors, including climate change, forest fire risk, and issues in the insurance industry.)

“That begs the question, if you’ve got a $50,000 or $60,000 bill for insurance and you’re operating at what amounts to one-eighth of our sell-out capacity, can we even afford to open?” Faulkner says.

Since first talking to Pique about this issue, he followed up to say they found an insurance company that would insure them at just over half that initial quote.

It’s still a hefty bill—and something many backcountry operators are facing, although they’re not all non-profits like the Spearhead Huts Society.

“This is a community asset,” Faulkner says. “The reason we built this was for the community. That’s always been the goal and vision. It breaks my heart to have such a remarkable community asset that took so much blood, sweat, and tears to happen—and the donations from the community who believed in it—and it may sit without being able to be utilized.”

Still, Faulkner is cautiously optimistic they could reopen in some capacity this winter. It would likely be like this past summer with 16 people in a single group over a three-night period, but they are attempting to negotiate the rules with BC Parks, given their unique, large space.

“We proposed the idea: why can’t we have four groups of four? We can have people in the hut separated for eating and cooking and spread people out in the living area,” he says. “We just really have been caught between a regulatory rock and a hard place.”

BC Mountaineering Club

  • Huts: Watersprite Lake Cabin, Mountain Lake Hut, North Creek Cabin, Plummer Hut
  • Status: Watersprite expected to open with rules, Mountain Lake, North Creek and Plummer open
  • Check in: bcmc.ca

The equation for  BC Mountaineering Club (BCMC) hut openings is pretty straightforward.

Mountain Lake, North Creek, and Plummer Huts are remote and little-used so they reopened more quickly than the Watersprite Lake Cabin, which has been one of the most popular destinations in the Sea to Sky this year.

(It should be noted the North Creek Cabin, near Pemberton, was closed for the fall again following a grizzly bear attack in September. The 36-year-old man involved suffered minor injuries.)

Thousands upon thousands of people flooded the Watersprite Lake trail this summer, largely due to BC Parks closing its popular hiking destinations and then limiting their use throughout the season.

For that reason, the hut stayed closed.

“Obviously, when you’re dealing with an area where you have thousands of people visiting it year-round, it presents challenges for management,” says Chris Ludwig, BCMC president. “That’s why we’ve been slow to open it. We don’t have to open it; the motivation for us to open it is not revenue, it’s to provide opportunity to the public and our members. It cannot come at the cost of burdening what our organization can manage in a pandemic.”

The cabin, built in 2017, was packed solid before COVID. When it reopens, it will only be able to accommodate six people from one bubble. There will be a fixed fee and no refunds.

“There will be a cool-down period of three days after [each use] to allow potential viruses to decontaminate,” Ludwig says. “It’s impossible for us to be there 24/7.”

The determining factor for when, exactly, it can open is an update to BCMC’s automatic booking software.

“The software has to be able to do it,” he says. “Then there’s the managing of it to keep it COVID-friendly. We have a draft of what we’re going to do.”

Another issue facing BCMC that most outdoor clubs are grappling with is the lack of revenue. Ludwig estimates the cabin brings in about $20,000 in revenue each year, which goes into upkeep and firewood.

But, he adds, the decision to reopen is not about money.

“It’s a matter of balancing public safety and opportunities to the recreating public,” he says.

His one tip for backcountry users, new and experienced, heading into the unusual season?

“Join an outdoor club,” he says. “Statistically, you’re far less likely to get in an accident if you’re part of a club than on your own or with a meet-up group.”

 

Keith Flavelle Memorial Hut Society

The trail to Keith’s Hut  has been closed since a rockslide on Joffre Peak destroyed the summer access through Cerise Creek.

When—or if—it will open remains up to BC Parks.

But when the COVID-19 crisis hit, the Keith Flavelle Memorial Hut Society decided to close the hut itself in September. It will remain that way through the winter.

However, not everyone got the message this fall.

“We put a sign at the trailhead, at the parking lot, and tried to make it as evident as possible,” says Scott Flavelle, who helps run the hut. “We put locks on the door and plywood over the front windows. One mistake we made was not getting the closure out on social media as soon as possible.”

Earlier in the fall, one man who had made the two-hour hike decided to break the two locks on the door and stay overnight.

In a twist, he later got in touch with Flavelle.

“About a week later, I was in contact with the person. He had gone up to fix the locks again. I said, ‘Didn’t you see the sign?’ He claimed he bushwacked through the trees and didn’t see it. It was odd, but it’s all done. It’s been fixed and locked again,” he says.

Looking ahead, the society hopes to both potentially create a reservation system for the hut someday and continue to hope BC Parks restores access.

In the meantime, though, Flavelle encourages everyone not only to respect hut closures, but also to practice good backcountry etiquette this winter.

“It’s certainly not forever,” he says. “Everyone says COVID is not forever.”

OPEN OR CLOSED?

Here’s the status of several other popular huts in the Sea to Sky corridor:

Elfin Lakes Shelter  – Closed

Jim Haberl Hut – Undetermined (check back to accvancouver.ca/huts-operated-by-the-vancouver-section)

Tenquille Lake Cabin – Closed

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