Alpine Huts, Then and Now

By Sarah Drewery, Whistler Museum.

The typical alpine cabin in BC, particularly in the coastal areas, is the gothic arch-frame. The design of the arch, which can withstand pressure from heavy coastal snow packs while maximizing interior space, is the perfect structure for the purpose. This classic shape was pioneered in the late ‘60s by a team led by Don MacLaurin, who was president of the British Columbia Mountaineering Association.

Don pulled on his considerable connections in many areas of expertise to get the job done. He made use of wood research labs at BCIT, got location scouting input from several prolific mountaineers and used his connections in BC Parks in his efforts to get the huts built.

Don MacLaurin with his family in their Whistler cabin, 1960s. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
Don MacLaurin with his family in their Whistler cabin, 1960s. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

The first hut was built in the Lucky Four group of mountains near Chilliwack, in 1965. They had identified what they thought was an ideal location, near a tarn and sheltered by a large moraine. Soon after construction, however, a “250-year avalanche event” occurred, sweeping right over the hut and taking it out, along with all the 200+ year old trees surrounding it. The team was not deterred, however. They knew the design was sound and that it was only exceptional circumstances that had caused its failure. They went on to build two more huts – one on Russet Lake in Garibaldi Park and one on Wedgemount Lake, both of which were completed by 1968 and are still there today. They then gave the design, free of charge, to other mountain clubs in BC to replicate.

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The Russet Lake Hut, also known as the Himmelsbach Hut, circa 1974. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.
The Russet Lake Hut, also known as the Himmelsbach Hut, circa 1974. Photo courtesy Whistler Museum.

The structure was modular; the basic design is only made up of six pieces, allowing it to be easily transported by helicopter to remote mountain locations. One of the many people who worked on the project was Werner Himmelsbach – an excellent mountaineer and a master carpenter. The team would assemble the cabins on Himmelsbach’s front lawn in Burnaby and mark up all the pieces before transporting them to their locations.

Although the project was an undoubted success, it wasn’t all clear sailing. Apparently the Russet Lake hut was originally built with a type of plywood that, unbeknown to the designers, contained salt. Don recalled in an interview last year: “the marmots loved it and chewed their way through the stuff.” The original material had to be replaced.

Now the proposed Spearhead Huts project will probably signify the end of the Russet Lake hut’s useful life. The structure is showing its age, presumably as it has been so heavily used, and its size is not adequate for the large amount of traffic in the area. The Wedgemount Hut however, is still in excellent shape and is likely to remain for many years to come.

The Wedgemount Hut as it stands today. Photo courtesy Tourism Whistler / Mike Crane.
The Wedgemount Hut as it stands today. Photo courtesy Tourism Whistler / Mike Crane.

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