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In memory of Kees Brenninkmeyer and Claire Dixon, Mountain Life has organized a contest for the ultimate Ski Tour Package. We hope to spread the word and get the local ski community stoked on the Kees and Clair Hut soon to be completed on the Spearhead Traverse.
Prize Package Includes: Skins from Escape Route, RMU – Apostle 106 length 185 – special Spearhead hut graphic, G3 Zed binding, Mountain Life Hat, Flask and T-shirt, & one night stay at Kees and Claire Hut
Enter Contest Here, closes February 18th, 2019 at midnight.
Words :: Feet Banks
The mountains are a beautiful and special place. Somewhere to find the deepest joys of your spirit, face your fears, and tap into the flow of life, nature, and the secrets of human potential.
But those towering peaks and ridgelines can also be hard, unforgiving, and heartbreakingly random—shit happens in the mountains. It happens more often than we want, and it happens to the last people we’d expect.
Which is why a memorial backcountry hut is such a special, perfect thing. A safehouse that can immortalize adventurous spirits taken too soon while also providing a haven for future travelers. A backcountry hut is a shelter from the storm so you can dry your boots, warm your soul, connect with others, and discover some of the most important parts of being alive.
And the Kees and Claire Hut, resting beneath Fissile Peak on the edge of Russet Lake, will be among the nicest on the planet. The first of three huts to be placed along Whistler’s legendary Spearhead Traverse, the Kees and Claire took years of bureaucratic dancing to be approved, heli-loads of fundraised dollars to pull off, and thousands of volunteer work hours to build.
But it’s almost finished, the first step in the realization of a dream that started back in the 1960s after Brett Port, Chris Gardiner, Alistair MacDonald and Whistler legend Karl Ricker first completed the 40-kilometre, horseshoe ski tour around the Fitzsimmons Range, connecting the summits of what are now Blackcomb and Whistler mountains. They were out there for nine-days.
Long-heralded as one of the best high alpine traverses in North America, if not the world, the Spearhead is now typically done in two to three days and requires winter camping in tents, bivy sacks or snow caves (the Himmelsbach hut is there, but it’s quite old, a bit drafty, and fills up quickly.)
The new hut system aims to bring people out of the cold, protecting and inspiring future backcountry shredders, hikers and mountaineers for the next hundred years. And the opening of the Kees and Claire Hut (currently set for late spring/early summer 2019) marks the beginning of a new chapter in the Spearhead story.
To start that chapter properly, it’s important for the Sea to Sky backcountry community to know two of the most important characters—the ones whose names grace the hut itself—who were Kees and Claire?
Cornelius ‘Kees’ Brenninkmeyer grew up skiing and first came to Whistler in 1994 to attend Dave Murray Ski Camp. “He was 14,” recalls Whistler legend Peter Smart, who was coaching at the camp that summer. “It was a race camp but he didn’t want to race. It worked though because I didn’t want to coach racing, so we’d sneak away and ski the Saudan Couloir then catch the busses back with the snowboarders coming up for the afternoon. Eventually they caught us and put us back in our lanes.”
But Kees (pronounced ‘case’—it’s Dutch) was hooked. He came back the next three summers in a row. “He was so congenial,” remembers Smart’s wife Jill Dunnigan. “He loved the social aspect of skiing and he loved being in the mountains.”
But in school back home in Toronto, Kees struggled. “He was an active kid, always doing something, the kind of energy that couldn’t fit behind a desk,” says older sister Julie Brenninkmeyer. “School was tough for him but he finally came into his own at boarding school in Connecticut. Somehow he convinced his house master that taking the bus to the ski hill and getting his ski instructor’s certificate should count as school credit. He found his calling.”
As a graduation gift, Kees and a friend joined Smart on a private ski trip to Portillo, Chile. “It was a tough trip for them,” Smart laughs. “The US womens ski team was staying in our hotel so the boys were in the disco all night chasing girls then up early hiking laps all day.”
While in college, Kees set up his classes so he could come to Whistler from December to March and work for Extremely Canadian, Smart and Dunnigan’s ski guiding company. “We had him chopping firewood, tuning skis, driving the van, serving food, and shoveling snow,” Dunnigan recalls. “He was terrible in the office but he was great with the guests. He could deal with the tough ones because he was a tough one too. But he was the kind of guy who had time for everyone. He always showed up with a gift, he could ballroom dance… the ladies loved him. Everyone did.”
Although Kees had always dreamed of being a ski guide, his family owned a large clothing retail business in Europe. He spent a year in The Netherlands to see how that life would fit.
“It didn’t,” Julie Brenninkmeyer laughs. “Every weekend he would drive to Switzerland or France to play in the mountains. It was like a 10-hour drive each way and he’d still make it to work on Monday. He was driven that way, and when he finally did choose to pursue a career guiding, he was not torn at all. He made a deal with our mom that he’d only be home every second Christmas. With guiding you have to be committed. You have to be in the mountains.”
And it was in the mountains, on an trip up Denali, where Kees met Claire.
Born and raised in Kamloops, Claire Dixon grew up ski racing with her father and brother, both siblings eventually reaching the FIS level and getting into backcountry skiing together around the turn of the millennium.
“I always did it as a hobby but Claire really took things to another level,” says brother Paul Dixon. “She did a lot of iconic BC trips—Aussie Couloir, Rogers Pass, the Purcells, Selkirks and then Denali. If she hadn’t gotten ill on that trip I think she would have been the first woman to ski off the summit.”
Claire was strong, a lifelong athlete who lived with grace, humility and humour. “She was one of the strongest skiers I have known,” recalls friend Laurie Block. “She would laugh and joke on her way up the skin track and shred like a boss on the way down”. She was a role model in the mountains—calm capable and focused.”
Together, Kees and Claire turned their love for each other and the mountains into a lifestyle of excitement and joy. Everyone who met them remembers their giant smiles and warm hearts. Claire studied for her master’s in physiotherapy (with Block) while Kees continued working toward his dream of being a certified ACMG guide. Their plan was to settle down in Revelstoke, BC, where Claire had a job waiting after graduation. “After Kees met Claire he had double the sparkle,” says Julie Brenninkmeyer. “They were always out on adventures together, they just fit each other perfectly.”
In January 2007, Kees and Claire volunteered to be hut custodians in the Wapta Icefields, and embarked on a 30-day traverse into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way tragedy struck and the two were killed when their snowcave collapsed in the night.
“It really hit home,” says Smart. “I was in Japan and woke up in the middle of the night, just feeling like something was wrong… I have lost a lot of friends in the mountains, but this felt different. This woke me up in another country.”
As they grieved, Kees and Claire’s friends began talking about building a hut in memory of the two young adventurers. Thinking that had there been a hut in that section of the Wapta, all this may have been avoided.
“We thought it was an appropriate legacy to their memory to build a shelter that provides safety along a traverse,” Block says. “Kees and Clare were mountain people, and they would want to encourage safe travel in these alpine environments and provide access to the remote beauty of the spaces they loved.”
Kees and Claire’s families came on board—they were already creating positive legacies in the wake of the tragedy. A bursary in Claire’s name was founded for students enrolled in the guiding program at Thompson Rivers University in her hometown of Kamloops and the Brenninkmeyer family established a foundation honouring Kees to help ski and mountain guides overcome career-threatening injuries (see below).
In 2016, The Brenninkmeyer Foundation donated $700,000 USD to the Spearhead Huts Foundation, rallying the entire backcountry community, and connecting the Kees and Claire memorial group (including Block) with the Spearhead organizers and other passionate parties, including The Brett Carlson Memorial Group (see below). Their unified goal: a large public hut with a kitchen, lounge/library and washrooms, built to the most stringent environmental standards inside Garibaldi Park along a classic alpine touring route. It was a daunting task, full of bureaucratic hoops and challenges, but with the spirits and support involved, it was only a matter of time.
“It’s been exciting,” says Jayson Faulkner, head of the Spearhead Huts Foundation. “I’ve never been involved with a group of volunteers so dedicated and willing to put so much of themselves into it. There were big winds pushing against us at times. But all those people who were behind the vision—hundreds of volunteers working on the construction, the organizers, the people who gave money—I think they will be really proud to be a part of this legacy of those lost and loved. That legacy will continue to bring smiles and experiences, sometimes life-changing experiences, to people for the next hundred years.”
“It’s definitely overwhelming,” Paul Dixon says as the project nears completion . “And I think a very incredible special memory of Kees and Claire. It really all stems back to their friends, for keeping at it even when it didn’t always look like it could happen.”
The mountains give and take, but the lost live forever in the stories we tell. Part of the magic of the Kees and Claire Hut is not just how it will tell the story of two true mountain spirits, but how it will allow so many others to more safely craft stories of their own.
While training to be a mountain guide, Kees Brenninkmeyer injured his knee skiing in Alaska. Like a champ, he was able to power through and finish his guiding season but his knee deteriorated to the point where reconstructive surgery was needed. Kees elected to go to the Steadman Clinic in Colorado due to their outstanding reputation and results. After a successful rehabilitation Kees was able to return to full participation in his career. But he had a new perspective.
“We are very fortunate to have parents who were able to help him out financially,” says Kees’ sister Julie Brenninkmeyer. “We have a letter he wrote to my dad about how thankful he was and how some of his friends on the same career path didn’t have the same opportunities if they became injured.”
After Kees passed, his family established an international foundation to assist people in the ski and mountaineering guiding industry with grants to help cover surgery and rehabilitation costs.
“I’ve known many international guides who have benefited from the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation,” says Laurie Block, a close friend of Kees and Claire. “As a physio and now a future ACMG ski guide, the value of this resource is difficult to convey. It has impacted people’s lives profoundly, mountain professionals from around the world have benefited from the foundation. It’s a true legacy to both Kees and Claire.”
Brett Carlson had the kind of laugh that could jumpstart a ’72 Cutlass and the kind of smooth fluid skiing that made everything look fun. In January of 2000 Brett, age 24, passed away while filming a road gap in Whistler. Reeling from the loss, his tribe banded together and began raising funds, with the idea of building an illegitimate hut “somewhere awesome.” Thankfully, Damian Cromwell and Joe Lammers opted to join forces with the Spearhead Huts Foundation in 2010 and as the fundraising and lobbying progressed, a unique idea began to form—The Brett Carlson Lounge. A warm and happy gathering place to match the spirit of a skier taken far too soon. Situated on the south end of the Kees and Claire Hut, Brett’s lounge will feature stunning views of Fissile, a mountain he skied a number of times and a pair of his skis—one that was mounted just metres away in the old Himmelsbach Hut since Brett passed, and its mate—a custom-made Brett Carlson shot-ski. Giv’r.
The Spearhead Huts will also celebrate the spirit of Eduardo Campos, a Chilean-born Vancouver adventurer who considered the Spearhead traverse one of the greatest adventures of his life. And Barbara McGeough, a passionate adventurer who passed away in 2016. Barbara’s family is raising money to furnish the Kees and Claire Hut with all the fittings of a kitchen Barbara would be proud of. So put your boil-a-bag meals back on the shelf and bring some real ingredients, Barbara’s kitchen is waiting.