Proposed Pattison Hut
Proposed Pattison Hut

Many have expressed their opinions about the Spearhead Huts as well as the land use management of Garibaldi Park. Most of the concerns are about the continued heli-skiing in the park as well as the refusal to allow mountain biking in the park.

Here are some of opinions and concerns written in the Pique Newspaper and Squamish Chief:

John Baldwin
John Baldwin

Acclaimed author, photographer and Coast Mountain explorer John Baldwin writes " The development of a hut system in the Spearhead area will elevate this area to a world-class backcountry ski destination comparable to the internationally renowned Wapta Traverse in the Canadian Rockies or the famous Haute Route in Europe. Backcountry skiers will come from all around the world to experience the unique natural setting and beauty that this area offers. Heli-skiing in the Spearhead area will have a very significant negative effect on the quality of experience that these visitors will have. No other world-class backcountry ski destination overlaps with heli-ski tenure."

Bruce Kay
Bruce Kay

Accomplished local alpinist Bruce Kay writes "[...] ski tourers have actually lost available terrain over the last few years. The proliferation of sledding has effectively negated the ski touring experience everywhere except Garibaldi Park or the Duffey Lake area and only a very small proportion of Garibaldi Park is accessible without a multi-day expedition. I certainly don’t begrudge the sledders their needs, but the land should be shared or proportioned in an equitable manner, and the Spearhead Range represents a relatively unique opportunity for accessible ski touring unaffected by the noise and effect of mechanized mobs."

Whistler Heli
Whistler Heli

Whistler Heli-skiing Guide Mike Sadan writes " Whistler Heli-Skiing is proud of its track record over those decades in the Spearhead Range in what can be a complicated, yet highly rewarding environment. We've limited direct conflicts to a bare minimum; have assisted search and rescue on numerous occasions including flying out more people than we've flown in with; and been good citizens and stewards of the park. When we pull up our landing stakes after the season, we leave the park looking like it did 10,000 years ago."

Macbeth Hut
Macbeth Hut

Wether or not to have the huts built is a less complicated debate. The vast majority, including myself, support it. There are many reasons people don't want the proposal to go forward and I'll spend a minute going over those concerns.

a) The huts will turn make the traverse feel less wild and pristine.

- The Spearhead traverse is far from being wild. At it's furthest point from Whistler it is a mere 15km away. On a clear night you can see lights in the Village and on either Whistler or Blackcomb Mountain. On top of that with lift access, the concept that the traverse is still wild is an illusion. The area however is pristine and the huts are there to help manage waste and continue to keep the area pristine.

b) The huts will encourage more traffic and thus more waste will end up in the range.

- With the rapid rise in popularity, ski touring in the range will bring more and more waste no matter what. It's true that the huts will encourage more visitors but this shouldn't be a drawback. This brings an influx in Whistler tourism as well as exposing more people to the beauties of the area. As it is there is no way to deal with human waste on the traverse and if everyone packed out everything (including their human waste) there would be no problem. That's not the case. There needs to be a waste management system.

c) The huts will encourage the wrong crowd and induce a false sense of safety.

- This is a legitimate concern. The area in bad weather is extremely challenging and the huts may provide a false sense of security. The best way to deal with this is education. What the wrong crowd is exactly is unclear to me but if the "wrong crowd" does show up it's the ski touring community's job to educate these people. Whistler Blackcomb ski lifts already allow inexperienced and unequipped skiers and boarders to access backcountry terrain they shouldn't be touching. It's the communities job to educate these people of the dangers and on how to respect the facilities.

d) The huts will be filled with guided parties and priced too high for the average local ski tourer.

- In the plan, the usage price has been discussed and "[...] will be accessible to the public at an affordable cost." Guided parties should make an effort to avoid high usage days like weekends and long weekend. Guiding however is an industry and the huts provide income to the industry. This shouldn't be a negative aspect to the addition of the huts.

e) Other huts in Garibaldi Park should be renovated, rebuilt or maintained before building new huts.

- It's true that there are many things in Garibaldi Park which need funding. Trail maintenance, hut maintenance, etc. is a constant concern. That is the responsibility of BC Provincial Parks, the local community and local outdoor clubs. BC Parks are underfunded and unfortunately do not have the funding to maintain trails and facilities in Garibaldi Park. In the mean time many volunteers put effort into the maintenance of trails and huts in Garibaldi Park. The VOC, BCMC and ACC are all active in the maintenance of the park and it's facilities through volunteer efforts. Funding towards the Spearhead Hut is mainly coming from the local community, clubs and very little is coming from BC Parks.

Some of the amazing terrain on the traverse. Photo John Baldwin
Some of the amazing terrain on the traverse. Photo John Baldwin

Some of the benefits to the huts include:

1) Spreading out crowds throughout the year. With the huts in place, more people will be skiing the area and completing the traverse throughout the winter, reducing the numbers in the spring.

2) The huts will promote the Coast Mountains internationally.

3) The huts will provide an increased range to ski touring parties in some of the deeper areas of the Spearhead Range as well as the borders of the McBride Range.

4) The huts will add a large margin of safety to the many ski tourers in the area doing day trips.

5) The Russet Lake/Himmelsbach Hut will be demolished and rebuilt. This is much needed.

6) The huts will promote summer mountaineering and glacier travel in the area with the proposed establishment of trails.

Some of the amazing terrain on the traverse. Photo Whistler Guides
Some of the amazing terrain on the traverse. Photo Whistler Guides

Some things I'd like to see as far as how the huts operate:

1) No reservations.

-I'd like to see huts that are designed to accommodate many on a first come first serve basis. I'm worried that the huts will be pre-booked for every weekend all winter if reservations are allowed. The lack of reservations will mean that if you plan on staying at the hut during a busy time, bring a tent or expect it to be tight. With no reservations the huts won't be exclusive to those who plan a mere week ahead.

2) Un-catered and minimalist.

-Bring your own food, stove, fuel, thermarest and sleeping bag. All those items are important for safety if for some reason you get lost and can't make it to the hut. One can replace a hut with a snow-shelter in an emergency but without your own thermarest, sleeping bag and stove, you will be waterless and freeze. The huts should offer a warm sanctuary but leave the hotel style huts in europe.

3) Caretaker/Park Ranger.

-Someone should be bouncing from hut to hut assuring that they are used respectfully. The presence of a ranger also increases the safety margin and helps in the maintenance of the huts. This person should be paid by BC Parks and not the ACC to keep the cost of the huts at a minimal.

Some of the amazing terrain on the traverse. Photo Micheal G. Halle
Some of the amazing terrain on the traverse. Photo Micheal G. Halle

So what about land use within the park and the decision to not allow mountain biking but allow Whistler Heli-skiing to continue?

Mountain Biking

-I'm not much of a mountain biker although I wish I were. However, I do agree with BC Parks' choice. It's understandable that mountain bikers in Whistler want easy access to alpine mountain biking via the Singing Pass trail and lifts to connect with the Cheakamus  Trails. The reason I agree with BC Parks' choice is to allow for some terrain to be left to hikers in the summer. We should be able compromise because sometimes it's not always possible to share everything. Mountain biking has gotten big and there is a vast wealth of trails both downhill and cross country in the Sea to Sky corridor. I believe that the musical bumps should be left to hikers who want a slower pace to enjoy the vistas, flaura and fauna. There aren't many places which offer such ease of access to the alpine. If mountain bikers want alpine trails there are plenty in the Chilcotins, the Tenquille area, Blowdown Pass, areas on the Hurley and Red Heather. Although the access to these are not as convenient as lift accessed trails, mountain bikers can still enjoy easily accessed long forested trails which see very little foot traffic.

Alpine downhill track on Whistler Mountain. Photo Sterling Lorence
Alpine downhill track on Whistler Mountain. Photo Sterling Lorence

Heli-Skiing

- The argument for heli-skiing is that it adds a margin of safety, that the partnership is old and that the Spearhead is some of the most valuable terrain the operation holds due to it's proximity to the heli-pad. Whistler heli-skiing also claims that it respects ski tourers and avoids them.

I am against heli-skiing in the Spearhead but I approve of it in other areas of Garibaldi Park. As others have mentioned the operation has a massive tenure and they broach upon one of the few easily accessible areas that ski tourers have. The argument that the operation adds a margin of safety by being present in the Spearhead is not a a valid enough one. A helicopter has massive range and incredible speed. In the event of a needed heli rescue, they don't need to be flying in the Spearhead Range to offer a quick rescue. Although the partnership is decades old, the world is a changing place and Whistler Heli-skiing needs to evolve as the number of sledders and ski tourers increases. I think that Whistler Heli-skiing should not be excluded from all areas in Garibaldi Park. Much of it is barely visited and heli-skiing is an industry which boosts the economy. By excluding it from all of Garibaldi Park you risk hurting the operation. That said, excluding them solely from the Spearhead will not hurt the operation.

Although I don't deny that Whistler heli-skiing guides aim to avoid those ski touring, I will say that I've watched them ski areas in the distance which I was planning on going the next day. They avoided all people but it does damage a ski tourers experience to have them around.

I understand that the terrain is valuable. It's close to the heli pad which makes it cheaper to fly there while giving guests large vertical, increasing profit.  It also makes it easier to return home incase of bad weather. It shouldn't be about money. There are plenty of other close areas and if the profit margin decreases a little, that still won't damage the operation. Being situated in the Coast Mountains, local heli-skiing operations have to cope with lots of bad weather. That's the compromise you get for vast glaciers, large alpine bowls and faces, and abundant snowfall. There are many areas where Whistler Heli-skiing can fly which is near it's heli pad and is not in the Spearhead.

Overall, I agree with John Baldwin, Bruce Kay and the 68% who say that heli-skiing should not continue in the Spearhead Range. As an aspirant ski guide, I hope this won't hurt my chances of one day working for Whistler Heli-Skiing but I stand by my opinion.

Whistler Heli-skiing Photo
Whistler Heli-skiing Photo

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