Fryatt Hut - the trials of winter hut maintenance
Editor's note: The Alpine Club of Canada maintains 26 backcountry huts - plus another 6 that are maintained by local sections - which range from family-friendly cabins set in alpine meadows to backcountry powder paradises and remote climbers’ refuges. ACC huts provide basic, rustic shelter for backcountry travellers, offering protection from the elements, and communal cooking and sleeping areas. All of this requires year-round maintenance to keep the wood stocked, the outhouse barrels fresh, and everything in between. Winter maintenance poses its own challenges, as described in the story below.
“There’s a little bit of black ice on the road,” said the park warden as we drove through the gate.
The Fryatt Hut near Jasper had run out of wood by early February this year so the decision was made to do a full backcountry hut service. We were on our way from Canmore to meet the helicopter — the one doing the heavy lifting — about 20 minutes south of Jasper, dragging two trailers full of wood, propane and jet fuel behind us.
A few kilometres down the road we understood what the park warden had meant: a transport trailer had jackknifed at a corner and was blocking the road; another car was stuck in a snow bank and a couple more had pulled over. We stopped, got out and quickly realized this wasn’t just ‘a little bit of black ice’. The entire road was covered in a smooth, clear sheet of ice.
Our hopes for a successful day were diminishing quickly. We decided to call off the helicopter and make a plan for another day. Several minutes later, the gravel truck drove by. The transport trailer was pulled off the road and traffic started to move.
“Call the bird back!” Bill says as we all get back in the vehicles. The pilot was halfway back to Golden when Alpine Helicopters got the call.
With renewed optimism, we continue down the road for several kilometres before stopping again at a gate just outside of the Athabasca Falls hostel. The gravel truck had only gone as far as that point and we couldn't continue on the black ice beyond.
With every setback, our optimism was fading due to the amount of flying that we knew would be necessary to complete our mission up at Fryatt and the dwindling number of daylight hours we had left to fly.
“Maybe we can change the heli-staging area to this parking lot?" someone suggested, at the spot where we were stopped. Maybe there was still a chance we wouldn't have to call the whole thing off.
Luckily, shortly after calling Jasper National Park for permission to switch the staging area location, we got news that the gravel truck was on its way back.
So we waited for another hour and then picked our way down the highway to our designated staging area and finally began to get to work!
Git 'er done
A full service for a hut like Fryatt generally includes:
- re-stocking firewood
- re-stocking propane
- emptying outhouse barrels
- emptying ash barrels
All of this is done with the use of a helicopter. Multiple sling-loads of firewood are flown in, full outhouse barrel and ash barrels are flown out, empty barrels are flown in, empty propane tanks are flown out and full tanks are flown in.
We had arrived at our original staging area about 2 hours behind schedule. Everyone quickly got to work getting the nets out of the helicopter and filling them with wood. After about 30 minutes of preparing loads, two staff and two volunteers jumped in to the helicopter while the remaining two staff prepared for their day at staging. The turn around time (time it takes the helicopter to go from staging to the hut and back to staging) was about 10-15 minutes depending on weight of the load, winds and visibility.
After arriving at the hut, everything went quite smooth. Net-loads of wood were flown in and either empty propane tanks or a full outhouse or ash barrels were flown out. During the quick turn-around times, we managed to stack the wood, fix a lantern in the hut, fix the sink, collect garbage, create a new winter grey water disposal and do some general cleaning and organizing of the hut.
After about four hours we had miraculously completed the whole job.
Turns out it takes a more than 'a little bit of black ice' to stop the ACC from keeping you fuelled and fresh in the backcountry.
Help support the ACC Facilities Fund
The ACC’s hut system is the largest in North America. Operating and maintaining this hut system is a large undertaking physically, logistically and financially. If you would like to make a donation to the ACC - and have your contribution directed towards these types of projects - please see the ACC Facilities Fund.