Tom Wolfe was 19 the first time he travelled to a backcountry hut. Sheltering in the bare-bones structure beside a remote glacier in Banff National Park was an experience that changed the course of his life.
It took around three hours of uphill skiing to reach the Bow Hut at an elevation of 2,350 metres, where up to 15 people could shelter without running water or electricity before heading deeper into the wilderness for skiing or mountaineering expeditions.
“It was kind of like a youth hostel in the clouds,” said Mr. Wolfe, who is now a mountain guide based in Canmore, Alta., three decades after the experience.
“For a couple days you’re in this temporary community, rubbing shoulders with people, preparing meals, hearing their stories … it gave me a glimpse of what was possible.”
The Alpine Club of Canada manages a well-known network of 27 backcountry huts across the country, including the Bow Hut where Mr. Wolfe stayed. Most of them are in Alberta and British Columbia.
These alpine shelters are generally unstaffed and rely on the occupants – usually in different groups – to work together and ensure that a fire is kept running, snow is melted into drinking water and shared spaces are kept clean. Even the outhouse waste barrels are changed by guests.
“You’re relying on other people for the basics of heat and water, but also you’re relying on people for a certain level of etiquette and decorum,” says Lawrence White, the executive director of the ACC, who has been with the organization for nearly two decades.
“The sense of community that it builds, in spending time with people whether they’re in your group or other groups, it just feels like a really human experience.”
But the culture of these huts and the people who frequent them has changed rapidly in the past decade, especially as social media make it easier for people to discover them on their own. What was once a shelter for hardened adventurers pushing their limits in the wilderness has become a destination on its own for hordes of newcomers to the outdoors.
While the ACC and members of the outdoor guiding community say it’s a good thing that more people are interacting with Canada’s outdoors, it comes with risks.
COVID-19 has pushed more people to interact with the outdoors for the first time. But the pandemic has also hit the ACC hard, and the organization is suffering financially after it had to cancel nearly 30,000 overnight stays through the course of 2020. The club, which is more than a century old, accessed endowment funds and had to implement an unpopular policy of not allowing cancellations or deferrals during the pandemic to avoid bankruptcy. Amid restrictions on social gatherings and with a policy of no refunds, bookings have plunged.
The mandate of the ACC has always been to promote safe alpine experiences, but that’s becoming difficult as outdoor organizations face pressure from both the pandemic and the rapid growth in newcomers. Teaching people how to safely travel in the mountains and co-exist with other users used to be an informal process, but that model can’t handle the pace of neophytes entering the space.
“In the past when you were ushered into the mountain environment, usually almost without exception it was through someone who was already part of the mountain community,” said Mr. Wolfe, saying people were able to learn just how dangerous the environments were and how to respect the shared spaces.
“Now that the middleman has been taken out, people have direct access to the mountains through reading up on it through social media or through mapping sites.”
It’s not entirely clear where the responsibility lies to ensure that people know how to protect the environments they travel in, while also keeping themselves out of danger. The ACC, after all, is only made up of 15 core staff in Canmore, and most of their cabins run at a loss to ensure that they remain affordable.
“It’s a classic paradox of loving something to death,” said Mr. White, who said the ACC has lately focused on engaging with newer users when they book and ensuring people know what they’re getting into.
“Often we take it for granted that everyone else in the outdoors knows what the etiquette is, but that’s not always the case, so we do ask that our older members and our custodians try and engage with the newbies a little bit more.”
The rapid growth has also created a frenzied rush to book limited available spaces. In recent years, booking a hut has been as difficult as landing sought-after concert tickets, with people booking up cabins the minute that they’re made available online. Other private hut organizations and backcountry lodges that allow advance bookings are sometimes booked until 2024.
During the pandemic, huts became further out of reach when the ACC required guests book the entire cabin to ensure that users were safe from COVID-19. It lowered the capacity of their hut network, and also meant that their usual fees of $30 to $40 a person for a night have increased to around $600 a night for entire huts.
Some people sucha s Charlie Cornish, a 24-year-old backcountry skier currently living on Vancouver Island, have been driven away from huts altogether because of how difficult it is to book.
“It’s pretty damn impossible,” he says.
These days, he opts to snowmobile into remote locations or winter camp rather than try to book a hut.
Solving the issue is not as simple as developing more shelters. There are differing opinions about whether more development would ruin what’s special about Canada’s secluded hut system.
“You can go on a hut trip in Europe and that’s a whole different experience where they have beer and a [worker] who lives there,” Mr. Cornish says.
“But to be in a small cabin with your friends, truly in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness and comfortable, that’s a really, really special experience to be able to have.”
In the meantime, long-time adventurers in the backcountry will have to learn how to adapt to spaces that used to be much less crowded. Some have taken to being more secretive about their favourite backcountry spots, while people such as Mr. Wolfe put a large emphasis on training programs such as avalanche safety courses.
“It’s tough suddenly realizing that we’re sharing it with a lot of other people. We’re used to just choosing our adventure, going there and having it all to ourselves,” Mr. Wolfe said.
“But my own take on it is there’s seven billion people on this world and there’s only one Rocky Mountains; why am I entitled to have it all to myself?”
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