Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.
A backcountry hut in the mountains, wildflowers ready to bloom after the snow recedes, with no one else nearby, has always been the perfect escape for the most rugged of climbers and hikers.
But escape is a goal shared by an ever-increasing number of people chaffing at the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Now, the Alpine Club of Canada, with its network of 27 backcountry huts, is grappling with an existential dilemma: More people keen to experience the backcountry and its expansive beauty means a greater appreciation and understanding of some of Canada’s wildest places. But it has also meant an influx of newbies, some of whom are dangerously unprepared for the rigours of the backcountry.
Even before the pandemic, the Alpine Club was having to navigate this tension. For a long time, it had been next-to-impossible to book accommodations in one of the huts, such is their popularity. The pandemic has meant even more have wanted to come.
But pandemic health restrictions have required the Alpine Club to restrict bookings to those booking the entire hut. Before the pandemic, fees per person per night ranged between $30-$40. Now, an entire hut booking amounts to $600.
The pandemic has 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.
This weekend, Salmaan Farooqui gives readers a window into the Alpine Club’s enchanting, but rapidly changing domain.
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.”
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.
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.
Some people such as Charlie Cornish, a 24-year-old backcountry skier living on Vancouver Island, have been driven away from huts altogether because of how difficult it is to book. He uses his snowmobile and winter camps rather than deal with the frustration of trying to secure a hut booking.
But he agrees solving the issue isn’t simple: developing more huts and promoting more visitors could ruin what’s special about Canada’s seclusion.
“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.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.