In a comfortable, middle class existence, it’s easy to take shelter for granted. Never so in the mountains. The simplest of structures – four walls, a roof, some bunks and a wood stove – can assume the luxury of a five star hotel.
In material terms, the hut might barely be a notch above a decent alpine tent, but nonetheless, the backcountry hut insulates us physically and psychologically from wilderness living. It is a place where we commune with others in forced cohabitation; when else do we step confidently through a front door in climbing or ski boots, sweaty and uncouth, straight into a stranger’s kitchen or dinner party?
It’s late April in the northern Purcell Mountains. As we turn toward the toe of the Spillimacheen Glacier, the wrong kind of precipitation begins to fall – rain. Beneath this demoralizing drizzle, the snow under our skis becomes a gooey, base-grabbing slop. We follow a bumpy trail into the forest, a line of old ski tracks dissolving into a fading spring snow pack. The weather saps my stoke, and I simply want to dry out and kick back, barefoot in front of a woodstove with a hot drink.
McMurdo Cabin, an old shack, dates back to the early 1900s when miners worked a claim on a nearby steep mountainside. Bits and pieces of old rusty machinery lie entombed in snow; around the cleared setting a few crude roads and pits scar the landscape. When miners first built the hut, snow would have been the enemy. In the 1960s and 70s skiers discovered the cabin, ideally situated near the Spilly Glacier, with fantastic tree skiing and pillow drops on the valley sides. Hence the McMurdo was repurposed for recreation and today is run by the non-profit Columbia Valley Hut Society.
A pile of sawdust sits out front where someone bucked up firewood recently. Patches of dirt show through dirty compacted snow, signs of a fading ski season. A horseshoe hangs on a nail next to the door, an opening that appears to be designed for trolls. As sure as snow melts in spring, I will knock my noggin on the door frame header numerous times before we leave this place. Shouldering the reluctant door open, I duck my head and step into the rustic space, maybe 15 foot square at the most. It smells remotely musty; the scent of neglect. Daylight streams through dirty windows and seeps through cracks between logs where the chink has disappeared.
BC has a rich mountain hut tradition. Increasingly the commercial ones are adopting the amenities of civilized life we used to take to the mountain to escape, like wifi and electricity. The truly soulful shelters are the one born in the rogue tradition of building first and asking for forgiveness later, or like McMurdo, much older, more pioneer than palatial. Some huts you’ll find in guidebooks, others are like whispers in the wind, discovered only by chance meetings, knowing the right someone or simply sheer luck. I scan McMurdo, our home for the night. Bunks for five are arranged kitty corner on either side of a solid wooden table. The tabletop looks like something downloaded from the mind of cartoonist Richard Crumb, with initials scrawled into the wood and an artful dragon with a penis for a head. I peel off my boots and socks, pull up a chair with a cup of coffee, and flip through the guest log. Among the usual attempts at mountain inspired poetry are many testy references to a voracious pine marten that preys on the supplies of hut dwellers. Rain pounds the roof. The damp weather dampens our spirits, but I’m happy to be here. Always happy to be in huts, breaking bread with others around flickering candles and wooden tables polished by infinite elbows.
Keith’s Hut, tucked below Matier Glacier off the Duffey Lake road north of Whistler, operates on the old school first come-first served lottery. One snowy Remembrance Day weekend (true story), we arrived to find countless pairs of skis stuck in the snow like navigational wands. Inside, an army of Whisperlites roared and people unfurled sleeping pads, staking out vacant space wherever it could be found. Skiers continued arriving. Later, after the last of the boil-a-bag meals had been consumed, a symphony of rustling synthetics ensued as people crawled into sleeping bags. Someone farted. A few people laughed. Then of course, loud snoring. A battle of the bands between two lucky souls able to fall asleep anywhere and anytime. Not me. At 3:30 a.m. I got up to piss, tap dancing among mummified bodies, trying not to step on an arm or nose.
On a full moon trip one New Year’s, my friends and I friends returned to the warmth of a hut I’ll never name. Up the Yellowhead Highway somewhere. A family connection. Hero boot top powder at a place that’s been HQ for more than half a century of dirtbag backcountry skiing. With a celebratory Hogmanay whiskey in hand, I flipped through the guest log as I always do, and found my name scribbled along with my brother’s and his buddies’, in the same cabin 10 years before to the day.
In real estate, they say location is everything. Same goes for huts. McMurdo sits where the Purcells collide with the Selkirks, a waypoint and place to rejuvenate and recuperate on a grand traverse. I relinquish my front row seat by the pot belly and head for the door for fresh air. Thump. As predicted I whack my head on the too-short door frame.
Shelter – never take it for granted. A tent is nomadic, a snow cave melts, a lean-to collapses into the forest floor. The hut is imbued with history and sense of place. Stolid through the seasons and years. It holds the spirit of those who built it, and the mountain travelers who sought shelter from the storm and left their initials carved in the tabletop.