Tag: UBC Varsity Outdoor Club

Over the Top: The Story of the First Spearhead Traverse, Part Two:Over the Top: The Story of the First Spearhead Traverse, Part Two:


The Spearhead traverse, a popular ski-touring route, was first undertaken by four members of the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club, Alistair MacDonald, Karl Ricker, Bert Port and Chris Gardner, in 1964. The four were approaching the head of the Spearhead Range by the fifth morning, breezing across both the Ripsaw and Naden Glaciers and arriving at Couloir Ridge where their easy progress was halted by difficult terrain. At this point, the group had reached Mt. Macbeth and Naden Pass, considered to be the limit between the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons Ranges. Falling back to their original position, the party utilized their crampons to descend onto Iago Glacier and get around the head of the valley.

A panorama taken at the groups’ camp on “platform” glacier from the Varsity Outdoor Club Journal. Karl Ricker Collection

Despite their extensive preparations, the group’s map of the region from 1928 falsely rendered the south side of Mt. Iago as too steep to traverse up, when in reality the slope had not only one, but two, skiable slopes. This cartography error led the party astray and forced them around the Mt. Diavolo icefall, before ascending and setting up camp on the newly christened “detour ridge.” In retrospect, the group proposed that for future expeditions, a couple of days could be shaved off by following a different route along Nanden and Macbeth Glaciers.  

The next day, the group descended onto Diavolo Glacier, before proceeding to the col between Mt Benvolio and Mt Fitzsimmons and adopting their strategy of splitting the party to bag both peaks before reconvening at the top of Fitzsimmons Glacier. From there a slow ascent up the slopes of Mt. Overlord and onto Overlord Glacier ended with the group settling down at Panorama Camp.

Due to heavy clouds, the group set off at noon the next day, splitting up for the third time and bagging both Whirlwind and Fissile Peaks before meeting up again at the col. The weather began to worsen and the party quickly skied down to Russet Lake. In later years, the BCMC would build one of the first gothic arch huts in the region, the Himmelsbach Hut, which was completed near the shores of Russet Lake in 1968 and was just recently relocated and replaced by the Kees and Claire Memorial Hut in 2019. At this point, the group had gotten below the clouds, allowing them to continue beyond the Singing Pass onto the flanks of Mt. Whistler.

Despite being so close to their goal, the weather conditions worsened and halted any progress for a day and a half. The party finally managed to set off at noon the next day, making their way up onto Whistler Mountain and bagging the peak, before hastily skiing down in heavy snow in order to barely catch the train departing Rainbow Station to Squamish. The first Spearhead Traverse expedition was able to complete the trek in nine days, and concluded that the route would serve future backcountry skiing well from years to come. The Spearhead has remained a popular route, and can now be routinely completed in a day, with most parties opting to complete the route between two to three days. In 2013, speedsters Erick Carter and Nick Elson completed the traverse in a blistering three hours and ten minutes.

The Rise and Fall of the Varsity Outdoor Club’s Whistler Cabin.The Rise and Fall of the Varsity Outdoor Club’s Whistler Cabin.

The Whistler Club Cabin nearing completion, Karl Ricker Collection.

Established in 1917, the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) set about climbing, hiking and skiing the many mountain ranges surrounding Vancouver. It was only a matter of time before the VOC’s quest for adventure led them onto the slopes of Whistler and the surrounding region. 

Prior to the proposal of a new cabin near Whistler, VOC members were already traveling to the Whistler region. During the mid-1950’s the VOC’s infamous “long-hike” , a mandatory trek that initiated new members into the club’s ranks, began to be held in the Garibaldi region. Garibaldi Provincial Park was also becoming increasingly popular among VOC members, for its (then) remote location. In 1964 the first successful recorded ascent of the Spearhead Traverse was completed by VOC members. Also in that year the VOC declared their intention to build the new club cabin only a short distance away from Whistler Mountain. The new location promised to compensate for the inadequacies of the VOC’s Mt Seymor cabin, namely, overcrowding and minimal ski development. Additionally, club members would often return to Vancouver after a day of skiing at Mt Seymor rather than use the cabin overnight, which the VOC executives cited as diminishing club spirit. Cabin construction began in 1964 and was completed by Christmas 1965; for a detailed account of the building process, see previous Whistorical articles “Constructing a Cabin” and “Origins – UBC VOC Lodge.” 

Unfortunately the Whistler cabin developed similar problems that had plagued the older Seymor cabin. Rapid commercial development of Whistler in the early 1970s alienated many members of the VOC, who felt that the location now ran contrary to the club’s ethos. The cabin, rather than being a focal point for VOC outings, was now divisive as the club’s more hardcore members and those who weren’t interested in downhill skiing saw little reason to utilize the facility. With club spirit divided and maintenance costs rising, something had to be done. 

In 1974, an early solution was found. The UBC Ski Club was formed from VOC members. The VOC’s executive team hoped to transfer the management costs of the cabin to the newly founded Ski Club, avoiding further financial hardship for the VOC  and maintaining club unity. By 1975, the Ski Club offered to purchase the cabin, a proposition viewed favourably by both clubs. This is when UBC’s student government, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), stepped in to block the sale, claiming legal ownership of the cabin. The AMS was also unwilling to facilitate the arrangement between the Ski Club and the VOC. Another agreement was drawn up, only to be shot down by the AMS, on the grounds that it was too favourable for the VOC.

The growing animosity between the VOC and the AMS culminated in spring 1975. A final desperate arrangement, proposed by the VOC and Ski Club was promptly turned down by the AMS, who restated their claims of ownership to the cabin  and that any sale would happen on their  terms. In 1977, a legal battle ensued and the VOC took the AMS to student court. The court ruled that despite legal ownership, the AMS still had to compensate the VOC for the material and labor cost of the cabin, totalling $30,000. The AMS refused to pay, stating that the student court had exceeded its jurisdiction; the VOC responded in 1979 by threatening the AMS with legal action at the provincial level. Only then did the AMS agree to out-of-court negotiations and paid out the $30,000.

Despite a legal victory, the VOC lost its taste for club cabins and the Whistler Cabin was the last of its kind. With their hard-earned assets, the VOC instead invested in three new mountaineering huts. The Whistler Cabin remained with the AMS until 2014, when the AMS sold the cabin. The Cabin now serves as the Whistler Lodge Hostel.

The Early Days of CreeksideThe Early Days of Creekside


The community of Alta Lake, which attracted visitors and families with cabins in the summer for hiking, hunting and fishing along the lakefront, was forever changed in 1960.

That year, the Garibaldi Olympic Development Agency, led by Franz Wilhelmsen, chose the valley as the site to bring the 1968 Winter Olympics to Canada and British Columbia.  The failure of this first Olympic bid, while discouraging, did not dissuade the group from deciding to build a world-class ski resort.

A very optimistic sign at the base of Whistler Mountain. Photo: Whistler Mountain Collection

The Garibladi Lift Company installed the first gondola-accessed ski area in North America and opened the ski resort in January 1966.

With the ski resort in operation, the newly formed Chamber of Commerce operated as the local government overseeing the sporadic development surrounding the gondola base. The Garibaldi Lift Company did not have the financial resources to purchase the property around the gondola base allowing others to purchase the land.

With the lack of an official community plan or recognized local government, development went unchecked.  Ski cabins were scattered around the base along with a gas station/grocery store and a telephone exchange.  The Garibaldi Lift Company built an interdenominational skier’s chapel, complete with bells and a memorial stain glass window.

The Cheakamus Inn, the Highland Lodge, Rainbow Lodge and other Alta Lake lodges housed visitors in what had normally been the off-season for the Alta Lake community.  A large development was planned near the shores of Nita and Alpha Lakes.  The development would have included residential and commercial properties as well as more recreational areas such as a curling/skating rink, swimming pool and tennis courts.  A condominium development called Alpine Village sat above the gondola area on the slopes of Whistler Mountain.  The UBC Varsity Outdoor Club began constructing their new club cabin near the gondola base.

Alpine 68 newly constructed in 1968. Condos such as these sprung up around Creekside and Nordic.  Photo: Whistler Mountain Collection

The popularity of skiing also brought long waits to ride the gondola up to the mid-station.  The wait times would sometimes exceed three hours just to get on the gondola, prompting the Garibaldi Lift Company to offer free skiing to those willing to hike to the mid-station.

The parking lots at the base of the gondola were consistently full.  Highway 99 was finally blacktopped between Squamish and Whistler, but the drive was still full of hairpin turns and single lane bridges.  This didn’t stop skiers from driving up from the city.

A full (and colourful) parking lot in Creekside. Photo: Whistler Mountain Collection

The popularity of the ski resort also attracted another group of people to the valley: “hippies” and those involved in the counterculture movement.  Those unable to afford to purchase land or build their own ski cabin would squat on Crown land.

With the RMOW established on September 6, 1975 the chaotic nature of development in Whistler’s early years was over the focus on bringing about the well-planned Whistler Village began.

Building the Harrison HutBuilding the Harrison Hut


Today we’ll be continuing the story started a few weeks back on the gothic arch huts built by the UBC-VOC.  The tale began with the Brew Hut, built with the $30,000 the VOC got as compensation for the materials used to build the Whistler Club Cabin.  After using one of two pre-fabricated huts for the Brew Hut, the VOC decided to build its second pre-fabricated gothic arch hut north of Pemberton, near both Overseer Mountain and the Meager Creek Hot Springs.

The VOC had originally planned to construct the hut in early September but when September came they were still waiting on approval from the BC Provincial Government.  Conditional approval was granted in late September and the VOC constructed the hut over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1983.  During a work hike a couple of weeks prior VOC members had prepared the site for the build and poured the hut foundations.

The VOC building the Harrison Hut in October 1983. Photo: Jay Page; UBC-VOC Archives, October 1983.

The hut was named in honour of Julian Harrison, a former VOC President who had perished in a climbing accident in California earlier that year.  After construction was completed the Harrison Hut became a huge hit with VOC members.  It was a popular destination in both summer and winter due to its location at the north end of the Pemberton Icefield and, of course, its proximity to the hot springs at Meager Creek.

In August 2010 the estimated largest landslide in Canadian history, surpassing even the Hope Slide in 1965, pushed nearly 48,500,000 cubic meters of rocks and debris down Mount Meager.  The logging roads the VOC used to access the trail to the Harrison Hut were destroyed.

In 2011 VOC members Ben Singleton-Polster and Christian Veenstra began doing reconnaissance for the construction of a new trail on the geologically stable side of Meager Creek and the Lillooet River valley.  This new route to access the hut had two large boulders blocking trail access.  The smaller rock weighed approximately ten tons while the larger rock exceeded twenty tons.  Jeff Mottershead and other VOC members worked at removing the two large rocks in order to build the trail to the Harrison Hut.  For those interested, videos of the rock removal can be found on YouTube here.

The Harrison Hut in winter. Photo: Jay Page; UBC-VOC Archives.

Three years later, the VOC Harrison Hut trail opened in 2014.  Renovations to the hut were needed and these started the same year.  The VOC chose to wrap the entire hut with aluminum siding to protect the wood layer underneath from rot and alpine critters.  They also installed solar panels on the hut to use to light its interior.

This concludes our short series on the gothic arch huts of the UBC-VOC.  If you’d like to find out more about these and other iconic structures in the backcountry, the Whistler Museum will be releasing a virtual exhibit with the Virtual Museum of Canada in Winter 2018.  Keep an eye out for more details.