The BC resort is famous for its big freeride lines and copious powder, but there is another side to Whistler, says Ryan Crisp
The climb. The incessant, monotonous, one stinking foot after the other, seemingly endless climb. Will it ever bloody end?
The conjuring of shy energy resources, before we stepped up onto the ridge, a monstrous vista of mountains beyond mountains opened to us, our target now in view: the Kees and Claire Hut.
A sight for weary minds and aching bones. We had made it.
Lugging in heavy gear, it’s a four-hour-plus push from early lifts, but the access is incredible. With a lesser load, reaching the hut would be a breezy few hours’ jaunt. Direct from village to Whistler Peak, ski around to Symphony, skins on for the Musical Bumps, then up Flute, leaving resort boundary down Oboe, before the final schlepp up Cowboy Ridge.
We cooed over distant trail lights from busy piste-bashers, gawped in awe at Whistler’s spectacular backyard, the sprawling Spearhead and Fitzsimmons Range, distant glaciers and mighty peaks of the Garibaldi National Park. It was then I was sure: ‘the climb’ was worth every fighting step.
Earlier in the day I had been less certain. I had cursed not the journey, but the farcical weight upon shoulders. Sleeping bag. Sleeping mat. Meals for three days. Snacks. All stuffed in among the usual safety kit and ski gear clobber. Oh… and camera gear.
What I wrestled with throughout the slog was the eternal question: did I really need the beer? The answers is: yes. Yes, I did! Upon arrival at the hut, we had time and replenished vigour for an evening tour – a short scoot up Russet Ridge to a nice vantage point. There we witnessed one of the finest sunsets of our lives, accompanied by one can each of Whistler Brewery’s Bear Paw Honey. Divine. The six-pack haul was worth every muttered obscenity.
The mountains, the tiredness, the spectacle, now the beer… this was giddy magic of a different realm. One I had often studied from afar with notions of ‘one day’. Myself and a good pal – local ski instructor Chris Momy – were finally embarking on our Covid-cancelled pilgrimage to the relatively new Kees and Claire Hut, located on a ridgeline in the Fitzsimmons Range, above Russet Lake, at the foot of giants like Fissile, Whirlwind and Overlord.
Unfortunately, the snow Gods had conspired against us on this occasion. No new snow in aeons. Things were going to be icy and spicy! But sipping my honey lager in front of such natural wizardry, I couldn’t care less. Sometimes simply being in the mountains is all you need.
Hut of dreams
The Kees and Claire Hut eventually opened in September 2019 after vigorous efforts from the local community and ongoing crowdfunding. Operated by the Spearhead Huts Society, a non-profit charity, the hut is the first of three to be established along Whistler’s legendary Spearhead Traverse, a classic 20-25 mile ski route that follows glaciated terrain in a horseshoe traverse high in the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons Ranges and usually takes three to four days to complete. Many consider the traverse a North American version of Europe’s famous Haute Route. Without huts in place, most people camp or build snow caves along the way. The society now has funding in place for the second of the three huts, which will be located at Mt. Macbeth, and they hope to start construction next summer.
To call Kees and Claire simply a ‘hut’ feels a little harsh. This is not some wooden shack we’re talking about here. Not like the Himmelsbach Hut that stands at the base of Russet Lake (now a toilet). No, K&C is a two-storey, 2,500 square-foot delight. Accommodating 38 guests, it hits the sweet spot between Alpine shelter and lavish Euro hut. A long deck down one side, waist-to-ceiling windows on the other, you’re never short of spectacle.
After freeing ourselves of ski clobber in the entrance-come-mud room and depositing stinky gear into shared kit room and bunks below deck, we stretched our legs on the main floor, finding a large dining area and extensive modern kitchen. There’s a chill-out zone in front of a roaring fire, games, books, even USB charging stations. Heck, it would be a sweet spot to hunker down and weather a storm.
It’s one hell of an impressive ‘hut’, powered by 380 propane tanks that are flown in and out by helicopter, and a communal effort to boil snow for clean water. A stretch of solar panels are in the pipeline, albeit another expensive addition, one for which the Spearhead Huts Society are currently seeking donations.
Chris and I had decided to treat ourselves that first night. Not only had we lugged in beer and a Disaronno-primed hip flask, but we also had a filet steak each. Many of our hut fellows were in awe of our ingenuity as they gnawed into freeze-dried sachets of ‘food’. “Impressive. You don’t see many steaks out here. You guys are my heroes”, said the hut warden.
Following clean-up, the remainder of the evening is for pouring over maps. We were hoping to summit and ski the mighty line staring right at us, currently biting into the starry sky as we eyed her up from dining table vantage point: Whirlwind Peak. Many will bag this line directly from the hut – the 2,427m peak a short 45-60 minute push up challenging terrain – but we were hoping to tie it into a full day’s exploration. Riding the Whirlwind down to Russet Lake will reward your efforts with approximately 600m of interesting descent.
Prior to the trip, we had a fancy for Fissile, the most iconic of peaks here, but like all good backcountry teams, we were prepared to say ‘next time’ if conditions dictated. One of the most important attributes on any backcountry trump card is the ability to be adaptable. Being overly target focused is never a good thing. Whether it’s avalanche concern or access, if snow is ever the question, then appropriate terrain is always the answer.
So, a general tour of the area was on the cards, hopefully building toward a Whirlwind summit. In our particular case, the biggest concern was how compacted and icy both the climb and face would be, so we planned for a little later than we’d typically target, allowing the sun to soften some of the commitment.
I used to be someone who wished the up swiftly over. I was all about the down. But something had changed in me a couple of seasons back. I found myself enjoying the up. Sure, there are still moments of struggle where that extra gym session back in the autumn reminds me it may have been better idea than the pub replacement service. There are still moments I will the hill to shrink, but like all aspects of skiing: miles under your skis – the more you add, the easier it all seems.
As I stood atop Whirlwind, shot of celebratory Disaronno down the hatch, I knew that conditions aside, this would be not only a highlight of my season, but of my ski life. We could see all the way to Mt. Baker in Washington State, it was so clear. Beyond stunning and a real sense of achievement.
The descent, on the other hand… well, let’s say that we didn’t so much swish-swish down the huge face, but crunch-crunch in fully committed turns that you could probably hear back in resort. Old soleil had green lit our run, we could find reasonable purchase, but it sure was firm underfoot. We both agreed that we felt like guests on our very own episode of Cody Townsend’s Fifty Project. Jubilant, we skied softer turns right onto frozen Russet Lake, 600km below, before timing our climb back to the hut perfectly, familiar views welcoming our valiant return with a sunset that – against all odds – made the previous night’s look dull as dishwater.
That second night, our final one, a group also in high spirits, royally exceeded our steak efforts of the previous. Tales of our culinary prowess were soon vanquished as a local chef and his friends cooked up a staggering five-course meal, with a main of ahi tuna steak after charcuterie starter. They even flambéed creme brûlée, for crying out loud. Flabbergasted.
We joked. We admired. We celebrated. The sense of community contagious, as salt of the earth ski bums shared hits and misses with rugged mountain guides and excited clients, as a pro skier and his entourage dined with instructors, and a family of hut custodians shared amazing anecdotes from a life touring.
With Whirlwind in the bag, we were buzzing, but beer-less. One of the young ski bums took pity on our plight, setting us up a couple of Fireballs. “If I’ve Fireball, we’ve all Fireball…”
And jokes aside, this sense of community is what it’s all about. In fact, it’s what eventually got the hut project off the ground. This, I feel, embodies an aspect of skiing that Cornelius ‘Kees’ Brenninkmeyer and Claire Dixon would no doubt be proud of.
Kees (pronounced ‘case’) and Claire found one another in the mountains. Their blossoming love interwoven with their passion. Both dedicated ski mountaineers, in 2007 the pair – aged just 25 and 27 – tragically lost their lives during an epic traverse to be hut custodians at the Wapta Icefields, when one evening their snowcave refuge between huts, collapsed. The hut was founded in their memory.
Their legacy is more than a bed for the evening or shelter from the storm. It is more than a stellar launchpad to a lifetime of epic backcountry adventure. It is more than the sum of its many impressive nuts, bolts, and propane tanks. It is a place for the children of winter to collect and connect, to inspire, to share wisdom, to regale one another around the fireplace; it is a calm away from chaos, a tonic for the intrepid adventurer.
Bang for your buck
Before heading home, there was time to enjoy a morning of further exploration. We had spotted an area known as Adit Lakes on our approach. Only a short tour north of the hut and Russet Ridge, this area promised amazing skiing with long lines for 20-minute hike returns. Super bang for your buck!
How delighted we were when we found soft untouched snow. So good, we pushed the boat out and skied a few creamy laps before accepting the inevitable – time to head home. We’d ski the face of Cowboy down to our notorious exit: Singing Pass.
What a trip. I can’t recommend the experience enough and know that it will become a regular spot for Chris and I. We learned much of ourselves, of the area, but not least of which, the adventure had me thinking back to my earlier conundrum of whether I truly needed the beer. Indeed, it brought to mind an old philosophy joke, the punchline never more apt:
No matter how full your life is… there’s always room for beer!
One-night stay at the Kees and Claire Hut costs $50pp + tax (£41). For more information visit Spearheads Hut project: spearheadhuts.org. You can access Whistler Blackcomb backcountry on a one-day backcountry pass from $45 + tax (£37). whistlerblackcomb.com
Behind the skier
Ryan Crisp skis with many bows to his beanie. Photographer, qualified instructor, he also organises his own ski adventures and can occasionally be found repping for the Ski Club of Great Britain, chiefly in Whistler Blackcomb. Away from the hills, Ryan is an aspiring screenwriter, currently with two features to his name (one of which, of course, is a bloody ski horror!). You can find him at his website.