New hut on Snowbird Glacier has view

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010

ANCHORAGE - It's free - but it ain't easy.

Some 4,820 feet above sea level, on the northern edge of Snowbird Glacier, sits the new Snowbird Hut, acquired by the Alaska Section of the American Alpine Club in 2005 and rebuilt over the last two years.

"It'll be the best hut in Alaska," proclaimed backcountry guide Joe Stock of Anchorage. "There are nice thick walls full of insulation. It's perched up on a ridge where the view is incredible."

Want to spend a night?

Just show up; it's free. Admission is the sweat equity of the roughly four-hour hike.

"Back there," said Cindi Squire of the American Alpine Club, "you can't see people. It's an accomplishment to get there, and it's such a cool location that just begs to be explored."

Adds fellow club member Cory Hinds:

"It's just far enough out there, you don't get the beer-drinking weekend crowd."

While the hut's metal roof and sides won't be completed until next summer, the hut -- which comfortably sleeps six and can squeeze in twice that many -- is open now.

The view includes the glacier and a prominent nunatak.

Accessible from Archangel Valley in Hatcher Pass, the hut is a year-round destination for backcountry skiers, climbers, and hikers.

Why go?

• Exceptional backcountry, telemark and alpine skiing.

• As part of the classic Alaska hut-to-hut trek called the Bomber Traverse, which includes the Mint and Bomber huts.

• Rock climbing on nearby Higher Spire and Lower Spire.

• Multi-pitch rock routes on granite up the Because It's There Wall and the Independence Buttress.

"It's one of those places you'd like to go out there and live," said Squire, who's acquired the title of Hut Mistress from the club for her summer-long work on the hut. "It just keeps getting nicer and nicer."

Five years ago, the Alaska Section of the American Alpine Club bought the 30-year-old hut.

Long a haven for hikers, climbers and backcountry skiers in an area renown for unpredictable weather, one side of the original structure was collapsing from heavy snowfall.

"The deck is unfinished and rickety," noted the club's website, "and the entire structure shifts and groans when the occupants walk about inside."

Granite boulders weigh down the nine gabions measuring 1 cubic yard apiece that serve as the foundation for the vertical supports.

"Each one of those is 3,700 pounds," Squire said. "All we did for three days during the last work party was chuck rocks in wire mesh boxes."

All together, the gabions hold a dump truck full of material weighing more than 16 tons. Last Frontier Air Ventures in Sutton helicoptered building materials to the site.

"I've been in on every work party," Squire said. "It's amazing what we've got done in the first four or five months.

Avid hiker Michael Thompson, 58, of Rim Architects of Anchorage volunteered his time designing the new structure.

"The existing hut was a prefab unit that ... didn't make the greatest efficiency of the use of space," he said.

"We were able to incorporate views all the way around the panorama of the new site as well as looking up the glacier. The site is beautiful; it's Alaskana at its best."

In addition to the finishing work next summer, $14,000 of the $40,000 budget remains to be raised. Wednesday's fund-raiser at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, an 8 p.m. showing of "Beauty and the Beast" featuring bouldering stars Angie Payne and Jason Kehl, will help.

A nicer hut could make the trip even more appealing.

"You're looking out on this fantastic glacier right below you," Hinds said. "And the new hut has even got a better view."

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