The Herculean Task of Building a Backcountry Ski Lodge

Feb 24


Lockie Brown

Lockie Brown

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Constructing a backcountry ski lodge is a formidable challenge, especially when the project's location is a remote mountainous area. Imagine erecting a 9200 square foot structure at an elevation of 5250 feet in the Canadian Rockies, far from the nearest paved road. This daunting task was undertaken by the owners of Chatter Creek Mountain Lodges, who transformed a plot of land and a pile of logs into a fully operational lodge in just six months—a feat that might take a typical homeowner over three months to complete a simple bathroom renovation.

The Race Against Time and Nature

In July 2002,The Herculean Task of Building a Backcountry Ski Lodge Articles the owners of Chatter Creek Mountain Lodges stood before a cleared plot of land, ready to begin their ambitious project. They had a collection of nearly 300 green spruce logs, a hundred of which were peeled by hand. By December of the same year, they were welcoming guests to the newly completed Vertebrae Lodge, a testament to their determination and hard work.

Chatter Creek, located near Golden, British Columbia, is renowned for its full-service backcountry skiing experiences. It caters to intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders, offering guided tours across a 130 square kilometer area. The lodge provides access to high glaciers, alpine bowls, and gladed tree runs, all accessible via comfortable heated snowcats.

From Humble Beginnings to Luxurious Accommodations

Before the construction of Vertebrae Lodge, Chatter Creek hosted guests in the more modest Spruce Lodge, which offered dormitory-style accommodations and outdoor plumbing. The new lodge, named after a nearby ridge, marked a significant upgrade. It features:

  • 12 bedrooms with private bathrooms
  • Well-furnished sitting areas
  • A large dining hall with a vaulted ceiling
  • A commercial kitchen
  • A drying room for gear
  • A massage room
  • A games room with a pool table
  • A well-stocked bar
  • An outdoor hot tub with bar service

Overcoming the Odds

The construction site presented numerous challenges. The only readily available building material was the green spruce from the surrounding forest. There was no access to sand, gravel, cement, or a local lumberyard. The nearest town, Golden, was 120 km away, and the nearest paved road was 90 km distant at Donald. Access involved a combination of logging roads and a rough, boggy summer road.

The owners, all former loggers, were undeterred. They had previously built Spruce Lodge using a small Alaska-style sawmill and were ready to tackle a much larger project. The new lodge required round logs for the walls, with longer and higher walls than Spruce Lodge, and a significantly larger roof.

The Construction Process

The construction process was a marvel of planning and resourcefulness. The owners selectively logged trees in early spring, using snowcats to transport them to the site. Friends helped hand-peel logs, which would form the major walls, while the remaining logs were milled for beams, dimensional lumber, and the roof structure.

Key equipment included a new computer-controlled Wood-Mizer sawmill and a used 20-ton ex-army mobile crane. Transporting this equipment to the site was a challenge in itself, requiring three days to cover just 14 km due to the muddy conditions.

The construction crew consisted of the four owners, their partners, and friends from Golden. They worked tirelessly, milling lumber and constructing the lodge with remarkable skill and efficiency.

A Race Against the Weather

As summer progressed, the race was on to complete the roof before the first snowfall. Despite their efforts, nature won, and snow arrived just days before the roof was finished. The crew then had to clear snow and ice to continue working.

By late September, the roof was completed, and the focus shifted to finishing the interior. This included plumbing 14 bathrooms, installing electrical systems, and ensuring the septic system met environmental codes. The crew had to manage all these tasks before the first guests arrived in December.

Innovative Heating Solutions

The lodge's heating system is a testament to the innovative spirit of the project. A European-style hahsa, an external wood-burning furnace, heats the building via a 200-foot underground glycol loop. This system provides hot water and convection heating, maintaining an even temperature throughout the lodge.

The Final Push

The finishing phase required transporting large quantities of materials from Golden, with many trips to Calgary for special items. Dale, one of the owners, made nearly 30 trips, delivering materials using a four-wheel-drive farm tractor and a highway trailer.

A Monument to Perseverance

On December 27, 2002, Vertebrae Lodge opened its doors to guests. The lodge stands as a monument to the hard work and perseverance of the Chatter Creek team. It represents not only a construction achievement but also the successful operation of tired equipment under challenging conditions.

The story of Vertebrae Lodge's construction is detailed in a photo journal on the Mountain Lodge Construction blog, showcasing the incredible journey from a pile of logs to a luxurious ski lodge.

The construction of Vertebrae Lodge is a story that few know in detail, but it exemplifies the extraordinary feats that can be accomplished with determination, skill, and a willingness to face seemingly insurmountable challenges head-on.