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Mission Impossible - Construction of a Backcountry Ski Lodge

 by: Lachlan Brown

How can a 9200sq.ft. ski lodge be built in just six months when it took over three months to finish your downstairs bathroom? Now, place the project at the 5250 ft elevation in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, 90 km from the nearest paved road, and it's easy to think, "Mission Impossible"

In July 2002, the four owners of Chatter Creek Mountain Lodges faced a plot of cleared land and a pile of almost 300 green spruce logs, 100 of them having been peeled by hand. By the end of December 2002, the owners were welcoming 24 clients to their new lodge. The beds were made, the larder was full, the bar was stocked and the hot tub was steaming. Vertebrae Lodge was open for business!

Chatter Creek Mountain Lodges is a snowcat skiing and snowboarding tour operator based in Golden, British Columbia. Chatter Creek offers full-service backcountry skiing experiences for powder snow skiers and snowboarders. Intermediate and advanced skiing groups are expertly guided throughout the 130 sq. km operating area. Guests ride in comfortable heated snowcats to experience skiing and riding on a high glacier, through open alpine bowls and down gladed tree runs.

For two years, Chatter Creek hosted groups of 12 clients in their original Spruce Lodge. Guests enjoyed dormitory style accommodation, outdoor plumbing and a very close relationship with one another and with staff. The "Spruce Goose" became a special place to many guests who fondly remember their early cat skiing days at Chatter Creek.

The new Vertebrae Lodge, named after a spectacular nearby ridge, accommodates 24 guests in 12 comfortable bedrooms, each with private bathroom. The lodge boasts well-furnished sitting areas, and a large dining hall with a vaulted ceiling. It has a well-equipped commercial kitchen, a large drying room for boots and outside clothes, a massage room, a games room with a pool table, a well-stocked bar and an outdoor hot tub, complete with bar service. Quite a step up from Spruce Lodge!

The Chatter Creek building site posed a challenge. The only building material within easy reach was green spruce from the surrounding forest. There was no sand, no gravel, no cement and certainly no neighborhood lumberyard.

The nearest town is Golden, a 120 km drive to the south. The nearest paved road is 90km away, at Donald. Access from Donald is first by logging road and then by a rough, boggy summer road that climbs the last 17 km. to the lodge. Four wheel drive pickup trucks can make the trip in summer, when the access road has dried out but, in the spring, only tracked vehicles can get through, unassisted.

The owners, all ex-loggers, were prepared for the challenge. They had already brought a small Alaska-style sawmill to the site, to build Spruce Lodge. The "Spruce Goose" had been completed following a two-year part-time effort. It was built of 5in. x 10in. square-sawn spruce beams. The new lodge would be built of round logs, with much longer and higher walls than any in Spruce Lodge, and with a much, much larger roof.

The Chatter Creek cat skiing business had proven so popular and guests were so enthusiastic that the partners knew that they could expand to 24 clients. Certainly, they had the terrain for it: 50 sq miles of glaciers, alpine slopes and bowls, and huge forested ridges. They already had a good network of winter roads for their snowcats, a good basis for an expanded operation. These roads extended from below the lodge site, about the 4900-ft elevation, to the top of Vertebrae Glacier at just under 10,000 ft. They traversed both sides of the Chatter Creek watershed and the numerous ridges that provided thousands of acres of prime tree skiing.

The challenge was to build the new lodge in one short summer. This was not just to be a scaled up Spruce Lodge, but a large comfortable building with a reliable water system, multiple sets of plumbing, a commercial kitchen, fire suppression and a septic system that would meet all the environmental codes. Could they do it in one summer? Financial constraints required it.

All through the early spring, partners Dale and Dan selectively logged the trees they would need, using snowcats to skid them to the lodge site. Friends were brought in to help hand-peel logs with drawknives and peeling spuds. These logs would form the major walls. The remaining logs would be milled to provide beams and dimensional lumber for inside framing and the massive roof structure.

Meanwhile, partner Dave buried himself in plans and cost estimates and fretted about environmental and health and building codes, and lined up suppliers for the mechanical systems. The planning seemed to take forever. There were so many questions!

It was clear from the beginning that some new equipment would be required to assist the construction. The building would have two floors topped by a large attic space. A crane was needed to lift the heavy logs into place. Other techniques were far too slow. Also, the existing mill was far too small and too slow for the job. A much bigger more accurate mill was needed.

A brand new computer-controlled Wood-Mizer sawmill was purchased. Its 45' deck would handle the big logs and the cutting rate would provide the needed throughput. For the heavy lifting, a used 20 ton ex-army mobile crane was found. With a 90 ft boom, it would give plenty of clearance for the roof.

Getting this equipment to the site in late spring was a challenge. The road was still wet and boggy in many places. The sawmill was loaded onto a Ford F450 that was towed by the bulldozer. With it's 6ft. diameter tires it was hoped that the four wheel drive crane could travel on it's own. An excavator stood by to help.

It took three days to go just 14km. The crane got stuck time and again. The excavator repaired the road and dug out the crane when its great wheels sunk in the mud. It also offered the odd tow, pulling the crane along as it struggled through the deep mud. The long line of equipment inched its way up the road to the Chatter Creek building site.

Getting the equipment to the site was one challenge, keeping it running would be another. The project relied on continuous operation of the crane, the mill and the venerable excavator. The sawmill was brand new and very reliable. However, the mobile crane was an unknown with limited parts available and the excavator was a doddering geriatric having had constant use for many years. The partners could rely on no one but themselves to keep these machines in operation.

By the second week of July the site was clear and level and the logs were ready. The foundations could be set. No other materials were at hand, so the largest available spruce butts were used, set upright in pits.

By mid-July, the walls were started and the outline of the lodge could be seen. There would be two bays, a 40ft x 40ft bay for two floors of bedrooms and baths and a 40ft x 50ft bay for the common space.

The common space includes a large drying room and a games room and bar on the first floor and a kitchen, dining hall and sitting area on the second floor. A flat ceiling spans the kitchen to create a mezzanine sitting area overlooking the dining hall. The large attic space over the guest bedrooms provides massage and staff rooms with entry from the mezzanine. An open cathedral ceiling spans the entire second floor dining and sitting area.

The walls would require seven logs per floor. There would be seven long log walls. This meant at least 100 logs to peel by hand. Backbreaking work! Well over twice that number of logs would be needed for milling the interior lumber.

The construction crew included the four owners, two of their "significant others", and old school friends from nearby Golden. The women worked along side the men operating chain sa


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