Climate change forces Parks Canada to dismantle, remove historic mountain hut

A historic site in Yoho National Park will be dismantled and removed this spring because of effects caused by climate change, Parks Canada announced Thursday.

Abbot Pass Hut closed to visitors in 2018 and is now too unsafe to remain standing

A photo of the hut from September 2021. Erosion, accelerated by climate change, has left the back corner hanging over air. (Parks Canada)

A historic site in Yoho National Park will be dismantled and removed this spring because of effects caused by climate change, Parks Canada announced Thursday.

Abbot Pass Hut, a stone structure built 100 years ago on the border between Alberta and B.C., provided shelter to alpinists seeking to reach the summits of nearby Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy. It was managed by the Alpine Club of Canada for over 30 years until it closed to overnight visitors in 2018 because of erosion of the slope underneath.

Now, thawed permafrost and further erosion have left a back corner of the hut hanging over nothing but air, and left Parks Canada with the decision to remove the structure entirely.

Keith Haberl, spokesperson with the Alpine Club of Canada, said that while it's clear there's no other option, the news is sad.

"It was an important part of Canadian mountaineering history and heritage, and the alpine club. People love the place. Absolutely love it," Haberl told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday. "It's definitely iconic and it will be missed greatly."

Efforts to stabilize the hut, including anchoring it to the bedrock, started in 2018. 

Poor weather in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020 made it difficult to continue that work, said Rick Kubian, the field unit superintendent for the Lake Louise Yoho Kootenay field unit.

By the time they returned last summer, "it [the slope] had eroded much more quickly than anyone had anticipated and made any work to stabilize it a moot point."

Geotechnical assessments found higher levels of permafrost thaw and slope erosion, as well as cracks in the hut's masonry — which meant, said Kubian, that "the hut could collapse at any time."

The image at left shows Abbot Pass Hut, seen in 2012. At right is the hut in 2018, showing erosion near the base of the stone structure. (Left: Travel Alberta/YouTube. Right: Kate Hurley)

The pass was closed to hikers and climbers on Aug. 23, 2021, and will remain that way until the hut is removed.

"It is believed that high temperatures experienced in summer 2021 contributed to further erosion of the slope below the hut itself, impacting an area that was previously rock and ice," said Parks Canada in a release.

No chance of rebuilding elsewhere

If Plan A was to stabilize the structure, Plan B was to carefully deconstruct it and rebuild in another location, said Haberl. But that won't be possible, either.

The condition of the surrounding slopes means that the work would be too unsafe, and the material of the hut — mostly limestone — is likely to break if moved, said Parks Canada.

"They said there's pretty much no way that they can and certainly no way safely that they could dismantle it and bring it down and set it up as a museum somewhere," said Haberl.

Abbot Pass Hut, located on the Alberta-B.C. border, is one of dozens of remote backcountry accommodations operated by the Alpine Club of Canada. It was built 100 years ago by Swiss guides. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Abbot Pass Hut was built by hand in 1922 by Swiss mountain guides hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway. They carried hand-cut stones on horseback and by foot to the pass, which is at 2,925 metres above sea level.

Kubian said the history of the hut will be commemorated after consultations with members of the alpine and mountaineering community and Indigenous groups.

That commemoration might take place on the original site, or it might be done by salvaging material to construct a cairn elsewhere.

He said the actual dismantling of the Abbot Pass Hut will happen when the snow has started to melt but is not fully melted, likely late May and June of this year.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


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