Thawing soil threatens this historic site, but Parks Canada won't say it's because of climate change
Internal documents reveal disagreement over how to communicate sudden erosion at base of Abbot Pass Hut
It's not uncommon for it to snow in July at the Abbot Pass Hut, an alpine refuge that has stood high in the mountains along the border of Alberta and British Columbia for the past 97 years.
For nearly a century, the stone structure has provided shelter to alpinists seeking to reach the summits of nearby Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy. More recently, it's become a destination unto itself, attracting hikers who come just to see the hut and maybe spend a night, if they can secure a booking.
At an elevation of 2,925 metres, it's the second-highest permanently habitable structure in Canada, offering a welcome respite for those who make the arduous trek up to the pass, a harsh environment of rock and ice that has typically been frozen year-round.
But something unusual happened in the summer of 2017. For the first time since the hut was built, the ice on the southeast slope melted.
This created a problem for Parks Canada, as the thawing slope started to crumble and fall, threatening to take the hut — a national historic site — down with it. The following summer, things came to a head. A sudden burst of erosion saw more than half a metre of terrain fall away from the hut in a span of 48 hours.
A guided group who made the difficult ascent up to Abbot Pass last August refused to stay the night when they saw the crumbling slope below the stone structure. Their guide contacted Parks Canada to alert them to the problem. A flurry of internal emails ensued, with staff tossing around phrases like "significant development" and "the hut is in danger of collapsing."
Photos began to circulate on social media depicting the extent of the erosion. Parks Canada began crafting a communications plan for when journalists started calling. A list of anticipated questions was developed.
Ninth on the list — under a heading instructing interview subjects to provide an answer only "if asked" — was a question that would lead to internal disagreement and debate.
"Is this issue a result of climate change?"
Debate over language
The first draft of talking points, obtained by CBC News under an access-to-information request, said no.
"We cannot link the slope's erosion to climate change," read the suggested answer to the question, circulated by public relations and communications officer Lesley Matheson.
The draft noted that 2017 "was the first time that the slope in question was not covered by year-round snow and ice" and that "the slope will now be subject to thawing and surficial erosion," but stopped short of drawing a direct link to climate change.
The draft was OK'd by several Parks Canada staff members, but one raised concerns.
"I think we should acknowledge that this issue is directly related to climate change," wrote Glenn Kubian, a wilderness management specialist.
"The slope is failing due to the melting of permafrost, which has been exposed for the first time in our known history. The slope is exposed due to the recession of glaciers in the area, an effect and correlation directly linked to climate change, which is well documented by glaciologists doing research in the mountain parks and Western Canada."
Kubian went on to note the political implications at play for Parks Canada, a federal agency that falls under the responsibility of the minister of Environment and Climate Change.
"Given that this is a major platform for our minister we should take advantage of this important opportunity to educate the public on the direct effects of climate change," he wrote.
"As the slope continues to fail and media coverage intensifies, this question will come to the forefront. I don't think it would be in our best interest to deny that we are aware of a correlation and have to back track in the future."
He added: "Let me know if you want to discuss further or need specific references to support this info."
'Approved edited version'
The issue went up the chain of command, eventually landing with Melanie Kwong, the superintendent for Lake Louise and Yoho and Kootenay national parks.
In an "approved edited version" of the talking points she circulated back to public relations officers, the language was altered slightly to acknowledge a potential role for climate change, while still asserting there is no direct link.
"We can assume that climate change may be a factor in the slope failure, however, without concrete evidence cannot confirm it is a direct cause," read a new sentence added to the talking points.
Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University who has called on the news media to offer the public more straight talk on climate change, was disappointed but not surprised by the careful wording Parks Canada opted for in its messaging.
"I think the tendency among the spin doctors and public relations practitioners is to be cautious, and that is also a tendency sometimes within the bureaucracy as well," he said.
"But the problem is that when we are getting spin and caution, as opposed to the truth, that prevents the public from making good decisions both within the context of their personal lives as well as in the context of their political life."
Holman agreed with the assessment that Kubian expressed in the internal email — that it's fair to describe melting permafrost and receding glaciers as an effect of climate change. Holman said the resulting failure of a slope below a national historic site presents an opportunity to highlight that effect to the public.
"We know that there is a crisis as a result of climate change, and we should be honest with the public about that," Holman said. "And governments should be honest with the public about that as well."
Cost estimate now exceeds $1M
Documents obtained under the access-to-information request also show the slope-stabilization work is taking longer and costing more money than initially believed.
An internal email sent on Aug. 17, 2018, said $250,000 in funding had been identified to do the stabilization work, and those in charge of the finances "could squeeze" another $50,000 "if required."
The work "will likely take 3 weeks from start to finish," the email added.
A subsequent contract request estimated the total cost of the project at $400,000, noting that amount exceeds Parks Canada's purchasing authority and "must be procured by Public Works."
The decision on awarding the contract was made Aug. 21 and, as of Aug. 26, the project duration was increased to an "anticipated 20-25 days of construction."
Crews were helicoptered to the pass and stayed at the hut as they attempted to drill through loose soil, rock and ice and and install anchors into solid bedrock below. But heavy snow flew before they could complete the job, which had to be suspended for the winter season.
An email from November said work should restart the following summer, as soon as weather permits. It anticipated "approximately 30-35 days of productive construction" would be required, meaning crews would likely require an "occupancy duration of 45 days" at the hut.
An email from February indicated the goal was to place 25 rock anchors deep into the slope and, to date, only 14 had been installed, with just four grouted into place.
The estimated costs for the project had ballooned to $1.13 million, according to an email sent in April.
CBC News has been requesting an interview with Parks Canada about the status of Abbot Hut since June 25, but so far, the agency has said no one is available to talk about it.
While there was some concern expressed in the internal emails that the hut could be lost, that now seems unlikely, according to the Alpine Club of Canada, which operates the facility and handles the overnight bookings.
"The prognosis is good, from what I understand," said club spokesman Keith Haberl.
The hut remains closed for bookings until the slope stabilization is complete.
'Undeniable what climate change is doing'
Haberl said the alpine club is thankful for Parks Canada's ongoing effort to secure the ground beneath Abbot Hut in what he hopes will be a permanent fashion.
"It's not a cheap or a quick fix, and we're eternally grateful to Parks for taking this on," he said. "They want to fix this thing. They don't want it sliding off. They don't want to decommission it and say the hut's dead and gone, which was a potential outcome."
Left unchecked, Haberl says, the soil and loose rock at Abbot Pass will continue to slide away due to summer melting. It's something the original mountain guides who built the hut never would have expected a century ago.
"This is something that was not even on their radar in 1920, when the hut was [being] built," he said. "It seemed like that ground would be frozen forever. It was frozen every summer. There didn't appear to be any risk of it melting at all. And now we're seeing consistently higher temperatures at that elevation."
Haberl said that around the alpine club, the view is "100 per cent" that the slope erosion is the result of a warming planet.
"It's undeniable what climate change is doing to our mountains, and this is one example of it."