Elfin Lakes Hut: The Birth of Backcountry Skiing in Squamish - Squamish.com
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Elfin Lakes Hut: The Birth of Backcountry Skiing in Squamish


It is one of the most visited backcountry destinations in BC. Each year, thousands of people head into Garibaldi Park for a night or two at the Elfin Lakes Hut.

Elfin Lakes Hut- Photo: Richard So

Today’s recreationalists visiting the Elfin Lakes Hut owe a debt of gratitude to two visionary and industrious Norwegian brothers and a Canadian sculptor. These three brought the hut into existence and also helped to lay the foundations of the ski culture that now thrives in Howe Sound.

Diamond Head Chalet, 1953- Photo: Squamish Public Library
Diamond Head Chalet, 1953- Photo: Squamish Public Library

Joan and the Brandvold Boys

Ottar and Emil Brandvold were keen skiers and hikers. They had taken trips into the Canadian backcountry since their arrival from Norway in 1929. The brothers found their way into the forestry industry in British Columbia and got to working and exploring the Sea to Sky Corridor.  

Joan Mathews graduated from the Vancouver School of Art in 1941, with a focus on sculpting. She too was passionate about the outdoors and frequented the woods on Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains. She was particularly fond of skiing.

Life at the Chalet- Photo: Squamish Public Library
Life at the Chalet- Photo: Squamish Public Library

The three of them met at a ski tournament in Banff. They didn’t know it then, but their friendship and passions for skiing and the outdoors would be lifelong.

Joan and Ottar would later marry—many of their children and grandchildren still reside this neck of the woods. The Squamish Archives bears witness to the Brandvolds continued influence around town.

Photo: Squamish Public Library
Joan and Ottar on Saddle- Photo: Squamish Public Library

In April of 1944, Joan, Ottar and Emil took a ski trip to the Diamond Head area; they knew they’d found a special place and the dream of the Diamond Head Chalet (now Elfin Lakes Huts) was born.

Upon receiving a license from the Parks Board to construct the hut and trails, Joan, Ottar and Emil set to work. They went to Paul Ridge with an axe and pick and shovel, and roughed out the seven-mile trail from the park border to the site of the chalet in just 16 days.

By Spring of 1946, the operation was up and running—guests wound their way up from Vancouver to spend a beautiful few days in the backcountry.

The Good Ol’ Days

For those of us who think that travelling the 11 kilometres from the trailhead into Elfin Lakes Hut is an arduous affair today, think again.

During the 40s, when this trio was first exploring around Squamish, Garibaldi Park was a destination for only the most enthusiastic hikers and explorers.

A visit required a four-hour ferry trip up Howe Sound from Vancouver to Squamish, followed by a train ride to Garibaldi Station, and a hefty trek into the Chalet.

Amidst avalanches, wildlife encounters and quirky characters, there is no shortage of tales the times when Joan and Brandvold boys ran the Chalet. One classic story was of a deer, who’s parents were killed by a grizzly. It subsequently became a pet—often finding its way into Joan and Ottar’s bed for a rest.  

Joan Matthews gives a treat to the resident deer- Photo: Squamish Public Library
Joan Matthews gives a treat to the resident deer- Photo: Squamish Public Library

The region, although full with beauty, wasn’t always an easy place to reside.

For Ottar, Emil and Joan, it was worth the hardship and work to live there, and their lives began to revolve around The Diamond Head Chalet. They lived there year round and earned their living by sharing the experience with guests to the area.

Overlooking Howe Sound, 1952- Photo: Squamish Public Library
Overlooking Howe Sound, 1952- Photo: Squamish Public Library

The guest books from that time bear the names of thousands of visitors. It was under the care and custodianship of the Brandvolds that people would make their way up to the to hike in the summer or ski in the winter.

One of the Brandvolds would facilitate the guest’s travel to the lodge–seven miles from the end of the logging roads. Upon arrival, guests would embark on day-long outings with another of the Brandvolds as their guide.

Sometimes in those early days, they would use a snowmobile to ferry guests to ski areas further afield or to transport goods into the Chalet.

Diamond Head Chalet Snowmobile- Photo: Squamish Public Library

The skiing was outstanding, albeit potentially hazardous with the risk of avalanches and travel on the Warren and Pitt Glaciers. The Brandvolds were diligent guides. Using their intimate knowledge of the area, they never lost anyone in the hills.

An Olympic Games Contender

As it is today, the Diamond Head region of Garibaldi Park was an obvious destination for recreation seekers from the Greater Vancouver area. It was even considered as a possible location to host the 1968 Winter Olympics, before Whistler was in the running. In March of 1960, the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association flew a couple of members into the Chalet to assess it’s potential.

'Garibaldi For Olympics' Float- Photo: Squamish Public Library
‘Garibaldi For Olympics’ Float, 1968 – Photo: Squamish Public Library

Sidney Dawes and Glenn McPherson stopped by for a visit before continuing their search northward toward Mt. London (now Whistler).

The Canadian bid for the 1968 Olympics flopped, and Grenoble, France wound up hosting these Games. It’s probably just as well that the Olympics didn’t wind up in Diamond Head, as the character would be very much different and the Diamond Head Area would lack the rustic, backcountry feel that presently presides.

The Beginning and End of an Era

When the Brandvolds first reached out to the government with their proposal in 1944, it included a system of trails and additional huts extending all the way up to Garibaldi Lake.

Though the full extent of the vision was never realized, Joan, Emil and Ottar could never have imagined the extent to which they informed the culture of skiing in this area. Nor could they know just how many beautiful days in the backcountry they enabled.

Skiers at the chalet- Photo: Squamish Public Library
Skiers at the chalet- Photo: Squamish Public Library

In 1958, the Provincial Government bought the Chalet from the Brandvolds. Joan, Ottar and Emil continued to run the operation on a lease basis until they retired in 1972.

The lodge was shut in 1973 and the existing Elfin Lakes Hut was built the following year. The remains of the original structure built by the Brandvolds was removed in 2009.

Though their original hut has been replaced with a contemporary, the Brandvold’s legacy persists.

Today, all sorts make their way to the Elfin Lakes Hut, from skiers on the Garibaldi Névé Traverse, to hikers heading to Mamquam Lake and weekend warriors up from Vancouver to get their backcountry fix.

Most remain unaware of the rich history of exploration and recreation which lay before them.


Drew Copeland

The author Drew Copeland

Drew Copeland is a wordsmith by trade; he also enjoys spending time in the hills. Some of his other work can be found at storiesandsuch.ca
Tags : backcountryMt. GaribaldiSkiing

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