The Alpine Club of Canada is synonymous with backcountry huts. With 26 far-flung shelters in Western Canada, plus another 6 operated by local sections, the ACC has the largest network of backcountry accommodation in North America.
And while these huts provide year-round comfort and convenience, not to mention countless environmental benefits, they don’t maintain themselves. Exposed to the elements and more than 40,000 visitors each year, these huts require a lot of hard work to stay clean, safe, and in working order.
To find out what it takes to keep all these huts in top shape, we called up Nicole Larson, ACC National’s Custodian Coordinator, at the organization’s headquarters in Canmore, Alberta.
So what’s your job exactly?
I’m the custodian coordinator. I manage the volunteer custodian program plus some paid custodians. I send them out to various locations to clean, check reservations, and have a presence at the hut, and to just support and promote hut etiquette.
I don’t really have a title or a job description. I just kind of do what I need to do—custodian coordinator, maintenance, admin person. And in addition to that, I deal with a lot of stuff myself. I deal with all of the interior supplies—dishes, cleaning supplies, etc.—and make sure everything is stocked, as well as general upkeep and cleanliness of all the huts. That’s why I go out personally once or twice a month to make sure everything is up to par.
I also help out with the services, where we fly all the outhouse barrels, wood, propane, and anything else we need. I work around helicopters a lot in the summer and in the winter it’s a lot of skiing.
Sounds like a dream job.
Yeah, it’s a lot of people’s dream job. I make my own hours and do what needs to get done.
How does one go about getting such a job?
I’ve been with the ACC for about 5 and a half years now. I started on the front desk and moved up through a lot of positions—I’ve even done housekeeping. There was a big changeover in maintenance staff, so for a little bit I was the go-to because I had been there the longest and had gone on lots of trips with the previous maintenance team. For a couple of months all of the duties fell on me, but then more people were hired and we built a team again. It all just fell into place.
How many volunteers work under you?
I usually have about 20 to 30 on my list. If something comes up—Elizabeth Parker is out of sponges, or whatever—I’ll send an email out to all of them and the first one to respond gets to go. I’m always looking for new volunteers, and I’m actually doing a volunteer orientation next week with about 10–12 people.
Is there a line out the door to be a volunteer or is it tricky to find them?
There’s a lot of interest in becoming a volunteer, but it’s hard to figure out who will actually work well in a volunteer position. Before I took over, someone would simply email in and they’d be able to go. Now, I’m implementing some policies and meeting with the volunteers first to know they’re personable, friendly, and able to communicate messages effectively so everyone has a positive experience. And addition to that, they need to know the little things, like don’t throw certain things into the woodstove. There are little things that add up over time, especially at busier huts, which is why I do training now.
Any advice on how smaller clubs can attract quality volunteers?
The main thing is how you advertise it. What I do is convey the message that yes, you get a free stay for two people, but it’s not just a free stay. You have to do x number of things. This is an opportunity to help out. And that we’re looking for people who are reliable, friendly, like to clean, aren’t scared of poop…
After that, I send out a questionnaire for people to fill out, with questions like, “Why do you want to be a custodian?” and “Why would you be a good custodian?” and a few other things to help me figure out their skill set and where they want to go.
Usually, I can get a pretty good sense of why they’re interested based on their answers. It’s the ones who have a vested interest in the club and the huts who turn out to be the best volunteers. After that, it’s just training with me at a hut because that’s the best way to do it!
Other than the free stay and the chance to frolic in the mountains, what do volunteers get out of the experience?
The free stay is a big part of it! But volunteers also feel like they’re part of the ACC and that they’re working for the organization even though they’re volunteers. It’s its own reward.
I don’t ask too much of people—I don’t necessarily want you to work for 8 hours then go to bed. Check reservations, do what you need to do, but go for a hike and enjoy the area as well.
What are the top things people can do to help you and your volunteer custodians out?
- Read the signs. There are signs up in every hut to do with the propane system, the pilot lights, where to collect water, etc. As long as people read the signs and follow those rules, it’ll be less confusing for everyone else and it’ll just work out better.
- Email me or maintenance if there are any issues in the hut (but don’t tell me there are rodents in the hut—there are rodents in every hut). It helps us know what’s going on and helps us react to it faster.
- Don’t poach. Pay for your stay! All of the fees go to the maintenance of the hut. Huts are incredibly expensive to maintain, which a lot of people don’t realize. We use helicopters to access the majority of the huts for maintenance—only two of the huts are driveable. So, it’s very expensive. We pay just under 2 grand an hour for a helicopter, and it takes 4 hours to do Elizabeth Parker. And that’s not including the cost of pump truck, the cost of propane, wood, driving and staff. So when you add all of that up it’s quite expensive. Plus, poaching just adds pressure on everyone who actually pays.
Tell me about outhouse barrels.
With the outhouse barrels, we can fly 1 to 3 at once on the long line, depending on the weight and the weather. Elizabeth Parker has 24 barrels so it’s quite a few flights with an incredibly short turnaround. So it’s pretty hectic. The helicopter picks up the barrels, flies them over to the staging area where the pump truck is, and while they’re getting pumped out, it picks up a load of wood and brings that in, then brings back some more barrels. That’ll happen for a couple hours, then once all the barrels are pumped out they all get flown back in. It’s hectic working with helicopters but we need to make sure we’re making good use of our time.
Do you want to talk about outhouse barrels and something not to do?
Yes, yes I do.
Rodents in barrels are a huge problem. If people throw food down the toilets, it attracts rodents like pine martens and marmots. Also, put down the seat and close the door. Just try and not entice rodents into the barrels. When the pump truck is pumping out the barrel, it’ll get a jam in the hose that needs to be manually unclogged of a hairless, stinky, poop-covered rodent. If they have to do that over and over again it increases our costs. It’s just one of the many things people can do to keep our costs down.
What else can people do to keep your costs down?
Be more conservative with the wood. Everyone likes to burn the wood, but if you read the instructions and know when to close the damper, you won’t burn through quite as much and we won’t have to fly wood in mid-winter. And with propane, if you’re not using the light, don’t have it on.
Also, make sure your observations are accurate. It’s frustrating to get a report that a window is broken, but with no details. What window? What size is it? It really helps if people take photos of issues, with measurements if necessary.
Favourite part of the job?
Working with helicopters is fun. Just hanging out at huts with my coworkers. We’re a close team and spend a lot of time together and have had some great times.