600 inches and counting: Sperry Chalet inundated by snow, but walls stand tall

Last October, a National Park Service crew placed 100 16-foot 6-by-6 beams, 24 24-foot 6-by-6 beams, and 24 sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood in and around the stone shell of Sperry Chalet. Their work appears to be holding, despite the above-normal snowpack. (GravityShots.com via the Glacier National Park Conservancy)

Sperry Chalet is filling with snow, but its talus-stone skeleton remains intact, an overflight of the historic Glacier National Park dormitory showed last week.

Photographs taken from a helicopter revealed a noticeably deeper accumulation of snow inside the burned-out lodge than did similar photos taken during a February flight. Other buildings at the site, which were not burned, appeared to be nearly buried in the snow.

But there was no sign of damage to the masonry left standing after an Aug. 31 ember storm ignited – and gutted – the chalet.

An estimated 600 inches of snow have fallen at the site since Oct. 1, according to National Weather Service models, and that figure will continue to increase.

“There has been at least 40 feet and quite likely 50 feet of snow this winter at or near Sperry Chalet,” Corby Dickerson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Missoula, said Sunday. “That’s above normal, but not at record value.”

“It’s amazing to think about how much snow does fall along the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park,” Dickerson said. “These flyovers truly are the only way they could ever know how things were surviving up there during the harsh winter months.”

The Glacier National Park Conservancy financed last October’s rapid stabilization of Sperry Chalet’s stone façade, as well as the overflights this winter and spring. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

The Glacier National Park Conservancy is funding three overflights this winter and spring at the park’s request.

Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow has said the information is critical as the park evaluates the options for Sperry Chalet’s future. If the walls collapsed, those options would change.

Last fall, the conservancy also paid for a structural assessment and the raw materials and labor for emergency stabilization work just as the snow started to fall.

And fall it has, Dickerson reported.

“It’s been running above normal all winter long,” he said.

While there are no SNOTEL sites in Glacier Park, the National Weather Service uses observational and modeling data to estimate snowfall in areas where there are no weather stations.

That’s the source of Dickerson’s estimates.

The circle shows the approximate site of Sperry Chalet and other associated buildings in Glacier National Park. (National Weather Service)

The snowpack’s moisture content in the Flathead Basin as a whole is at 138 percent, or 38 percent above normal for March 25, Dickerson said.

Outside the park, the SNOTEL site at Flattop Mountain currently shows 133 inches of snow, with 50.2 inches of water in it. The average moisture content for this time of year is 41.1 inches.

“The biggest thing,” Dickerson said, “is that across the entire area of western Montana we are in a really great position as far as moisture and snowpack and where we stand as compared to previous years.”

Still, Dickerson said there likely isn’t a significant flooding concern for Sperry Chalet because of its 6,580-foot elevation in a glacial cirque overlooking Lake McDonald.

“Typically, the mountain snowpack melts slow and melts long,” he explained. “So flooding is not as much of a problem, unless we get an extreme warmup or a heavy rainfall event causing a lot of on-surface melting.

“Normally, the process of high-elevation snowmelt is a pretty managed process. It’s downstream that things can become more problematic.”

Dickerson said the melt-off usually starts in late April to early May, and continues to feed into the river system through the end of July or beginning of August.

Sperry Chalet’s stone walls are 2 feet thick, but were put at risk when the building’s roof and interior support beams and walls were destroyed by the Sprague fire’s Aug. 31 blowup. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

Superintendent Mow would like Sperry Chalet’s reconstruction to begin this summer, once a decision is made on how to proceed. An architectural firm was hired earlier this month – Anderson and Hallas, the same Denver-based firm that spent more than a decade working on the renovation and stabilization of Many Glacier Hotel.

Glacier Park is accepting public comments through Monday, April 2 on its initial “scoping” of options for the future of Sperry Chalet.

The Glacier National Park Conservancy has the architects’ description and initial drawings of the four options on its website at https://glacier.org/sperry-chalet-interest-list/.

The options include:

  • Restore the Sperry dormitory to as “close to as it was,” reflecting its historically significant period (1914-1949). “Such an approach would provide for some critical updates to current building codes and improve life safety,” the document said. “The visitor experience would be very similar to what it has been for decades.”
  • Restore the dormitory “in place, but modernized,” using as much of the “historic fabric” as possible. “This type of approach would provide the best opportunity to ensure its use is well-suited for a visitor experience for the next 100 years,” the park said. This option would include code upgrades, insulation between interior walls and some additional engineering and design work.
  • Build an entirely new structure, complementing the Sperry site’s historic landscape, but placing the dormitory in a slightly different location to avoid the path of recent avalanches. The original dormitory’s stone exterior walls, which survived the fire, would be stabilized and the park would provide “visitor interpretation” of the historic structure.
  • Take an entirely different approach to providing the Sperry Chalet experience, such as yurts or canvas wall tents, as are used as some other national parks, including Yosemite. Those structures would be taken down at the end of each season. Tent cabins were used in the earliest years of the Sperry Chalet operation, before the dormitory was constructed. The remaining structures on site, including the historic dining hall, would be utilized. The walls of the dormitory would be stabilized and “visitor interpretation of the original structure as a ruin would be provided,” the park said.

Doug Mitchell, executive director of the Glacier conservancy, said his organization won’t promote a specific option, as that’s not their role or expertise.

“We will play more the role of looking at what they are proposing and helping them think through how attractive that will or won’t be in terms of private philanthropy,” he said.

“That’s a role we play on lots of projects,” Mitchell said. “They’ll say, we have an issue or a project, and we’ll say that’s something people really care about and we’re all in, or possibly we’ll say explain more about how that is attractive or important to the general user and the park experience. We’ll be advisory, but won’t advocate for a specific outcome.”

No timeline or potential cost figures have been determined, although Sperry’s rebuilding has been clearly stated as a priority for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Montana’s two U.S. senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

Sperry Chalet is a significant addition to the Glacier conservancy’s to-do list, Mitchell said, although funding for the dormitory’s replacement will primarily come from the federal government.

“Clearly, in scope of magnitude, Sperry Chalet is a huge undertaking in terms of the dollar amount and the historic significance,” Mitchell said. “While we can consider it our 52nd or 53rd project, the challenge is to make sure we can do that in an appropriate way. It could double the magnitude of our work. But we are up to the challenge and we believe the public is up to the challenge.”

Mitchell encouraged all those interested in the chalet to take advantage of the last week of comment on the initial options.

Documents can be reviewed and comments submitted online at this link: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/documentsOpenForReview.cfm?parkID=61&projectID=78972

Or comments can be mailed to: Superintendent, Glacier National Park, Attn.: Sperry Chalet, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936.

Italian stonemasons working for the Great Northern Railway built Sperry Chalet in 1913, using timber and stone sourced from surrounding forests and talus fields. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)