Sperry Chalet’s relic walls survive winter intact; public comment due

This week’s overflight of Sperry Chalet showed a lot of snow, but also the intact walls that the icon’s advocates hoped to see at winter’s end. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

“We made it.”

With that, Glacier National Park Conservancy executive director Doug Mitchell summed up the significance of this week’s flyover of Sperry Chalet.

The stone walls that remained after an ember storm burned the historic backcountry dormitory last August have survived an intense winter, bolstered by a series of support beams added just as the first snow began to fall.

“There was some fear in October and November,” Mitchell said Friday. “Are we going to make it to June? Now it’s May and we know it’s still standing and the structural stabilization program worked, and we’re potentially six to eight weeks away from starting on the restoration. That has people excited.”

Kalispell’s ALERT helicopter conducted this flyover of Sperry Chalet, in part as a training mission should the medical team be called to the backcountry construction site or nearby trails this summer.

Had the overflights shown the chalet’s collapse beneath the snow, the Park Service’s options at Sperry would have changed. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

The photos, released by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which has financed three flyovers of the site this winter and spring, show considerable unmelted snowpack in the high country above Lake McDonald.

The iconic chalet is more visible than during a March flyover, but still is partially filled with snow and adrift in a landscape of deep snow. The support beams are intact and exposed, bracing the stone walls quarried nearby and set in place a century ago.

The Glacier Conservancy financed the $120,000 stabilization, as well as this winter’s flyovers. It will lead the private fundraising needed to supplement public dollars, should the National Park Service give the final go-ahead to rebuilding Sperry.

Public comment will be accepted through Monday on Glacier Park’s environmental assessment of Sperry Chalet’s future, which considered everything from changing the site to a tent camp to either constructing an all-new building or restoring the former dormitory.

In that document, park officials recommended rebuilding Sperry Chalet at its original site and within its 100-year-old stone walls. The park said its proposal would restore the building to reflect its “period of significance” from 1914 to 1949.

Some “critical updates” would be included to acknowledge modern building codes and needed seismic bracing and fire-resistant materials.

In the end, “the visitor experience would be very similar to what it has been for decades,” said Lauren Alley, Glacier Park’s information specialist.

Little remained after the Aug. 31 ember storm other than Sperry Chalet’s 2-foot-thick walls. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

The Glacier Conservancy did not lobby for any particular option, as its role is one of supporting Park Service decisions – and in this case, of rallying private philanthropists once the park sets a future course for Sperry and knows how much more is needed than can be provided through congressional appropriations.

On Friday, Mitchell said the conservancy doesn’t want to prejudge the Park Service’s decision-making process, but has set a tentative 2018 fundraising goal of $500,000 for any work that might happen at the site this summer.

Superintendent Jeff Mow has said the park’s preferred option would require two construction seasons, beginning this July and concluding in the summer of 2019. That means the first construction bids could go out sometime this month – but after agency officials look at the collected public comments and release a final decision.

Mitchell said he expects 2019 will be the year “when we may be called upon for that larger number.” Based on past experience with restoration projects in Glacier, he believes the ask for private philanthropy at Sperry Chalet might be in the $1 million to $2 million range.

That’s an achievable goal, he said, given that interest in and excitement for the chalet’s future continues to grow.

“In the fall, we saw a lot of concerned interest and sadness,” Mitchell said. “But now it’s excitement in terms of possibly being involved in the restoration and rejuvenation process.

Helicopter rescue and medical teams are preparing for a potentially busy summer at Sperry Chalet’s high alpine site. (GravityShots.com via Glacier National Park Conservancy)

“There is a very real sense that we are getting close. It’s getting to be game day.

“As people start to think of summer, we are getting more and more calls asking ‘how can I volunteer,’ ‘how can I help.’ There was a lot of interest after we put up the pictures from the most recent overflight.”

This week’s flight was a joint project with the ALERT medical helicopter based in Kalispell, which contacted Mitchell and offered to make space available for a photographer on its training flight.

“It saved us a little money,” Mitchell said, “and helped the ALERT personnel and pilots familiarize themselves with the area in anticipation of a busy summer up there.”

If Glacier Park does proceed with reconstruction work starting this July, a contractor will have crews at the site, as well as heavy equipment. And there could be more interest by hikers in walking past the site.

All that extra activity could mean more medical calls to the ALERT crew, so this week’s training “was really smart on their part,” Mitchell said.

Comments on Glacier Park’s environmental assessment and recommended action plan at Sperry Chalet can be submitted online at:  http://parkplanning.nps.gov/SperryChalet2018. Monday is deadline day for public comment.