Glacier National Park: Work begins to rebuild Sperry Chalet

Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow and his team welcomed the construction crew to the Sperry Chalet complex on Monday morning. (Glacier National Park Conservancy)

A remarkable 10 months after all but its stone walls were destroyed by fire, the reconstruction of Sperry Chalet began on Monday.

Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow and leaders of the Glacier National Park Conservancy were at the high-elevation site as the construction workers began their first task: building temporary platforms to sleep on.

Then will come a long list of tasks to be completed by the end of October, starting with construction of a new foundation to stabilize and level the iconic backcountry dormitory – so the structure can support a new roof.

Once the foundation is finished, the crew from Dick Anderson Construction will tackle seismic stabilization as part of the construction of interior walls and floors and framing of the roof.

The roof work completed this summer will only be a “temporary membrane,” Glacier officials said in announcing Monday’s start of the mammoth undertaking. But it will serve the purpose of protecting Sperry Chalet – and the work accomplished this summer and fall – from next winter’s elements.

Phase 2 of construction will begin at about this time next year, with the goal of completing the reconstruction. The National Park Service will solicit bids for that work this fall.

Work to bring back Sperry Chalet literally began the morning after an ember storm produced by the Sprague fire burned the much-loved dormitory on Aug. 31.

A small team of firefighters raced to extinguish spot fires for hours, and – just before flames appeared in a second-floor window – believed they had protected the Sperry complex from the fire’s wind-driven run.

Once the building was on fire, they had little recourse.

By 10 a.m. on Sept. 1, Glacier Park Conservancy executive director Doug Mitchell was on the phone with Superintendent Jeff Mow, offering his organization’s help.

Even as the Sprague fire continued to burn across more acreage, they fast-tracked a plan to at least protect Sperry Chalet for the winter by stabilizing the remaining 2-foot-thick stone walls.

That work, financed with private donations collected by the conservancy, left open all options for the building’s future – including the reconstruction plan selected after a hastened public process over the winter.

Earlier this year, the National Park Service awarded a design contract to Anderson Hallas Architects of Golden, Colo., the same firm that designed and managed the multi-year restoration of Many Glacier Hotel on the park’s east side.

From the start, every member of Montana’s congressional delegation as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, previously the state’s congressman, have supported the rebuild option.

Zinke has requested a $12 million appropriation from Congress and Mitchell – at the Glacier National Park Conservancy – has said his group is prepared to raise millions more to fill in the gaps.

The conservancy has already created a Sperry Action Fund, but expects the bulk of its fundraising to occur in 2019.

This first summer’s work entails a $4.08 million contract with Dick Anderson Construction.

Built in 1913, Sperry Chalet’s dormitory is a National Historic Landmark. It was destroyed in an ember storm Aug. 31, 2017. (National Park Service)

This summer’s work began with trail crews from Glacier National Park and the Montana Conservation Corps, and the Flathead National Forest Hot Shots, clearing thousands of trees that had fallen on trails in the Sprague fire’s wide burn path and improving the trail tread.

On Monday, park managers unveiled a variety of recreational options in and around the Sperry Chalet complex this summer, even as construction work proceeds.

But they warned that the Sperry trail (formally known as the Gunsight trail) now has very limited shade, so will be an even more challenging 6.5-mile hike from the trailhead near Lake McDonald Lodge.

(Last summer, a number of hikers needed assistance on the burned-over, three-mile Loop trail from Granite Park Chalet to the Loop on Going-to-the-Sun Road because of heat exhaustion and a lack of shade or water.)

“Though the hike up to Sperry Chalet has never been recommended as an up and back one-day hike,” officials said Monday, “the park is now advising hikers to be particularly careful if they attempt it due to extreme heat from the sun following the burn.

“The hike is approximately 6.5 miles each way with over 3,400 feet in elevation gain. The National Park Service considers it a strenuous hike.”

Park concessioner Swan Mountain Outfitters will offer horseback rides to the chalet on a limited basis this summer. More details and reservation information are on their website.

The Sperry Chalet Dining Room – which is housed in a different building that did not burn – will be open this summer to feed construction workers and visitors.

Lunch and a la carte service will be available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Breakfast and dinner will be available to the public via reservation through Belton Chalets. Call (888) 345-2649.

While the trail to Sperry Chalet will remain open, other adjacent trails and areas will be closed this summer – some temporarily to accommodate the mule trains and helicopter flights needed to provide construction materials to the site, some permanently to protect grizzly bears that may be disrupted by the noisy construction activity.

Glacier Park’s notice Monday said the Gunsight Trail and Sperry Chalet complex itself will have occasional closures because of the construction. Visitors should check the trail status around the chalet on the Glacier National Park Trail Status Webpage and Area Closures.

The grizzly bear closures came after park officials consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the short-term adverse impacts to grizzly bear habitat caused by Sperry’s reconstruction.

The agencies decided to set aside other nearby areas for grizzly bears – without human encroachment – to offset the noise and greatly increased activity caused by such an unusual high-altitude construction project and the associated helicopter flights.

The area closures include the Snyder Basin above the Sperry Trail Junction, including Snyder Lakes and Campground; and the Upper Lincoln Creek Drainage, Lincoln Lake and Lincoln Campground.

The duration of the closures may impact backcountry campground reservations at Snyder and Lincoln Backcountry Campgrounds. Visitors with reservations will be contacted as the season progresses if their trip itineraries must be altered.

When the majority of construction materials have been delivered to the site and helicopter operations return to average administrative levels, grizzly bear habitat closures will be lifted, park officials said.

Work will restore Sperry Chalet’s dormitory to its historic look and feel. (National Park Service)