The Brandvolds of Diamond Head - Irene Howard
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article was first published in the magazine "Westworld" in February, 1976. It tells the compelling story of Diamond Head Chalet in Garibaldi Provincial Park and the people who built and operated the chalet - Joan Mathews, Ottar Brandvold and Emil Brandvold. The author of the article, Irene Howard, holds the copyright for the article. She has given the Hollyburn Heritage Society permission to display the article on this web site.
"The Brandvolds of Diamond Head" will appeal to those who have fond memories of Joan, Ottar, Emil, and Millie and good times spent at the chalet. It will also be of interest to hikers and skiers who have been to Elfin Lakes since the mid-seventies and wondered about the deteriorating structure that stands near the edge of the northern-most lake. Those who have a particular interest reading well-written histories about BC pioneers and local history will enjoy the article as well.
Thirty-one years ago, two young Norwegian men and a Canadian woman built a ski chalet high up among the glacial lakes and snow fields of Garibaldi Provincial Park. On New Year's Eve, 1945, Ottar and Emil Brandvold and Joan Mathews (later married to Ottar), by the light of two Coleman lanterns raised the last log into place. But the building was full of snow, hard-packed with wood chips. They spent the next couple of weeks sawing this snow into blocks and hauling them by toboggan through a tunnel to the surface some twenty feet above. By March they had laid the floor and installed the windows, and by April Diamond Head Chalet was ready for guests, the first high-altitude ski lodge in B.C. north of Vancouver. After that they had to contend with the difficulties of working in the midst of a developing and changing park policy. Garibaldi Park was then almost completely undeveloped - there wasn't even a road from Vancouver. Only the more enthusiastic hikers and skiers took the four-hour ferry trip through Howe Sound to Squamish, then continued by train to Garibaldi Station, where they arrived late in the afternoon to spend the night, before beginning theWhen the war began both brothers were rejected by the Norwegian Air Force - Ottar was over-age, Emil had a touch of silicosis - and were drafted to work in an anchor chain factory. Ottar and Emil Brandvold and Joan Mathews had conceived the chalet as part of their own specific plan for opening up Garibaldi Park. They had all three been competitive skiers - had met, in fact, at a ski tournament in Banff, where they were participating in cross-country and jumping.
Ottar and Emil had been exploring the country on skis ever since they'd arrived in Saskatchewan as Norwegian immigrant farm labourers in 1929, and were by now tough and knowledgeable outdoorsmen who had learned the art of survival They had slept out at thirty or forty below on an eighty-mile ski trip without sleeping bags or blankets, lying on a bed of spruce boughs between two fires.
They wanted to build and work in the mountains as they had when they were young in Norway, and as they had seen their father do. Edvard Brandvold had built hostels for tourists in the mountains above his farm; other farmers had followed his example, creating a network of mountain cabins and trails.
When the war began both brothers were rejected by the Norwegian Air Force - Ottar was over-age, Emil had a touch of silicosis - and were drafted to work in an anchor chain factory. Joan Mathews had learned how to handle an axe on Hollyburn Mountain in North Vancouver, where she skied every winter weekend. She'd helped to build a log cabin up there, and had decorated the door and the interior with her carving.
Her mother, Frances Mathews, was herself trained in art and was not one to stifle a young girl's creativity and aspirations for a useful independent life. Joan was the first graduate in sculpture from the Vancouver School of Art (1941). As a scholarship student she continued her studies there the following year, chipping away in the attic of the Art School on big pieces of log she'd hauled down from the mountain.
"But at that time, just after Pearl Harbour," recalls Joan, "it looked kind of effete, just being an art student, when some of my school friends had been killed in the war." She left the Art School for a fish cannery, then got a job as an artist with the Vancouver Motion Picture Company, which was filming, very hushhush, army commando training on Vancouver Island for the National Film Board. Here at last she was doing war work, just like everyone else. The three skiers, with their love of the outdoors and their interest in mountain chalets, were a natural combination, and they were all thinking too about what kind of work they could do after the war. They began to explore Garibaldi Park on weekends and holidays and make plans for building a chalet there. "They could build with logs - they had learned that in Norway," continues Joan. "I had dreams of carving it so it would be known world-wide, like Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood in the United States. But we thought we would build something on a much smaller scale and more Norwegian in character, with a sod roof, which seemed so practical, and adapt the building more to the landscape than the usual big resort."
Ever since 1905, when Atwell King and A. T. Dalton stopped just short of the pinnacle on the first attempt to climb Mt. Garibaldi, (which they succeeded in doing two years later with another party), hikers and skiers and outdoors enthusiasts had been actively campaigning for the development and conservation of Garibaldi. It was the B.C. Mountaineering Club which in 1915 suggested creating the park in the first place, and in 1920 succeeded in persuading the B.C. Government to pass an order-in council reserving the northern section of the present park. A few years later the same group presented to the Government proposals which resulted in the passage of the Garibaldi Park Act of 1927, under which a five-member Board was to administer the park. The members of the Garibaldi Park Board were, for many years, dedicated mountaineers, who guarded it against possible intrusion by reckless and insensitive developers.
Although the park comprises nearly half a million sprawling acres of Coast Range, most of these are too magnificently wild and inhospitable to welcome the average hiker and camper. But on the western border is Garibaldi Lake, situated at the centre of many of the park's attractions: Parnassus Creek, Mimulus Lake, Gentian Peak - all named by those early mountaineers and nature lovers; the much-loved Black Tusk Meadows, luxurious in late summer with wild flowers - at one time several hundred species (which delighted the botanists collecting seeds and plants in 1927 for the Royal Horticultural Society in England); and Black Tusk itself, the dramatic monolith of volcanic rock where nowadays on a fine Sunday hikers have to line up for a chance to clamber up one of its crumbling chimneys. This has always been considered the primary recreational area, and it is separated from the Diamond Head area to the south by Mt. Garibaldi and its massive glaciers, neves and moraines. Joan Mathews and Ottar and Emil Brandvold saw how these two areas could be connected by a series of trails and hostels so that the hiker and camper could spend several days exploring, as is done in Norway or the Austrian Alps. They spent three summers exploring Garibaldi Park. "We lived like kings," laughs Ottar, relishing in memory the deep blueberry pie cooked in a covered frying pan on the glowing coals, and forgetting the black flies and the devil's club with one-inch spikes in the wet, rank wilderness of the Cheakamus River. After each trip they submitted a report to the Park Board. In April 1944 they skied in to the Diamond Head area and marvelled at the panorama which opened out from Paul Ridge - the little town of Squamish in a sedate clearing at the head of Howe Sound, against the backdrop of the jagged peaks of the Tantalus Range, and farther along, at the next switchback, a view just as magnificent of the Mamquam Range.
Emerging from the forest road into sub-alpine meadow country, they found an ideal spot for a chalet on the rim of a bowl containing the two brilliant Elfin Lakes. To the north were long treeless slopes, excellent for skiing. Farther north, Garibaldi Neve was challenging ski-mountaineering terrain, providing access to the Garibaldi Lake area. The Gargoyles, grotesquely eroded volcanic mountains, and Lake Mamquam to the northeast, were interesting destinations for the summer hiker. And dominating all, Mt. Garibaldi, 8,787 feet, winter and summer an irresistible challenge to the mountaineer. They decided to apply to the Park Board for a licence to build at Elfin Lakes, and to submit a comprehensive plan for a whole system of trails and hostels.
The plan first of all suggested inns at the main entrances to the park, along the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (now the B.C. Railway), running roughly parallel to the western border; then mountain inns, consisting of cabins in groups, spaced along the trails, and halfway shelters for safety in dangerous places or for emergency stopovers along the connecting trails. There'd be a stable and corral at each inn, and guides and packers to bring people in with their luggage. The plan was beautiful and innocent, but it was also very practical.
Diamond Head was the most accessible area of Garibaldi Park, since there were already thirteen miles of logging road from Squamish to the southwestern end of Paul Ridge at the park boundary. Development would proceed in two stages, beginning with the chalet at the northeastern end of the ridge, a cabin at Black Tusk Meadows (or rather, below the Meadows to save the flowers), and a trail between the two with a halfway cabin. In the second stage, more cabins would be built on Paul Ridge and Black Tusk Meadows, at Cheakamus Lake and Singing Pass, and the existing trails improved. They would build the trails and cabins with their own time and money, and guarantee to observe all regulations regarding the cutting of timber and preservation of game. Indeed they would, with the Board's permission, act as timber and game wardens. They proposed a special rehabilitation labour camp where war veterans could have the restoring experience of working on the trails and cabins, the physical and mental health of the men being of first importance.
What could the Board say? It immediately granted them an exclusive licence, renewable after five years, for Paul Ridge and Black Tusk Meadows, and the required hostel concessions as well, in return for five percent of the yearly profits.
Joan and Ottar and Emil went right out to Paul Ridge with an axe and pick and shovel, and in sixteen days, working day and night, built a seven-mile trail from the park border to the chalet site. They set up a tent camp in mid-June, built a shed for the horses and a temporary cabin for themselves. Everything - food, lumber, tools, feed for the horses - had to be brought in by pack horse from their base camp at the entrance to their newly-carved trail, so that one person was always required to devote a day's labour to this fourteen-mile return journey, walking with the horses, not riding. Nevertheless in that first summer they succeeded in laying the foundation of the chalet and putting up the first three rounds of logs. But first they had to build a mile and a half of logging road on nearby Columnar Mountain. Here they felled their trees, being careful not to denude the forest, and dragged the logs with draught horse and go-devil down the mountain slope. Sometimes it took a whole day to haul one log.
At the end of the second summer of building they decided to keep on working through the fall and finish the chalet. The autumn of 1945 was exceptionally fine: they were working in their shorts in brilliant sunshine until the end of October. Then suddenly the snow came, and it snowed and it snowed. Every day for two months it snowed. The snow filled the chalet up to the stringers, but the three kept on working, planning and chopping in a tent that was now a snow-covered cave, endlessly shovelling away the snow from the log-pile which disappeared daily, rolling the logs and lifting them into place with the gin-pole while the snow came down. On December 15 the snow stopped and the sun came out. For two weeks they worked steadily night and day against the next snowfall. On New Year's Eve, with the roof half finished, the sky clouded over. That was the night they hung up the lanterns and worked till three in the morning. All the logs were in place and covered with the last square of sod when the snow began to fall again, another two or three feet.
This kind of roof - squares of sod on a waterproof undercovering - was commonly used in Norway. At Diamond Head the Brandvolds had gone out with horse and stone boat and cut sod, a little here and a little there, so as not to spoil the meadows. To construct the roof they laid down a layer of heavy roofing paper, a substitute for the birch bark used in Norway, and along the lower edge of the roof placed a log, notched in places to allow the water to run off. Next came the bottom layer of sods, grass side down, then a layer of earth, and finally the top layer of sods, grass side up to allow the roots to grow downward to the waterproof covering and form little bundles of rootlets separated by pockets of air. The two layers would thus grow together, a foot thick, warm in winter and cool in summer, and decorated with hemlock seedlings and clumps of mountain flowers. It turned out that the roofing paper, no substitute for birch bark, deteriorated rapidly, and had to be replaced with aluminum sheeting.
It was a bit of a jolt to these builders to be faced at last with a completed chalet which they had to operate. The skiers and mountaineers had been there from the beginning, of course, crowding into the temporary cabin on a weekend, sometimes helping with the chores and peeling logs.
As chalet operators they had new responsibilities, and one of them was getting people safely into Diamond Head. Guests arrived at Base Camp and set off on skis, or on foot in the summer, with one of the Brandvolds as guide for the seven-mile trek to the chalet. At Diamond Head, everybody went on trips, whole-day ski journeys, with Emil and Ottar in the lead guiding the party across ice fields, watching for treacherous crevasses and cornices. They never lost anyone, not even that day when an avalanche came down, shaking the whole mountain and snapping trees in two, but splitting just in time to continue its course on either side of the party of skiers.
Back at camp after a day's trek, the guests would pitch in and help make supper. "We never ran a business really," says Ottar. "All we wanted was to make a living so we could live up there." Nevertheless it was a business and it was a success. They even raised their daily rates from $6 to $7.75, prices which included meals, accommodation and guides. You had to bring your own towel and sheet, however.
They soon had to build an annex to accommodate the Easter and Labour Day crowd of visitors. They hired a cook, Millie Crowell, originally a Saskatchewan farm girl, who had been making component parts for bomb hatches and anti-aircraft guns until the end of the war released her to do house-cleaning by the day. She became a permanent member of the working team at Diamond Head, and a valuable asset to the business.
Their plan to build a hostel at Black Tusk was never realized, but they operated the Queen Charlotte Airline hostel on Garibaldi Lake for two years. They bought a snowmobile to transport people from Base Camp, purchased with a loan provided by some forty helpful and enthusiastic guests. A helicopter company trained its pilots for high altitude flying in that area and then provided an air-drop service for food and luggage, so that sides of beef came falling out-of the sky with red streamers flying. In 1962 it was bringing in guests every weekend the weather permitted.
Publicity and reservations were handled from West Vancouver by, Frances Mathews, Joan's mother, an energetically articulate woman who, in addition to all else, answered the enquiries of a demanding public worrying about every conceivable thing from the possibility of bringing in a housebroken spaniel to the chances of meeting a grizzly. (There were grizzlies, and at Base Camp Joan had rigged up an alarm system to warn of the approach of one which was threatening Bambi, the pet deer, later a member of the family at the chalet. "The only thing about that deer," laughs Ottar, "was that we could never train him not to get into our bed.")
Operating the chalet was strenuous work. They would bring in a whole winter's supply of staples by pack horse in the fall. But because they had no refrigeration, they had to carry fresh food in regularly throughout the winter on their backs - a case of eggs, perhaps, or a hundred pounds of potatoes on a pack board. They had to keep the road open in snow storms, working thirty-six hours at a stretch, going back and forth with the bulldozer, knowing pretty well when an avalanche was in the making. "This time," recalls Ottar, "the chalet was full of guests. We were trying to open the road to get the guests out. Emil was coming from the chalet side with the bulldozer. I was coming from the opposite direction with the snowmobile, and ""we met this side of the summit. But that was the dangerous spot. We decided to take a chance. I left the snowmobile and tried-to work my way through the snow, while Emil came on down with the bulldozer. All of a sudden I could just see the cab of the machine going sideways down the mountain, but you couldn't hear anything, just a swishing sound. Lucky for me I was just at the edge of the avalanche. If I'd got caught in that I'd have been buried. Emil was jammed solid inside the cab."
And were they able to retrieve the bulldozer?
"Oh yeah. A couple of hours later we had the road open."
But the road, sturdily switchbacking up the ridge, was always, despite all efforts, a temporary thing. As late as September they might be plowing and looking for that road under four to six feet of last winter's snow. Or summer streams of melting snow could wash away sections of it, or avalanches come down and scrape a hillside - clean, leaving huge boulders poised on the slope, waiting for the next push.
Money was a serious problem too. The chalet was open at the most for eight or nine months of the year, but the maintenance and improvement of roads and buildings was a year-round job. Joan and Ottar were married in 1948 and built their own house in Squamish. To earn a living during the off-season, the three designed and constructed log cabins for other people, or worked for logging companies.
Before their two sons were born, Joan was an equal partner in every respect, speaking for the group in dealings with the Government as well as taking her turn at the end of the bucksaw. After the children came, and she was more and more stuck down below in Squamish, she drove the guests to the chalet in the jeep, besides being chief ambulance driver for Squamish. "And up there, driving on that road," she recalls, "you got to be good, or you went over the edge."
The cost of the seven-mile jeep road from the Base Camp to the chalet was estimated in 1957 by a firm of in dependent valuators at $25,000. All but the $2,500 granted by the Department of Public Works was provided by the Brandvolds, and even this sum was a direct response to vigorous urging on their behalf by Frances Mathews. In fact they had built and kept in repair a public road into a public park with their own labour and money.
The difficulty was that they were individuals who had swung into action ahead of the slow and laborious workings of government. A Parks Branch under the Department of Lands and Forests had been created in 1948, but the park remained outside its jurisdiction. It was still administered by the Garibaldi Park Board to which the Government had contributed only $599 in twenty years. Moreover, after 1949 the Board withdrew support from Diamond Head. The Board was actually an anachronism, having been created at a time when governments relied more heavily on gifted and dedicated amateurs, noblesse oblige, to carry out certain kinds of peripheral administrative work. Its chairman, Dr. F. C. Bell, had served on the Board for nearly a quarter of a century. A tall man with a soldierly bearing who had distinguished himself in military medical service during the First World War, he, like the Brandvolds, loved Garibaldi. Year after year he hiked the well-marked trail in to Black Tusk Meadows, noting at eight or ten minute intervals in his diary the time of arrival at each familiar landmark - a rock, a waterhole, a bridge, a signpost - and comparing the times for one year with those of the next, so that each journey became a reaffirmation, familiar as a prayer. But no lovers of mountains could be more different than this meticulous, scholarly doctor and the group at Diamond Head - the sculptor, the ex-war plant worker, and the two Norwegians from the mines and logging camps. The Board did not trust the new park professionals in the civil service to do right by their park and resisted change for three years after recommendations had been put to Premier Johnson that the Board should be dissolved. During the disputes between the Government and the Board, the Brandvolds carried on alone, cutting switchbacks into the mountainside along Paul Ridge, building bridges and bulldozing their way through rock slides.
The Social Credit Government took office in 1952, and the Garibaldi Park Act was repealed the following year, bringing the park under the jurisdiction of the Parks Branch. Now people were hopeful that Garibaldi would at last be developed, and Diamond Head become the winter sports area for Vancouver. Demands for the development of the park were loud and vociferous, accompanied by splendid photographs of the chalet corniced with snow, and skiers on the open slopes of Diamond Head ringed by the glaciers and peaks of Mt. Garibaldi - surely the most photographed winter landscape in Canada. But no action was taken. The total yearly budget for the Parks Branch between 1952 and 1956 was only $700. The Norwegian sod chalet roof began to leak, for lack of the necessary strips of aluminum sheeting."We thought they were going to help us," recalls Joan. "Instead they wanted us out. For a year or so they did nothing on the road. We resisted. It was really rough."
In 1958 the Government finally bought the whole chalet complex and leased the business back to the Brandvolds, who were now in both administrative and financial limbo.
The people at the Parks Branch actually had the greatest regard for the Brandvolds. And like the Brandvolds and like Dr. Bell, they loved Garibaldi too, the hundreds of acres of thick blooming heather in the Diamond Head area not less than Garibaldi Lake, green as a mallard's head.
But for them the heather ridge was also an environment, the lake, a water recreation feature; and as park professionals they were required to assess the park's recreation potential, interpret public park needs and create policy which would fill those needs without detriment to the lakes and heather.
However, although the primary purpose of park management was the preservation of natural features, the key to development was seen to be road access all the way to Black Tusk and Diamond Head. In 1959 in B.C., the automobile was not yet regarded as mankind's twentieth-century nemesis; much less as a threat to an August meadow of michaelmas daisies.
The Parks Branch budget doubled in 1960 and half of it was earmarked for park development. Diamond Head was at last to become the long-desired winter playground for Vancouver. The "Diamond Head Preliminary Development Plan" (1959) called for parking to accommodate 1,300 cars, a five-mile summer scenic loop along the crest of Paul Ridge, a system of trails and overlooks for use by people in street wear, a large-scale ski development, snowmobile ice-touring at the base of Garibaldi Neve, a cafeteria and ski service centre and a second building with panorama observation deck. In keeping with park policy, no overnight accommodation would be provided. Diamond Head Chalet would be used for a staff dormitory. Beyond this point there would be wilderness shelters for mountaineers on the trail to Garibaldi Lake.
No sooner was the plan formulated than it began to be scaled down. With the opening of skiing at Manning Park and Whistler Mountain there was less justification for the very costly development of Diamond Head. Whistler especially, just within Garibaldi Park, was ideal; commercial facilities could be developed outside the park boundaries. Park officials were also reassessing the effect on Diamond Head of intensive development, so dependent on highways into the park. A new Park Act was passed in 1965 which defined a nature conservancy area, and subsequently the whole Black Tusk-Garibaldi-Diamond Head region was so designated. Public awareness was embracing, with enthusiastic guilt, neglected concepts of conservation, and "ecology" was becoming a household word. The big Diamond Head plan was shelved and the Brandvolds were left to operate as long as they wished, with a little road work provided, a small parking lot for fifty or sixty cars at Base Camp, and some maintenance to the chalet.
"The only mistake we made," Ottar later ruminated, "was that we chose to build inside a park." And he was right. The Brandvolds were, to borrow a phrase used by the Parks Branch in another context, "intrusions in the system." Nevertheless the Parks Branch had confidence in the Brandvolds because they didn't intrude on the landscape, but used native materials and kept the operation on a scale appropriate to the terrain. In this they had been for some years ahead of public attitude.
The much-altered plan for Diamond Head, as put forward in a new Parks Branch report on Garibaldi Park (1972), returned the higher elevations to the martens and wolverines and the outdoors enthusiasts. Only a four-wheel drive service road would be permitted to enter the Diamond Head area. The public would be required to leave their cats down below and make the last four or five miles on foot. There would be no organized ski facilities at all: the area would be given over to cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering and snow-shoeing. The chalet would provide dormitory accommodation and a communal kitchen "for low-volume' use and a semi wilderness experience." A modest development would be made lower down at a new Base Camp at the edge of the subalpine meadow country. Here, at the end of the road, would be the paved parking lot, the day-lodge with cafeteria and information centre and the asphalt trails. Public education would be the primary. objective: people would be guided to an awareness of "the ecological fragility of subalpine environments."
The latest plan (May 1974) carries the idea of preservation a step further. The heavy picnic and ski-touring traffic will be restricted to the western edge of Paul Ridge, now renamed Red Heather. This will be the end of the line for cars, at site of the proposed day-lodge. The Ridge itself, where Joan and Emil and Ottar cut their first trail and jeep road, like Black Tusk Meadows, will be specially tended to restore it to its natural state, with no development at all except a hiking trail and a ski-touring corridor from one end of the Ridge to the other. Diamond Head and all the other familiar places on the south shoulder of Garibaldi will have tent sites for hikers and skiers as well as a new hostel to replace the rapidly-deteriorating Brandvold chalet. This will be a Gothic Arch structure with sleeping facilities, a woodstove kitchen and those new-fangled bacteria-powered Swedish toilets - but no meals, no hotcakes "light as powder snow" - and no transportation. There'll be no road to the chalet, a decision which has generated much emotion among many people who have loved the chalet as their own, and has sparked an organized protest against the policy to exclude all vehicles and snowmobiles, and hence all non-hikers, from the area. The mountains, glaciers and icefieids beyond Atwell Peak and Opal Cone - and those include Garibaldi Neve, once destined to become a major tourist attraction - will be given over to the Park Rangers and wilderness mountaineers.
Ottar, Emil and Millie retired in 1972. Joan had given up Diamond Head some years earlier and remarried. Now, as Joan Gambioli, she is making sculpture her career once more. She was one of twelve sculptors to take part in the International Stone Sculpture Symposium at the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, July and August 1975.
They would have been surprised to know that they had provided, all those years, "low-volume usage" and a "semi-wilderness experience". They would have been even more surprised to know that they themselves were part of the semi-wilderness experience, they who worked long hours and accomplished much, yet took no apparent notice of passing time, any more than the mountains did.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this article was published in 1976, Joan, Ottar, and Emil have passed away. From time to time the childern and grandchildren of Joan and Ottar hike into Elfin Lakes.
To see more photos of Diamond Head Chalet, go to the "Diamond Head Chalet - Photos" page.
To see recent photos of the descendants of Joan and Ottar at Diamond Head Chalet, go to the "Reunion at Diamond Head Chalet, September 2007 - Photos" page.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in British Columbia of Scandinavian parents, Irene Howard has her M.A. in English from University of British Columbia and was an English instructor there and at Capilano College. She has broadcast talks for the CBC and written articles and essays for Canadian magazines and journals. Her special interests are biography and labour and immigrant history. She is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Gold Dust on His Shirt: The True Story of a Pioneer Mining Family. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2008
The Struggle for Social Justice in British Columbia: Helena Gutteridge, the Unknown Reformer. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992.
Bowen Island, 1872-1972. Bowen Island, BC: Bowen Island Historians, 1973.
Vancouver's Svenskar: a History of the Swedish Community in Vancouver. Vancouver: Vancouver Historical Society, 1970.
For a more detailed biography about Irene Howard and links to her publications, click here.