January 20, 2013

Rough it in style: Sperry Chalet

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana – We were 12 miles from the nearest trailhead, 8,000 feet up a mountain pass so steep a staircase had been dynamited out of the cliff.

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana – We were 12 miles from the nearest trailhead, 8,000 feet up a mountain pass so steep a staircase had been dynamited out of the cliff. Our second of three grizzly-bear encounters would occur on our way down, and we were quite grizzled ourselves after three days without a shower.

All this virile ruggedness suddenly seemed for naught, though, when my friend interrupted our hike to ask: "What kind of pie are you gonna get today?"

If I told you I roughed it for my birthday this past July, pushing myself like I was still 22 and fit as a racehorse, I wouldn't be lying. If I also told you that I slept like a baby in a warm bed at night and my meals were catered to me daily (with dessert), that would be true, too.

Such is the comfy but crushing dichotomy of Sperry Chalet, a hike-in-only mini-hotel near the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park in Montana. Built in 1914, the 17-room granite-walled structure was part of a chain of nine high-elevation retreats built by Louis Hill, son of a railroad baron.

Now a National Historic Landmark, Sperry is one of two such chalets left in Glacier. And it's the only one where you'll be offered a piece of blueberry or peach pie upon arrival. (The other, Granite Park Chalet, is a serviceless, cook-your-own facility.)

Make no mistake, though: Getting to Sperry Chalet is no piece of cake. The seven-mile hike up Sperry Trail – the easier of two routes – sharply gains 3,500 feet in elevation. You can travel by horseback for $165, which is how a few retirees and all of the chalet's supplies arrived during our visit. Otherwise, you have to hoof it up yourself.

We four middle-aged boys made the trek much harder than it needed to be, stocking our backpacks with birthday beer and other libations in lieu of the usual tents, food, stove and cooking utensils. Not having to carry up a heavy pack is one of Sperry Chalet's main selling points.

The reason to go, however, is that it's unlike any other mountain experience offered in U.S. national parks. Just staring out the window is unforgettable. A couple of times when we looked out, one of the woolly mountain goats that hang around the chalet was looking in at us.

No wonder reservations at Sperry can be harder to come by than a mountain-lion sighting. The company that manages it for the National Park Service starts booking rooms in late October for the following summer's season. (See for information.) The seasons are naturally short, too.

Sperry was part of the Hill family's grand scheme to create an "American Alps" to drive up rail traffic to the park. It worked for about 40 years. Later, when America took to the highways after World War II, most of the chalets fell by the wayside – literally for the one lost to an avalanche.

Accommodations are pretty much the same as 99 years ago. There's no electricity in the rooms. No lighting, heating or running water, either. Walls are so thin that earplugs are stocked on the bedside tables. The antique beds and thick blankets are a bit lumpy and musty, too.

After a day of hard hiking over rocky terrain, you'll think you're at a Ritz Carlton – at least until you need a toilet or sink; they're in a newer building 100 yards from the chalet. (There are no showers.)

"Take a flashlight if you run to the restroom in the middle of the night," one of the 15 or so staffers advised us. No kidding: One wrong step in the dark, and you'll wind up halfway down the mountain.

At the heart of every Sperry stay is the dining hall, with its high log-frame ceiling and checkered tablecloths. The stoves, refrigeration and lights in the hall run on propane, and the meals run like clockwork. Pack lunches are ready first thing in the morning for eager day hikers to take with them. After dinner is cleared, guests are welcome to hang out in the dining room for games or conversation (alcohol is prohibited in the hall).

One of our grizzly encounters occurred just outside the dining room one afternoon, a rare event even for the staff. The park ranger who stays at the chalet told us the bear was a 2-year-old male they had been watching since birth – always from afar, though.

"I wish I could've Maced him," he told us after the lad quickly skedaddled away. "We don't want him to think he can come wandering in here whenever he wants."

As much as we enjoyed hanging around the chalet, the peak of our trip still lay above. We did a nice little afternoon hike toward Lincoln Peak on our first day, where we looked down at Lake Ellen Wilson and one of the park's tallest waterfalls, Beaver Chief Falls.

The area's showpiece, though, is the chalet's namesake glacier.

Sperry Glacier can be reached via a 31/2-mile one-way scramble up over Comeau Pass, where the blasted-out staircase is. The trail's opening was delayed to allow park staff to put in "bridges," a generous word for the long wood planks laid over the mid-July snowmelt pouring down the mountainside. Scarier, though, was the snow itself.

We hit the first of several icy packs about an hour into our hike. It took one friend all of two minutes to lose his footing in it. He went sliding down the hillside uncontrollably, never really in mortal danger. That didn't keep the rest of us from crediting ourselves for saving his life by instructing him to use his hiking stick for an ice ax. There were several more precarious snow crossings where a real ice ax might have been justified.

Sperry is one of 25 active glaciers left in Glacier National Park. Like all the others, it's melting fast. More than 35 percent of Sperry's surface area has vanished since 1965, leaving it now around 200 acres. Some experts fear that Glacier could lose all its glaciers over the next decade.

Fortunately, Sperry Chalet doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Having survived the decline of the railroad, an icky wastewater quagmire in the '90s and harsh winter conditions, it's just a year away from its 100th anniversary.

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