Kevin Warrington doesn't want to count how many times he's had to tell hopeful Sperry Chalet guests that damage from the winter's avalanche in Glacier National Park is forcing him to cancel their room reservations.
"I don't even want to look at it," Warrington says. "It's very heartbreaking."
As Sperry Chalet's coordinator, Warrington's been left to break the news that an avalanche, believed to have happened in February, damaged windows, doors and fixtures in the rustic 100-year-old lodging. Visitors first spotted the slide in May, and as the snow melted in the following weeks, park staffers discovered that the toll on the iconic structure was greater then originally anticipated.
"We realized some of the rafters were crushed," Warrington says.
Sperry opened for the season more than a week late because of the destruction. Three of 17 guest rooms were out of commission, as of July.
The closure has been tough on Sperry regulars, many of whom have a strong emotional attachment to the hotel. Sperry is only accessible via a 6.5-mile trail, by foot or horseback. Nestled at 6,500 feet between Gunsight Peak and Edwards Mountain, the perch is ideal to take in a bird's-eye view or soak in the structure's history. (Note to would-be visitors: Park officials this summer warned against taking the Gunsight Pass Trail to the chalet due to a damaged suspension bridge; check the sperrychalet.com website before sallying forth on it this fall.)
Railroad tycoon and developer James J. Hill built the chalet in 1913 to accommodate the fresh wave of travelers making their way across the West on his newly constructed Great Northern Railway. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the chalet has no electricity, heat, or running water. Other than a modernized kitchen and the new composting restroom, it looks much as it did nearly 90 years ago, avalanche smackdown aside.
Experts blame the slide on the extraordinary amount of precipitation that's fallen on Montana this year. The first half of 2011 was the wettest in the state's recorded history, according to the National Weather Service.
Snowdrifts 25 feet high towered over snowplows well into summer. Camp-grounds like Two Medicine and Many Glacier opened weeks late. The Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn't clear for travelers until July 13, marking only the third time in the park's 100-year history that the winding road failed to open for the July 4 holiday. June visits to the park were down 20 percent from 2010.
"We're definitely in some unprecedented territory here as far as this late melt," says Glacier spokeswoman Ellen Blickhan.
As for Sperry, the chalet closed, at the end of August, rather then early September, as is typical. Warrington says the early closure will enable crews to begin making repairs before the snow starts to fly, better ensuring the chalet will be ready to run full steam when it opens to guests again—next July.