Alittle more than three and a half miles — and 1,700 vertical feet — into a hike from Lake McDonald Lodge, the trail to Gunsight Pass hooked sharply left. For a few hundred feet, the trees thinned out into a strand of burnt trunks, offering the first glimpse of Sperry Chalet, perched high in the cirque at the end of the valley.
That view from the trail wasn’t possible three years ago.
“When I was a kid, you could just see more trees from down on the trail,” said Michael Warrington, the onsite manager for Sperry this summer. “I remember my mom telling me that she remembered seeing buildings from the halfway point of the trail when she was 12. Now I can see it, but it’ll be another 20-year growth cycle before the trees block it off again.”
The Sprague Creek valley is full of similar fire scars, swaths of blackened trunks often next to copses of still-green conifers that survived the blaze that tore through the valley in 2017. The wounds left by the flames are easily visible from the deck of the chalet, but otherwise, with the hotel reopened, the fire seems a distant memory.
No fewer than two dozen people were en route to the chalet the same weekday morning. Near the top of the trail, the biweekly pack string of mules was heading down, laden with laundry and canisters of garbage, having delivered groceries, linens and propane.
Along the cliffs, several parties of hikers sat on the rocks, eating lunch and taking in the view. On a clear day, Lake McDonald shimmers at the base of the valley, surrounded by mountains.
At the dormitory building, overnight guests were preparing for a day of hiking in the park, loading up premade sandwiches from the kitchen. It looked like any other day at Sperry over the decades.
“The biggest changes between the 80s and now is there’s a new bathroom building, and we don’t do our own laundry up here,” Warrington said. “Functionally we still do the same thing.”
Every day, the chalet’s team of nine staff cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner for onsite guests and provides a comfortable place to sleep in the backcountry of the park. Warrington said that his brother Kevin, the concessionaire who operates the chalet, hoped that this summer, the first for Sperry after a two-year, $12 million rebuild, would be a normal one.
“I don’t think there is such a thing,” Warrington said. “We had an avalanche take off the back deck of the hotel one year and cram rooms full of snow. We’ve had fire evacuations and smoke that made it difficult to operate. We’ve had droughts and rationed water from the reservoir, and now COVID.”
“I think normal is: We come up here, we serve three meals a day and put people up overnight,” he continued. “But the circumstances we do it in, is always a surprise.”
The COVID-19 pandemic this summer put a damper on what would have been a season-long celebration of the chalet’s reopening. Day hikers aren’t allowed to enter any buildings onsite, and instead of the normal lunch service, there is just a window where visitors can buy snacks.
When the first guests, Grace and Landon Gardner of Missoula, arrived on July 18, they did so without fanfare. Forty guests joined them for the first night in the revived chalet.
“We were just happy to be back in business,” Warrington said. “Everyone who has come up seems to be pretty happy as well.”
The rebuilt structure is virtually indistinguishable from the original. The masons who did the walls and interior work on the dormitory did so with such craftsmanship and detail that Warrington doubts anyone can tell it isn’t the original.
Anyone but him, that is.
“I’ve got this dissonance in my head every time I go in there,” he said. “It feels really familiar but it’s brand new — it’s got this new car feel to it. That’s a little odd to me.”
On Aug. 10, 2017, an evening lightning strike started a small wildfire, and fire managers conducting initial ground and aerial surveys of the blaze considered it manageable. Because of the fire location, the main access to Sperry Chalet from Lake McDonald Lodge was cut off. The decision was made to evacuate the chalet as a precaution. Guests trekked out 13.5 miles over Lincoln and Gunsight passes. The last group of hikers to leave had arrived barely 24 hours earlier.
Two weeks later, the Sprague fire had burned 2,095 acres and was inching closer to Sperry. On Aug. 31, a crew of four firefighters and one maintenance employee was stationed at Sperry to cover fire activity.
According to an independent review of the incident, fire activity increased in the early afternoon, fueled by winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour. At 3:30 p.m., a firefighter noticed smoke coming from the corner of the dining hall roof. Using a Pulaski, two firefighters pulled a “rat’s nest size pile” of burning debris that was lodged under the eaves and managed to extinguish it.
For hours, the firefighters battled “hundreds” of spot fires around the chalet buildings, until fire activity finally slowed during the evening.
At 6 p.m., however, a firefighter noticed smoke issuing from a second floor window of the hotel dormitory.
One crew member sprayed the building with water while two others tried to enter to see if they could fight the fire from inside but were turned back by thick smoke that limited visibility to mere feet.
According to the incident report, “the fire grew rapidly with flames reaching the underside of the dormer and extending to the roof shingles within minutes. Over the next hour, the fire continued to grow in size and intensity, consuming the majority of combustible materials in the building’s south half.”
That evening, Michael Warrington and Jeff Kuhn, a geologist who leads workshops for chalet guests, were hiking back from Ahern Pass along the Highline Trail when they noticed the wind picking up.
“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to be really windy over by Sperry and it might blow the fire right up Sprague Creek,’” Warrington recalled. “We came around the corner on the Highline Trail and saw the black cloud of smoke behind Mt. Brown and we both just stopped and looked at each other.”
“I could just feel it.”
When they reached Granite Park, the texts started coming through: despite “heroic measures,” the chalet was a total loss.
“Devastating is the best word I can come up with,” he said. “It was a death in the family.”
Members of the Luding-Warrington family have been the concessionaires in charge of operating Sperry and its sister chalet, Granite Park, since 1954.
“It really caused a lot of reflection in the family,” Warrington said. “It’s our livelihood.”
He remembers being shown photos of the ruins: bent and twisted bedframes, melted glass and doorknobs lying amongst blackened rubble.
Warrington had to see it for himself. He came up the next spring with his daughter, right after the snows had dissipated in June.
“What’s another way to say choked up?” he asked, before falling silent in reflection.
“It had the old burnt-out Irish castle feel to it,” he said. “I figured if they didn’t rebuild it, the walls won’t stand forever, but they’ll stand long enough that curiosity seekers will come see what was once here.”
But the process to rebuild was already underway.
The morning after the dormitory was gutted, Doug Mitchell, newly appointed executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, was talking to the park superintendent about next steps. The Conservancy quickly raised around $100,000 and paid for lumber to be brought up to stabilize the stone walls throughout the winter.
“The east wall was leaning and probably wouldn’t have survived the winter without that effort,” Warrington said. “That created momentum and an outpouring of public support, which was worldwide.”
All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation voiced their support for the rebuild, at one point standing shoulder to shoulder to shoulder on the nightly news to make their case. It also helped that then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was a Whitefish native, which brought a local connection to the national stage.
Providing a bit of extra media attention, Sen. Jon Tester announced his intention to bring the Capitol Christmas Tree, an Engelmann Spruce harvested form the Kootenai National Forest to adorn the steps of the Capitol in D.C., back to Montana for use in the rebuild.
The Interior Department secured $12 million to fund the reconstruction efforts, and the contract to rebuild was awarded to Dick Anderson Construction of Great Falls.
The 2018 season was the longest ever at Sperry. Usually crews shut down the week after Labor Day, but staff served three meals a day through October, making sure the construction crews were fed.
Warrington was running supplies up to the site and coming up on pack-train days to watch the progress. For a while, construction seemed to be behind schedule, with a hard exit from the site once winter took hold creeping closer.
The crews shifted from driving in from Great Falls every week to staging at Nyack and flying in via helicopter with supplies. Three weeks after the change, they were caught up. After a month, they were ahead of schedule and got the roof up before the snow came.
In 2019, the masons continued working. They took three feet off the top of the walls, where the fire had burned hottest and damaged the rock. New stones were harvested from the boulder field that extends down from Gunsight Mountain to the Sperry basin.
The rest of the summer was spent doing interior work, matching it to original photos of the building as closely as possible. The Capitol Christmas tree is currently part of the newly raised staircase.
Reservations for this summer opened up in January. The queue filled up in four minutes, and more than 3,000 people requested reservations. Sperry can only accommodate around 600 guests over a summer season, and the rest received “we’re sorry” emails.
“I feel that Sperry and Granite, we’re the nation’s smallest hotels with the largest demand,” Warrington said. He plans to research that this winter for proof.
The demand is so high that Warrington can picture a future where the other original chalets in the park are rebuilt. When Sperry was constructed in 1914, there were eight chalets throughout Glacier Park.
“I think the reconstruction of Sperry demonstrated that if willpower is there, the money will come and it can be done,” Warrington said. “It’s a good example of everyone pulling together and doing something for the good of community.”
The interest in Sperry has been high this summer despite the coronavirus. When Warrington first arrived to ready the site for guests, there was a near-continuous line of day hikers, with 50 to 100 people hiking in every day.
“The construction area was roped off, but people would stand around yellow tape with cameras, chatting with the workers,” he said. “This place is meant to be shared … it’s a magical place for a lot of people who don’t even realize it.”
In the first month of the season, Warrington said that almost every night a guest shared a story about visiting the chalet in the weeks before the fire, or having had reservations canceled when the building burned.
“We’ve had guests that were part of the group that evacuated over the pass, and guests who just really wanted to see the new building and share their stories,” he said. “Those are happy moments for us, knowing this place is going to affect people for 100 years.”
Of all the guests Warrington interacts with, he especially enjoys meeting those visiting for the first time.
“I have no first memory of this place — I was 1 the first time I came up,” he said. “I live vicariously through people who are having their first experience. It just gets me every time.”