Goats, rain, snow and fire: stories from the Sperry rebuild

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Crews from Dik Andersen Construction put down flooring in the Sperry Chalet.

Nick DeLude spent the better part of a day digging a 6-foot deep hole that would eventually be a new footer for the Sperry Chalet. Anyone whose ever tried to dig a hole in the rock that is Glacier National Park knows how hard that can be. Sprinkle in some oppressive July heat and biting flies and you have the makings of a special kind of hell, one with a view.

DeLude ate supper at the chalet dining hall and went to bed, exhausted.

When he got up the next morning, the hole was filled back, “and there stood a mountain goat with a black face.”

Such are the hazards of taking on what might have been one of the most unique construction contracts in the Park Service, check that, the entire U.S.

DeLude was one of the crew for Dick Anderson Construction. Anderson had previously done work at the chalet about 20 years before, but when the project to rebuild the chalet was announced by the Park Service a little more than a year ago, the corporate office told project manager Travis Neil to not even bother to submit a bid.

“We went behind their back and did it anyway,” Neil explained during a recent talk hosted by the Glacier National Park Volunteer Associates.

“When we got the project, we were in real trouble,” Neil told the crowd with a smile.

The chalet had been gutted by the Sprague Fire in the summer of 2017. All that remained was the outer stone walls and a couple of wobbly chimneys. The contract required a new foundation, a new super structure made of steel and wood beams, and a new roof, among other things. The old stone walls would remain, but for all intents and purposes, it would have a steel building inside of the stone.

It would have been a challenging job if the chalet had been accessible by road, but it isn’t — it’s 6.5 miles up the trail from Lake McDonald in Glacier. You can count on snow in September.

Everything would have to be flown in or brought in by mule and foot. Crews started on July 9. They went hard at it, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., living in two big wall tents. The staff at the chalet made sure they were well fed, the Glacier National Park Conservancy did a significant fundraiser to keep the kitchen open and staffed.

There was a new challenge everyday, noted head carpenter Rob Terrio. Terrio has 32 years in the military working with helicopters and 28 years with Anderson.

“This by far was the most important job I’ve ever done,” he said.

The work was demanding.

For example, once they had the above-mentioned footer dug, a helicopter flew in the concrete and the crews hand-carried it to the forms in the building. Fourteeen yards of concrete in 14 hours, hauled in with 5-gallon buckets. That night, the mountain goats walked in the cement. If the footers are ever exposed again, the goat tracks will be revealed.

The goats and the marmots had to inspect everything. The crews learned to not set down their tool belts or they’d get chewed on.

Goats and marmots weren’t the only other challenges Mother Nature dished up. The Howe Ridge Fire exploded along the shores of Lake McDonald in August. At first, the crews thought the flames were on their side of the valley and they’d have to evacuate. The fire came with a silver lining, however. The Park Service closed the road, and thus, the visitors.

They had the chalet to themselves for several weeks, which made it easier to work, without having to worry about a tourist checking out the work site (even though it was closed). Two crews alertnated weeks on the chalet. One crew would hike in and the other would hike out. On the days they hiked in, they’d start out from home at 3 a.m., get to the Park, hike to the chalet, and then work until 7 p.m.

The crunch time came in late September. The horribly hot summer had now transitioned to cold weather, with rain and snow. They still had to get the roof beams up.

The decision was made to hoist the beams, which weighed hundreds of pounds, up to the rafters by helicopter. Terrio had done the math so the sling would pick up the beams at the perfect angle. But the weather, at least at first, didn’t cooperate. Snow and rain persisted. But they finally got a window in the weather, and once things got rolling, they were able to put up a beam every minute and a half.

“You didn’t realize how tired you were until the end of the day,” DeLude said. “Using the helicopter was so much fun.”

A few days later and they had the temporary roof and roof membrane on. The contract was completed on Oct. 12. By then, chalet was surrounded by snow as winter set into the high country.

This summer, the second phase of the project is set to complete the job. There is no guarantee Anderson will get it. The first contract, because of time constraints, was only advertised to four Montana firms. The second phase, which will complete all of the finish work and shore up the chalet’s 105-year-old stonework, is an open bid, available to any firm that qualifies. The project has been officially announced.’

Neil said Anderson will most certainly bid on the project — and this time, with the blessing of the corporate office.

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