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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 6 (May-June 1950)

Shapes for Shelters in the Mountains

page 120

Shapes for Shelters in the Mountains

In this article, an authority on the Southern Alps examines critically the principles and expedients of design of bush and mountain refuges.

My scope is huts I have no space here for tents, caves, overhanging rocks, hollow trees, mai-mais or roofless bivouacs, however cunningly contrived. My scene is limited to the Southern Alps. Let an Aucklander analyse the periodicity of the rash of ski palaces that threatens to afflict Ruapehu in between eruptions. My cast includes musterers, prospectors, mountaineers, ski-ers, trampers, deer killers, and all those who need alpine shelter or forest security. My stage-hands are sweaty packers, and wryly humorous builders.

An Indigenous Affair

The luxury of Swiss mountain huts and the ubiquitous refuge are not for the New Zealand climber or bush traveller, who must not only inure himself to heavy swagging but must also accept gratefully dry huts that are sheathed with truly horrible design. Indeed, I stand open to a charge of ingratitude when I point the finger at huts which have saved my comfort and sometimes my life. But it is because there is some hope for the future that I criticise the past. Faults in design have sometimes been caused by misunderstanding of function, as when pencil-suckers have confused tramping parties with cattle and sketched for their use a barn. Faults in design have other times been caused by confusion of form, when the hut grows like Topsey, with a porch-porch here, and a ski-rack there, here a porch, there a porch, everywhere a porch-porch. Whatever the virtues and vices of our huts they are usually conditioned by consideration of weights, durability and economy, flavoured by the New Zealand motto of “She's Jake” which could well stand embossed above every door.

As examples I illustrate my argument with photographs of six huts; some good, some bad; some museum pieces, some sign-posts. The First is Duncan's Hut of the Rakaia Valley which between 1895 and 1945 accumulated a heap of tradition not, however, sufficient to save it from death by burial alive. Duncan was an old musterer turned prospector. He built his hut with totara slabs on a grass flat by a lagoon that reflected snowy mountains. Dignity and sense of history endeared the hut to generations of travellers and even young mountaineers were known to spend the odd day rebuilding the chimney with earth sods. Stalkers gave deer-skins to help, and musterers left a spare billy or so for their seasonal work. Duncan's was simple, primitive, and made from local materials; it blended into the landscape till the landscape swept down from a height and overwhelmed all.

The Second is Brown's Creek Hut, Aorere Valley, Nelson Province. This is another simple shack; dark perhaps, but welcome in a storm or in winter cold. An alien note intrudes; the edge of corrugated iron. It makes a good roof, but only if well lined. It is ugly as wall-board, and intractable in winds.

Thus comes The Third hut now illustrated—Carrington in the Waimakariri. Would you shiver in July or swelter in December, grope in twilight at noon, or stumble around for a torch at midnight, cry from smoke at dawn or laugh from rare stories at dusk, hear the thunder of the rain on tin or the squawk of keas on the roof ridge? These, and other things I have done in the Carrington, but seldom comfortably. For Carrington was the first effort for the Canterbury Mountaineering Club that has since rebuilt it sensibly and 16 other huts as well. And Carrington in the page 121 original spelt no warmth, no grace, little light, and less design. It gave us a base for climbs, and shelter for a passhop, but we learnt that all iron, one little window, and waste loft space could be improved vastly.

So followed more compact, better lit, and clean-looking huts. One, The Fourth in this series, even had a modern architect to insist on valid proportions and magnificent window space. Admitted, rail access to this particular hut at Arthur's Pass made it easy to build, and the generous glazing rewarded the closely-cropped weatherboards. Even war years did not stop all hut building or vitiate maintenance. And the experience of pre-fabrication and light materials made for noteworthy experiments. The Fifth in our series was at the foot of hanging glaciers, and walled-in by jagged rock ridges of the Arrowsmith Range, which scowled angrily at any whispers of air-drops. So the mountaineers designed a hut whose total bulk weighed only 7 cwt.—a burden they could shoulder on their packs on a long weekend for many hours of solid climbing. After two winters it seemed that the perspex windows, three-ply lining and floors, lightweight timber for studs and plates, and aluminium sheeting would stand the rigours of all the winter storms, but last spring an avalanche rumbled down and crushed the hut beyond repair, so that the builders must find another place and more material.

The Sixth and Last of these illustrations answers one important question: why not use local stone? There in the Matukituki Valley of Otago, within sight of proud Aspiring, now dwells the spacious New Zealand Alpine Club hut in which the walls and chimney were formed from the local schist rock, the mortar was made from river gravel and sand, and the back pillars and mantelpiece from bush. Horse, sledge and GMC truck moved 150 tons of rock. Other regions are less fortunate; with no road access, no stonemasons available, no flat rocks, and no raw material for mortar, little can be done except the conventional use of iron and rimu.

There remains room for skilled planning to make the hut design both practical inside and in keeping with its rugged decor. Sheep men, ski men, ice men, rock men, Uncle Tom Hunter and all—let many windows and much simplicity be your lot.

The first, second, third and fifth-photographs by John Pascoe. The fourth photograph from Paul Pascoe (architect). The sixth photograph by A. R. Craigie, N.Z. Alpine Club.