Duo strives to save the “cradle of Canadian mountaineering”

The small, six-chalet village in Golden, British Columbia, served as a residence for Swiss mountain guides in the early 1900s. Last year, it went up for sale for $2.3 million.

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A piece of Canadian mountaineering history goes on sale near Golden, British Columbia, in the form of a small Swiss-inspired village, while a movement to preserve the area as a landmark history continues to gain ground.

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Edelweiss Village was listed for sale at $2.3 million in early 2021. It is made up of six chalets built between 1910 and 1912, which served as residences for Swiss mountain guides hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway. A main lodge was built on the 50 acre site in 1978 and the over 100 year old cottages had their plumbing, heating and electrical components updated in the 2000s to modern standards.

But instead of a private sale that would likely see the historic buildings renovated for use as rentals or vacation homes, Ilona Spaar and Johann Roduit are working to buy and preserve the village, which has significant significance in Canadian history and Swiss.

Spaar and Roduit, both now living in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, grew up in Switzerland and have strong ties to that country’s mountain range, the Alps. Spaar is a historian who wrote a book on the heritage of Swiss guides in Canada entitled Shaping Mountain Culture in Western Canada. Roduit is an elected delegate to the Council of the Swiss Abroad for Western Canada and sits on the Board of Directors of the Canadian-Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Vancouver.

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Roduit came across the village in September 2020 while passing through Golden. Soon after, he contacted Spaar to begin work on a digital preservation project for the village, but only a few months later it was put up for sale.

“Things got a bit accelerated there,” Roduit said.

“Seeing the historical significance of it, all we were (thought was), ‘I think it deserves so much more than just digital preservation.’ We are talking here about… one of the cradles of Canadian mountaineering.

By the late 1800s, CP Rail had invested in and promoted mountain tourism as it grew in popularity internationally. Golden was a hotspot for tourists – the town was easily accessible by rail and located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But allowing unguided and inexperienced orienteers into the treacherous landscapes had tragic consequences.

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“There were deaths. And so they realized they needed experts,” Spaar said.

To bolster security measures, CP looked to Europe, where the Swiss had a long history of successful mountain expeditions through the Alps. CP Rail hired experienced guides during the summers to lead the climbs in the Rockies. The seasonal nature of the work, however, began to weigh on the guides, with boat trips across the Atlantic Ocean taking over three weeks. The guides began suggesting to CP that they would like permanent residency in the area.

This is how Edelweiss Village was born in 1910, the home of Swiss guides and their families. The architectural inspiration was taken from the Swiss chalets of the time to make them feel more at home. But, says Spaar, the Calgary architect who designed them had never visited Switzerland, which gave unique qualities to the design.

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“You won’t find (this style) anywhere else in the world,” she said.

While living in these homes, the guides led thousands of ascents in all parts of the Canadian Rockies, providing one of the first widespread public exposures in Banff and Lake Louise and playing a vital role in the appearance of these precious mountain towns. Spaar said those same guides also built another Rocky Mountain landmark in the Abbot Pass Hut, which has long served as a refuge for hikers in its nearly 100-year history. The cabin is to be demolished this spring.

Currently, Spaar and Roduit continue to draw public attention to their efforts to save Edelweiss. Their efforts have recently attracted international media attention as far away as Poland and have been widely covered by Swiss and Canadian media.

The duo are working to create the Swiss Edelweiss Village Foundation, together with the Golden Museum and other local players, after which they will start crowdfunding to buy the village. If they raise enough money to buy the village, they then plan to restore the chalets and preserve the site as a sustainable tourist destination.

“I grew up in a 300-year-old chalet in the Swiss Alps,” Spaar said. “Coming from Europe, it’s almost obvious that you can restore it.”

[email protected]

Twitter: @michaelrdrguez

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