Monday, February 14, 2011/lk
Tucked away in a quiet, moss- covered forest at about 6,000 feet, the Tilly Jane A-frame has remained largely unchanged since it was constructed in 1939. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the rustic log building as a ski shelter about five years after building the Tilly Jane Guard Station, which sits not far away.
For many decades the A-frame has served as a refuge for weary winter climbers, a warming hut for skiers, a picnic site for day-trippers and an overnight sanctuary for people seeking adventure on the north side of Mount Hood.
And for nearly all of its existence, the A-frame has been open to the public; available to anyone with legs enough to hike to it. With a woodstove and a few picnic tables downstairs and a wide open sleeping deck upstairs, the cabin is a rather simple structure; but what it lacks in complexity it makes up in the 70-plus years of character built up over the years.
If the walls could talk, they would tell stories dating back to the early days of Mount Hood recreation, when adventurers used the cabin as a resting point during excursions higher up the mountain. Dating back to the late 1800s, the area was popular as a base camp for climbers, hikers and skiers bound for the Cooper Spur, giant crevasses and glaciers and relatively new summit routes up the north side of the mountain.
These days, although not the focus it once was, the same side of the mountain still sees plenty of use through the year; and the now-historic A-frame is still around, still a site for sore legs and seekers of the rustic mountain experience.
But the building, like many of its longtime users, is not as sturdy as it once was. It is, in fact, in fairly urgent need of some TLC if it is to last even a few more seasons.
In recent history, the organization Friends of Tilly Jane managed the cabin and its use. The conclusion of that management put the cabin back in the hands of the Mt. Hood National Forest, which did not have an established reservation system in place for the building's busiest winter months. Following an inspection of the A-frame recently, the MHNF decided management needed to be established to both limit the number of users on any given day and to maintain and make improvements to the structure.
The situation came down to two options: Find a group to manage the building or lock its doors and close it to the public.
"We heard there were about 50 people up there during its busiest nights," said Michael Dryden, USFS recreation assistant. "The building was being over-loved. From a safety standpoint, we needed to limit the number of people in there at a time."
The USFS approached the Oregon Nordic Club, which has been involved with managing use of the nearby Tilly Jane Guard Station for more than 20 years. The Portland Chapter of the ONC agreed to take on management of the A-frame and to work toward making much-needed repairs to the building.
"We agreed to do a trial lease for one year to see how things work out," said Russ Pascoe, ONC cabin manager. "If this year goes well, we'll look toward a longer-term lease that will allow us to raise funds for some much-needed repairs."
New management means the walk-in system for overnight visitors is out (walk-in day use is still allowed); replaced by an online reservation and paying system that will limit daily usage to a 20 people max. It will also keep the $15 per person fee safe; a problem the former drop box system had, as it was broken into on numerous occasions.
"It's a change that had to happen," Dryden said. "We are glad to see people using and loving the building, but with the Forest Service budget going down, we really didn't have the money to invest in it."
Skip Tschanz, member of the ONC's Columbia Gorge Chapter, has been involved with managing the Guard Station for about 20 years. Although close together, the two buildings have had very different management in recent years.
Reservations for the guard station have been fairly restricted, with only a certain number of groups allowed per winter. The A-frame, on the other hand, was open to drop-in campers without reservations.
"I view this as a very positive change for the A-frame," Tschanz said. "The building needs quite a bit of work for it to stay in use, and when 40 or 50 people are in it at once, it becomes a clear safety issue. At the guard station, we have far more requests than we have the capacity during the winter; but it's necessary to regulate use. The buildings are getting pretty old, so we need to keep a handle on their use."
Pascoe noted that an unseen but very important benefit to ONC managing the building is insurance the club carries.
"Without the insurance coverage the Oregon Nordic Club provided, the Forest Service would have been forced to close the building," he said.
"Insurance premiums dwarf the $2,000 we put into the A-frame last fall. Users don't see that, but without it they would have seen a sheet of plywood over the door this winter."