Asulkan Ruminations — Hut Review

Post by blogger | December 5, 2013      

Four days in the legendary Asulkan Cabin. It’s rustic, but to a ski mountaineer this is the Queen Mary, only with skiing. Asulkan is a simple cabin in a sublime location. Understated, nothing pretentious. Quite a contrast to some of the luxury diggs we’ve experienced in Europe. Having been to hundreds of “huts,” here is my take on Asulkan through the lens of planning our own mountain hut construction (one of my dreams).

Asulkan Cabin, close to the ideal self-service mountain hut.

Asulkan Cabin, close to the ideal self-service mountain hut.

Overall: As with many of the higher huts in Europe, Asulkan is provisioned by helicopter. This is obvious in how spartan everything is. More, it’s evident the place is well used if not over-used, making upkeep challenging. I like the “humanized” feel of a shelter that gets traffic, but it’s obvious Asulkan is a lot of work for the folks on maintenance. One has to admire how we’ll they’re doing.

Conventional steel residential door greets you. Nothing pretentious other than the deserving mountains rising above.

Conventional steel residential door greets you. Nothing pretentious other than the deserving mountains rising above.

Energy: Cooking and lighting are supplied via propane gas. I’ve always felt this was a terrific way to avoid the tyranny of cellulose fuel. The crackling wood stove can be a beautiful thing, but gathering and splitting firewood are not essential to backcountry skiing. The problem with gas is it can get dangerous. Asulkan has the essential timer valve on the heater, but the cooktop and gas lighting are not on timers. It’s not a particularly airtight cabin so perhaps accidental gas isn’t a problem. But I was surprised the place had neither a carbon monoxide detector nor a gas detector.

One appreciated takaway idea is these high quality propane cooktops. On order for WildSnow HQ.

One appreciated takaway idea is these high quality propane cooktops. On order for WildSnow HQ.

View (sort of) below the hut. Good skiing down here when the alpine is socked in.

View (sort of) below the hut. Good skiing down here when the alpine is socked in.



Size: 12 people is the maximum by reservation, and would be a bit “friendly.” The approximately 16 x 20 foot floor plan (321 square feet) is not exactly the great room of a 10th Mountain Hut in Colorado, or a gigantic gasthaus in Austria, but it has a good feel. Upstairs is all bunks, most of the continuous variety found in “lagers” worldwide. Bring earplugs and don’t kick in our sleep or you’ll make enemies. Me, my problem is I’m a talking and shouting sleeper (gets rather embarrassing in the bunk room, especially when I start shouting random female names), perhaps I need a muzzle along with the ear plugs.

View from the kitchen area.

View from the kitchen area.

Another view of dining/leisure area. Enough room for a simulated hospital bed.

Another view of dining/leisure area. Enough room for a simulated hospital bed.

Construction: Asulkan’s post-and-beam construction is probably a good solution for a solid structure that can be kitted out for heli transport. Problem with post-beam is how you fill in the rectangular bays formed by the superstructure. You can do a nice job with the carpentry, then as the structure expands and contracts is seems to always leave gaps that may cause rather robust air movement. Only solution I’ve found is lots of work caulking, and re-caulking with best quality flexible caulk. Doing so is a huge amount of tedious work, and expensive. I can just imagine the battle they’ve been fighting to keep those cracks closed up.

Dining tables and steep stairs up to the sleeping area.

Dining tables and steep stairs up to the sleeping area.

Another view of the porch as you enter the hut.

Another view of the porch as you enter the hut.

Sanitation: Outhouse works on the barrel system. Wherein a large container rests under the toilet seat. When filled, the container is moved outside, capped, and replaced with an empty. All flown out by heli. This basic system is used for quite a few huts worldwide, but nowadays you have to wonder if we could _finally_ get a composting toilet to work in this sort of situation. Indeed, I’m thinking we need to experiment with this at Wildsnow Field HQ, where we now use a variation of the barrel system. We were surprised to find no designated “pee hole” or tube near the building, instead the hut was surrounded by frozen plots of the proverbial yellow left by previous visitors. Again, something we could do better with ourselves at HQ, so now I’m inspired to work harder on a viable system.

Dry cabin living: The usual sink that drains to buckets. When filled you drain the buckets into a dry well a few feet outside the door. We learned a cool trick from how Asulkan has this set up. Probably familiar to you guys who do the dry cabin thing, but new to us: Set a strainer on the bucket so dish water gets the solids taken out, to be burned, scattered, or hauled out (depending on each hut’s situation). All water at Asulkan is obtained by melting snow, large pots on top of the propane heater do a fine job of this (a process we’re used to from many of the Colorado huts).

That’s about it. Asulkan. What a special place. Can’t wait to return and hopefully get to the alpine we had to miss. Good job Canadians!

More info from Parks Canada.

More info from Parks Canada.

(Note, I’m thinking of starting a new category, Mountain Huts. We’ll review the huts we visit, from the point of view as a builder as well as a guest. Should be fun.)


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32 Responses to “Asulkan Ruminations — Hut Review”

  1. Richard Elder December 5th, 2013 9:51 am

    Sounds like a great trip up to the flat landing part!

    A couple of comments on hut design.

    Both esthetically and functionally timber frame post and beam makes a lot of sense. I’ve done several such structures held together by mortise and tendon joinery and oak pegs. Dwight Smith at Hamill Creek Timberworks just down the road from Rodgers Pass has an automated mill that produces the timbers very efficiently . I believe they did the lodge at Rodgers Pass a number of years ago. And using SIP panels for the walls and roof would provide great insulation and possibly be light enough that they could be flown in by chopper.

    re composting toilets: I wasn’t a believer until I sailed on a boat in the Bahamas for two weeks with one. The end product of three people for two weeks was a fairly small bag of odorless compost. No need to fly it out in a barrel— just broadcast it out from the chopper as its flying over the forest! LOL

  2. M December 5th, 2013 10:40 am

    Talking and shouting while asleep? Nerves. You might want to learn some meditation. Calms down Your mind so that You’ll be more rested after sleeping, too.

  3. Jack December 5th, 2013 1:31 pm

    My dream is to do a passivhaus style, high eco-value hut, as an ecology and low petro-chemical use demonstration. Year round climbing and AT access would be ideal.

  4. Mike December 5th, 2013 4:11 pm

    I would love to see a Mountain Huts category. Between your mobile hut and the high tech Gervasutti Hut I have really enjoyed this topic in the past. Having an ongoing topic of how to build, operate, and maintain mountain shelters would be great. As always, I wish we had more of these in our mountain ranges.

    Also, I think Richard’s idea of using SIPs to be flown in and assembled is a perfect choice. Really very similar to the Gervasutti Hut, if maybe a bit less prefabricated.

  5. Rob S. December 5th, 2013 7:47 pm

    Two thumbs up for the idea of a hut reviews category!

    And once again, continues to amaze with the diversity of it’s content. “Composting toilets for the discriminating backcountry traveler…” 🙂

  6. Brandon December 5th, 2013 10:20 pm

    Excellent review/post! Wish to echo the support for a hut section. My family is gearing up for construction or rather assembly next year, as this winter will be the building of the kit to transport up. Thanks again for the post and pics, some great content 🙂

  7. Jernej December 6th, 2013 4:13 am

    Since you’re looking for ideas…it’s a bivouac but seems to be of similar size as the Asulkan:
    Use google translate if you want to read but there’s enough photographic evidence.

    Another idea for mountain huts: constructed wetland for waste water treatment
    I’ve once read a thesis exploring viability of this principle in our alpine huts but it was in Slovene. If you want I’ll dig it up.

    And finally – cross laminated timber would probably solve most of your expansion/contraction problems

  8. Wayne December 6th, 2013 5:02 am

    Interesting: On their list of “what to bring” they include smoke detector

  9. Gentle Sasquatch December 6th, 2013 6:25 am

    great idea for the hut review category.

  10. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 6:38 am

    Wayne, that is indeed interesting (grin). But I’m more concerned about carbon monoxide when propane is used for heating and cooking. If the Asulkan was tighter this would be more important. Even so, CO is really heinous, especially the way it accumulates in your body during multiple exposures, and is oderless.

  11. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 7:04 am

    I was actually pretty surprised the toilet system was not composting. But the effective ones I know of do require solar power (for fan) and if they get too cold they quit working. Perhaps it’s just too cold up there and the days are too short for composting to be practical. I do know I’m putting one in at our cabin as soon as possible, since at this point we haul out our waste and doing so is a hassle. But I also know that to put in our toilet I first have to build an insulated, solar heated (with propane backup) outhouse, which is a lot more work than buying a toilet and hooking it to a vent line and electrical cable (grin).

  12. Dell Todd December 6th, 2013 7:19 am

    Composting toilets are a great thing but low temps shut down the process. It’s possible in a high alpine composting toilet that it would be a simple bucket (not compost) from September thru May when it warms up again – without aux heat such as a 100 watt light bulb or heater, which is a pretty big electrical load when off grid. They need something like 50 degrees. Thanks for the hut report. I love the idea of a series, also including a retroactive series of all the beautiful huts you’ve visited.

  13. Dell Todd December 6th, 2013 7:21 am

    Lou feel free to delete my post which duplicates your post about low temps which went up while I was writing (slowly) while working.

  14. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 7:42 am

    Dell, thanks, I’ll leave it up as it’s a good addition. Yeah, the temperature is the key. What I’m thinking is I can build a super-insulated structure with solar gain and thermal mass, with a backup propane heater. The vent can easily be run on solar PV, and run below grade for a ways to temper incoming air during winter. It sounds like the best approach for me is to concentrate on the building of the outhouse, and just buy any of the many composting toilets already available. Quite a challenge to do something that would be 100% reliable for winter temps. Summer, easy. In terms of human factors, it sounds like the big deal is to make sure the crap doesn’t get too wet. All the toilets I’ve looked at make a big deal out of separating urine, but from what I’ve heard it’s best to try and get the user to separate #1 and #2 to different locations. Also good to just burn the toilet paper as it composts very slowly. We already do the separation with our system, so no big deal. But it’s hard for guests who aren’t used to it. So one of the commercial systems with urine separator is a good thing. One thing for you guys considering building cabins, remember you can always incinerate human waste if you run a wood stove. I’ve been in several cabins where that was the method. Works fine, though a bit hard to get used to.

  15. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 7:47 am
  16. Richard Elder December 6th, 2013 8:47 am

    Bear in mind that the temperature not very far underground remains at a constant 55 degrees summer and winter. Building in Jackson Hole, I’ve seen ground frost penetrate as far as 36′ in areas where there is no snow cover, but even in the -30 conditions that the Hole frequently experiences it is not that far underground to a stable temperature condition.

    What this implies is that the ideal winter (and summer) dwelling is not a two story structure perched out in the wind with maximum surface area exposure to the elements, but the exact opposite. The ideal is an earth sheltered building with a super-insulated sod roof that disappears into the landscape. (goodby painting and exterior maintenance!) Window area is all south facing, with consideration taken for wintertime snow depth and drift patterns. As this building style applies to hut design, the problem of course is that it pretty much requires access by mechanized equipment and a site that is not solid rock, but the end result minimizes visual impact, heating and cooling cost, and upkeep while costing no more than conventional construction.

  17. Richard Elder December 6th, 2013 8:52 am

    Not exactly a hut design, but here is a good example of low tech energy efficient building for the Colorado climate.

  18. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 9:40 am

    Hi Richard, thanks for the ideas. I’d say it’s a given that anything we build will at least have the ground story partially buried “basement” style. That helps. The worst is having ambient airflow underneath the building, due to it being up on posts or something like that. Our portahut tiny house unfortunately has that problem, in that it’s sitting on wheels and blocks and the air can flow underneath. I didn’t skirt it because of rodents, and the need for the building officials to see that it’s a trailer at any time they visit, but insulated skirting would have really helped.

    Our building site is on solid rock with minimal soil, so we’ll have to cut/fill around the basement masonry walls. Everything will be super insulated, a process I’m familiar with. Solar gain is a noble goal, but incredibly important not to overdo it and make the place a furnace in summer. Big eaves on the roof are key for that, shade in winter and let summer sun in.


  19. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 9:43 am

    Richard, that is a really good website, thanks for the link!

  20. Richard Elder December 6th, 2013 10:53 am

    Hi Lou,

    Yes, the website, especially the design portions, has a number of common sense ideas that often get lost when architects try to design energy efficient buildings. In particular, the idea that you can’t have too much mass or too much solar gain. No real need to rely on roof overhangs and inefficient vertical windows to control solar gain when it is so easy to have mechanically controlled shutters on the windows and lots of controllable ventilation at the roof peak.

    Since your site does have road access and is fairly rocky, you might want to consider a dry stack wall system, single story structure and maybe haul in your backfill to cover the walls and roof? That would help keep your south exposure higher and clear of the snow.

    Here is a completely different earth sheltered building system that is also comparable in price to standard stick and formaldehyde glue building construction.
    Wouldn’t make much use of your carpentry skills though—!

    Keep thinking it will warm up enough to go skiing, but it is still 8 below at 11am here in Driggs.

  21. Nick December 6th, 2013 1:40 pm

    Last year there was a carbon monoxide detector in the hut – it went off when we were there too.

  22. Lou Dawson December 6th, 2013 1:46 pm

    Ouch, not good.

  23. matmaster December 7th, 2013 9:23 am

    Lou, have you considered a incinerating toilet? I frequently used one at a remote gas-turbine power plant (it was a destroilet, as I recall) and it worked quite well. If you have 12V or 120V and propane it would be a viable option for a cabin and nothing left but strile ashes when complete.

  24. Lou Dawson December 7th, 2013 9:25 am

    Mat, thanks, I’d not heard of those. They sound like an excellent solution. I’ll check them out. ‘best, Lou

  25. Geoff Hill December 10th, 2013 7:16 pm

    I did my PhD on remote site human waste management between 2009-2012 at UBC. 5 peer reviewed publications came out. Many field sites in Rockies, Coast, Europe. Lou, shoot me an email if you want to chat further. Best system I found for cold high alpine use:

    ecosphere technologies

    I make a variant on these:


  26. Lou Dawson December 11th, 2013 5:59 am

    Thanks Geoff, I’ll add you to my resource list! Probably won’t be doing anything till spring. Plan is to build a mobile bathroom on a small trailer, using best technology. I really like the incineration toilet. But could still go with composting if I can figure out a way to keep ambient temps high enough when it’s 20 below zero F. best, Lou

  27. Wil December 15th, 2013 8:31 am

    I went with a group to this hut just last week. The temperatures were extremely cold, a scary -27°C (-17°F) was the high. I’m sure the low the night before was somewhere close to -35°C (-31°F) or maybe worse. The pressure in a propane tank at those temperatures is very low. We couldn’t get the propane heater to work because of the low pressure. We decided to abort and skied out. A night in a hut with no heat didn’t sound like fun.

    Most people probably wouldn’t risk a trip at those temperatures. But if a hut is heated by propane it is a good reminder that it can have limitations.

  28. Steve December 23rd, 2013 5:12 pm

    A little history on the Asulkan Hut. It was constructed under the direction of the Park Superintendent of the day. He undertook this without public consultation and came under heavy fire and opposition for this decision and location. It was a key factor in why he now longer has that job. Two issues of concern were;1. the way this hut concentrates backcountry use so why there? and 2. There is significant avalanche danger on the approach and exit from the hut and a possibility that users may make a poor decision to ascend or descend through it when conditions are not not safe enough. There is a bypass through the worst of the “Mouse Trap” and all local Guides know it and when to use it. Personally, I kind of liked it when there was no hut and the trip to Youngs Peak and the Jupiter Ridge Traverse involved a more arduous approach. Call me old fashion if you want.

  29. Lou Dawson December 23rd, 2013 5:25 pm

    Steve, thanks, we’d heard the hut was controversial. My suggestion would be to build more huts and thus spread out the use. Lou

  30. Jailhouse Hopkins December 24th, 2013 7:20 am

    Probably easier to get approval for a whole resort than a hut up here!

  31. Lou Dawson December 24th, 2013 7:49 am

    Down here, it’s easier to get a hut approved than a resort, but in reality both are almost exactly the same thing when done on public land. We’re getting an amazing system of huts, but many are poorly located and here in Colorado very few have food service. I’d like to see more of a mix, as in Europe. But that’ll probably come eventually. Perhaps our biggest problem here in lower 48 is that many of the appropriate spots for huts happen to be in legal Wilderness where even riding a bicycle is a sin, let alone sleeping under a roof. Lou

  32. Rob Mullins December 25th, 2013 12:48 pm

    In the NW/WA past, were many cabins, now is little to nothing for skiers and hikers, and outside Wilderness unregulated and undesignated dominance in winter by snowmachines. In Washington state were many cabins etc. pre-Wilderness, many used by skiers or winter travelers. In the past few decades, with creation of Wilderness (a great thing BTW) cabins mostly went away, furtrapping went away (historic winter use of the Forest), and the empty non-Wilderness areas became dominated, and increasingly, motorized playgrounds. Winter accommodation currently in use on the Forest now seems to serve very small targeted Clubs or groups- not the greater public- and pristine winter areas are dominated mostly by snowmachine and in some places, by elitists riding helos.

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