“How much sanity can you get from a few hours on the heights?”
Behold, the backcountry ski hut. From the alpine mine shack, to the high altitude mountaineers’ cabin, to the revolving door of a 24-bunk Colorado chalet, huts are a staple of winter exploration around the world. Varying in design, locale and creature comforts, they offer the promise of a shared experience; a universal open door to high country hospitality and a disconnected escape; a portal to far reaching spaces, both in landscapes and in ourselves.
Fortunately, in North America there are now more ski huts than ever where one can find the sort of sanity found only in the high country in winter. Here in Colorado we’ve had a handful of new huts spring up over the past few years including the architectural marvels like the Sister’s Hut, pictured above. Hut demand is on the rise, regardless of supply. In many places in Colorado and beyond, hopeful hut-goers grab dates as soon as online registration opens. Wait too long and you won’t find a weekend open till June the following year.
So, if you haven’t started planning for this winter yet, consider this post a friendly reminder. Pick a hut, pick a date, pick some friends and hope that when the time comes to stuff your backpack, the snowpack is suitable and the friends haven’t bailed. (Not sure where to start? Check out this handy hut index.)
And in the meantime, here’s some inspirational reading from Lou to get you through until the snowflakes start falling.
North America’s Ski Huts–An Exercise in Diversity
The Santa Anna wind’s goliath hands grab the San Antonio Hut. My bunk shudders. Walls creak and ice chunks blast the roof like shotgun slugs. Sleep is out of the question but I’m snug and secure. Most tents would shred in seconds. I glance at the walls with my headlamp — the place reeks of history.
With art deco flair, Mary Pridham’s 1950s ski paintings grace a kitchen wall. Old photographs hang everywhere, showing the volunteer’s love that created this hostel. The wood-stove burns hot. Plenty of ski slopes beckon. A spring spouts mountain nectar to the kitchen sink. I turn my head to the window, where the glow of Angel City’s 18 million souls shoots skyward. Here, the 57-year-old San Antonio Hut has brought a few of those souls to the mountains.
I’m writing this while I sit in the front room of the 10th Mountain Harry Gates Hut, Colorado. December sun streams through southwest windows. A fire crackles. Tea water bubbles and the snowmelt cistern hisses. Peace orders my mind and gentles my soul.
But the Gates Hut gets crowded (it sleeps 19, and you may see even more people than that on a turnover day). I’ve been part of the crowd. It’s fun. Sometimes. People get rowdy, stay up late, make noise. Sleep on a party night can be hard-won. Only one hill, Burnt Mountain, is near enough for easy day ski trips, and as Colorado peaks go, Burnt is nothing more than a small tree covered knob. Farther behind the hut, sublime backcountry blends into legal wilderness. On an impossibly long day you can reach Avalanche Peak, a classic Colorado arete jutting above the timber. But it’s civilized almost everywhere around here. Indeed, calling this a backcountry hut is pushing the term. We got here by skiing up a beaten snowmobile track, and even the non-motorized envelope around the hut is as pummeled by muscle power as any snowmobile play field could get. We are within miles of two private lake cabin resorts, and a two-hour ski from dude ranches and a paved road. Yes, Harry Gates can be a peaceful place, but civilization is a little too close.
Contrast Harry Gates with winter at the Camp Muir cabin on Mount Rainier. John Quinn and I spent a week up there one winter. We managed a ski descent and climb of the peak, and in the process we organized a rescue, dug ourselves out of the hut after a blizzard buried it, and learned to sleep while mice did the Seattle two-step on our foreheads. The wind blew 100 mph–thick air that could throw you thirty feet like a maid flings a dirty dishrag. On hands and knees, clawing with our ice axes, we dragged ourselves to the privy. This was mountaineering–this was a hut!
I was blessed to be involved in building the Friends Hut between Aspen and Crested Butte. Creating a hut from scratch was one of my great life experiences — due as much to working on physical project as it was to the, yes, friends. Friends is in a roadless area. The 13,000-foot arete of Star Peak shoots up from the back of the hut like a sky scrapper juts from a city block. June Couloir drops from Star’s summit as a perfect brush stroke. At the foot of Star, you can ski play on all manner of low-angled rolls and hillocks. Snow’s crusty? No problem–ski below the hut in a quiet forest. And getting to the hut can be a treat. From the Aspen side, it’s a Euro-style high-tour where you spend most of your day above timberline, and tag 12,250-foot Pearl Pass along the way.
Club Codfish, named after a suspect nightclub in Lima, Peru, is one of many handles for what could have been the best hut in the United States. No, it wasn’t nicely crafted. No, you couldn’t find it on a fancy webpage and make reservations for the next full-moon weekend. Instead, this was a cabin of funk. Grassroots, lean, effective.
Also known as Wright’s Cabin or the International Alpine School Hut, Codfish sat high above timberline in Yankee Boy Basin, near Ouray, Colorado. Arguably the most exciting 14,000-foot peak in the state, Mount Sneffels rises north of the hut site like a dagger thrust from the earth’s core. The place was a theater of the mountain gods, and the hut a true mountaineer’s camp. In a floorspace of about 12×20 feet you’d find a dangerous looking wood stove (the cabin has since burnt down) and rickety sleeping loft complete with cobbled cooking counters and rustic furniture.
We used Codfish as a base for Sneffels adventure in 1987, and the place was full that night with like-minded fellows. Crampons and ice axes tripped you, drying skins dangled like tanning animal hides. The murmur of voices was punctuated by stone on steel, as someone honed their edges. That morning we visited the Sneffels north face couloir, a dogleg thread plunging 50 degrees steep through a rock-walled cleft. It’s one of the best lines I’ve ever skied.
How much value, how much sanity can you get from a few hours on the heights? A lot.
Byron wrote: “high mountains are a feeling, but the hum of human cities torture.” Yes, huts and the mountains you climb from them are the eye of a hurricane, with city life a distant rumble. You laugh, you smile. With each visit, renewal washes you.
(This article first appeared in Couloir Magazine in the 1980s, it’s been edited for inclusion in the WildSnow collection.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain. For more about Lou, please see his personal website at https://www.loudawson.com/ (Blogger stats: 5 foot 10 inches (178 cm) tall, 160 lbs (72574.8 grams).