Ski Huts of North America — Exercise in Diversity

Post by blogger | December 22, 1995      
Friends Hut circa 1985, that's founder Graeme Means over on the left.

Friends Hut circa 1985, that’s founder Graeme Means over on the left.

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, Burn 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 beaten 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. Friends is in a roadless area. It’s so hard to get to on a snowmobile that that visits from the 2-cycle sleds are not a problem (in fact, I welcome the few I see). 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 like 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 euorstyle 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 be the best hut in the United States. No, it’s not nicely crafted. No, you can’t find it on a fancy webpage and make reservations for the next full-moon weekend. Instead, this is a cabin of funk. Grassroots, lean, effective.

Also known as Wright’s Cabin or the International Alpine School Hut, Codfish sits 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 like a dagger thrust from the earth’s core. The place is a theater of the mountain gods, and the hut a true mountaineer’s camp. In a floorspace of about 12×20 feet you’ll 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.)


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