Friends Hut and Pearl Pass Turnaround – Pine Creek Cookhouse

Post by blogger | March 6, 2006      

Powder laps are great, mountain summits always call, but nothing relieves a certain itch like exploring mile after mile of terrain. Long ski tours are one of my favorite mountain adventures.

We’d had little snow for a few weeks (less trail breaking and low avy danger), a blue sky day was on tap, and the husband needed to come up with a birthday celebration for the wife.

Hmmm, birthday for the wife. Got to get more in there than bakcountry skiing. Aha! How about a nice dinner at what might be the best restaurant near Aspen? Sure thing. The Pine Creek Cookhouse is unique eatery that’s accessed by walking, ski touring or horse drawn sleigh. What’s more, the Cookhouse is located at the trailhead for Pearl Pass, and one of my favorite ski tours is to head over Pearl Pass, have tea at Friends Hut, then ski back before nightfall. It’s a 20 mile round trip that goes quickly, weather and snow willing (exact mileage depends on transport used for first section on road). Add in dinner at the Pine Creek Cookhouse — recipe complete!

Only a few hours after starting the trip we broke timberline in Pearl Basin, a huge highland that sits between Aspen and Crested Butte. I love this spot as it all seems to hit you at once: the rocky peaks, sun, wind and alpine terrain.
Continuing the climb in Pearl Basin. Peak on right is fourteener Castle Peak. (East Face ski route looks like it’s coming into condition).
To reach the Friends hut you ski most of Pearl Basin, including going over two passes. The first is really just a divide between Castle Creek and Cooper Creek known as Mace Pass. The second is noble Pearl Pass, fun place to drive Jeeps or ride mountain bikes in the summer, terrific ski touring in winter. Photo above shows skiers headed toward Cooper Creek drain, just after crossing Mace Pass. Pearl is just out of photo to right. Some of the best backcountry skiing in the west if you’re looking for scenics.
At Pearl Pass, Friends Hut is in trees to right.
We made some killer hot cocoa at the hut, met some hardcores from Crested Butte who were practicing for the Grand Traverse race, then had the place to ourselves for a while. It was special being there, as we built the hut as a memorial to friends who’d died in a plan crash, and one of the hut founders (Jim Gebhart) had recently passed away.
With a belly full of chocolate and landjaeger the climb back up to Pearl Pass was trivial. Along with proper athletic diet, it helps to be in a place like this, with the lowering sun glinting off 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks and crisp blue sky blanketing the landscape.
We always try to find turns from the top of Pearl Pass. We got a few good ones, then glided back to Mace Pass, re-skinned once, stripped skins, and headed back down Castle Creek.
A few turns were had as we descended back to timberline.

The trail was icy below timberline, a blessing in disguise as we could glide and skate the flat sections. By late afternoon we were back at the Pine Creek Cookhouse having a cocktail and enjoying views of Star Basin. I always enjoy the Cookhouse. The food is world-class, but more, I did my first real mountaineering and rock climbing when I went to summer camp at the same location in the 1960s. The camp was called the Aschcrofters, but that’s another story…

Talk about a great dinner! First came the cheese plate, then the momo dumplings (made by the resident Sherpa cooks), then some scallops, duck ravioli and asparagus mushroom struddle. After a salad with the special Cookhouse dressing that’s one of my faves, the main course. Louie had elk tenderloin cooked with cinnamon — an incredible taste treat. Lisa had a special lamb dish, and I ordered tasty salmon that seemed appropriate for such a healthy day. Desert was all a-la-mode, and we capped off the evening with a headlamp skate a few miles down to our truck at the winter parking area (In winter you can’t drive to/from the Cookhouse, you either walk, ski, or catch a ride on a horse drawn sleigh.)

In all, one of our best backcountry ski days ever! If you get an opportunity to tour Pearl Basin don’t pass it up. Add in Friends Hut and so much the better (reservations required, contact, and don’t forget the Pine Creek Cookhouse!

For our special day thanks goes out to Pine Creek staff Chris M., Chris K., Doug B., Kevin and owner John W. Also, remember, you can get a job up there and backcountry ski with the crew.

Gear notes: I used my lightweight setup Atomic MX09 170 cm with Dynafit TLT, customized Garmont Mega Ride boots with thermo liners. Louie had his Scarpa F1 rig, my F1 are not fit to any skis at the moment, or I would have used them for this trip. But it was nice to have the Garmonts for the patches of boiler plate from last week’s thaw.

We also began testing a couple pairs of Zeal sunglasses with their “All Conditions Total Vision” (ACTV) lens system. My test glasses have the polarized ZB13 lens which is not particularly dark (though it’s still 100% UV IR), so I was curious how they’d do on a bluebird day at altitude. Let’s just say I was more than happy with this lens. I never felt like I was getting the old “fried egg eye” that 8 hours of mountain sunlight can serve up, but still had good vision when skiing through shade patches. Good stuff.


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7 Responses to “Friends Hut and Pearl Pass Turnaround – Pine Creek Cookhouse”

  1. Ryan March 7th, 2006 3:55 am

    As always your trips inspire Lou. Looks like you got some turns in even though it seems snow conditions have been less than desired.

  2. BJ Sbarra March 7th, 2006 5:32 am

    Hey Lou,
    Looks like you had a great day back there! How was the snow around the friends hut? I’m supposed to be going in there this weekend, and I was wondering if it’s super crusty from all this sun. Thanks and as usual keep up the good work!

  3. Steve Seckinger March 7th, 2006 7:00 am

    Any wilderness trip that can combine good food is simply great! Nice report. (The mention of boiler plate made me shudder though; that’s what dislocated my shoulder last week in Cardiff.)

  4. Lou March 7th, 2006 7:08 am

    Snow around the Friends Hut was truly variable. There was actually corn developing on true south, and recycled pow on true north, everything from breakable to boiler plate on everything else. Should improve by this weekend, but sounds like there is some hang fire windslab out there (we didn’t touch anything steep and slabby.

  5. George Privon March 7th, 2006 12:03 pm


    Great report. Looking forward to your Zeal ACTV goggle review as I’m considering picking up a pair for a high altitude climb this summer.

  6. Lou March 7th, 2006 8:18 pm

    George, we’ve already reviewed the Zeal goggles, just type the word “Zeal” in the search box to right. What were working with now is the Zeal sunglasses.

  7. Mark March 7th, 2006 11:57 pm

    Super tour photos. Makes me want to get that one-way plane ticket to Colorado right now!


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