Colorado has quite a few backcountry recreation huts now, after a somewhat furious three decades of development. But we’re still an embryo compared to, for example, the Alps, where the number of “huts” is said to number in excess of 3,000 — with a goodly number providing “full board” meal service.
Nothing wrong with the no-frills cabins such as those of our 10th Mountain Hut Association, but over the years I’ve wearied — you can only shlepp so much box wine. Yeah, Austria and Switzerland spoiled me, where we’ve toured hundreds of days with nothing but a credit card, thermos of sweet tea and a half loaded 30 liter backpack.
While there is presently no obvious trend to full service huts in Colorado, privately owned Opus hut in the San Juan mountains seeks to break the mold. Completed in 2010, Opus is perched at 11,600 on a mountainside overlooking all manner of ski terrain (and hiking in summer). From meadow skipping to peak descents, all is available.
Owner Bob Kingsley built the structure using timber frame components from a dairy farm. From the mining era hints on the exterior (oarcart track railings)to the cozy bunkrooms, you’ll delight in this solid feeling hostel. Bob has the full off-grid thing rocking, from composting toilets to solar panels. Even his water is low-impact, it’s sourced from roof drainage. No enviro-guilt here. Speaking of which, in case you’re planning a trip, no wifi at Opus, but you can get 3G data on the Verizon system if you hunt around for a good signal (hint, top floor east bunkroom).
I didn’t see any obvious downsides. Opus is clean and well organized. Little things like having decks shoveled off and usable are appreciated (especially by those of us with backs that don’t move snow all that well). Bear in mind that here in Colorado, while most of our huts are subsidized by not-for-profit operations, tradition breaking efforts such as Opus have to support themselves so they may not be as budget friendly as, for example, the Swiss Alpine Club subsidized huts when you have a club membership. We’d like to see that change — we’ve dreamed for years of heavily funded outfits such as 10th Mountain Huts implementing at least one or two full service operations. Could still happen. Keep your eyes open.
Meanwhile, if you consider the cost of buying your own hut food and the effort of cooking for a group, combined with per-person non-profit hut prices that are still surprisingly steep, Opus prices are amazingly reasonable. An Opus dorm bed AND MEALS is only a few dollars more than you’d spend on a 10th Mountain Hut! I won’t quote any prices here, contact Opus for details (link below). Glitch in this is you can’t bring your own alcoholic beverages, so you’ll need to purchase at the hut. The booze prices are reasonable and you don’t want to be drinking like a fish at 11,600 feet, so in my view not a big deal.
I liked the architectural feel of the moderately sized 1,800 square foot Opus. Dining room is snugged up to the kitchen, where a wood heated cookstove doubles as a glass fronted wood fire. That way the staff can interact with guests. What with owner Kingsley being one of North America’s more accomplished ski mountaineers, you might just want to get into a chat with him while he’s whipping up his signature shepard’s pie (e.g., University Peak, one of the worldwide best first descents of the past 20 years).
Logistics: Reservations required. The hut approach routes both pass through avalanche terrain, with the east side route from the Red Mountain Pass road being more manageable but still not recommended during higher hazard ratings (credit is given if you cancel a trip due to avalanche danger). Guides are recommended, available from Telluride Mountain Guides. East approach is about 3 miles with 2,000 vertical foot gain. Unless you’re trail breaking it’s a fairly mellow slog, though you have to have your wits about you when passing below a number of avalanche paths. Hazard exposure is in the nature of mere minutes unless you have lunch in the wrong spot, so your actual risk level is probably better than during the drive over Red Mountain Pass (no guard rails!). Nonetheless, this is what I’d call “adult” terrain. Once at the Opus everything is taken care of. Most sleeping arrangements are communal, while there appeared to be one or two rooms that could double as a honeymoon suit. Food is excellent, with full libations available as well (though tread lightly, you’re at 11,600 feet elevation.) Details at the Opus website.