Story and photos by Neill Pieper
On the fringe of the Colorado ski scene is a small but growing group of skiers and mountaineers that embrace a slightly more human-powered version of the sport. Gliding under their own power instead of riding up a chairlift, these backcountry enthusiasts seek solitude in the wilderness.
Colorado’s hut-to-hut adventurers are taking skiing back to its roots. The state has more than 160 backcountry huts and yurts just for recreation and immersive outdoor experiences. Biking and hiking to many of these huts is simple in the summer, but when the snow starts to fly, ski touring and, in some cases, snowshoeing are the main ways to explore these hidden refuges.
With this type of travel in mind and inspired by hut systems in Canada, Ridgway resident Joe Ryan created a hut system for backcountry travel in southwest Colorado.
Spanning the Sneffels Range, his huts connect Ouray, Ridgway and Telluride with access along the historic Dallas trail system. More than 60 miles of cross-country trails are accessible. Visitors have the option of reserving one hut as a base of operations or traveling to all five huts.
The huts are simple: a wood stove dominates a one-room cabin. The huts are fitted with bunks to sleep eight, and there is a kitchen area with a propane stove taking up one wall. Water in the winter is collected from melting snow. An outhouse and firewood shack are nearby.
An idyllic setting coupled with remote wilderness is the gist of it. If you think you’re up for the challenge, here’s a taste of what to expect.
Ryan’s San Juan Huts base of operation is in Ridgway. Booking a hut trip is as simple as checking availability online and driving down to southwest Colorado to begin your trip.
Trips range in length and difficulty, so it’s important to plan ahead. Simplicity is the beauty of a trip like this. When you arrive at the headquarters, you’re handed a topographical map, directions, a key to the huts and a friendly “have fun.” After this exchange, you may not see another person until you return the key.
The sun is just peeking over the snow-covered San Juan Mountains. A few miles outside of Ridgway, the Burn Hut trail begins.
Roughly six miles to the hut, the route skirts ranch land, aspen glades and dense pine forest, all beneath the region’s tallest peak, Mt. Sneffels.
Described as a beginner to intermediate ski tour, the Burn Hut trail is a good introduction to the San Juan hut system. Located in an old burn area, it offers a great view of Whitehouse Mountain.
From the Burn Hut, there is a plethora of backcountry options in deep, untracked powder, ranging from sloping glades behind the hut to Moonshine Park, a two-hour adventure. Moonshine Park looks down into Ouray and its surrounding valley, and up to the nearby Cimarron Range.
Colorado Hut to Hut, written by Brian Litz, provides a great resource for aspiring backcountry skiers.
“The Burn Hut is a fine destination for beginning and intermediate skiers, mixed groups, and aspiring backcountry skiers who may not be ready to cope with serious avalanche hazards and complicated route-finding,” according to Litz. “(The trail) is challenging but not overwhelming, and you get the beautiful panoramas associated with harder tours in the area.”
Along the journey, a traveler returning from his adventure passed by and after some chatter about the weather and trail, he gave his two cents on the San Juan Hut experience. “The isolation and beauty of the San Juans is the true pull of a trip like this. Skinning up to 10 miles kicks my ass but when I get home, the sore legs and blistered feet bring me back to the trail ... and that in itself makes it all worth it.”
Neill Pieper uses his considerable thirst for the craft beer scene to provide editorial, marketing and online production at Thirst Colorado.
Ski touring is more accessible than ever
From Central Asian hunters and Scandinavian military units to Colorado mail couriers, people have been skiing from point A to B for thousands of years.
While ski touring (using skis to ascend and descend across terrain) is hardly new, modern technology is enabling skiing enthusiasts to embrace this more traditional style.
Long-distance snow travel is faster and easier, thanks to lightweight, free-heel bindings known as alpine-touring bindings, combined with carbon skis and climbing skins (literally synthetic or natural animal skins attached on the bottom of skis for uphill travel, and removed for descent).
Increased access makes experiencing the Rockies in winter magical, but backcountry travel requires diligent planning and avalanche training. Before you decide to embark on your own hut trip, take an avalanche course, test your gear and study topographical maps of the area.
Great resources are available at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and backcountry education can be found through the Friends of Berthoud Pass and the Silverton Avalanche School.