The Opus Hut, Silverton, CO
By BCA ambassador Josh Kling, Kling Mountain Guides
If you are wondering about how to choose the perfect backcountry hut for a multi-day adventure, we've got some tips for where to start.
The San Juan Mountains are filled with backcountry ski huts. Huts range from small yurts with only the basic of necessities to large backcountry lodges complete with indoor showers and saunas and everything in between. In total there are over two-dozen backcountry huts in our San Juan ski backyard.
Inside the Mount Belle Cabin on Red Mountain Pass. Photo: Brett Davis.
So where does one begin? There are so many questions! How do you go about choosing which backcountry hut? What is the ski terrain like adjacent to the backcountry hut? What time of winter will provide the best skiing? What time of winter will provide the safest avalanche conditions for your backcountry hut trip? How do we maximize our ski time and minimize travel time for each day? So many questions!! Where do we start!?!
The following list of questions provides an excellent starting point for deciding how to choose the perfect backcountry hut.
1. Where do you want to go in general? That is probably the first question to ask? Are you going to Rogers Pass in Canada? Or are you going to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado? If you are traveling in North America, choose a hut that you find accessible and easy enough to travel to with all of your backcountry gear.
Huts are supposed to make your trip comfortable and enjoyable. Deciding how much room and what amenities your group needs is important. Here, IFMGA Guide and BCA Ambassador Joey Thompson instructs a Kling Mountain Guides hut-based AIARE Level 2 avalanche course on Red Mountain Pass at the Addie S Cabin.
2. How many people will be in the group? This is typically where we start when booking a hut trip for folks with Kling Mountain Guides. Some of the huts in our terrain can only hold six skiers. Other huts can sleepover 20. There is no sense in the booking (and paying for) a hut that sleeps 18 if you only have four people in your group. On the same note, if you have a group of 15, you'll want to make sure there is ample room for everybody and all their ski gear. Huts are supposed to make your trip comfortable and enjoyable. Deciding how much room and what amenities your group needs is essential.
The bunk room at the Mountain Belle hut on Red Mountain Hut. This is a great hut for your first hut trip.Photo: Brett Davis.
3. What is everybody's downhill ski ability? This is purely a technical downhill ski skill question and does not take uphill or avalanche terrain assessment into account. Different huts have access to varying levels of skiing terrain. Some of the ski huts in the San Juan Mountains are phenomenal for the newer backcountry powder skier or snowboarder. Other huts have limited beginner-level terrain and are better suited to more advanced skiers.
The terrain at the Chatanooga Curve adjacent to the Artist Cabin and within close proximity and a great linkup tour from the Addie S Cabin, both on Red Mountain Pass.
Other huts have a great mix of both beginner and advanced skiing terrain. Make sure you do an honest assessment of everybody's ability. The last thing you want is for group dynamics and human factors to put anybody into an uncomfortable situation. This can happen in either direction. That is, you do not want the more aggressive folks convincing the group to travel into advanced skiing terrain if other members of the group are not capable. On the flip side, it's a bummer when the snow and conditions allow for some more technical and advanced skiing, but somebody int eh group is holding everybody back. There is a great article on the Backcountry Access website discussing human factors here.
IFMGA Guide and BCA Ambassador Jed Porter discussing terrain options at the top of the Chatanooga Beluga during a hut based AIARE Level 2 course on Red Mountain Pass with Kling Mountain Guides.
4. What is everybody's uphill ability/ physical fitness? This is another question you want to be honest about the group. There are numerous options in the San Juan Mountains, let alone all of Colorado for huts. Some of these require short non-technical and not exposed tours to access, like the Mount. Belle hut located just east of Red Mountain Pass and adjacent to the US Basin. Other huts require approaches that can be exposed to significant avalanche hazard, such as the OPUS hut located on Ophir Pass, west of Red Mountain Pass and east of the town of Ophir. Still, others are drive-to-ski-from such as the Addie S Cabin, located at 10,860 ft on the east side of Red Mountain Pass In my experience having done hundreds of nights at numerous huts over the past 20 years is most skiers and riders love the touring aspect (the hiking/ cardio/ earning your turns mentality) with awesome skiing and great snow. However, they are not as keen on the hike in with a huge pack. Questions come up like: Do I bring my favorite ski pack AND a big pack to hike in with? Do I just bring my larger pack that I don't like to ski with as much, but carries everything? Should our group tour in with a normal 30-liter ski pack but drag a sled with group gear??
5. What type of terrain do you want to ski?Big open bowls above tree line? Tree runs? Mini-Golf laps? High mileage tours? Different huts lend themselves to different kinds of skiing. Make sure that when you start researching your hut, you look at what type of skiing is adjacent to the hut. Two great resources for this are www.CalTopo.com and Google Earth. Between Caltopo and Google Earth you should be able to get an excellent idea of the type of terrain adjacent to the huts. The slope shading tool on Caltopo is especially useful. If you have the time, consider building a run list on what and where you plan on skiing. What are your options if its stable and blower? What are your options if its super sketchy out?
A CalTopo.com screenshot of the terrain adjacent to the OPUS hut on Ophir Pass. Slope shading helps in assessing terrain, both in regards to pitch as well as features (i.e., a bowl, basin, ridge, etc.)
Additionally, I recommend looking into what guidebooks are available for the area. A well-written guidebook should give you a wealth of information on the terrain in that area. The third edition of the Silverton Off-Piste Ski Atlas (that I authored) is coming out this fall. The book has a wealth of information as well as high-resolution areal photos of terrain adjacent to many Red Mountain Pass huts such as OPUS hut (new for the 3rd edition), Addie S Cabin, Artist Cabin, Mountain Belle Hut, and Aladdin's Lamp (new for 3rd edition). Crack a beverage of your choice and spend some quality internet time looking at the terrain around the hut.
The same terrain as pictured in the CalTopo screenshot. These are the style of pictures from Silverton Off-Piste Ski Atlas. A good guidebook, combined with CalTopo and Google Earth is a valuable asset when planning a hut trip.
Terrain adjacent to the Mount Belle Cabin and Addie S Cabin on Red Mountain Pass. Both cabins are available through www.SkiHuts.com.
6. Lastly, Limit yourself! Limit yourself to the above questions when deciding how to choose the perfect backcountry hut. Consider each of the above questions as an adjustable dial. When you adjust one dial, all the others change. So don't adjust too many dials at once! Pick one or maybe two of the above and begin your search there.
Josh Kling is an AMGA Certified Alpine & Rock Guide, AMGA Assistant Ski Guide, AIARE Course Leader, and the Owner / Lead Guide for Kling Mountain Guides, LLC. Josh has been recreating in the wintery San Juans for close to 20 years and ski guiding in them since 2003. He is also the author of the Silverton Off-Piste Ski Atlas, the only published ski guidebook for the San Juan Mountains.