Friday, February 22, 2008

Janet's Cabin

For Valentine’s Day, we decided to try something different and snowshoe to a backcountry hut. Colorado has dozens of huts – log structures in the backcountry to which you can snowshoe or cross-country ski. Most of them are accessible via one-day trips, so you can go in one day, spend the night, and leave the next day. But many of the huts are also just a day hike away from other huts, so you could also choose to spend a week or longer, skiing or snowshoeing each day and staying in a new hut each night.

Janet’s Cabin is part of the 10th Mountain Division hut system and is near Copper Mountain, close to where we live. Around the first of February, we saw on that 18 of the 20 beds were still available for February 14, while the hut was completely booked on most other days. So this seemed like a good time to go. With 20 people sharing a hut, it could get pretty crowded, so maybe spending the night in a hut isn’t most folks’ idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day!

On February 13, we checked on the weather forecast and found that a winter storm watch was in effect for the night and the next day. One forecaster expected three to seven inches of new snow, and another predicted a foot to two feet, accompanied by howling winds! The TV news was talking it up as a major storm – there was even a feature on the plight of the flower delivery folks, who would have to brave the elements to get flowers out on Valentine’s Day.

The hike was 4.5 miles long with 1000 feet of elevation gain – not too difficult on a sunny day with a packed trail, but pretty grueling with a foot of new snow and potentially dangerous with high winds blowing the snow around and greatly reducing visibility. We questioned whether we should even go, but ultimately decided to prepare for the trip and check the weather in the morning. Weather forecasts often prove to be wildly off the mark around here, and we hoped that would be the case this time.

So we packed our backpacks – sleeping bags, extra clothing, first-aid kit, plenty of food and water, etc. A lot of typical backpacking gear wasn’t necessary, though – we could leave our tent, sleeping pads, stove, fuel, and water filter behind, since the hut had beds and a kitchen.

We got up in the morning, dreading what we’d find when we looked outside. But amazingly enough, there was no new snow! The storm had completely failed to materialize. Yippee! We’d be going after all!

We drove out to Copper Mountain and got there right as the lifts opened at 9:00. We carried our backpacks and snowshoes onto the Kokomo lift and then the Lumberjack lift. Without the lifts, the hike would have been 5.5 miles and 1700 feet of elevation gain, but combined, the lifts eliminated a mile of hiking and, more importantly, 700 feet of elevation gain. The liftee slowed the first lift down for us so that we could get off easily. The second liftee didn’t, and we awkwardly rushed off the lift to get out of the way of the chair – lift exits aren’t so easy in boots!

From the top of the second lift, we hiked a short distance down a ski run to a backcountry gate, where we went into the forest and down to Guller’s Creek. The trail paralleled the creek the rest of the way, so it was easy to follow. The surface was great, too – packed down by cross-country skiers, with no new snow to soften it up. The weather was far better than we could have hoped – it was overcast with a light snow falling, but nothing like the storm that was predicted.

Shortly after starting the hike, we passed a group of a dozen or more skiers who were headed down. They had stayed in Janet’s Cabin the night before and had a great time. One even informed us that they hadn’t drunk all the beer, and they’d left the extras on the porch! A big added bonus!

The hike wasn’t too difficult and we made good time. The last half mile had about 400 feet of the elevation gain, so that was a bit of a struggle, but just after noon, we arrived:

The official check-in time at the huts is 1:00 pm, and we had no idea that we’d make it there an hour early. But the previous night’s occupants had all left, so we unlocked the door, went inside, and made ourselves at home.

Being there first, we got first choice of beds, so we went upstairs, where we found four bedrooms – two with four beds each and two with six beds each. All of the bedrooms were great, but we staked our claim on the one that we thought had the best view. We set down our backpacks and laid out our sleeping bags. All 20 beds are single beds, so the sleeping arrangements maybe weren’t the most romantic for Valentine’s Day:

Then we headed back down to the main floor to explore the rest of the cabin. Most of the main floor was a huge open room with a large sitting area, a kitchen, and a dining area. Separated from the main room by a curtained doorway were the entryway and two bathrooms. Indoor bathrooms! This seemed like a real luxury – we were expecting to have to go outside into the freezing cold in the middle of the night to do our business. But the cabin had solar electricity, which ran a fan to aid the composting process and control the smells in the pit toilets. The cabin hadn’t gotten much sunshine recently, so the batteries were running low. There was a sign posted a few days ago, warning us to use the electric lights sparingly, lest we run down the batteries and stop the fan. We heeded the warning.

Here’s one side of the sitting area, with the stairway up to the bedrooms in the background:

Here’s the kitchen. It was enormous and fully stocked with cookware. We wished we had brought coffee – we counted no fewer than five different percolators and other coffee-making devices! There were plenty of propane cooking surfaces, too.

Here’s the dining area:

And here’s the view of the rest of the cabin from the kitchen. You can see the dining area on the left and the sitting area on the right:

Note the guitar – the cabin actually had a great-sounding Fender acoustic guitar! Also notice the huge windows – they let in plenty of light so that even without a fire going, the cabin wasn’t cold during the day.

In the middle of the cabin, you can see a garbage can, next to a wood stove with a big pot on top.

This is the hut’s water system. You periodically go outside and load up the garbage can with snow (the side of the garbage can says very clearly that it should only be used for snow and water – no trash). Then you scoop the snow into the pot, which sits on top of the fire to melt the snow. Voila – water for cooking, drinking, etc. Because of the snow-melt water system, dogs aren’t allowed within several hundred yards of the huts to avoid problems with yellow snow.

There were still some hot coals left from the previous group’s fire, so we added some wood and stoked it back up. Brian remembered the mention of beer on the porch, but a thorough search turned up nothing. The skier must have been joking around. What a cruel joke – never joke about beer, especially to a thirsty hiker.

We got some books and settled in for an afternoon of lazing around the hut, watching the snow fall outside. Here’s Sarah, hanging out in front of the windows:

Later, Brian occupied the same seat and wrote some letters:

Here’s the view looking out one of the windows:

After reading books and writing for a while, we combed through the hut’s supply of games and picked out Rummikub to play. Three games later, it was getting close to 3:00, and we were still the only ones in the hut. We knew that other beds were reserved, but we began to hope that everyone else had been turned off by the bad weather forecast and decided not to come. Maybe, just maybe we’d have the hut to ourselves!

No such luck. Around 3:30, another couple arrived. One was from Vail and the other from Aspen, and they were also here to spend a romantic Valentine’s Day in the woods.

We decided to do some more exploring and give the couple some time alone. Behind the cabin in a separate building was a sauna!

The sauna building consisted of two rooms: an undressing room and the sauna room itself. Inside the sauna room was a miniature wood stove with rocks on top, two benches, and a bucket and scoop for snow:

The instructions said to build a fire and wait 30 minutes for the room to heat up. Then drop snow on the rocks, where it will melt and turn to steam. We followed the instructions, and although it took a while for the rocks to get hot enough to vaporize the snow, we eventually got the room hot and steamy. How cool is that – a sauna in the backcountry!

Later on, a pair of women arrived. One carried all their gear, and the other carried just a snowboard and a box of wine. She proudly told us it was the equivalent of four bottles, so we’d all have to share because she wasn’t going to carry it back out. She didn’t have anyone turn her down, and for wine in a box, it was pretty darned good. We don’t think our standards were just low because we were in the backcountry, but we can’t be sure.

Another couple got to the cabin around 8:00, and then around 10:00, the boyfriend of one of the two women arrived. He had hiked a little over two hours alone in the dark. The lifts weren’t running that late, of course, so he had to do the whole 5.5-mile hike. And to top it off, he had to leave at 6 a.m. the next morning to make it to his job as ski patrol! Now that’s love, to go through all of that just to sleep next to your girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. Apparently, he’s training to be a hotshot, one of the wildfire fighters, so he must be in pretty good shape. But still…

We went to bed pretty early and were the first ones up the next morning. We awoke to a pretty sunrise and a cloudless sky that afforded views of distant mountains:

The cabin and the surrounding area looked nice in the early morning light:

Then the sun came up over the mountains and cast the first light on the slopes behind the cabin:

We made an oatmeal breakfast and commenced lazing around the cabin for a second day. We weren’t staying another night, but checkout wasn’t until 1:00 and we were in no hurry to leave – the cabin was so peaceful. We did some more reading, played some more Rummikub, and took some more pictures:

Here’s the view of the mountains from the cabin’s upstairs balcony:

The couple from Vail and Aspen hiked up to take a few runs:

The cabin is just below the Continental Divide and right at treeline, which is a perfect location. The avalanche danger is minimal on the entire hike in, but then there’s some great wide-open skiing immediately above the cabin. You do have to be careful up there – directly behind the cabin is a pretty steep slope that’s at a good angle for releasing avalanches. Off to the side, where the couple is hiking in the picture, the slope is more gradual and less avalanche-prone.

We got them to take a picture of us before we left:

And then we were off, hiking back down the trail. We took one last look at the cabin:

The hike back was lovely. The day was sunny and warm, and we had fantastic views the entire time. And as an added bonus, the hike was pretty much all downhill.

Here’s Brian, cutting a corner in the trail and making a fresh line with his snowshoes:

And here’s Sarah, taking a break:

One last mountain shot:

We re-entered the Copper Mountain ski area and hiked down the slopes. Along the way, we chatted with a few skiers who were riding the lifts overhead and were surprised to be sharing the mountain with snowshoers. Copper actually encourages snowshoeing, but we still kept to the side of the trails to stay out of the skiers’ and snowboarders’ way. After a quick cruise down to the base, we took a shuttle bus back to our car and headed home.

Staying in a backcountry hut was the perfect way to spend a Valentine’s Day. We were fortunate to have the entire hut to ourselves for over three hours on the day we arrived, and we really enjoyed just relaxing and watching the snow fall outside. The backcountry sauna was a truly unique experience, and then, flying in the face of the weather forecasts, we got a completely blue-sky day for our hike out on the second day. We couldn’t have had a better trip, and now we can’t wait for our second hut trip, to a different cabin at the end of March!

1 comment:

Derrick Smith said...

Looking forward to visiting this hut. Great pictures!