Summit Huts Association (SHA) has been based out of Breckenridge since 1989. They manage and operate a group of five huts in Summit County. These include Janet’s Cabin between Vail Pass and Copper Mountain, Francie's Cabin, south of Breckenridge, the Section House and Ken's Cabin on Boreas Pass, and the Sisters hut between Keystone and Breckenridge. Summit Huts was created off the shared experiences and passion of several Summit County locals. One of these experiences included the Haute Route in Europe, another was at the Tenth Mountain Huts run out of Aspen.
The iconic Haute Route, arguably, the most famous hut trip on the planet, runs from Chamonix, France to Zermatt/Saas Fe in Switzerland. The first winter Haute Route was done in 1903, over four days, by a group of Chamoinards - Dr. Payot, Alfred Simond, Joseph Ravanel, Joseph Couttet, and Jean and Camille Ravenal. Their intended route, the classic route, crossed 23 glaciers with ascent and descent by ski equaling 33,000 feet. The Haute Route starts in Chamonix, France and, via a short train ride and a long ski ascent to the Chardonnay Pass, proceeds into Switzerland for the duration of the ski tour. Over time multiple variations have developed, running from 5 to 7 days, but all incorporate human powered travel from hut to hut in spectacular terrain.
When the troops returned home from World War II, they bought back the concept of hut skiing. Tenth Mountain Division Troopers learned about the various hut to hut ski tours from locals in Italy and the Austrian and German members of the Division. Anything that involved skiing was fair game to these guys. Both Aspen and Vail ski areas were developed by retired Tenth Mountain troopers, Friedl Pfeifer and Peter Seibert respectively. In the mid-1940’s Leadville was the closest watering hole to Camp Hale, the Tenth Mountain Division's headquarters, and was frequently visited by troopers on leave. Aspen had the Hotel Jerome, with drink specials like ‘The Aspen Crud’ for those making the trip, but Aspen was a difficult day’s ski or drive away. Vail ski area was not yet a twinkle in Pete Seibert’s eye but it’s fairly certain that at least some of the troops saw Vail’s famous back bowls while on training maneuvers across nearby terrain. By 1982 Colorado had two hut systems; the Alfred Braun Hut system between Aspen and Crested Butte is the oldest with a couple huts dating back to the 1950’s and the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association (TMHA) opened its first huts for the winter of 1982-83. A group of Aspenites launched the TMHA with help from retired Tenth Mountain Division troopers, Robert McNamara, (Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 under presidents Kennedy and Johnson), and the towns of Aspen, Vail, and Leadville. The master plan called for a series of huts, each a day’s ski apart, between the mountain towns.
Skiing in the US was not the societal institution it was in Europe. People had been skiing in Breckenridge since the winter of 1859-60, but skiing goes back thousands of years across the pond. The Aspenites initially had trouble persuading the US Forest Service (USFS) to grant a building permit for the first two planned huts on USFS property. The USFS did not believe Americans would embrace the hut to hut ideal which was so popular in Europe. The Aspen group promised to dismantle the first two huts (McNamara and Margy Huts opened in 1982) if user numbers were sub-par. They needn’t have worried though. The first winter was a resounding success and hut to hut skiing quickly became main stream in Colorado. In 1983 Breckenridge dentist John Warner did a hut trip to the Margy and McNamara Huts. He was immediately enamored with the idea of backcountry hut to hut skiing, and this first experience of the Tenth Mountain Huts began the gestation of what would become SHA. However, it would be another 5 or 6 years before the idea came to fruition.
In 1987 Summit County held a ‘symposium’ hosted at the Keystone Mountain House where members of the community brain stormed ideas of what they would like to see Summit County look like in 10-20 years. This is where the Summit Senior Center idea and the Summit County Bike Path master plan were born out. John Warner recalls giving a presentation on the potential idea of a hut system running from Vail Pass to Copper Mountain to Breckenridge to Keystone at the symposium. It was a novel idea and most people thought it would never happen. Some in the county felt it was akin to developing the backcountry for a few privileged telemark skiers. However, unlike the initial issues encountered by the Aspenites in their attempts to get their first huts built, the USFA was behind the idea of huts in Summit County from the start.
Another Breckenridge resident, former Summit County Rescue group member Jon Gunson, got wind of the famed Haute Route in the European Alps in the mid-1980’s. He and his Summit County buddies Rick Hum, John Cooley, Steve Johnson, John Warner, and Gary Neptune (who Jon met while rescuing Gary’s girlfriend from a remote pinnacle in Rocky Mountain National Park), decided to give the Haute Route a try sans guide in March 1989. The trip was a resounding success. The group was in love with the idea of self supported winter ski traverses from hut to hut and vowed to spread that love in Summit County.
Janet's Cabin Of course a remote backcountry hut does not get built for free. Janet Boyd Tyler was a Vail resident, avid skier, and outdoors person. When Janet passed in 1988 the family approached John Warner, president of SHA, and other board members with the idea of building a hut in honor of Janet somewhere in the Vail Pass area. A beautiful building site was found in Guller Creek, located about 7 miles east of Vail Pass and a couple miles west of the Copper Mountain ski area. It was also just a few short miles from Camp Hale. Tenth Mountain Division troops did several winter warfare drills in the Guller and Stafford Creek basins. Lucky hikers sometimes find artifacts like 30 caliber shell casings and ammo boxes.
A local contractor, EJ Albright with Colorado First Construction, a log home building crew from Pagosa Springs, and various volunteers and tradesmen jumped in to build the hut. Ground broke on Janet’s Cabin in the fall of 1989. It took another building season to finish due to the remote location and short building season at 11,000 feet. After clearing many hurdles the certificate of occupancy was granted on December 26, 1990 and Janet’s Cabin opened for skiers on January 5th, 1991.
On July 19, 1989, a United Airlines flight between Denver and Chicago crashed at a small airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Francie Lockwood-Bailey and two of her young boys were on the plane. Francie tragically was killed, but her sons, sitting on either side of her, survived. Her husband, Brownell, approached Tim Casey about building a hut in memory of his wife in the Crystal Lakes drainage across the valley from their home in Spruce Valley Ranch. The family had close ties to this valley; Francie’s family, including her brother Herb, had spent significant time in the Crystal Lake and Mohawk Lake areas growing up. Herb spent his college years in the drainages studying the rock glaciers secluded at the head of the basins.
Tim and Leigh Girvin (a current BHA tour guide and blog writer) were the front people in getting Francie’s Cabin built as the second hut in the SHA system. The project was another multi-year undertaking but Francie’s Cabin opened the winter of 1994-95 to rave reviews. The cabin has fine high alpine skiing as well as a sauna and indoor composting toilets (as does Janet’s Cabin, novelty items in the Colorado hut world). As it had been for Janet’s Cabin, building the hut was a labor of love for all those involved. Francie’s Cabin, helped by its proximity to Breckenridge, is the most utilized overnight backcountry cabin in Colorado.
Ken's Cabin and Section House
Ken's Cabin, built in the 1860's and known then as the Wagon Cabin, served as a rest stop for weary travelers making the journey over Boreas Pass between Como and Breckenridge via horse and wagon. Perched on the Continental Divide at the top of Boreas Pass, it became insufficient when Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad built a narrow-gauge line over the pass. The Section House was built in 1882 as housing for the maintenance crew that worked the upper portion of rail line. A small town, complete with a post office, has all but vanished from the area since the heydays of mining and train travel. Only these two historic structures remain and have been restored for use as winter huts. You can read more about the history of Ken's Cabin and the Section House and how they became part of SHA.
The most recent addition to SHA, Sisters Cabin opened in January 2019. However, some would say the project actually started more than 10 years before the first shovel-full of dirt was moved. Permits for any new undertaking on USFS lands is no longer a done deal. Numerous studies have to happen prior to any real planning and design are undertaken. Sisters Cabin comes with a sauna, indoor composting toilets, impressive views, and adequate sun exposure for the photovoltaic system. It should also be mentioned that there is some pretty good skiing around the hut too, which is the most important amenity!
Summit Huts Association, as well as the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association, promote the idea of self sufficiency, self reliance, winter travel and avalanche skills, and the ever important conservation of resources. There is no running water at the huts, you melt snow. Lighting is powered by a solar panel, heat comes from a wood burning stove, and bathrooms are either outhouses or (the comparatively luxurious) indoor composting toilets. If you leave all the lights on during a cloudy day in mid-December, there's a good chance you’ll have no lights at night. If you can’t light a fire, you'll spend a cold night with no water. If you don't shovel the path to the outhouse you could end up wading through knee-deep snow in the middle of the night. And remember, you travel on skis to the hut, with all your clothes, food, sleeping bags, toiletries, and other assorted sundries on your back. It is somewhat amazing at how popular hut skiing has become.
written by Scott Toepfer