On Colorado’s Sneffels Traverse, a backpacker learns to stop hating on huts and embrace the high easy.
The route ahead rolls through meadows of columbine, asters, coneflowers, and dandelions interspersed with aspen glades. It’s the stuff of alpine dreams, and it’s merely day one of the 30-mile Sneffels Traverse in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. We plan to do it in five days and I’m looking forward to it—but not all of it. Today’s trail leads to the North Pole Hut, the first of a chain of backcountry shelters we’ll sleep in along the way. And I do not like huts.
It’s an unusual position, but I’ve held it for decades. As a teenager, I fell in love with the mountains and wanted nothing more than to work and play in the alpine zone. At 16, I joined the “croo” that minds the Appalachian Mountain Club huts. Among New Hampshire’s iconic peaks, I cooked for, cleaned up after, occasionally rescued, and led nature walks for the hut visitors. Adhering to century-old tradition, several days a week we packed more than half our body weight in groceries up to these mountain chalets. We would lash three or four boxes above our heads onto tall wooden frames and stagger uphill, joking that the grinding punishment might hobble us for life. After several years of this hard labor, the joke stopped being funny.
What started as a summer gig became a life sentence. Fair or not, I attribute earlyonset osteoarthritis in my knees and hips to stocking those damn huts. Every time I see one, it renews the pain. So, for the most part, I’ve avoided them. But from time to time on international treks, in places where huts are de rigueur, I’ve been forced to take shelter under a roof. Those nights only convinced me that I’d been right. Because in many corners of the world, it turns out, huts are overheated, overcrowded, and overhyped. Who needs a sleepless night sweating next to an over-banked woodstove among snoring strangers?
But now, with the terrible irony that what hobbled me might also be my salvation, I’ve been reconsidering. My middle-age body, already compromised, has started creaking in new places. Even lightweight backpacking loads seem daunting these days.
Something has to give. Since I’m not willing to abandon the backcountry, I have to give something I’ve hated a second chance.
I’ve come to southern Colorado to hike the Sneffels Traverse and sleep in the San Juans hut system. The group includes three friends—equally creaky—and even with hut-lightened loads we spend an inordinate amount of time pulling, readjusting, and tightening pack straps as we look for comfort. We set out in early summer, with a day of casual hiking ahead.
The mountains along the Sneffels Traverse look as sharp as an upturned saw. Center stage: Mt. Sneffels. At 14,158 feet, it owns the skyline with its jagged towers, couloirs, and snowfields. It was named by government surveyors in 1874, after the fictional peak in Journey To the Center of the
Earth, a novel published a few years earlier. This version of the Sneffels Traverse is 30 miles, linking Last Dollar Pass to Ouray via four huts with up to 8.6 miles and 2,500 feet of elevation gain and loss between each. It’s an alpine roller coaster through meadows and lodgepole pines, with never- ending mountain views.
“So what are these huts like?” my friend Derek asks as we slosh through melting snowbanks, circling the area where we think the North Pole Hut should be.
“They tend to be hidden with no signs,” I lie, not admitting I’ve lost the trail.
Finally, I spot the hut’s magnificent outhouse camouflaged in front of a pine grove (even a card- carrying hut-hater like me would still rather sit than squat). And there’s the hut.
Sided with green metal to blend into the forest, the simple and small (200 square feet) structure is positioned for environmental intimacy. One of 22 similarly designed buildings in the San Juans, it fits only eight people. Like its brethren, the North Pole Hut operates on a strict reservation system, preventing users from crashing others’ parties. Most every night we’ll have a hut to ourselves.
We hang dripping boots over the blazing stove. “Hey,” I plead with Derek, “easy on the wood there.” Just because you can make a hut warm as a sauna doesn’t mean you should.
Late that night a guttural, ursine growling shakes me out of my sleep and I sit up, promptly banging my head on the upper bunk, looking for the bear. I rub my eyes and locate the source of the bestial throatsinging: the head of Derek’s bunk. I try to channel compassion, not annoyance. After all, he’d be just as loud if we were sharing a tent, though I suppose my head wouldn’t have a lump on it. On day three, one of the longest climbs of the Sneffels Traverse deposits us, sore and panting but in good spirits, in front of what must be the finest view in Colorado. We sit on a ridge beneath Mt. Sneffels’s Snake Couloir, snow-white and serpentine, which leads in a distinctive dogleg to the pointed summit. Ravens soar on air currents above us.
We spend our last day at Burn Hut, on the edge of a meadow-rimmed aspen grove. Bear tracks circle the cabin. After stashing our gear safely inside, we wander without our packs, cruising on unmarked trails past pines and mossy boulders. We see 100-year- old inscriptions in the aspens, left here by ranchers and shepherds who spent long summers in these mountains and probably would have killed for a hut system like this.
Then the worsening weather gets truly awful. Hail comes ricocheting through the leaves. A band of elk flees through the pale timber. We beat a hasty retreat.
Back in our toasty rent-a-home, we peel off dripping clothes, holding our palms above the woodstove. For once, I watch approvingly as Derek stuffs the hungry stove with more logs. As I warm up by the fire, it dawns on me that my back hasn’t ached for days. Nor have I been clenching my teeth at sharing a small room with too many snoring strangers. And if I was in a tent, I’d be managing my wet layers, trying not to touch the walls, while condensation dripped from overhead in that humid little weather system. It’s hard not to feel wise in such comfort.
Luckily, it only took me half a lifetime to come around.
The San Juan Huts are equipped with padded bunks, sleeping bags, Crazy Creek chairs, propane cookstoves, propane lights, woodstoves, and cookware. (Food drops can be arranged to further lighten the load.) Reservation $30/ person per night; reserve online Contact sanjuanhuts.com
Mt. Sneffels rises above Wilson Creek.