Cabin Con­vert

On Colorado’s Sn­ef­fels Tra­verse, a back­packer learns to stop hat­ing on huts and em­brace the high easy.

Backpacker - - VIEW WITH A ROOM - BY JONATHAN WATER­MAN

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.

TRIP PLAN­NER

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.

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