When I tell people, even those who ski regularly, that I am heading out for an overnight ski tour they often shake their heads and say something like: “I’ll leave that kind of stuff to you young bucks.” Hearing this I always think to myself that they don’t know what they’re missing out there. However, I don’t claim to be some superhuman athlete who is indifferent to cold and hauling heavy loads. Like most people, I like the comforts of home – namely warm food, a roof over my head and a soft bed. So the question is, how does one get the proverbial cake and eat it, too?
Bivouacking out in the snow is a grim scenario that can only be rationalized by a deep seeded obsession with mountains in the winter. Tents don’t make it much better. Just more weight to haul. Igloos and quincies simply take too long to build. We’re out there to ski after all, not to build a house. To solve this problem, I regularly plan trips to the variety of winter ski huts that lay half-buried in the snows of the Sierra whenever possible.
I say variety not because there is an abundance of ski huts in the range, but because the huts we do have are disjointed and incohesive in their location, ownership and design. Traditionally, that is to say, in Europe, huts have been built up in systems that allow a skier to travel many miles in the mountains away from roads and towns without having to pack everything but the kitchen sink. Due to hut accommodations such as a stove, cookware, a bed and some simple forms of entertainment, a skier has only to carry a small pack with food, clothes, sleeping bag and safety gear. That reduction in equipment effectively transforms a winter traveler from a beast of burden back into a skier looking for turns.
This alluring style of winter travel that is so popular across the Atlantic (and, when available, in North America) makes one wonder why the Golden State has not developed its own hut to hut system to rival the old world. Our mountains are certainly worthy of craftsmen-style huts that draw skiers away from crowded ski resorts and out into a winter world that otherwise seems too harsh in multi-day doses.
Last week some friends and I booked the only two huts in the Sierra that are located in close enough proximity to make a multi-day trip between them without having to sleep out in the inclements to make the span. Owned and operated by the Sierra Club, Benson and Bradley huts are located between Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley ski resorts along the Sierra Crest. They are spaced evenly between the two resorts and are just a few miles apart. Between the the two huts is some of Tahoe’s best backcountry terrain. And, straddling the huts is some of California’s finest inbounds skiing. Now we’re talking!
Skiers can ride the lifts all day at Sugar Bowl and then grab their packs for one last ride up Mt. Lincoln. Once atop the peak, skiers simply drop off the backside of the resort and head south along the Sierra crest. The next peak in the chain is Mt. Anderson. Benson hut sit on the shoulder of this peak, just 400 feet shy of its summit. Definitely a sweet location when one considers that, after a cozy night in a bunk, in the morning there is no climbing involved to start making down hill turns. All you have to do is wake up, click in and drop in.
Between Benson and Bradley there are two beautiful bowls on the eastern side of the crest that host a variety of descent options. Ranging form steep chutes and billy-goat rock gardens to open faces and protected tree runs, it’s enough to satisfy even the most experienced backcountry skier. It’s true that this area’s vertical relief is nothing to write home about – the tallest peaks in this area barely break 9,000 feet. However, what these mountains lack in height they make up for in variety and quality.
Once the skier has made all the laps up and down these bowls that legs will stand, he or she can make one last short skin up and over the ridge that separates Deep Creek from Pole Creek. A fun run at the end of the day brings skiers straight down to the new Bradley hut at the base of yet another bowl that forms the head waters of Pole Creek. From here, there are several options for ski descents and continued touring. On the way out, the skier can follow the summer Forest Service road down Pole Creek and back to a trailhead on highway 89, or continue back up to the crest and southwest to the Granite Chief area of Squaw Valley resort. Of course a pass is required, but it’s fun to end a trip the same way it started. Moreover, the completion of a resort to resort hut tour speaks to the original plans for a hut system in California.
In the early 20th century, Yosemite National Park’s Curry Company had plans to string out a system of huts that would be built around Badger Pass ski resort. The goal was to instruct new skiers in the ways of winter travel at the resort and then lead them out into the backcountry through a European style hut system. The problem was that the early huts were not getting the kind of traffic that their founders envisioned.
In an American twist of interest, the ski resort boomed while the huts received only limited visitors in the winter. It seems that people enjoyed the convenience of riding chairs more than they cared for the beauty and solitude of hut to hut travel. By the late sixties, the Curry Company had had enough and they pulled their caretakers from Ostrander hut (the flagship hut in the park) and left it to the elements. Luckily, over time the hut grew in popularity and the Park Service took an interest in maintaining this treasure. Caretaker service was assumed by rangers for a short stint, but ultimately the responsibility of the upkeep was assumed by the private, nonprofit Yosemite Association and remains under its care today.
Yosemite’s unprofitable attempt to open up its backcountry to winter travelers stands as a stark reminder of the costs associated with maintaining a remote lodging site. Without cash flowing in, it’s hard to keep the doors open. However, much has changed in the world of American skiing since those early attempts. Backcountry skiing has boomed as an industry in recent years and more people are looking for just the kind of accommodations offered by a hut system. In fact, the Sierra Club huts that I stayed at last week are booked solid every weekend in the winter and most weekdays as well.
So what is standing in the way of more developments? That is a complex question that has more to do with funding and site availability than anything else. Most of the huts in California today were built in the first half of the 20th century when the high country was less developed and building restrictions less burdensome. However, groups like the Sierra Club have continued to look for new sites. The problem in Tahoe is that the land is divided up in an unconsolidated pattern where private land breaks up the swaths of Forest Service land, which is still further broken up by wilderness areas that make it impossible to link together a cohesive hut system that would keep skiers in the mountains for several days at a time.
Despite this dismal reality, there are at least some huts in the Sierra for the motivated skier to access. For the foreseeable future, skiers must simple adapt to the circumstance and plan ski-in, ski-out trips to the available huts in the range. But, I will say that the little sample of hut to hut touring that is provided by Benson and Bradley has whet this skier’s appetite and I look forward to volunteering time and money to any organization that wants to expand the collection of huts in the Sierra.