How to Plan an Awesome Ski Adventure
Whether it be yurt skiing or heli-skiing, Ski expert Christian Strachan shares insider tips on planning an epic expedition.
I clearly remember my first winter season in Colorado. I was all geared up for winter camping with my 4-season tent, -20°F sleeping bag, a stove, fuel, and warm puffy—the works! I survived a couple of trips in the Elk Mountains that first winter after packing a good 50lb pack for one- or multiple-night trips with significant vertical gain. And I loved it—the adventure, the winter quiet, the isolation from the busy-ness of everyday life… But there was also the bitter cold, the blisters, and the shivering when the temperature dropped close to the limit of my sleeping bag.
Then, someone invited me on a trip to one of the huts in the Alfred A. Braun Hut System in the Elk Mountains between Aspen, Colo., and Crested Butte, Colo. One trip and I was hooked on huts! The hut provided all the wonders of being outdoors and with friends, but with great amenities like a gas stove, a wood-heating stove, mattresses, pillows, and silverware. I remember sitting inside with my friends, some of them playing Scrabble, some of them reading, some of them chatting away. We would take turns venturing outside briefly into the very brisk air to gather snow to melt on the stove.
Since that mindset-changing trip, I’ve done probably 50 separate nights in a hut. Most of these huts have been in Colorado, but there’ve been a couple of trips to the huts of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC). The most notable of these huts being the magical Bill Putnam (Fairy Meadow) hut in the Adamant range of British Columbia.
With all that said, I’ll give you some of my personal advice on how to plan your own hut/yurt trip to ensure you have a fun, memorable experience in some of the most beautiful winter spots anywhere!
Pick Your Adventure, Pick Your Crew, Do Your Research
What kind of snow adventure are you looking for? Will you be making turns day after day in the same spot? Tackling a hut-to-hut trip covering ground over several days? Doing a quick overnight outing with friends? Or, if you’re set on a specific hut/yurt, what features are in the zone?
Be sure to match your activities to the locale and season. For example, many Colorado huts are in great ski terrain, but for much of the season it’s inadvisable to plan to ski or ride because of consistent avalanche hazard. Contrast this with huts in the ACC system which have great terrain and skiable conditions for much of the year. Or, you might just be up for an adventurous hike in and be happy to just enjoy the scenery with friends while doing an easy tour in the surrounding meadows.
Picking the right crew is also essential, especially if this will be your first hut/yurt trip. If you already have an adventure crew, great! If not, bring along friends who have a thirst for adventure, get along well in groups, and are able to defer their own agendas to those of the group to maximize fun and safety. If the moniker for your crew is something like Fun Hogs, that’s a good sign!
Research is imperative if this will be your first trip to a hut/yurt, or to a specific locale. Generally the website for booking will list the amenities of the hut/yurt, along with a checklist of recommended gear and clothing to bring. Amenities can vary from one system and hut/yurt to another, so don’t just assume something will be there (for example, gas stoves for cooking). Imagine the deflated—and possibly deadly—experience of arriving at a hut eight miles deep in the backcountry at 4 p.m. only to find out you won’t be able to cook food or melt snow.
On the other hand, be sure to not bring anything that’s already supplied at the hut! It’s easy to go into the What if ___ isn’t there? hole. But hut/yurt systems are (for the most part) very well managed. If they say something is there, it’s safe to assume it’s there. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with, say, using a supplied pillowcase that may have not been cleaned since November, pack your own since it won’t really weigh too much.
Now when it comes to booking and payment, make sure you’ve got a committed crew, be sure to make a consistent policy, and hold to it! This part can make or break the trip, and even friendships. My approach is this: if someone wants a spot on the trip, they need to pay up front to reserve their spot. If that person or party cancels, they are responsible for finding a replacement, not you. Getting people to pay up front will make sure people put their money where their mouths are, and you won’t get stuck with paying for beds that aren’t filled. If you don’t implement a policy of paying first, people will back out, sometimes at the last minute, and you won’t get your money back. Also, let people know that if you can’t book all the spots, you’ll spread the cost of empty beds over the whole group. Usually when spread out, this ends up being $10 to $20 extra for each person and is easy for people to swallow, as compared to you taking the hit for $200 in empty beds.
I’ll just repeat myself again for emphasis: people need to pay up front, and if they have to cancel, they’re responsible for finding a replacement.
Logistics, Logistics, Logistics
Travel can be relatively easy (a hut an hour’s drive from everyone) to fairly complex (international travel). If your trip is on the complex side, travel logistics can eat up a lot of time. For international travel with large groups, I’ve found that it makes sense to book as a group so you can coordinate rooms, travel, van rentals, etc., at decent rates. Plus, not everyone will arrive at different times. If people want to plan their own travel, clear and frequent communication amongst the group is key. Make sure departure dates and times are clearly stated and re-stated.
If you’re the overall planner/leader of the outing, take a cue from business managers: delegate roles! One person is in charge of meals, one for travel, and so on. It can take a huge load off, and, believe me, there will be people who love taking on their role. Maybe there’s someone that is a real foodie and putting them in control of food will ensure they get the kind of culinary experience they’re hoping for, as opposed to them just choking down mac ‘n’ cheese for dinner three nights in a row.
Packing and Unpacking
What to bring, what to bring, what to bring?! It’s a balancing act between comfort and weight on your pack, and that fulcrum can vary widely from person to person and trip to trip. On a recent seven-day hut-to-hut trip in the Alfred A. Braun Hut System between Crested Butte, Colo., and Aspen, Colo., one person in our party went whole-hog with a 90L pack stuffed to the gills. It was well-supplied, including a bluetooth speaker, external battery, wine, a winter sleeping bag… the works! On the other end of the spectrum, I knew we were getting a food resupply halfway through the trip and went pretty minimal, managing to somehow fit everything I needed into a 45L pack with a summer bag (colder huts I put on my puffy), carefully calculated rations (I still had snacks left over), and no doubling up on socks, base layers, and so on.
Regardless of the comfort you want, pare things down as much as you can. Take a trip to the travel size aisle at the store for small toothpaste, deodorant, and even sunscreen (a travel size tube of sunscreen lasted me five days for face covering).
Should you bring a bluetooth speaker? I’ve been on hut trips where someone’s brought one, and they can get mixed reviews. Keep in mind that some people in the group might really (really, really) be wanting to get away from omnipresent technology, so be sensitive that your desire to jam out to 6ix9ine might not be shared by someone with a teen who plays him at home constantly. People in the group might want to hear a little bluegrass or just the sounds of the wind outside. Conversely, your crew might be fully psyched to have some tunes and appreciate you hauling in a speaker! The key here is to be sensitive to the whole group and practice open communication.
In terms of alcohol, keep the alcohol by volume (ABV) high and the growler at home! Well, okay, I’ve been known to bring a can of Guinness to crack open upon arrival (one of those creature comforts I was talking about above). Wine seems to do best for people over hard alcohol, especially at altitude. Buy boxed wine (usually the equivalent of three bottles), remove the nearly-indestructible bag from the carton, and place it in the hydration sleeve of your pack.
For emergency essentials, take a look at how remote the location is and the risks involved in getting to the hut. If it’s a quick two-mile jaunt with 500ft elevation gain, you probably won’t need to bring a 4-season tent “just in case.” Take a field first aid kit, an emergency bivy sack, and of course, the ten essentials! (map & compass or GPS, sun protection, insulation, headlamp, first aid kit, matches/fire starter, repair kit, food, hydration, and emergency shelter)
Should I Get a Guide?
If this will be one of your first trips into the winter backcountry, or if some in your group are not as experienced, having a guide along with you will be of enormous benefit. They are incredibly skilled, knowledgeable, and friendly. They can also help provide some of those services that you may not usually indulge in, like stopping for a hot cocoa halfway up to the hut, or knowing the best glade for turns just over the knoll, hidden from view. They will also—most likely—have a much more advanced knowledge of the hazards, travel paths, and rescue options in that avalanche terrain than you. Not only this, but you’ll be able to glean some of their vast knowledge base to use on future trips! Some of them can even cook for you, which can be a big load off after a long hike in or big day of turns. Spreading the cost of a guide out over the whole group can make this a pretty reasonable expense for everyone.
What are you waiting for?
Just like I wished I’d found out sooner about huts more than 25 years ago, it might be the same for you, but you’ll never know until you get out on a trip! Hopefully I’ve given you a little glimpse of how good it is and how to get started. Call your fun hawg crew, check out some options and what sounds good, and enjoy a new favorite adventure.