Winter Backcountry Safety – A Hut Trip Story

In Public by Anna Debattiste

by Kyle Griffin, Summit County Rescue Group. Photos by Carson Covell.

“This is my first hut trip!” was a common remark among 20 strangers, soon to become friends, as they pushed open the heavy pine door of Janet’s Cabin and shuffled to the dark corners of the coat room. Janet’s, as it is commonly known, sits in the Guller Creek drainage southwest of Copper Mountain near the border of Summit and Eagle counties. My wife, Kristen, and I had been invited as the lucky guests of a fellow member of the Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG), who had booked this rustic paradise over the New Year’s holiday. It was also our first hut trip, and as I released my shoulders from the burdensome pack carrying nine pounds of pork and four bottles of fermented festivity, I was determined that none of it would be making the return trip. 

Joining us were 20 other minds that I hoped to tap into during our stay: a Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster, a ski patrol supervisor, an AIARE course instructor, several who worked as medical professionals at the local hospital, new search and rescue teammates, and some who had skied or split-boarded the world over. We were joining a crew that does not simply enjoy the snow, they live in it and rely on it for a living. Throughout the weekend we shared fundamental safety practices with one another that can be applied to any tour.

The first evening, we all slowly relaxed into the rhythm that being enveloped in nature can provide. The light of the sun faded quickly to be replaced by the dull casts of a woodstove and headlamps. Time became something irrelevant, and schedule became unimportant. Stories arced across the picnic tables like a badminton match and soon we were delving into discussions of risk assessment, touring mindset, and avalanche problems. These subjects would resurface often throughout the weekend’s conversations. Going to bed that evening, I don’t believe any of us had made rigid touring plans for the next day, but we all understood the mindsets of our potential touring partners.

Fundamental: Finding compatible partners is a crucial beginning to each tour. No judgment need be made between shuffling in the flats or shredding the gnar, but finding partners with similar mindsets avoids unknowns and ruffled feathers within the team. The natural environment gives us enough uncertainty; we can reduce additional uncertainty by creating a group with similar interests.

The next morning, several latecomers skinned up to the hut as the kitchen utensil chaos of a group breakfast was being tamed. We organically split off into the touring partnerships we were familiar with, generally between two and four people per group, setting out to explore terrain in all directions. My wife and I paired with my sister and brother-in-law, also Summit County locals and friends of SCRG. Among our group of four, we designated a team leader, a navigator, a photographer, and a communications manager that could communicate via radio back to the hut.

Fundamental: Clearly designating roles prior to embarking on your touring route can help ease the burden of managing travel decisions and tasks. Designate leadership, navigation, communications, or even a snack czar, so that each member of the team is focused on seeing the day through a particular lens.  Each role can then communicate what they are seeing back to the group.

Together, we broke trail south to Serle Pass, a granite notch folded between ridgelines of vibrant Arkose siltstone. After a few minutes of admiring the views, we continued west across northern aspects, talking through our travel plan and converting it into action as we crossed small pockets of steep terrain. After a scrumptious lunch on a sunny terrain bench, the ladies of the group decided it was time for a sauna (did I mention Janet’s has a sauna?) and left the gents to find a view from the ridgeline. As my brother-in-law and I approached the bowl’s ridge from the north, we noted several rocks in the skin track. This descent would require careful navigation to avoid the worst of the talus beneath. Reaching the ridge, we joined others in our hut trip party for a marvelous view before descending methodically, led from one line-of-sight to the next by the AIARE instructor.  Satisfied, we retreated to the hut for an evening of games, laughter and relaxation by the radiant woodstove.

Fundamental: We often read the avalanche forecast and make judgments about what is skiable based upon aspects and elevations that pose avalanche hazards. But when the snow is thin, don’t forget about the sharks which lurk just below the surface! Rocks, stumps, logs, willows and baby pine trees obscured by a few inches of snow can send you tumbling before you even know what happened. Spend time thinking about where the wind has carried the snow and ski conservatively in “low-tide” snow depths. Tragically, these conditions have resulted in season-ending injuries or death.

New Year’s Eve day arose crisp and silent, with low winds and bright sun in store. Kristen and I elected to tour with the ski patrol supervisor in our group, who is also an SCRG teammate and climbing partner of ours. Route planning coalesced around an interest in building our mental map of the terrain to the northeast, with multiple travel options available to us which would accomplish that goal and lead to fun skiing on the way down. The purpose was part exploration, part preparation, as we all agreed that the next time we were here it would likely be in the dark on a mission.

Fundamental: Don’t get sucked into the mindset that Plan B must be a lesser alternative to Plan A. Try to make Plan B just as good as Plan A, providing an option that you will actually consider and wouldn’t feel let down by. 

As we contoured across mouse, rabbit, and fox tracks near treeline the terrain before us continued to grow in the horizon. Now, topographical features appeared with greater clarity. Sensing a decision point, we paused upon a knoll overlooking the scene where Kristen shared her apprehension about our destination. Our teammate uttered wise words that I will not soon forget: “My goals do not trump anyone’s comfort.”  This instantly broke the tension. We crafted a flexible plan to reach the ridgeline and carried it out with much discussion along the way, setting the skin track to avoid micro-features of steep terrain. The views from the ridge and the long effortless glide back to treeline were fodder enough for many future 2pm daydreams at work. We meandered on our return journey to the hut, not allowing the day to be trimmed short for any reason other than sunset. 

Fundamental: It’s important to go out with partners that respect your boundaries, but it’s also necessary to speak up when you feel uncomfortable. Understanding one another’s skills and limitations, along with having honest discussions in which humility is prioritized, often leads to better outcomes for the group.

That evening the wine was long gone, as you may have guessed, but we shared the nine pounds of pork with our friends in a delicious supper to celebrate the new year. Many in our party called the ball drop in New York “good enough” and headed to bed before the stroke of midnight after two long days of touring.

Our post-breakfast departures the next morning came in waves. Before long, Kristen and I saddled beneath our packs filled with garbage for the descent back to civilization. I admit that I didn’t see this coming, and my anticipation of a lighter pack proved to be the fleeting dream of a hut trip gumby. To control speed, we kept our skins on, starting down a hillside into the creek bed’s dense willows. The transition to skins-off came just in time to schuss past a bewildered moose, sharing a moment of mutual anxiety that one of us might charge the other. 

Fundamental: Sometimes travel in the backcountry is not graceful and feels more like combat, such as when you are saddled with heavy equipment or wallowing through bottomless snow. Safety may be as simple as perfecting posture to conserve energy on the way up, moving more slowly down a narrow and winding trail, or skiing fast to avoid a moose as best you can. Constantly ask yourself “is there a better way to move?” rather than just plowing ahead.

Linking up with our ski patrol friend who caught up to our pace, we re-entered the modern world together from the trailhead at Copper Mountain. Three nights was all we could manage to spend steeped in friendship, forests and firelight, but it never seems like enough time.