“It looks like Canada,” said Nate Disser, our guide, indicating the lofty, snow-cloaked peaks around us. Later that day, when our group of 10 had skied to another high-alpine basin where craggy rock monoliths jutted up from ridgelines, Mr. Disser noted a resemblance to the Italian Dolomites. Yet we were in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, a spectacular place in its own right.
The San Juans are particularly jagged and steep. Starting in the mid-1800s, miners tore into these peaks hunting for silver and gold, and the remnants of their industry still scar the land. This week, we were hunting only for powdery stashes to ski, and our tracks would disappear with the next snowfall.
We were on the second day of a five-day trip called the Million Dollar Traverse, a hut-to-hut backcountry ski tour. (The name comes from the so-called Million Dollar Highway, a serpentine stretch of U.S. Route 550 that runs between the Colorado towns of Ouray and Silverton.) The comparisons to Canada and Europe were apt in another sense, too, as guided ski trips like the one we were on are common in those locales.
I’m an avid backcountry skier, who usually prefers self-organized outings. But more than 20 years ago, I skied the Haute Route, a hut-to-hut trek in France and Switzerland, with a guided group, and I was curious to see what a version of it would be like closer to home.
San Juan Mountain Guides, owned by Mr. Disser, began offering the traverse a couple of winters ago. The trip includes four nights in three privately owned huts, with six to eight miles of skiing and some 3,500 feet of elevation gain between each one. Though it’s hard work to climb up and over the mountain passes, the payoff is descending thousands of feet of untracked snow among soul-stirring scenery.
“We’re such a D.I.Y. culture,” said Mr. Disser. “In Europe or Canada, you go to a hut, you get a guide.” But if the Million Dollar Traverse is any indication, the concept of going with a guide may be catching on here. As of mid-November, all slots were booked for the trip, which is offered five times in spring 2024.
Most backcountry huts in the United States are simple, self-service structures, with skiers packing their own sleeping bags and food, and melting snow on a wood stove for water. But several newer huts clustered in the mountains between Ouray and Silverton have staff on hand to provide meals, beds with blankets, running water and indoor bathrooms. This also means you can ski with a lighter backpack, carrying just a change of clothes for the evening, snacks and water, and safety gear like a shovel and avalanche probe.
When our group — eight skiers and two guides — gathered at the San Juan Mountain Guides office in Ouray one morning in early April, it was 10 degrees and new snow dusted the ground. Though the state’s ski resorts were winding down their seasons, plenty of snow still covered the peaks, the result of a particularly generous winter.
Mr. Disser and another guide, Patrick Ormond (both certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations), showed some slides of our route, much of it above the tree line, and talked about safety. We’d all have alpine touring gear, with climbing skins that we’d stick to the bottom of our skis for traction during ascents. And we’d each wear a beacon that can send and receive electronic signals — a must when traveling through avalanche-prone terrain.
“We’ll be constantly assessing things as we go,” Mr. Disser said, referring to the myriad factors that make up snow stability.
Everyone in the group had skied many times at resorts, but our backcountry experience varied. This would be the first hut trip for Doug Wojcik, 56, of McLean, Va., who came with his son, Christopher Wojcik, 30, of Seattle; to prep, the pair had taken a weekend backcountry course at Stevens Pass in Washington. Likewise, it would be Bettina Eckerle’s first hut experience, though the New Yorker skis at her vacation home near Vail, Colo. On the other hand, Kat Siegrist, 38, of Dillon, Colo., frequently backcountry skis with friends.
Hut number one and a steep climb
That first morning we set off on the relatively easy 3.5-mile ski to the Opus Hut. Tucked among trees on a knoll, the hut, which sleeps 20, is three stories high, with hand-hewn beams accenting the dining area. A separate building houses a wood-fired sauna.
The winter’s abundant snowfall had created huge drifts around the hut, and a shoveled-out tunnel led to the entrance. All that snow meant that the staff had already gone through much of the firewood hauled in during the fall. Hence, no fire crackled when we arrived, and the hut was chilly; I kept on most of my ski layers and didn’t warm up until I ate two bowls of soup in the late afternoon. That night, after filling up on pad Thai and coconut-topped fudge bars, I gratefully pulled up the bed’s thick comforter in the room I shared with Ms. Eckerle and Ms. Siegrist.
At breakfast, Mr. Disser, tall and wiry with a long salt-and-pepper beard, laid out the day’s route: We would start by skinning from the Opus Hut to the bottom of a basin, then hike — skis strapped to backpacks — to a 13,040-foot mountain pass, attaching crampons to our ski boots if the snow was slick.
I’d been dreading it.
It wasn’t the mountaineering that worried me. I was battling a personal demon: exercise-induced asthma that has gradually worsened, putting a crimp in my recreational endeavors, if not my ambition. Adding another medication had provided newfound stamina, and I was hopeful I could once again tackle a multiday ski trip. Yet I worried I’d be slow on the trek up to the pass or, worst case, unable to finish it.
At first we skinned in long zigzags up the slope; as the terrain got steeper, Mr. Disser and Mr. Ormond demonstrated kick turns (changing direction on skis in a few fluid movements). Eventually we took off our skis and hiked straight up the slope, kicking the toes of our boots into the snow to gain purchase and using our ski poles for balance. I don’t know if it was the inspiring scenery or the camaraderie that spurred me along, but I felt better than I had in ages. Later, I watched a video a fellow skier took of us finishing the climb and heard myself say, “I feel like a million bucks.”
We topped out on a narrow ridge overlooking Columbine Lake, which in summer glistens Caribbean blue, but now was frozen solid. One by one, each of us skied 300 vertical feet down to the lake, scribing symmetrical S’s in the pristine snow. In this remote landscape, I felt very alive and very small. Later, James Pettifor, 38, who lives near Denver, would comment on the serenity: “I had a spiritual experience up there. It’s not something I get with my resort experiences.”
Our final descent through Porphyry Basin was my favorite of the day — creamy powder on a steep but not intimidating pitch. We worked our way down, skiing wide-open slopes and narrower gullies in conditions that ranged from winter powder to sun-softened snow. We ended up alongside Route 550 near Red Mountain Pass, a popular area for backcountry skiers.
Home for the next two nights was the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, less than a quarter-mile off the road, but requiring a ski in. Opened in 2018 and owned by San Juan Mountain Guides, it’s a luxurious chalet, with a soaring wood ceiling and a wall of windows that frames a view of forested hills and higher peaks. Up to 20 guests can sleep in the loft area or in one of three private bedrooms. Small bags we’d packed pre-trip had been transported in, so we all had a fresh change of clothes. Also, hot showers!
After a seven-hour day on skis, it was a treat to sink into a leather couch by the wood stove, cold beer in hand. Another treat: decadent three-course dinners, which one night included elk tenderloin and homemade honey-lavender cake.
By day three, we were all red from the sun and slightly sore, but tempting as it may have been to lounge on the deck, we set out for Red Mountain No. 3, a peak that measures just a hair below 13,000 feet. The ascent included a sketchy section of thin snow and sharp rocks that necessitated a skis-off hike and underscored the benefit of having guides.
“I would have never popped off my skis and boot-packed up that on my own,” Glenn Seymour, 59, of Park City, Utah, said later, who was on the tour with his ski buddy John Kiczek, 70, who spends winters in Park City.
We were rewarded for our perseverance with an exhilarating descent from Red 3’s summit on the sort of long, open slope associated with heli-skiing. Yet halfway down, I had to stop to catch my breath. My asthma was getting the better of me; I no longer felt like a million bucks.
The final push
“I’m a little worried about my stamina,” said Ms. Siegrist on the third night. We all laughed, thinking, “You?” On the uphill segments, she was usually right behind Mr. Ormond, who had the laid-back demeanor of a surfer, but moved through the mountains with ease.
Yet her concern was legitimate. The next day we would cover about seven miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain, traveling through several alpine basins to reach Hayden Backcountry Lodge. The hut was opened in 2020 by Eric Johnson, a chef who moved from Boulder to renovate the old cabin, which was located, as were the other huts we visited, on a former mining claim.
Gray skies hovered on day four, transforming the mountains and valleys into a monochromatic landscape and making depth perception difficult. We stopped to eat sandwiches at the ruins of an old mining cabin, seeking respite from the wind amid the splintering boards. From there we skied by Imogene Pass, a summer four-wheel-drive road between Ouray and Telluride that tops out at 13,114 feet; improbably, an old mailbox sits there, now so shot through with bullets that the metal looks like lace.
Another long descent led us to the lodge’s front door. The hut, which sleeps 18, includes a new two-story wing with cozy spots for lounging and dining, and spellbinding views of the nearby peaks and Yankee Boy Basin.
The trip’s finale came too soon, on Easter Sunday. We had all bonded in the way that only comes from going up and down mountains together, encouraging each other through tricky sections and hooting and hollering as we each etched our own style of turns in the snow. But before we descended to our everyday lives, there would be one more ski tour.
Leaving Hayden behind, we skinned high up into a basin below the summit of United States Mountain, the only noise our skis shuffling along the track set by Mr. Ormond and occasional bursts of conversation or laughter. Sun filtered through snow-blanketed bands of rock that loomed, cathedral-like, above. The skiing was sublime.
I’m not particularly religious, but on that mountain, which by its very name left no doubt as to which country we were in, I had my own spiritual experience. And I certainly didn’t mind having some help to achieve it.
If You Go
The Million Dollar Traverse costs $2,499 per person, which includes accommodations, meals and avalanche gear. Trips take place in late March and early April. All 2024 slots are booked, but there’s a wait list. San Juan Mountain Guides also offers another five-day trip, the Imogene Traverse ($2,499), which goes between two huts.
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