An Ominous Beginning
Darcie and I had watched the weather forecast for Copper Mountain pretty closely for the past week, and the data was not encouraging. We’d made reservations for Janet’s Cabin with friends several months ago, and while we knew that the weather was unpredictable that far in advance, we had high hopes that early May would be beautiful. The 10 day early forecast had been optimistic, but as the day of the trip approached, the predictions were getting worse. We were looking at snowshoeing up into the back-country for 5 miles in potentially blizzard like conditions on a minimally marked trail with no tracks to follow. It’s a good thing that this is the type of adventure that we both love!
Hiking to Janet’s Cabin
There are two main trails to get to Janet’s Cabin, one starting at Vail Pass, and one starting at the Copper Mountain ski area. Although the Copper Mountain route is a little longer and a few hundred feet more elevation gain, we decided to take that path simply because the route finding is much simpler. During the ski season, there is even a nice little shortcut as your hut fees also entitle you to a free ride up the Kokomo and Lumberjack lifts saving about 1.8 miles of hiking and nearly 800 feet of climbing. Unfortunately, we were heading out a couple of weeks after the ski resort closed, so we had to climb every bit of the way up.
Getting there is pretty simple…you park in the Union Creek lot (ignore the no-parking signs after the season is over), and head up the hill walking underneath the lifts. Once you get to the top of the Lumberjack lift, simply walk down the West Ten Mile trail for about .25 miles where you’ll find a well-marked back-country gate heading through trees to the west. At this point, you’ll continue through the trees downhill for close to a mill until you reach the point where Guller Creek comes down the valley. Route finding through the trees is made easy by well-marked and maintained blue diamonds indicating that you’re still on the right path. Eventually you’ll break out of the trees and turn left climbing up the valley for another 3ish miles. Sometime around 11,200 feet you’ll probably get your first glimpse of the hut through the trees up above. It’s a good thing too, because the last 1/4 mile is steep! Climb the last 400 feet, knowing that shelter and slippers are probably less than 20 minutes away!
On the day that we did it, Darcie and I averaged about 1 mile per hour. This was definitely slower than either of us usually hike, but we had some less experienced hikers with us and we wanted to keep the group together. The weather was also a factor…it was snowy and blustery, although luckily the winds never picked up too much. When we started out at the base of the lifts, it was actually sunny, but by the time we hit the hut, I bet there were four inches of fresh snow under our snowshoes. By the time we got there, some of the early arrivals had already gotten the fire started, and the hut was starting to warm up and feel like a nice place to make a home for the weekend.
What’s Life Like in a Back-country Hut?
The great thing about these back-country huts in Colorado is that while they are off the grid, that doesn’t mean that they’re primitive. Sure, you can’t shower at night, and the only heat comes from a wood burning stove, but you will have some amazing views from the big panoramic windows, and you’ll get to chat with and get to know some amazing fellow back-country enthusiasts. Huts in Colorado are generally log cabins based off of the stereotypical Swiss chalet. Most can house anywhere between 20 and 30 people at one time, but unless your group books all the spots you’ll be sharing the hut with other people.
Sleeping happens in upstairs bunk-rooms with between four and eight people per room. Earplugs are nearly mandatory since people tend to sleep a bit more restless at the high hut altitudes. Each person sleeps in their own bed; unlike some European huts, you’ll never have to share a mattress with strangers. Mattresses and pillows are provided, (although I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess about when they were last laundered!) but you are responsible for your own sleeping bag. Because the huts are heated with wood fired stoves and are so well insulated, you don’t need to bring or carry a heavy 4 season sleeping bag. A nice lightweight synthetic or down bag comfortable to about 30 degrees F will suffice.
The huts all have a well equipped kitchen with propane stoves for cooking but you do have to bring and prepare all of your own food. Because you don’t need to carry a heavy sleeping bag or a tent, most people tend to get a little extravagant on the quality of the food and beverages they bring. It’s common to see steaks, pastas, fajitas, or even pizzas and fresh bread being prepared in the kitchen. If you’ve got a large group of friends, it’s easy to split up heavy meats and cheeses and really have a great afternoon or evening feast, and it’s a rare morning that you don’t wake up to the smell of someone frying up bacon and eggs.
Water is sourced from melting snow outside. People in the hut will take turns going outside now and then to shovel fresh clean snow into a pot on top of the stove to keep a plentiful supply of fresh water for both drinking and washing. All huts have a solar powered electrical system for lighting in the evening after the sun goes down, but don’t expect any outlets. Bring your own portable batteries if you want to charge your electronics! Most huts have a couple of composting toilets located about 50-100 feet away from the main building. Janet’s cabin has a bit of extra luxury in that its toilets are attached to the main building in the vestibule. No need to put on boots and a jacket for a late night potty run!
Days in a hut can be as active or as lazy as you prefer. I’ve been on trips where we got up early in the morning, strapped on skis and spent the entire day earning turns with buddies. This trip, the weather stayed pretty miserable which meant that our group was pretty content to just enjoy the amenities of the hut and spent all of Saturday just being lazy. Darcie and I each brought our Kindles…for me, it was a great opportunity to finally catch up on some reading that I never got a chance to sit and do at home. Apparently by buying the Cliff Notes for “Moby Dick” back in high school, I’d missed out on an incredible classic of American literature!
Several of us did venture out for a snowshoe, but the lack of visibility and the potential avalanche danger from the ongoing storm quickly chased us back inside where the rest of the group had brought out the charcuterie for lunch. Darcie’s friend Sarah had brought a Bota box of wine, I’d brought a bottle of good Colorado whisky. Between the booze and the warmth of the fire, it didn’t take longs for naps to become a priority. After a delicious spaghetti dinner, it was time for a little more whisky and a good game of Cards Against Humanity with the gang before heading upstairs to bed.
Sunday morning I woke up early and headed down to a chilly hut and an absolutely beautiful sunrise outside. Seems that the storm had finally dissipated overnight and we finally got the views that Janet’s Cabin is famous for. I had a few minutes to enjoy the quiet while I got the fire going in the stove, but it didn’t take long for the sunshine outside to wake up the rest of the gang. We weren’t in any real hurry to get back to the trail head, so the morning was spent doing pack weight reduction…basically trying to convince each other to eat more breakfast from our individual packs! Hut chores (sweeping, dishes, chopping firewood for the next group, stocking up water, etc) didn’t take too long so it was time for the traditional group photo before heading down.
The hike out was glorious! We’d missed so much scenery on the way up, but got the full effect on the way back. Even better was that the past two days of constant storms had erased all of our tracks so we were walking on virgin snow. The hike down took half the time that the way up did, and we found ourselves back in the Copper Mountain ski area by 11 am. It was surreal to be snowshoeing down a slope that only a couple of weeks before was jam-packed with skiers heading downhill. Heading off the slopes to the car, it was time for one last photo and then the obligatory visit to a local brewery for a well deserved feast cooked by someone else.
How to do it yourself
Interested in visiting Janet’s Cabin or any of the other Colorado back-country shelters? Visit http://www.huts.org/ for all the details you’ll need to plan your own trip. You’ll find reservation forms, tips on planning, and routes for both summer and winter trips.
Max elevation: 11585 ft
Total climbing: 5787 ft
Total Time: 06:16:45