Ski the Alps – in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

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Created: Friday, March 8, 2019 11:17 amUpdated: Friday, March 8, 2019 11:19 am

In the high-alpine of the Southwest Colorado, Peak Mountain Guides is on a mission to emulate the iconic hut-to-hut routes of the European Alps.

Keith Garvey of Peak Mountain Guides doing his job.
Keith Garvey, co-owner of Peak Mountain Guides in Ouray, Colorado, is one of only 150 people in the U.S. with the international-level certification IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations). Photo by Xander Bianchi.

By Morgan Tilton

The smell of simmering coffee rouses me at 7 a.m., and I’m immediately eased by the crackling fire: a song that reassures me of the hut’s warmth before I flip back the down comforter. The brew’s toasty scent rises to my loft through an indoor balcony. Aptly called the “bird’s nest,” by our hut-keeper, the bedroom nook overlooks the granite kitchen island, wood-slice dining table, retro furniture, and three walls of towering, floor-to-ceiling windows. I swing my legs off the queen-sized memory-foam mattress to the floor and step over the throw pillows. A foot of fresh snow blankets Mineral Basin, our den’s remote backyard bowl, near the summit of Red Mountain Pass.

A bunk room in side the Thelma Hut.
The Thelma Hut has three sleeping areas, all in modern-rustic style. Here, the bunk room is fully furnished with down comforters atop four comfortable beds. Photo By Xander Bianchi.

Over the past few winters, I’ve splitboarded to a handful of the Centennial State’s jewel dwellings included among the Never Summer Nordic Backcountry Yurt System, Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. But our current off-grid escape, the Thelma Hut in Southwest Colorado, sets a new national bar for backcountry luxury. The abode is reminiscent of Europe’s refined high-alpine hut vacations, where a caretaker cooks, serves, cleans, and tidies the space. From the Million Dollar Highway –14 miles south of Ouray – we skinned a modest .5-mile and 250-foot ascent to reach the solar-powered, eight-person chalet. The cabin is relatively accessible yet hidden by a crescent of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce trees. And the shelter’s views are an adventure alone: At an elevation of 11,300 feet, Thelma sits among abrupt ridgelines that rise another 2,000 vertical feet above us. The greatest challenge for explorers? The patchwork of surrounding slopes range from sub-30 degrees – which are generally not steep enough to slide, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center – to precipitous 50-degree faces and cliff bands.  

The perfect skin track.
International mountain guide Keith Garvey demonstrates how to set a precise, European-style skin track. Garvey cut his teeth working in the European Alps for 14 years. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

“Visitors who are unfamiliar with the snowpack and topography, or have low abilities and experience levels in backcountry travel, have limited terrain choices,” says hut-keeper Matt Guertin, who also operates the Opus and High Camp huts. “The key is maneuvering your way through safe ground to reach great runs. Hiring a mountain guide is crucial.”

For Thelma’s inaugural season, Guertin’s guests have arrived from across the country including New York, New Mexico, Durango, and the Front Range. Some folks opt to snowshoe in and don’t ski at all, and others are constrained by an unfamiliarity with avalanche-prone areas.

The Thelma Hut in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.
High over Thelma Hut, which is perched near an elevation of 11,300 feet. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

“About one-third of our visitors use guides,” he says. “But it should be more. A guide provides confident, safe terrain selection and people can get a lot more skiing in.”

Ski touring is our goal. My trio of backcountry partners has completed the recreational avalanche courses designed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. But this morning, the CAIC forecast for our region is high: the snowpack is fickle and extra dangerous. Fortunately, our team includes Peak Mountain Guides co-owner Keith Garvey, who is licensed by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations,: the highest credential for professional mountain guides worldwide. Only 150 IFMGA-certified guides are from the U.S., out of 6,000 total. And per Garvey’s mission, PMG has employed 15 of those experts this year alone.

Peak Mountain Guides are reinventing how we take ski trips.
International mountain guide Keith Garvey rips the skins while leading our tour above the Thelma Hut in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

Among his 22-year career, Garvey spent 14 seasons working in the Alps, where guide wages are higher than in the states. Now, he hopes to improve the industry standards by offering competitive rates. Professionals with an IFMGA license or American Mountain Guides Association credentials who lead trips in their scope of practice – be it up rock, on skis, or in icy, alpine terrain – can earn up to $450 per day. By comparison, most U.S. guide companies offer a maximum of $225 per day, Garvey says.

Garvey’s experience abroad inspired our trip today and his vision of the “San Juan Haute Route,” the country’s first-ever guided hut-to-hut trips that blend high-alpine terrain with top-end lodging and enable adventurers to pack light. Garvey’s ideal high-route variation will include off-piste and in-bounds turns that link-up the Opus, Observatory, Thelma and Hayden huts. The lattermost is being built in Richmond Basin, at the end of Camp Bird Road, gateway to 14,150-foot Mt Sneffels, and is scheduled to open next season. The four-day journey will be European-esce – but better.

“In Europe, you see 100 people waiting for breakfast at a hut and standing nose-to-backside on the skin track,” Garvey says. “Everyone takes the same route and moguls scatter the runs. Here? You see no one.”

Morgan Tilton skiing the backcountry in Colorado's San Juan Mountains.
Adventure writer Morgan Tilton finds the goods in safe, low-angle terrain in the San Juans, her home mountains. Photo by Xander Bianchi.

After a mellow morning and homemade porridge, we venture into the freezing blizzard and up low-angle contours. From our perch above tree line, there are no sounds, tracks or crowds in sight. As I drop into our first run, I carve into the blank canvas and I’m refreshed by the solitude.  

Plan your high-route trip at peakguides.com and thelmahut.com. Rent winter backcountry gear at ridgwayadventuresports.com.

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