From the front door of the hut I walk out of the shadows of the lumbering pines and into the direct sunlight of a bright and clear morning. The east face of Anderson Peak looks to hold some safe and creative terrain with short, funneling chutes and a wide-open powder field. The convenience of the hut’s location allows us to see the lines we plan on skiing, all while sipping coffee, eating eggs, and awakening to the quiet cool of the Sierra spring.
The sun swept snow is already softening, though it’s barely past 9 a.m. After just a two-minute hike we are lined up for about 700 feet of creamy spring snow. We make our way down one by one and then hike back to the shelter for snacks, a quick rest, and maybe a noon beer.
The day prior, we pushed off from Sugar Bowl’s Lincoln Peak towards the Benson Hut, our home for two nights. Our obese packs, lumpy and bulging with 3-liter bags of wine and enough creature comforts for a small army, had us teetering, but we eagerly anticipated arriving at the hut, where one can get a feel for wilderness without an advanced degree in backcountry survival.
The fine late February weather led us to the hut within half a day’s time and from there we relished in the warm days and mild nights. The hut made for ample shelter, with an upstairs consisting simply of a large sleeping space and the bottom level outfitted with a table, wooden chairs, a wood burning stove (with firewood provided), and a collection of random supplies and cooking equipment of varying functionality. The weather called more for T-shirts and sunglasses than down jackets and boot warmers, but it was spring weather, if only a few months too soon.
With 100 percent visibility, low avalanche danger, and decent coverage, it was possible to forget we were in the throes of a very low snow year, as complaining seemed far out of line. And with ongoing improvements to an old hut and plans for a new hut in the works, as well as the hefty re-layering of snow we received in late March, it’s a prime time to make a reservation and check one out.
EARN YOUR TURNS
There are four backcountry huts in Tahoe, all constructed by the Sierra Club, which continues to maintain and operate them through permits with the U.S. Forest Service. The first one built was the Peter Grubb Hut in 1938, and all four are arranged in a rough north-south alignment along the Pacific Crest. This location related to the original intent of the huts, which was to allow skiers to travel the Donner-Echo Peak route with a place for shelter each night.
The huts sleep an average of 15 people and are all equipped with external outhouses. The price for one night is around $20, depending on the hut. Patrons are asked to bring in all cooking supplies and food and water. Although some have stoves on the premises, relying on them to work is a risky gamble.
The northernmost hut is the Peter Grubb hut at 7,800 feet. The hut sits three miles north of I-80 on Donner Summit near Castle Peak. The hut was recently closed for repairs, but reopened in December 2013 after having its roof rafters and floor joists reinforced with steel plates, thanks to volunteers hand-carrying more than a ton of steel to the hut. More improvements are planned for 2014, with an emphasis on seismic issues. The Grubb also offers the easiest approach, with a mild 800-foot climb.
South of the Grubb, at 8,350 feet, is the Benson Hut. Our group took advantage of Sugar Bowl’s one-ride, $25 ticket, which cuts down on a few miles and over 1,000 feet of vertical climbing with a chair ride to the top of Mt. Lincoln. However, backcountry purists can start east of Sugar Bowl on Old Highway 40 and bypass the resort. Rumor has it this hut is haunted, though I could hear no ghosts clamoring about over the incessant snoring of my friends. Richard Simpson, Sierra Club hut coordinator, hypothesized that marmots may be a contributing factor to the legend.
Continuing down about five miles southeast of the Benson Hut, or about two miles north of Squaw Valley, is the Bradley Hut at 7,550 feet. The hut is now in Pole Creek after being relocated in the late ’90s from the Five Lakes Basin in Granite Chief Wilderness area. Accessing the Bradley Hut starts on Forest Road 8, marked by a pullout on the west side of Highway 89, and requires climbing about five miles and 1,500 feet in elevation on a fire road.
Farther towards the South Shore on the edge of Desolation Wilderness is the Ludlow Hut at 7,400 feet. Though this hut is lowest in elevation it requires the most effort to get there, with a six-mile hike and 1,200 feet of elevation gain.
The huts aren’t only a winter destination; they are a great option for summer hikers as well. Except for the Bradley Hut, which the USFS closes from mid-May through October to protect sensitive wildlife areas, the remaining huts are open and able to be reserved year-round.
NEW MEMBER OF THE FAMILY
On February 25, the Sierra Club announced that it’s beginning the process of trying to add a new backcountry hut in the Tahoe region, the first one in 57 years. A full consortium of studies, statements, and permits are yet to be undertaken, but Simpson says the hut could become a reality within five years, and perhaps sooner.
The hut will be dedicated to the life of Paul Ward, a backcountry enthusiast whose friends and family are funding the project. The location is yet to be determined, though it will ideally be within 25 miles of Truckee. The Sierra Club is evaluating possible locations and soliciting suggestions.
Simpson said a variety of hut styles will be considered, but the default will be to replicate the Bradley Hut with minor changes. The hut will be located within a day’s travel from the trailhead, be on public lands, and not pose a conflict with snowmobile or motorized traffic.
At the end of our trip, we shouldered our big bags and headed towards home. Sunburned and with sapped legs, we felt we had packed a week’s worth of skiing into two quick nights. The approachability, perfect location, and ample accommodation of the hut made it all possible.
When exploring the backcountry, avalanche gear and knowledge should be a top priority. Route finding in whiteout conditions are challenging, and parties have gotten lost in the past. For more information about the Sierra Club huts, visit sierraclub.org and click on Tahoe lodges and huts. To give suggestions about the new hut, contact Dick Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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