We find our friends waiting for us on the side of the road. They are standing next to what looks like a miniature Snowcat, talking to Cindy Farny as she loads their gear into the back. We park our car in a plowed-out spot next to the highway and begin pulling out bags and putting on cold weather gear while our eight-month old daughter busies herself in the back seat. We are heading up to High Camp Hut, where 13 of us will gather for an overnight birthday celebration.
Nestled in the shadow of Sheep Mountain in the San Juan Mountains, High Camp Hut is a large cabin built by Dave and Sherry Farny. Originally a logging camp, the 320 acres surrounding the cabin were purchased by the Farny family in 1958. They used the high-alpine meadow and its surrounding forest as a place where their Skyline Guest Ranch visitors could ride horseback and enjoy an overnight high-country camping experience. Eventually the Farnys, with help from many friends, built a large, two-story cabin there, using spruce trees felled on the property. Then, in 2003, they donated the subdivision rights to the land surrounding the cabin to the Nature Conservancy, ensuring that its views of Sheep Mountain, San Miguel Peak, the Wilsons, El Diente and Lizard Head Peak are protected in perpetuity. High Camp’s closest neighbor is at least seven miles away, and over a mountain.
When Cindy Farny-Mallette purchased High Camp from her parents in 2005, she decided to open the cabin up to the public for overnight stays. After a few improvements, the comfortably furnished cabin now easily sleeps 14, complete with a wood-fired sauna and fully furnished kitchen. Adventurers of every sort can snowshoe, ski, hike or horseback ride up to the hut, depending on the season, and spend up to a week exploring the surrounding pristine wilderness, whether it’s a ski to Round Lake, an extended hike over Bolam Pass or a summit of Sheep Mountain.
For our outing, we had arranged for Cindy to haul our food and gear (and a bottle of wine or two) so we could travel the 2.5 miles to the cabin on our cross-country skis without carrying extra weight on our backs.
With our daughter snug and warm in a pack on my husband’s back (just a few pounds of additional weight), we click into our skis and begin our schuss – a moderate uphill journey through a magnificent spruce forest. The lightly falling flakes of snow only enhance the setting.
An hour or so later, we wind our way out of the forest and up the last hill to find one of the largest snow-caves I’ve ever seen. A couple of kids are already there, giddily laughing as they slide up and down the hillside right outside the cabin’s front door. Cindy, who passed us on the way up, has already unloaded our gear and begun lighting the cabin’s Round Oak potbelly stove.
Dropping our skis outside the door, we enter a snug mudroom full of shelves and hooks, where we discard our coats and boots. We then open another door onto a spacious, lodge-style main room, where we find lots of windows, comfy daybeds, a large couch, an open kitchen, and a long dining table complete with an overhanging chandelier. The rustic ambience completely suits the setting.
With the stove lit and a large snow-filled pot placed on top – this will be our drinking and washing water – Cindy gives us a tour of the rest of the cabin. Behind a curtain next to the kitchen is the wood-burning sauna (which we waste no time in putting to use), and upstairs we find four quaint bedrooms with multiple beds and a loft, providing even more sleeping space (as well as a “clubhouse” for the kids). Each room is furnished with the necessary curtains, linens, warm blankets and reading lights. Being off the grid, the cabin takes its power from solar panels. Cindy encourages us to be mindful of our power usage, and use candles when it gets dark. We then make our way back outside where the composting toilet is located. It is private, odorless and clean.
A few more tips and Cindy is back in her Snowcat, promising to come back the next afternoon to pack our gear back down the mountain.
With little daylight remaining, we settle into our respective rooms and then launch into dinner preparations. Wine and warm drinks flow, the kids settle in to games and reading, the adults take turns using the sauna. By nightfall, we are gathered around the dinner table, feasting on a candlelit meal of elk steaks, green salad, warm bread and mashed potatoes, followed by a delicious chocolate birthday cake. Afterwards, we settle in front of the crackling wood stove to share stories and have a few nightcaps before turning in for the night. It’s the perfect cozy winter experience and we are thrilled by our private retreat.
After a dark and perfectly silent night’s sleep, we gather the next sun-filled morning to cook a large breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Between sips of coffee, we discuss what we should do with our day – ski the Grand Cirque loop, explore Sheep Mountain? Feeling less than ambitious (remember those birthday nightcaps?), we settle on playing outside with the kids. I stuff my daughter into a snowsuit and put her on a sled, giving her a private tour of the snowy landscape, as well as her first “high-speed” slide down a hillside. She cries when we put her inside the snow cave and then giggles when we give her an icicle to suck on.
The group gathers on the large, sunny deck to eat lunch and take in the stupendous views before the process of packing up begins. We collect our garbage, put dishes away, strip the beds and give the cabin a quick sweep. Then Cindy arrives to haul away our stuff and we again don our ski gear.
This time we travel down as one group, giggling as we round turns and speed down the steep sections. As our vehicles come into sight, I ponder our experience at High Camp Hut, and my only regret is that we didn’t stay for one more night. The nostalgia has already set in.
High Camp Hut Facts Elevation: 11,043 feet
Amenities: Fully stocked kitchen, wide-fired sauna, wood stove, composting toilet, four bedrooms, three day beds, one loft, large main room, mud room, decks, gas grill
Additional Services: Gear hauling $50 each way; linens, $8 per bed; catering can be prearranged
Availability: All four seasons for hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing.
Rules: No pets; no smoking.
Arrival and Departure Times: 1 p.m.
Location/Parking: 17 miles from Telluride driving south on Hwy 145, park two miles past the top of Lizard Head Pass. High Camp Hut is 2.5 miles from the highway on a private trail that climbs 1,000 feet.
Avalanche Danger: There is no avalanche danger accessing the High Camp Hut. Most terrain around the hut is easy to moderate and not prone to avalanches. More extreme skiing is located on the north side of Sheep Mountain.
Cost: Weekdays – $150/night for four people. Each additional person $28/night. Weekends – three nights (Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday) $570; Two nights (Friday and Saturday) $480.
More Information: www.highcamphut.com; Cindy Farny-Mallette, 970/728-8050, firstname.lastname@example.org