Backcountry Bliss

| February 21, 2012 | 2 Comments

Hut trips are a good reason to say goodbye to that chairlift

By Sally Francklyn


Courtesy of Switzerland Tourism

There’s a quiet noise unique to backcountry travel—your ski skins gliding across densely packed snowflakes, lungs heaving to move air, and Lodgepole pines bending beneath the wind’s gentle pressure. Your quads burn as you haul your heavy pack onwards and upwards, but the rewards are worth it: A cozy hut awaits, and expansive terrain, vacant of other skiers, begs to be explored.

When the world’s first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1936, Sun Valley skiers rejoiced. Today, there are more than 1,000 ski resorts in the world that use chairlifts to shuttle skiers uphill. Recent innovations in ski gear, however, are changing our reliance on the chairlift, and it’s easier than ever to reach the backcountry: telemark and alpine touring (AT) boots, skis, and bindings can adapt between uphill and downhill travel.

So this winter, pencil in an international hut trip between ski resort visits. The digs are cheap, the snow is untracked, and evenings conclude with a plastic glass of wine enjoyed among friends. The energy expelled to reach the hut is always worth it—every day’s a powder day when no one else is around.

Bernese Oberland – Interlaken, Switzerland

Europe’s Haute Route is iconic, yes—but it’s becoming increasingly well traveled. Beat the crowds on an equally celebrated hut-to-hut tour on the Swiss Berner Oberland. The intermediate six-day traverse among the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger is a mountaineer’s paradise, and varied ski ascents and descents provide ample space for plowing through powder.

GO: From Interlaken, Switzerland, ride the train to the Jungfraujoch Station, about a 2.5-hour ride on the highest railway system in the world. From there, you’ll begin the traverse between four alpine huts, known for their good food and hot showers. Just over $1,500 covers a guide, food, and the hut reservation.

Tasman Saddle Hut – Aoraki, New Zealand

New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt. Cook, tops out at over 12,000 feet, and the surrounding glacial terrain is home to some of the South Pacific’s best ski touring. Although it’s difficult to access (you must hire a ski plane or helicopter to access the glacier), the payoff is worth it; the Tasman Saddle hut accesses skiing on both the Murchison and Tasman glaciers. Spend a few days descending mellow snowy chutes and wind-buffed bowls, but make sure you’ve got the know-how to navigate glacial terrain—the surrounding area is dotted with seracs (house-sized blocks of ice) and icefall.

GO: From Queenstown, drive north to Mt. Cook National Park. Stay at The Hermitage Hotel, the area’s only lodging, and reserve a ski plane to shuttle you to the glacier (round-trip flights start at just under $700 U.S.). Make sure the weather is favorable—New Zealand is prone to windy winters (and no-fly days). The Tasman Saddle hut (does not require reservations) is perched at over 7,000 feet, and holds 24 bunks, gas stoves, and pots and pans. Bring a sleeping bag, food, and a deck of cards.

Refugio Frey – Argentina

More like a chalet than a true hut—a stay at Refugio Frey includes hot meal service (or use of the kitchen to cook for yourself) and cold beers—not to mention flushing toilets. Don’t be fooled by the luxe accommodations: the “refuge” is buried deep in the Andes backcountry, and the surrounding terrain is true Patagonia—steep, expert-only snow-choked spires that give way to wide-open aprons. As with any South American adventure, expect ample snow, good wine, and bright starry nights.

GO: Start at Cerro Catedral, a ski resort outside of Bariloche. From the top of the lift, ski down to the valley on the other side—from there, it’s a steep 45-minute skin up to Frey. Upon your arrival, you’ll be greeted with a hot bowl of soup, a cold beer, and smiling Argentinian hospitality. The granite hut costs less than $12 per night, and sleeps up to 40 people on beds complete with sheets and pillows. Groups of any size can book part, or all, of the hut.

Wapta Icefields – Banff, British Columbia

Canada’s classic ski traverse features four huts located along the Continental Divide, and is home to some of Western Canada’s best backcountry skiing. The big, open terrain is mellow (about as difficult as a blue run at a ski resort), but for more committing ascents and descents, the area’s 10,000-foot peaks beg to be summitted. Make sure you’ve got the savvy to handle glacier terrain, with its crevasses and seracs.

GO: Fly into Calgary and leave a car at Icefields parkway just outside of Banff. While guides aren’t necessary, use of one might make logistics and route finding a bit easier. The huts are fully stocked with dishes, lanterns, and outhouses (don’t forget your own TP), so all you’ll need is a sleeping bag. Insider tip: the Alpine Club of Canada will deliver food for you if you make arrangements in advance. The huts can be reserved for $36 a night per person.

Category: US

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Comments (2)

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  1. Paige says:

    Oh my lord, I want to be in that hut right now. The one in the picture. How beautiful.

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