Aging backcountry hut system rejuvenated
The Alfred A. Braun Hut System is made up of small, intimate huts that are perched in mountain aeries. There are no trail signs, and they place backcountry skiers in dramatic avalanche terrain.
“There is very little avalanche danger getting to the 10th Huts, but the Braun Hut routes cross some very large avalanche paths,” warned Craig Ward, president of the Braun Hut board. “You’ve got to know your snow skills and your navigation skills. Skiers need to know when to travel.”
Despite the risks, the Braun Huts have a staunch following of dedicated volunteers who rallied over the last five years to save the system from decay. As a result, these quaint, old huts are neat, clean, well-insulated, furnished with solar electric lighting and warmly reminiscent of Aspen’s early ski-mountaineering legacy. The huts remain open through early to mid May.
‘Crusty, old altruist’
According to Lou Dawson’s history of ski alpinism in the Elk Mountains, the Tagert Hut in Pearl Basin near the headwaters of Castle Creek was the first ski hut in the system and the first for Aspen. Today’s Tagert Hut, a cozy A-frame, is the successor to the dam tender’s cabin built in the silver-mining era at the Montezuma Mine. The first known use of this cabin for backcountry skiing was when early mountaineer Otto Schniebs used it for expeditions during the 1930s.
In 1946, wrote Dawson, Jay Laughlin came to the Aspen area from Connecticut. He had convinced the National Ski Association to set up a hut committee to build and maintain ski huts in the central Rockies. Laughlin repaired the Tagert cabin, which was then owned by legendary Aspenite Billy Tagert, who donated the cabin to the Ski Association.
In 1953, John Holden, an educator who started Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, spearheaded the building of three huts above Ashcroft: the Lindley Hut in 1958, a new Tagert Hut in 1960 and the Markley Hut in 1964. Holden worked with Ashcroft dog musher Stuart Mace and a colorful Aspenite named Fred Braun.
Braun (pronounced “brown”) emigrated to America from Germany in 1928. He moved to Aspen in 1951 and operated the Holiday House ski lodge with his wife, Renate.
In the mid-1950s Braun founded an Aspen chapter of the Colorado Mountain Club, which was one of the first mountain rescue teams in the West. Braun was a mountaineer who understood the potential for mountain huts, and his enthusiasm was welcomed.
In 1967, Holden turned over the operation of the burgeoning hut system to Braun, who oversaw completion of the last huts built for the system: the Barnard, Goodwin Green and Green-Wilson. Over the years, Braun was known to hut users as a grizzled old alpinist who was characterized in 1978 by Aspen Magazine, when he was declared “best crusty old altruist.”
“Fred Braun was a wonderful inspiration for keeping the backcountry available to locals and visitors,” said Craig Ward, who knew him in the mid-1980s. “He had a great way of keeping it simple. But he wanted to make sure people had the skills, so he would check people out at his house, and if he didn’t think they were capable, he wouldn’t give them the key.”
According to Dawson, “Prospective hut users were often treated to a few swallows of Fred’s schnapps between sardonic stories about other people’s misfortunes, then handed a roll of toilet paper and a candle, warned about the avalanche danger, and sent on their way.”
Braun died in 1988 of natural causes, but the huts endured under the unifying banner of the Alfred A. Braun Hut System Inc. Through the years, the Braun huts sheltered thousands of skiers and weathered dozens of hard winters. They aged like venerable old timers and began to show their foibles. Five years ago, under Ward’s leadership, the board of the Alfred Braun Hut System established a goal of renovating all six of the Braun Huts.
Hawk Greenway, Braun hut manager, described the challenge: “For a near penniless nonprofit it was a daunting task. After five years of marshaling funds, permits, donated supplies, time and labor, and juggling construction through weather while navigating serious backcountry roads, the goal was completed with the relocated Markley Hut on Express Creek. The rejuvenated Braun huts have been given a second breath of life that should see them through the next 40 years.
“We decided to refurbish the huts to keep them simple,” added Ward. “We wanted to use the same footprint and keep to the same philosophy Fred used. We wanted to insulate them and make them tight little compartments so they wouldn’t burn as much wood or use as much heat.
“We wanted people with good backcountry skills to have a wonderful time,” he said.
Such was Braun’s vision, which the board has perpetuated in high-mountain cabins, all of which offer dramatic skiing and mountaineering. Redesigned by Al Beyer, an Aspen architect and Braun board member, huts that were once dark, cold and poorly insulated are now bright, warm and airy.
“We retained the original structures in all the huts but the Markley, which was moved 300 yards and rebuilt from a design by Al Beyer,” Greenway said. “The huts reflect a great deal of his vision.”
The huts were renovated with the support of the U.S. Forest Service, hundreds of local volunteers and many local donors, including the Environment Fund of the Aspen Skiing Co., the first recipient of which was the Braun Huts. Greenway estimated that each hut required an average investment of $150,000, all of which came through donations.
Ice box upgrade
Part of the charm of these huts is their small scale and rustic appeal. Their original construction, however, is substandard by today’s measure, and left plenty of room for improvement.
“The original idea was that you were in this great ski terrain and you could get into a hut to survive the night,” said Greenway. “The interiors were broken up with partitions for more of a sense of privacy, which had to do with the social mores in those days. Fred Braun built these huts using only a small Jeep, and he couldn’t get in big things, like thousand-gallon septic tanks or large windows. Now that they’re refurbished, I liken it to entering a room and turning on a light switch. It’s like night and day.”
The Lindley Hut is a case in point. Formerly known as “The Ice Box” because of its all-concrete construction and lack of insulation, the Lindley now sports a hot-water, solar-heated, radiant floor system with pumps powered by solar electric panels.
“When you showed up at the Lindley on a 20-degree-below zero day, it would be 20-below in the hut,” Greenway said. “We wanted to bring the temperature of the building up above an icebox. We floored over the old cement floor and insulated, and we insulated the walls. It’s a very sweet hut.”
But Greenway’s thoughts of the Lindley are bittersweet. Three years ago, a hut user died in an avalanche only 400 yards from the hut.
“That’s the only hut on my watch where we had an avalanche death. That was heartbreaking. We need to remind people that Braun Hut users are exposed to avalanches,” he said. “The huts are in tremendous ski/avalanche terrain.”
The scale of the Braun Huts is small and intimate, and bookings involve only one party at a time per hut with a minimum of four per party for safety reasons. The huts range from 7 to 14 occupants.
“They’re a nice local secret,” said Ward, “and we hope people will use them and respect them for the next 40 years.”