Old School: John Hunt freeheeling in the ’80s. Photo: Courtesy Philip Armour
What do you do when your boss hands you a rifle and asks if you want to shoot a Port-a-Potty?
That just about sums up my relationship with John Hunt: I trust him, and we make each other laugh. So when he asked me if I wanted to go yurt skiing, I was all in. After all, this was Taos, New Mexico, in the winter of 1996. We both telemarked in leather boots on skinny skis and sported the prerequiste thick beards. This was before John took his General Contractor’s license, before I went to graduate school, before we became fathers. This was when we worked hard and played much harder. Back then if you couldn’t plunge into the silent, white maw of winter and howl at the full moon with your buddies, what did you have?
A week or two later, we joined three friends and skinned the four miles up to the Grouse yurt at 11,200 feet on Cumbres Pass in the southern San Juan Mountains just north across the Colorado border from New Mexico. And for the last 15 years, John and I have made this an annual pilgrimage. Snowbirds of a different feather, we return to the yurts in the dead of winter to get cold and wet and to ski, ski and ski some more. It’s the one time a year when we remind ourselves that we knew exactly what we were doing.
“Yurt skiing is the best of both worlds: You get all the benefits of backpacking and winter travel without having to snow camp,” says Doug MacLennan, 53, owner of the Southwest Nordic Center. His collection of six yurts is sprinkled over Cumbres Pass, with one high above the Taos Ski Valley on the flanks of 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak.
In 14 years of dealing with Doug, strangely, I don’t remember ever having met him face to face. He bartends at the iconic Taos Inn, so I know we’ve “met” there, but his online reservation system works so flawlessly for such a low-tech mountain adventure that we’ve never had to meet. You receive a reservation confirmation for your dates and a padlock combination via email. Then you set off on your own.
Doug has lived in Taos since 1987 and is good friends with John. He placed his first yurt on Neff Mountain in 1989 and about one a year after that throughout the 1990s. Though Doug is a Stanford graduate with a MBA from Presidio Graduate School, Vail Resorts has not come calling to buy him out. No, this is about love. The man gets to stay on skis, and that’s reward enough. He provides a two-burner Colemen stove, fuel, wood, cooking utensils and pots, bunk beds (with foam mattresses), a table with benches and firewood. So all you need to pack in is food, clothes and a sleeping bag. Minus the avalanche danger and getting lost in the woods, it’s stupid simple wilderness camping. People typically base camp from the yurt and spend a few days exploring the surrounding terrain. Doug has been hectoring the Forest Service to also grant him a summer permit for operating the yurts, meanwhile his operation runs from Thanksgiving–April, snowpack depending.
He stocks and repairs the structures by vehicle in summer and visits two per week during the winter on skis. The wood platforms are essentially permanent, and these days the Forest Service allows him to leave the moveable yurts in place year round. When he first approached them, the Forest Service rangers didn’t even know what a yurt was.
“The Forest Service finally realized that my biggest environmental impact was installing and removing the yurts every spring and fall,” he says. “Skiers have essentially no impact on the landscape.” The biggest environmental culprit is likely the outhouses.
“I buy $300 of toilet paper a year,” Doug laughs.
He got the idea for his yurt system after skiing Cumbres Pass on a so-called “bad” year. “And it was great,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is awesome. I can do this!’” He’d found his happy place—a remote, unskied region with an average annual snowfall of 250–300 inches.
To paraphrase Jerry Garcia, you either love yurt skiing or you hate it, but those who like it, like it a lot. For some it’s too much work. If you don’t like earning your turns, well, buy and an Epic Pass and sit in I-70 traffic. I rowed crew in college and have always enjoyed “the burn,” and John basically does gymnastics with power tools on icy ladders for a living, so grinding out lap after lap on a prime slope comes naturally to us. I’ll gladly sweat for an hour to break trail in order to reach a slope with maybe 30 or 40 turns. When you reach the top, time stops (or expands) with your extra appreciation. And that downward slide is extra-sweet, extra-focused.
The skiing off Cumbres Pass is not as radical as from some of the 10th Mountain Huts. Nor are you as exposed as easy-access backcountry skiing from Red Mountain or Berthoud passes, but that’s part of the charm. It’s relaxed blue diamond skiing, with some double black shots here and there.
John always books two trips a year: one for the family and one for the boys. I’ll tag along on one or both trips, John often huffing and puffing to pull up his young son Peter on a sled. On one occasion, I was apparently taking too much time to get my equipment in order above a particularly steep pitch, when Peter yelled up from the bottom. “Quit putting on your make up!” He caught on quick.