This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
RED MOUNTAIN PASS — Their moms were not pleased with the plan.
Four 20-something pals from the Midwest were preparing to go backcountry skiing in the San Juans, around Red Mountain Pass. Their parents had read news reports of an avalanche — the first of the Colorado season — involving a student in an avalanche-education class in the area. The news of avalanches burying roads and killing skiers continued as they planned their trip.
“All our mothers and girlfriends were worried as hell,” Spencer Sight recalled last month after spending the day skiing Red Mountain Pass under the watchful eye of a trained guide. “But we told them we had the guides and all the gear lined up. That helped a lot.”
Marrying guides with luxury backcountry lodging is a traditional European and Canadian model that has yet to take hold in the U.S. But that could be changing with Ouray’s San Juan Mountain Guides and the company’s full-service backcountry huts on Red Mountain Pass.
Sight and his buddies — Chris Jagoda, Mark Haughey and Fritz Waldorf — were lounging in one of San Juan Mountain Guides’ nearly buried yurts far from any pavement. A wood-burning stove crackled as the wind whipped the walls while they sipped cocktails and ate cheese and crackers. The Eagles were playing. They had just skied about eight laps on slopes around the yurt, all under the careful eye of their guide, Kristin Armstrong.
“We had the best guide,” Jagoda said. “There were so many things we looked at but didn’t ski because she said it wasn’t safe.”
“I’d say it was one of the most special ski adventures of my life,” said Waldorf, harvesting a round of clinking glasses.
Red Mountain Pass is one of Colorado’s most popular backcountry destinations, but it’s not an easy place to ski. Avalanche danger lurks everywhere. The snowpack is notoriously fickle, especially in a season such as this one, with snowfall nearing historic levels. A network of independently owned backcountry huts spread across the pass caters to snowy adventurers, offering rustic accommodations for hardy travelers who need more than rudimentary avalanche awareness to not only reach the huts but ski the terrain around them.
But two new, year-round huts that opened this year are breaking from Colorado’s tradition of homey, DIY huts with more European-inspired lodging. The new, privately owned Thelma Hut — sister to the pioneering OPUS Hut — and San Juan Mountain Guides’ new, sprawling, 20-guest Red Mountain Alpine Lodge offer chef-made meals and backcountry luxury. Think caretakers, nice beds, Wi-Fi, indoor toilets, hot showers, cold beer and a stocked wine cellar.
It’s a new model for Colorado backcountry lodging forged by the OPUS Hut, which opened five miles north of Silverton in 2011, offering amenities such as a wood-fired sauna, hut stewards and electrical outlets — yet located a good 90-minute climb from U.S. 550.
Come for the guides, stay for the wine and cheese
Mark Iuppenlatz and Nate Disser, the owners of both San Juan Mountain Guides and the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, took the OPUS model a step further, with an army of 25 guides ready to lead guests on an adventure from a much larger hut a short walk from the highway. They also own several area yurts for their guided guests, like Jagoda and his pals. It’s the guides who are fueling the new lodge’s popularity among both expert and aspiring backcountry skiers.
“I don’t think we would have come if it wasn’t for the guides,” Jagoda said.
The Red Mountain Alpine Lodge opened in December, and it has been busy every weekend since — although it was dark for 19 days in March after avalanches buried most of U.S. 550, a.k.a. the Million Dollar Highway. Colorado’s historic avalanche cycle this winter hasn’t hindered guests from calling. In fact, Iuppenlatz and Disser think it’s spurring more calls for their lodge and its guiding services, which start at $129 a day per person.
Colorado’s first avalanche fatality of the season was in Senator Beck Basin, not far from the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge. A student in an avalanche-education classwas killed.
“For about four weeks, it was the first question we got: ‘Was that you guys?’ I think it reinforced the fact that the terrain up here is dangerous,” says Disser, who had guided more than 60 days on the slopes around Red Mountain Pass before the March 3 shutdown. “People are still coming. They are coming to all the huts up here. And we see all the different huts as teammates, really. All of them establish this area and the San Juans as a backcountry destination.”
Before they started planning the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge several years ago, Iuppenlatz and Disser would book their backcountry clients at any of the huts up Red Mountain Pass: Mountain Belle, Addie S., Artist Cabin or the first on the pass, the venerable St. Paul Lodge. All of those huts are booked nearly a full winter in advance.
So when clients called in the fall wanting a backcountry trip in February, Disser and Iuppenlatz would have to turn them away.
“We knew there was a pretty strong demand. So we thought we would do it ourselves. I’ve skied a lot in Canada and Europe, and there’s something about that kind of lodging. You ski hard and wear yourself out and ski down and have a nice dinner and a bottle of wine,” Iuppenlatz says, sipping a Spanish red and eating fresh-baked cookies at the 16-person table spanning his new lodge’s great room. “Those European and Canadian lodges, they are booked two years out. I just thought that was missing here in the U.S. And here we are.”
It’s not likely many will follow Iuppenlatz and Disser’s lead.
Guide to county regulations also required
The days of buying a small, dormant mining claim and building a cabin on Red Mountain Pass are over. Ouray County rules adopted after a moratorium on residential development on patented mining claims in 2016 require anyone hoping to use mining claims to build on the pass to assemble 35 acres of claims to allow for a roughly 700-square-foot cabin. Owners can get additional square footage if they buy and retire development rights on more mining claims.
So Iuppenlatz, who retired from a corporate real estate gig to join Disser as co-owners of San Juan Mountain Guides, helped his company acquire eight mining claims totaling about 300 acres on Red Mountain Pass, many of those acres in the high alpine and not feasible for any type of construction. They signed away any possible development on those parcels, earning permission under county rules to build their 2,500-square-foot lodge.
They also navigated the county’s high-alpine residential building permit process, securing engineering and wildlife reports to confirm the location was not in an avalanche zone or a wildlife corridor and would not harm the environment. The lodge is within the historic Red Mountain Mining District, a 10,000-acre span dotted with hundreds of mines, including a shaft behind the lodge where the owners hope to build a bourbon- and wine-tasting room.
Iuppenlatz and Disser went to dozens of county meetings to secure their permits and licenses. The whole process — from buying the first mining claims to opening for guests — stretched beyond seven years, they said.
“Now, there is a pretty big barrier for entry, so for anyone else to try to do something like this up here, you’ve got to have a Ph.D. in real estate to be able to put this kind of thing together,” Iuppenlatz said. “There are so many obstacles to navigate.”
The timber-and-stone lodge, which sits at 11,018 feet, has three bedrooms and a loft with 10 semi-private bunks. Iuppenlatz and Disser spent a couple of years planning and building the structure, preparing for incredible snow loads on the steeply canted roof and installing amenities, including three showers, in-floor heating and an industrial kitchen — all rarities in off-the-grid, solar- and propane-powered backcountry cabins. And the lodge is a few-minutes walk from the highway, making it one of the more accessible backcountry huts in the state. Rates, including breakfast and dinner, start at $134 for a midweek loft bunk and top out at $509 for a room with four beds.
Weekends have been full, and midweek groups have buoyed business, including gear-showcasing trips by outdoor brands such as Black Diamond and Osprey, as well as a group of pararescue agents with the FBI, who honed their cold-weather, helicopter-assisted tactics with the help of Disser and Iuppenlatz, skiing with their equipment and staging a hostage-rescue scenario in the deep snow at a remote cabin on the pass.
Disser and Iuppenlatz are not alone in opening a full-service backcountry hut on Red Mountain Pass this season. Bob Kingsley this winter took over the brand-new, eight-guest Thelma Hut, also a short stroll from the highway. Thelma offers the same luxury as Red Mountain Alpine Lodge and Kingsley’s OPUS Hut — shorthand for Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski Hut.
Kingsley said Thelma, with its upscale appeal and easy access, did “relatively well” this winter, and he hopes the bounty of snow will lure more visitors for spring skiing through May. He added four more sleeping spaces to OPUS, which now accommodates 16 guests.
OPUS, which Kingsley spent five years building after he bought a mining claim in 2006, set the bar for luxury backcountry lodging on Red Mountain Pass and has proved wildly popular with its full-service, meals-included offerings.
But Kingsley said he has not seen an increase in guests inquiring about using backcountry guides. “Many guests could benefit greatly from the knowledge and assistance of a guide,” he said.
A massive slide — and in business, too
Although the backcountry lodging scene is growing on Red Mountain, but March has been “a total disaster,” Disser said.
Avalanche danger and slides triggered by the Colorado Department of Transportation mitigation efforts closed U.S. 550 on March 3. Cleanup of avalanche debris, piled as deep as 60 feet along the highway, lasted 19 days, with CDOT opening the road March 22, more than a week ahead of its previous estimates.
Kingsley said he has had to return about $8,000 in bookings to guests who couldn’t reach OPUS and Thelma. Disser said his season’s business — on trajectory for a record through February — dropped 30 percent during the closure.
“But we are going to be skiing off the peaks through June,” Disser said. “It’s as deep as I’ve ever seen it. In the long term, it’s all good, but in the short term, it’s been tough.”
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