4* at 4am in 4′ of snow… Going to the Outhouse

The outhouse was an unwelcome thought.

I snug up my down bag, watched the orange flickers from the fireplace glow on the rafters, and wondered how much longer I could stay there, cozied amidst my family in this remote backcountry hut, before my body urged me outside.

Tonight, I sleep in the cradle of the mountains. The camaraderie of our family is exaggerated by the isolation of the wilderness and the weather, by the clang of our calls to each other through the deeply silent, snow-laden woods. My days and nights are a steady march of snowy playtime, followed by thoroughly satisfied exhaustion, and my alarm clock each morning is the sunlight that creeps above the mountain ridges, to render one more day so glorious that the air is stolen from my lungs.

I am in the heart of the Gunnison Valley.

We chose Crested Butte Mountain Guides to get us into the backcountry. They bought and packed out foodstuffs, made our hut reservation, and would serve as our navigator and even cook for a 3-day trip. They even found Laura, who came along as Patrick (our wheaton terrier)’s personal escort… K9s being welcome on the trail, but not overnight in the BioLab area.

The ski out took us through open plains and along the foot thickly-forested mountains, and, in about 3 hours, to the camp called Gothic, a Rocky Mountain Biolab founded in 1928. It was a pocket of about 8 icicle-laced huts, surrounded by groves of snowy cedar and hemlock, mounds (and mounds) of the white stuff, all nestled in the cleft of the mountains.

We were pleased to find our hut- a small cabin of heavy logs and a laddered loft, a central stove, and a tiny kitchen out of which came enormous meals. We were even happier to get out of our snowy, sweaty gear, and as we fired up the woodstove and strung our gloves up to dry, our guide made us hot soup!

Our teenage set was happy to relax at that point, pulling out the cabin’s scrabble game and taking turns at the woodchop block (it’s funny what chores become fun when done on vacation!).

But I was itching for more, and under the care of our guide, donned dry socks and struck out into the wilderness… off-piste, as they say. It was an hour of heart-thumping, throat-burning work, but we were rewarded by our arrival, way up in the silent frozen woods, at a hidden waterfall!

The contrast, when I returned to the hut, struck me. Just as my body was a cooking oven inside with my cheeks and nose frosty on the outside, our cabin out in the subzero wilds held a toasty, homey scene of ragged-sweatered friends, crowded around the woodstove, with low chuckles and warm stove light all encircling a center table strewn with scrabble tiles, a rumpled Ski magazine, some assorted mugs, and a plate of cookie crumbs.

I’m not sure where the evening went. I have a vivid memory of our guide walking out of the kitchen with plate after plate of warm delicacies, made that much more decadent by our remote location.

And I recall the feeling of shock when the door opened for a firewood run, and our cozy, glowing enclave was sliced through with the wild winds of deep winter backcountry in Colorado.

The nights and days followed, in a steady beat of fires and frolics in the snow, scrabble and skiing and strombolis (from scratch!), and those memorable dashes to the outhouse!

We still tell stories of that week.

Yes, we enjoyed all the perks of Crested Butte, the big resort mountain to the north.

Yes, we liked snowmobiling…the thrill of speeding along the trail….bump, bump, BUMPing along packed-down rifts…pulling off into vast fields to “let loose’… and feeling, as darkness fell, that solidarity in the world that wilderness brings home best.

And, yes, we also loved Monarch, a mostly-ungroomed local ski hill with an easy-going attitude, where we spent day after day straying from the designated trails, boarding through trees and occassionally swerving into a tree well (the base of the evergreens that collects deep pools of snowy powder) which was hard to crawl out of, and harder still to shake out of your neck and ears.

But the stories we usually come back to revisit, again and again, are of our cozy times shared in the Gothic cabin.

Thanks to co-author, Rob, whose wonderful memories of the Gothic hut prove to me that wilderness is good for EVERYONE, even music and theatre addicts!

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