Can backcountry huts be one of many economic “engines” for Grand County? A tour of the just-completed Tenth Mountain Division Hut System Base of Operations in Leadville this past Saturday fleshed out a possible rosy future for our own hut industry.
Tenth acts as a central reservation agency for 31 Colorado back country refuges, including the Broome Hut on Berthoud Pass – a 1700 square foot cabin a mile above US 40 on the west side of the pass. My contracting company built this cabin for the Grand Huts Association, a non-profit which has found success because of the incredible support – both in willing hands and the open pocketbooks of hundreds of local and regional supporters. Over 10,000 hours of volunteer labor were given to the building of the Broome Hut in 2012 which was constructed without the benefit of vehicle access.
Tenth’s Base of Operations was constructed on 4 acres just outside Leadville for maintenance of their system huts. Ben Dodge, Executive Director of the non-profit, said the new facility generated two new full time jobs in the sometimes struggling former mining town. Other Tenth employees will also eat and shop in town when spending nights in sleeping quarters in the building. The organization already deals with 70 suppliers and contractors in Leadville.
Grand County has two huts so far; GHA is finalizing plans for a third which – pending successful fundraising – will be built next summer between Hurd and Hamilton Creeks on a donated private parcel bordering public lands. Preliminary plans have been drafted for a cabin with 16 bunks and two caretakers.
Because of its beautiful site and proximity to Denver, the Broome Hut is one of the busiest in the state after just 5 years of operation. More than 100 hikers use the day use room on a summer weekend day. This popularity means another composting toilet tank will be added in the cabin.
Dealing with human waste is a primary challenge in the designing of backcountry huts. The “blossoming” of white toilet paper – melting out of the spring snow behind the old A frame the Broome Hut replaced, was a rather odiferous inspiration for my founding of Grand Huts in the late 1990’s. Dealing with this waste is an on-going problem when you have a hut without a well which would allow for flush toilets and a septic system.
Composting human waste is problematic. The Phoenix composting tanks at the Broome, like all successful composting systems, are large and require constant babysitting. John Ferguson hikes or skis to the Hut every week year-round to keep track of this finicky system along with keeping up with the complicated mechanics of the hut’s pellet stoves. His efforts, supplemented by the over 100 volunteer Broome Hut Masters – are the principal reason the cabin can meet the challenge of keeping the Second Creek basin from being loved to death.
GHA is seeking financial and volunteer support for management and improvement of the First Creek Cabin. This 80+ year-old structure is the oldest cabin in Colorado built by the USFS for recreation. Because of the incredible dedication of volunteers over its storied history, the six-person log cabin remains in good condition. All back-country concentrated-use recreation sites must meet the challenge of dealing with human waste. If this and other shortcomings at the First Creek site are not resolved with a management agency partnership – First Creek’s history will come to an inglorious end.
The GHA Board has voted to meet this challenge and has a pending application with the USFS to manage the cabin. Economic models show GHA will not realize enough income from renting the cabin to meet expenses. GHA is also funding the development of an innovative new waste treatment system for the cabin.
Composting toilet tanks need supplemental heat to maintain the composting reaction. Much of Ferguson’s (and the volunteer’s) work is keeping heat in the compost toilet tank room beneath the Broome Hut by keeping a fire in the basement pellet stove. A heated toilet room for First Creek is not a realistic or affordable option.
My son Forest Miller and his Colorado State student engineering team developed a “heli-potty” toilet tank system (the tanks have already been constructed) to deal with human waste at First Creek. Two plastic tanks will hold a mix of human waste and wood shavings supplied to supplement the pile.
GHA runs a fall helicopter operation every year to re-supply the Broome Hut. The helicopter’s flight path goes over the First Creek Cabin. The copter will pluck the plastic tanks after they are wheeled out from under the toilet building and then fly them down to our staging area at the Mary Jane Corona Lot. There the tanks will be pumped out by a sanitation service. Swapped-out empty tanks will accept the next years’ worth of waste.
Eighty cabins in Colorado (there are 800 in Switzerland) are all busy enough to be hard to reserve – testifying to this rapidly growing segment of the outdoor industry in our state. The Hut industry is also helping meet the challenge dealing effectively with increasing numbers of travelers in the backcountry. Grand County is uniquely posed to take advantage of this recreation trend if we plan in a visionary fashion to care correctly for our unique public lands resource.