I opened the door and climbed the steps that had been cut into the snow. The winter dusk was just giving way to the light of the first-quarter moon, which floated high above the cirrus, throwing soft shadows on the white slopes that stretched in all directions.
Fifteen yards away, a coyote sat on a slight knoll, almost as if he were keeping guard. Hearing my steps, he looked nonchalantly over his shoulder at me, stood and trotted into the trees. I scooped up a bucket of snow, took it back inside to melt on the stove and tempered my sheer delight at the situation with a silent toast to William Ludlow.
For the ridiculous price of $7, I was staying half a dozen miles from civilization on the literal spine of the snowbound Sierra in a wonderfully snug, if very rustic, little hut that I had entirely to myself. Just beyond the northern edge of the Desolation Wilderness and named after Ludlow, a wilderness skiing enthusiast who died at age 23 in the Korean War, the hut is one of three maintained by the Sierra Club in the Lake Tahoe area.
The others are the Peter Grubb Hut near Donner Summit on Interstate 80 and the Benson Hut south of Sugar Bowl ski resort at Norden.
While club members and other knowledgeable back-country skiers have used the huts for decades, they've remained somewhat of a secret from the larger skiing public. But that's changing as cross-country skiing soars in popularity and its new converts look to expand their trips beyond the groomed tracks of the Nordic resorts.
But if you can get away during the week, you can be virtually assured of reserving space at any of the cabins. And often, you'll have the whole building to yourself.
And given the heavy snowpack already blanketing the Sierra, the season will be a long one this year, so you still have plenty of time to make your plans.
Staying in one of the cabins, where lodgings are hostel-style with loft and bunk sleeping areas, is an ideal way for cross-country skiers to make the transition from day-tripping to overnight touring.
Sure, you'll be able to sit around a cozy fire at the end of the day, but getting to a hut means you still have to ski in with a pack.You get the experience of planning the trip, seeing what it's like to travel with a load and finding your route through snow-covered trees. And if you want to test your snazzy new four-season dome tent or try digging a snow cave, the hut provides you with a back-up.
Plenty of experienced skiers use the huts also. A 1993-'94 logbook at Ludlow contains entries from at least two parties who were skiing all the way from Echo Summit on Highway 50 to the Grubb Hut, a trip that's easily 50 miles through some very remote territory.
The settings of each of the cabins offer visitors a different perspective on the wonders of the high-mountain winter. The silence that can envelop the woods around Ludlow is almost spiritual. The wide-open ridges and bowls that surround Grubb have probably inspired many skiers to fine-tune their telemark turns.
Likewise, the huts themselves have unique charms. Ludlow is an A-frame, wider than it is deep. Two heavy wooden tables and a pair of wood stoves dominate the lower, concrete floor. (Take your down booties!) On one wall, a series of old black-and-white photographs shows the cabin in various stages of construction in the summer of 1955. A ladder leads to the loft, where large sections of the floor swing upward and hook into place to let the warm air circulate.
The best gear for these trips would be waxless, metal-edged skis with fairly high and stiff leather boots and heavy three-pin or cable bindings, but all of the huts can probably be reached on decent touring gear. A well-fitting internal-frame pack is the most comfortable to ski with, but plenty of folks use their old external-frame Keltys and the like.
If you worry that your skills and experience aren't quite what they should be to head out for one of the huts, many mountaineering and nordic ski shops offer classes in pertinent topics or can tell you where to find them.
To make reservations, call the Sierra Club's Claire Tappan Lodge in Norden at (916) 426-3632. For further information, you might wish to check out the Sierra Club's own huts page and the Nordic Voice.
Story by Mike Stuckey
Top photo: Peter Grubb Hut
Bottom photo: Mike Stuckey at the Ludlow Hut
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