COVID-19 forces Colorado backcountry huts to pause reservations

Big changes are coming to reservation procedures for three dozen Colorado backcountry huts this winter because of COVID-19 concerns.

The process for new reservations has been frozen while previously confirmed reservations are being adjusted in order to ensure that only single parties use the huts this winter. As a result, some who had reservations are forfeiting them.

“We are happy and delighted to report that the huts are going to be open this winter,” said Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Division Huts Association. “We had to make a few changes to address COVID-19. The (reservations) closure we currently have in place is very temporary. The only reason we are not accepting new reservations is because we are currently reconfiguring all of the reservations that have already been made for winter, many of which are multiple parties booking into one hut.”

10th Mountain, a non-profit organization named in honor of the 10th Mountain Division World War II “ski troops” who trained for mountain and winter warfare in the high country between Aspen and Vail, was formed nearly 40 years ago. It was inspired by hut networks in the Alps, including the famous Haute Route from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. 10th Mountain currently owns a dozen huts and manages reservations for two dozen more that are owned by other entities, including five in Summit County.

In normal years, users could reserve one spot or the entire hut. For many, part of the fun was sharing the hut with newly met like-minded strangers, often with meals turning into smorgasbords of shared dishes.

That won’t happen this winter, though, because of the pandemic.

“Which is unfortunate, in my viewpoint, because that is one of the joys of going to the hut — meeting new people whom we share a lot with,” Dodge said. “The concerns with COVID were such that even people with similar interests and like minds may have dramatically different viewpoints on COVID-19 and what it takes to be comfortable with it at the hut. We wanted to make sure there was less chance of controversy, discord, user conflicts at the hut that might have been caused by different viewpoints with multiple parties.”

To that end, 10th Mountain is working with existing reservation-holders to convert multi-party reservations to single parties. Those with reservations are being contacted in order of when their reservations were made, “using first in time, first in right,” as Dodge put it. They are given the opportunity to keep the reservation, but they must meet a minimum number of spots which will vary depending on the hut and which organization manages it.

“An example would be, if you and I booked a hut as a party of two, and we were the first ones to book, we would have right of first refusal,” Dodge said. “We would be contacted by 10th Mountain, and we would have the opportunity to maintain that reservation, but we would have to meet the minimum. At the huts we own and operate, that is 12 people. If we really don’t want to pay for 12 people, we would decline. We would get 100% credit for our reservation. Then 10th Mountain would go to second-in-time and allow them to do it, so on and so forth.”

Dodge said the decision on minimums was not intended to maximize revenue, but to make sure hut occupancy was maximized within the parameters of COVID-19 concerns and the need for single-party use.

“It was made to further our mission, provide a backcountry hut experience, and to allow as many people as possible to have that experience.” Dodge said. “We felt if we allowed a group of two or three that was first in time (making the initial reservations), if they had the ability to get the whole hut and just for that two or three or four, we were removing up to eight or nine spots available to the public.”

Dodge said the re-booking process has been going on for several weeks and it may take a couple more. At that time, it will we resume taking new reservations.

In most huts, users bring sleeping bags, which they place on fixed wooden cots, dormitory style. Hut users have always been responsible for cleaning huts and sweeping floors before leaving, but they will be asked to do more this winter. 10th Mountain will provide disinfectants.

“We expect them to clean and disinfect the hut as they arrive, and to clean and disinfect the hut when they leave,” Dodge said. “We did away with pillows, we did away with flannel sheets on the mattresses. We went with polyurethane mattress covers, which we had fabricated by a gal in Leadville, a seamstress. They can be cleaned in place with the disinfectants and cleaners that we provide.”

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Dodge knows many backcountry enthusiasts will be disappointed if the change in procedures due to COVID means they will miss out on a hut trip this winter.

“We understand that there are winners and losers in this,” Dodge said. “The losers really are the ones who like to book smaller parties. A lot of those folks aren’t going to want to pay for 12 spots and only bring seven or eight people. I don’t judge the success of what we do by the numbers and how much money we make. I can only judge it by how good is that hut experience. We’ve decided, given COVID, it’s a better experience with single-party groups.”

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