A backcountry getaway to the Benson Hut
Photos and story by Dave Zook
Perched on a cool granite bench, feet swinging, I watch the sharp dry morning rays of the sun infiltrate the top layer of an east facing bowl, percolating moisture through the top few inches.
“Corn in February? Sure, Why not?”
We clasped to what positives we could during another lean Tahoe winter. Nevertheless, as our six-person crew scanned the meager snowpack in what is usually the heart of the winter, it looked like May scraps.
We were at the Benson Hut, a backcountry shelter about three miles south of Sugar Bowl, riding the Pacific crest. The south facing slopes were bare brown earth, and while the east through north aspects were by and large skiable, there were undulations of rocks and roots pushing up, sharks ready to bite at our fleshy ptex bases in all but the most northerly aspects.
The day before our team of Dylan, Dan, Josh, Pete, Dave and myself (two Daves) had bought a one-ride ticket up Sugar Bowl and skinned for three miles to the beautifully dingy A-frame hut. Sturdy wood construction with a stone chimney and an uneven rock floor, it felt antiquated, but reflective of an era that we would prefer anyway. A dank side room held piles of chopped wood, axes, and other implements. The upstairs area was just floorspace that could sleep about ten with four foldout beds downstairs. We would ski and we would be merry. We had filled our packs to an absurd weight, much of it in liquid form, and with a fireplace and pre-chopped wood provided, we may as well have been in a Swiss ski chalet.
The Benson hut was built between 1947 and 1949, and the hut is managed by the Sierra Club, which maintains its upkeep. Unlike the three other Sierra Club huts in the Tahoe Basin that are located more at the basins of the surrounding peaks, the Benson hut is wedged into a steep slope, nestled into the side of 8,683-foot Anderson peak. This gives users about a thousand feet of vertical to play with from the front door. Just drink a cup, assess conditions, and take your pick.
“What we thinking ninjas?” asked Dan, who drove in from Elko a few days before.
Beside the quickly slushing east face, climbing to the top of Anderson was also on the list, only about five-hundred feet of vertical from the hut with an open north-facing bowl and a hint of technicality, depending on your line, as well as an aesthetic run-out through the trees. The east bowl was a wide array of chutes, getting more intense as you traversed southbound. The north-facing Anderson was shaded and remained an ice block as it hadn’t snowed in weeks.
Eastside It Was
“East facing for the soft, then lunch and beers, then a jaunt up to Anderson’s when the sun hits it,” was what Josh and I recommended.
“Well shit let’s do it!” Dan replied, eager to click in and make turns, reality be damned.
Backcountry huts like these offer intermediate-and-up skiers a backcountry outing of relative ease. Route finding can be dismal in a whiteout, and serious avalanche risks require users to be scrupulous with safety, but the experience is unique. Having a shelter eliminates snow camping, and all the creature comforts your back can handle can be utilized, while still feeling distant from town. This allows for long days with nothing to do but explore.
While huts are more associated with European skiing, there are still many options, as Backcountry Magazine recently illustrated in their list of over 200 in North America. In California, there are the four Sierra Club huts in Tahoe, a planned fifth in the works, and a handful more spread out across Tahoe, Yosemite, and the High Sierra, making for over a dozen in total. Accommodations range from fully guided lodge-style resorts that cook your food and cost $300 a night to self-supported 16-mile hikes that are free and first-come first serve. The Benson Hut, in comparison, was $20 per person per night, and came with rudimentary kitchen items, chopped firewood, and a crafty raised outhouse.
We popped off the ridge, one by one, into spring corn, smooth and edgeable, but a bit grabby at the bottom. Some on the trip were green to the backcountry and reveled in the quiet ease of life outside the liftlines. Post-lunch we planned to ski Anderson Peak and milk turns through the lower portion of the mountain as far as the snowline and our wax would allow. The bootpack remained firm and hard to kick in, so the crew split up with Dylan, Josh and myself heading to the peak, and Dave, Pete, and Dan staying about halfway down the mountain.
We scratched and clawed to the top. Rolling in from the summit provided a short thrill, with a slow rollover that opened up to about five or six intense turns. Dylan, a precision surgeon on skis, faded farthest skier’s left into a quick snarl of rocks and trees. He threaded though, yelling “Bouillabaisse!” as he sometimes does, to put a stamp on his stoke.
Reunited with the team, we all got fun turns down the soft, 35-degree slope. We picked our way through trees before skidding to a halt when the elevation got too low and it felt like we were riding over a carpet. Sadly this was the snowline and a harsh reminder of the drought.
Huts Offer Reprieve During Lean Snow
By the end of 2014 the snow for the Sierra Nevada range was reported to be at 32% of the average, according to the Department of Water Resources. How will 2015 compare? The frustration rippled through the community which had now endured multiple low winters. More importantly, ramifications for water rights, drought, and fire danger loomed greater than any ski-bum woes as California looked to be in trouble. But perhaps the hut isolates out the negative vibes and troubling big-picture concerns, at least temporarily, and lets you appreciate what is available, which is skiing quasi-powder in sweatshirts.
After two decent runs we retired to the cabin and finished off the last of our weight-intensive beers before resorting to bagged wine and Bulleit bourbon in plastic water bottles. We built a few small jumps for aerial shenanigans before finally de-booting. Looking west toward the wide valley of the American River, the wheel in the sky began shimmying down and soon would touch the ridgeline. We built some stadium seating and mixed up some drinks and let the explosion of colors light up the white snow.
But minutes later Dylan came flying out the front door with boots on and skis slung over his shoulder, yelling “does anyone know how to work this thing?” while pointing to my camera. He hustled to ascend a mini-run before we lost the sun. Dylan clicked in and arced three or four silhouetted turns against the fading light in postcard fashion and we hooted with pride at our comrade’s enthusiasm.
We couldn’t stop and we wouldn’t stop, throwing on boots to hike to our custom night skiing run in the dark. We were free to yell and make general asses of ourselves as our turns became even more haphazard than ever. Other Dave, a complete newcomer to the backcountry scene and relatively new to skiing in general but with a Spartan’s endurance, links turns past the bleacher and hits our jump in pitch black. “Yeah because I’m awesome,” he declared in a thick Bostonian accent.
We cruised on fun corn snow, bagged a peak, rode some steeps, sessioned a jump, and enjoyed night skiing all in one day in the midst of a horrible snow year. What could happen with a deep base and a little powder?