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A Washington-based group dreams of creating a hut system. But will bureaucracy get the best of them?

Springtime in Wenatchee, Washington is a blaze of white. The town, considered the apple capital of the world, sits an hour southeast of Stevens Pass on Highway 2. In April, the drive is a blur of blossoms. But now that I’m up a little higher—sitting next to a woodstove recently lit for the first time in a small A-frame just beyond Mission Ridge Resort’s property line—it’s a different type of white outside: the soggy, flakey type. And for a forgotten-looking thing, the hut, as of late, is generating a lot of noise.

Mike Rolfs, a Wenatchee resident and engineer at Pacific Engineering and Design, has been playing guide, leading photographer Jason Hummel and me (and his Westie/Corgi mutt, Moxi) through Clara Basin, tucked in the Wenatchee Mountains.

We took our time snaking through towering, mossy spruce and Douglas firs and cutting through the Basin’s ghostly remnants of snowmobile tracks before reaching the ridgeline that divides Clara Basin from the resort.

From there, we headed east, teetering above the basin until we reached the almost completely unfurnished hut. Upon arrival, we dug for a half hour through a pile of wet snow to reach the door; another rusted door and some two-by-fours covered its one window.

Mike Rolfs, a board member with the El Sendero backcountry organization, unwinds in the Wentachee Mountains’ forgotten-looking A-frame. [Photo] Jason Hummel

Rolfs is a board member and director for El Sendero, the region’s backcountry organization that’s trying to refurbish and manage the building as a wintertime ski hut. Officially called the Wenatchee Mountain Radio Facility, the hut was first used by Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communication as a radio facility before changing hands with the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Now the hut sits empty, aside from some leftover radio equipment and that woodstove, a recent addition by El Sendero.

The A-frame’s location is causing a holdup in El Sendero’s plans, Rolfs explains over whiskey and canned chili. It teeters on Mission Ridge’s boundary, and the resort isn’t thrilled at the potential influx of people using the lodging. They’re concerned not only about skiers and snowmobilers using the hut, but also about skinners using their trails at all hours to access the building. Mission Ridge has an open-boundary policy and designated uphill routes, and the best way to reach the hut is through the resort.

“I understand the ski area’s problem with it,” Rolf says between bites. “The fall line from here is into the resort.”

Lowell Skoog samples the offerings near the A-frame. [Photo] Jason Hummel

In the morning, Lowell Skoog, a supporter of the cause, and Andy Dappen, a Backcountry contributor and an advisor to El Sendero, join our crew for a tour in Stemilt Basin, east of Mission Ridge and the A-frame. After a 10-minute skin through quickly warming snow, we drop into the basin’s open expanse of mellow runs.

We take slushy laps, shortened to the upper half of Stemilt due to the warming temperatures, and Hummel fills us in on the trek he finished just two days prior: a 72-mile section of the Cascade Crest running south of Glacier Peak to Highway 2. It took him six days to tick off one of his last remaining sections in the high route that stretches from Mt. Baker to Rainier—a route that Skoog and his late brother Carl established over a 25-year period. Skoog nods along, quiet and smiling.

Long traverses are nothing new to Washington folk. It’s a long-established tradition; originally used out of necessity by miners and fur trappers, these traverses are now mapped and established in several guidebooks. Backcountry-specific hut systems, however, are absent in the state.

El Sendero hopes the A-frame will become part of such a system stretching through the Wenatchee Range. Stemilt Basin, which offers 4,000 acres of non-motorized winter terrain and is the entrance into the Wenatchee Mountains, would be the first stop on the tour.

Those sanctioned 4,000 acres are the work of El Sendero, as well. Gus Bekker, who founded El Sendero in 2004, and the alliance’s board members spent two years working with the state’s DNR, Department of Fish and Wildlife and various other parties to designate the space for wintertime non-motorized use. In January 2015, as part of the larger Naneum Ridge to Columbia River Recreation and Access Plan that covers 230,000 acres, the state approved the proposal.

The combined efforts of many groups helped with that approval, even if El Sendero led the charge. “Stemilt Basin has a whole ’nother stakeholder group that wants to protect that basin,” Bekker says when we meet later for burritos. “That’s everyone from the apple industry and cherry growers to the state Fish and Wildlife Department. It’s a watershed.”

Partnership may be the inhibiting factor with the A-frame proposal, despite an agreement between El Sendero and the Apple Country Snowmobile Club that the hut would be a welcomed addition to the area. A recent meeting between the DNR, Mission Ridge and El Sendero, however, presented a chance to clarify some of the resort’s initial unease.

Prior to the meeting, the resort worried about skiers venturing into their boundaries, and they were also under the impression that the hut itself sat within their jurisdiction. “As we found out, the hut is on public land,” Bekker says. “We need to meet with the ski area again, because they found out that what they thought was in their special-use permit area is not anymore. It’s a land-ownership nightmare to work through.”

A sampling of that nightmare looks like this: in 2014 Mission Ridge purchased 800 acres of undeveloped land between Stemilt Basin and the resort’s former boundary line. As of the purchase, Mission Ridge’s boundary line now sits flush with El Sendero’s area of non-motorized use, and while El Sendero is OK with that, other stakeholders, including the Wenatchee Sportman’s Association, nearby residents and a nearby state park, all opposed resort expansion, each for their own reason.

Could Mission Ridge be unaware that El Sendero is OK with their expansion? Is the resort worried about their land, now closer to Stemilt Basin, being increasingly tracked up? The answers are fuzzy, and somewhat ambiguous; Bekker notes that despite meeting with Mission Ridge managers, he feels as if they’re “holding something back,” not explicitly saying why the hut is a problem.

Rolfs and Moxi forge ahead through the confusion. [Photo] Jason Hummel

As we pause to shed layers near a group of imposing conifers, Rolfs explains that the whole area, from Clara Basin to Stemilt, has seen its fair share of stakeholder claims. Clara Basin, which borders the resort, for example, is tracked out on the regular by snowmobilers, despite a 2015 Forest Service revision that prohibits winter motorized use, except where specifically mandated.

“Snowmobilers will circle around some skiers, not say, ‘Hi,’ just braap, braap, and they’re gone,” he says, before showing me an iPhone video of snowmobilers swirling around him earlier this season. “But I’ve been told these guys are just out having fun. They have no idea they’re being contentious.”

It’s an important point to remember when sorting out individual interests and land-use agreements, and Rolfs is quick to note that he and other El Sendero members are friends with many on Mission Ridge’s management team.

And as we slide westward through tacky slush to Rolfs’s truck in the Mission Ridge parking lot, I can’t help but wonder if Mission Ridge is not as upset about the hut proposal as they first seemed. After all, they don’t technically own the land on which the hut lies, and what are a few skiers camped out overnight?

A few days later, Bekker emails me to say that Mission Ridge called the DNR to complain about our overnight in the hut. I’m surprised and a little confused at the continued resistance, so I eventually call up Josh Jorgensen, Mission Ridge’s manager, to clear the air.

And while he’s polite, he’s not exactly up for talking to the press—he notes that it’s an ongoing issue that the resort is trying to sort out, with boundary implications as well as concerns about safety. What Jorgensen does note, however, is that it’s not really all that personal. “We’re really good friends with El Sendero, Gus, all of the guys in the group,” he explains. “There’s going to be a good answer to the questions, but we’re not at that point yet. We run the ski area, which isn’t backcountry.”

Fair enough. But as I hang up, I wonder if the resort’s stance is warranted, and if so, what a work-around could be that would appease all parties. And, if this hut system is to happen, how many years down the road might it be?

In late July, I have another message from Gus. He’s writing to tell me that Mission Ridge offered El Sendero money to move or rebuild the hut a half mile away from their ski-area boundary, down the ridgeline and closer to Stemilt Basin. Gus and El Sendero are happy to oblige; they’d rather the hut be closer to Stemilt, and the new location will be tucked farther back from the ridgeline’s windy edge. All that’s left, Gus writes, is to ask the DNR for permission to build.

——

Update: Since the first publication of this article in December 2016, El Sendero and DNR are planning to install a series of yurts in a more appropriate location for backcountry skiers than that of the current A-frame. If the yurts are successful, El Sendero plans to eventually transition the yurts to a more permanent hut, likely between Mission Ridge and Blewit Pass. It’s El Sendero, Mission Ridge and the DNR’s hope that the yurts’ newly proposed location—the south rim of the non-motorized Stemilt Basin—will decrease tourers’ direct access into the ski area’s boundaries. After the Department of Natural Resources finalizes a permanent-building permit for the new site, El Sendero plans to promote both winter and summertime travel to the hut.

Comments

  1. Craig henry says:

    Very nice story on a new hut system in washington state. Hope all parties can come to the table , and get thinks going for a great hut system.

  2. If the hut is on Public Land, the solution is simple ~ it is and should remain open for anyone to use, and no one to claim or tell others they can’t use it. That’s it, no more no less.

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