Every Saturday morning, Fiona Thompson and Chris Drew pack up everything they will need for the next four days, strap skins to their skis and begin their weekly commute to work. The destination? The Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski Hut. The couple treks three-and-a-half miles from their doorstep in sleepy Ophir, Colorado, (population: 160) up to nearly 12,000 feet, carrying all the perishable food for the lodge’s 16 nightly guests.
In the summer, Ophir Pass is the easiest of the three high mountain passes heading west toward Telluride, with barely a switchback. Two-wheel-drive vehicles regularly make the journey. But howling winter winds scour the slopes, create huge snow drifts and dangerous avalanche conditions and transform the area into an eerie moonscape that is as beautiful as it is barren. Nestled in a stand of pines, the Opus Hut is a refuge from all that.
“This is security in a very dangerous zone,” Drew said. “You feel like it’s a home because it’s a place you can retreat to.”
Built over six years by another Ophir resident and carpenter, Bob Kingsley, the Opus is a timber-and-stone fortress against the elements. Kingsley sees security and value in strength. He admits the Opus is a bit showy, but upon arriving, guests immediately get the sense that if the winds blow 100 miles an hour, the place will still be standing in the morning.
Being a hut keeper is physically demanding work. In addition to hauling the food and gear, Drew and Thompson have to master the workings of the solar electrical system, maintain the heating and hot water systems, cook for a large group (some of whom have food allergies or dietary restrictions), and dig out the hut and adjacent sauna after every storm. And then there’s the unpleasant task of fishing for the plastic cup that accidentally but repeatedly gets dropped into the composting toilet along with its wood shaving contents.
But don’t feel too sorry for them. In between tending to the Opus and its guests, Thompson and Drew ski some of the best backcountry in the San Juan Mountains, laying down impressive lines that are admired and envied from the windows of the hut. After doing the breakfast dishes, the two head outside for most of the day. Guests sometimes linger in the dining room, hoping to get inside information on where the pair are skiing that day – after all, they know where the best snow is.
They return to the hut around 3 p.m. to heat up a pot of soup, which merely serves as an appetizer, buying them some time while they prepare dinner for more than a dozen hungry skiers. With Thompson and Drew in charge of all the chores, guests are free to play games, read a book, connect with friends, and relax.
Thompson and Drew are both Telluride born and bred, a rarity in a resort town that draws people from all over the world, but whose pull often isn’t strong enough to hang onto its own. Their resumes are impressive. Both began skiing at age two and grew up ski racing. Drew made it to the elite level, trying out for the U.S. Ski Team and the Olympics before injuries sidelined him. He has coached college ski teams, spent three seasons as a Telluride ski patroller and helped build and run the Treasure Mountain Hut in southwestern Colorado. Thompson tried snowboarding and telemark skiing before finding her way to the backcountry with the help of a mountain mentor who taught her about avalanches, terrain and route selection. She has taken avalanche safety classes, wilderness first responder courses and worked for a summer at an alpine hotel in Norway. This is her fourth winter at the Opus.
“For me it’s a combination of so many things that I love,” Thompson said. “I love skiing. I love cooking. And I love being up in the high alpine. Finding a job that combines those three things is a total dream come true.”
The Opus provides a perfectly situated base camp for big, remote ski tours that would otherwise take the better part of a day to access. But that is not why the place is magic. With zero light pollution, the stars are some of the brightest guests will ever see. But that’s not it either.
The Opus is special because it brings together people from wildly different walks of life by using the one thing they have in common: the pursuit of adventure. There is rarely just one group at the Opus. More common are two or three small groups, sometimes with opposing political views, forced into sharing close quarters. Thompson once entertained at the same time an employee from the natural gas industry, a staunch environmental activist and a journalist bent on writing about the ensuing fireworks. But the heated arguments never happened. Only fascinating conversation.
“People have the shared desire to be outside,” Drew said. “That brings people together. You already have something to talk about. You end up with all sorts of people coming together who have the same basic desire for adventure.”
Photos courtesy Chris Drew and Fiona Thompson. For more, visit opushut.com