February 15-17, 2021.
It was a COVID miracle. The much-acclaimed hut trip nestled beneath the Three Sisters mountains was limited to single parties; no random people could be added to your booking. And with a Monday start date, we only needed a group of two to book our adventure. We hopped right on it, and LeeAnn, Aaron and I began preparations for a winter ski trip for the ages.
The adventure began during the drive up Three Creeks Road, where we’d meet our shuttle driver. The road surface was a unique combination of ice and slush that sent the Subaru slipping and sliding as it searched for traction. We white-knuckled it all the way to the Sno-Park. Jonas greeted us with a smile.
After a brief orientation to the route and the logistics of the trip, we hopped in the shuttle van. LeeAnn and I fueled up on doughnuts from Sisters Bakery in order to give us the energy we’d need to get through the morning.
Dutchman ski trails
The whole area was under a winter storm warning from the National Weather Service for the next two day. We mentally prepared for a lot of slogging through unbroken trail and pushing through cold, gusty winds. As we pulled into Dutchman Flat Sno-Park, I could barely contain my excitement. I didn’t care how hard this day would be, since I knew there would be a warm, cozy shelter waiting for us at the end of our trek.
We took our starting selfie, each of us grinning ear to ear. I took the first lead out onto a well-loved ski trail; we’d swap leads many time over the course of the trip.
For the first couple miles, our route followed a gentle grade. Blue diamonds marked the way. But then, we spied the first of many yellow flags dangling from a tree branch. The flags would mark our route from the busy trails to the lonely ski shelter, another 5 miles away.
The scavenger hunt begins
LeeAnn and I love following trail signs through the forest. We took turns in the lead, chasing Easter eggs as we went. It was helpful to have three sets of eyes to scan the forest ahead of us. While some of the route was obvious, there were several spots where we stopped and looked around for these sneaky clues. Yellow does not always stand out among a white and brown background.
The route was not all easy ups and downs. We often had to make wide switchbacks between flags to avoid steep hills. There were just as many steep downhills as there were uphills. There were a few good falls along our path. Aaron, in his first real season of cross country skiing, got to learn the hard way how challenging it is to get up from the ground in seemingly endless powder.
And while the snow was already quite deep, it just kept on falling all day long. The route left by the group just one day ahead of us was hardly visible, and completely gone in many places. Still, we soldiered on.
Fighting cold, fatigue and frustration, we made it to the hut in just under 6 hours. Jonas and Anna, the owners of Three Sisters Backcountry, were just leaving on their snowmobiles as we arrived. They had the wood stove going for us and everything was freshly cleaned. It was a dream to open the door to that hut and get out of the weather. All was good again.
Inside the hut
We happily stripped off our boots and ski gear, changing into the comfy clothes we’d brought for lounging around indoors. It was such a luxury to have an enclosed cabin with light, heat, a full pantry and several seating options. No tent to set up, wind breaks to build, bags to poop into. The only chores we had were melting snow in the large pot on the wood stove and occasionally going out to shovel snow from the path leading to the outhouse. Yes! An outhouse! What a treat.
For the next few hours, we did some coloring, read the previous journal entries and talked about our day. With no cell service and no distractions, we could just savor each other’s company and take advantage of some real downtime.
This hut was well-stocked for a pasta dinner. LeeAnn played chef on this first night and made us a delicious meal with lemon-cream sauce, meatballs and parmesan cheese over fusilli. For dessert, we enjoyed freshly whipped cream (a team effort between LeeAnn and Aaron) on top of a lovely pie.
If you must know, both LeeAnn and I independently packed in pies. Because, of course we did.
Onward to hut 2
The next morning, we ate breakfast and took our time packing up gear. Outside, the snow continued to fall. The overcast skies stole our sunrise; we were in no hurry to enter the maelstrom. Our agenda: ski a couple miles up a snowmobile road to pick our next set of flags to follow. The flags would take us all the way to the second hut.
Once we got outside, everyone was energized and eager to start moving. The snowmobile road gave us an easy warmup, but it also provided a false sense of what the route ahead would be like. Aaron even sneaked in some lead time in the morning.
Once we hit the flags, LeeAnn skied to the front of the pack. We learned of her flag-seeking superpowers yesterday, an uncanny ability to find the trail markers in the most inconspicuous locations.
It was a long, slow day. The sun threatened to come out several times, but just as quickly as it attempted to break through, the snow would begin to fall again. We sought shelter under a large, overhanging tree branch to eat our lunch and psych ourselves up for the second half of the day. The powder was still deep and unforgiving. The relentless wind blew the hardest in the prettiest sections (those wide open meadows) and died down a bit in the gloomy forest.
But, the only way out was forward, so on we went. Eventually, after saying “maybe this is the last hill?” multiple times, it finally came true. We found our second hut, perched on a hillside overlooking Three Creek Meadow. Maybe later, we’d actually get a view!
The second hut was nearly identical to the first, so we made quick work of getting settled in and unpacking the day’s gear. The wind seemed to help keep our outhouse path clear, unlike last night’s wind that only worked to fill in the path as we shoveled it.
We played National Parks Trivia, worked on another gory coloring page and did the bare minimum of physical work. For dinner, I assembled a taco bar using home-dried turkey taco meat and all the fixins you could want. We warmed our tortillas right on the wood stove and followed it all up with some apple-pecan pie and snow ice cream. How we all didn’t immediately fall into a food coma, I’ll never know.
The morning gifted us the most beautiful sunrise and clear skies over our beautiful mountains. We discovered the best views of our idyllic surroundings from the outhouse and the “P” stick (placed for guests to aggregate their number ones, so as not to contaminate the drinking water).
LeeAnn made us a hearty pancake breakfast to fuel up the final leg of our ski. I was really excited for this part because I was familiar with the long, rolling downhills and wide, open burned slopes with big mountain views. Plus, the storm had rolled out overnight and we were bound to have a perfect weather day.
We roughly followed the flagged route back to the Forest Service trail system, but some pretty meadows coaxed us away from the yellow markers for just a bit. Once we reached the blue diamonds, we had to a do just a bit more creative routefinding to avoid a poorly marked sections with lots of exposed shrubbery. But with such an expansive landscape, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. I was happy to go my own way and experience a bit more freedom on my skis.
Instead of taking the shorter, direct route back to the car, we looped out to the west to celebrate the convergence of good weather, good snow conditions and high energy. We squeezed every last bit of fun that we could out of this trip.
To finish, we stopped at Three Creeks Brewery for some outdoor dining. All the burgers and fries, please! As if we hadn’t been eating like royalty for the past three days!
I think if we had to do this trip as a group of 8, or with people we didn’t know, I would not have enjoyed it. So, thanks COVID for providing one unique experience that I never could have had any other year.
Having done extensive training in all weather, all snow conditions before our Crater Lake ski last year helped me quite a bit. This is not a trip for beginners. Since you have to plan well in advance, you don’t get to pick the weather. Negotiating all the trail-breaking, route-finding, terrain challenges, constantly varying weather and other obstacles didn’t feel all that bad because I’ve been there, done that, before.
While you *could* make meals from the dry goods in each pantry, we ate so much better by supplementing with fresh foods. Having fruits and/or vegetables with each meal was extremely nourishing.
Skiing in untracked backcountry is still my favorite, despite being more physically difficult than following a trail. As soon as we got back to civilized trails near upper Three Creeks, we encountered tons of people, uncontrolled fighting dogs, yelling, post-holing and so much more nonsense. Skiing around other people is just not for me.
Now that we’re back, it’s time to plot an unsupported ski adventure 🙂