Owner, friends quarried out Aspen-area backcountry hut
During 50 years in the Colorado backcountry, the Mace Hut has weathered many storms and much abuse from the harsh elements.
But this huge snow winter was different, and after a weeklong storm cycle in March dumped 6 feet of snow in the high country around Aspen, hut owner Amos Mace was worried.
“Absolutely I was concerned,” he said this week. “I was 100% concerned. And it got hit.”
Two weeks later, when Amos, who lives in the southern Colorado town of Gardner, finally made it to the back of the Castle Creek Valley and 21/2 miles up the Pearl Pass Road, he found the cabin almost completely buried.
“I could see the back of the structure,” he said. “But (an avalanche) literally buried the entire front of the structure.”
So began a monumental, eight-day effort — helped out by several experienced winter backcountry volunteers — to dig out the cabin and save it from flooding this spring and summer.
“I wasn’t concerned with the roof (because) the building is a bomb shelter,” Amos said. “But I knew the building would fill with water during the melt.”
The question, however, was how to avoid that near-certain scenario.
AVALANCHE-FREE FOR HALF-CENTURY
The original A-frame Mace Hut was built by Stuart Mace, Amos’ grandfather, in the late 1940s, he said.
Stuart Mace and his wife, Isabel, started the Toklat Lodge in the Castle Creek Valley near Ashcroft and initially ran a dog-sledding business in the area. He was a founding trustee of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, and the couple is a member of the Aspen Hall of Fame.
The cabin was initially constructed as an overnight bunkhouse for the Mace family’s dog-sledding guests on the site of a corral at the abandoned Montezuma Tam O’Shanter Mill, Amos said. However, the A-frame burned down after about two decades and was replaced by the current structure in 1968 or 1969.
The cabin means a lot to the Mace family as both Stuart Mace and his son, Greg Mace, are buried there, he said. Greg Mace, Amos’ uncle, was a former Mountain Rescue Aspen president and volunteer and the namesake of an annual award given to an outstanding Aspen community volunteer. He died in a mountaineering accident on Maroon Peak in 1986, and a peak in the Castle Creek Valley near the hut is named for him.
The Mace Hut site did not initially appear to be within an avalanche slide, and was not threatened by avalanche for 50 years until the winter of 1993-94, when a slide reached the base of the cabin, Amos said. Then came the big snow winter of 1996-97, when another avalanche came down and damaged the front portion of the cabin’s roof.
Amos became so worried about avalanche danger this winter, he stopped allowing anyone to use the cabin for overnight hut trips after Christmas.
“I knew the history up there,” he said. “I was worried.”
And with good reason. This year, according to a friend of Amos’ who keeps tabs on the cabin, that avalanche path from the peak above slid four times, he said.
“That path literally has to fill in … 150 feet of valley and flatten out the valley before it hits the hut,” Amos said. “The fourth time, it came across the valley, over a cliff in front of the hut and right into the hut.”
HUT FOUND INTACT
When Amos and a friend finally arrived at the Mace Hut in late March, they discovered a big mess.
The avalanche brought down 25 to 30 feet of snow, ice and debris onto most of the building, he said. And that was on top of an already prodigious snowpack that had accumulated atop the structure.
In addition, two spruce trees measuring about 14 inches in diameter lay on top of the cabin, while a pile of aspen 6 to 8 inches in diameter had been pushed up against the building, Amos said.
When they finally struck the cabin’s chimney with an avalanche probe, they discovered they were 12 feet above it, he said. That’s when Amos and a friend started digging.
First, based on the location of the chimney, they were able to locate the apex of the front roof structure, he said. From there, they dug straight down and uncovered a shutter they were eventually able to open and get a look inside the cabin.
To his relief, Amos discovered the structure was intact and that none of the snow, ice or debris had made it inside.
However, at that point, he also knew he couldn’t wait for the spring and summer thaw and simply let the debris pile melt out.
“The main issue was the building flooding with water,” he said.
So Amos returned to Gardner for three weeks to figure out what how to save his family’s cabin.
MINING TECHNIQUES UTILIZED
Amos figured that what he needed to do was dig a massive drainage channel to direct the water away from the cabin. To do so, he said he studied quarrying techniques.
“I developed a quarry plan,” Amos said. “We chain-sawed out huge blocks of compacted snow and ice.”
Over the course of an arduous eight days in April — just getting to and from the site each day was itself a chore that more than once called for a chainsaw — a total of about a dozen volunteers excavated and unburied the Mace Hut.
“Everyone had to have (an avalanche beacon) and be avalanche savvy,” Amos said. “I had to have really good backcountry people.”
The channel they dug using a 36-inch-bar chainsaw is 100 feet long, 25 feet deep and 8 feet wide, he said, and appears to be doing the job.
“It’s been draining,” he said. “It’s doing what it needs to do.”
And so the Mace Hut is saved for at least another season in the sometimes tumultuous Colorado high country.
“I think we did good work,” Amos said.