Founders Profile: The San Juan Hut System — a father-daughter story

Joe and Kelly Ryan

A father-daughter story

by Sam Demas

Joe Ryan built his huts to provide people an affordable backcountry journey to enjoy nature, to learn outdoor skills, and to benefit with health and healing. A generation later his vision is a reality — beyond what he had imagined — and continues to evolve in partnership with his daughter Kelly Ryan.

The fierce determination of this lean, opinionated, self-reliant, curious, garrulous and gregarious founder, Joe Ryan, grew out his experience of severe childhood asthma and the long process of healing. He has spent lots of time in hospitals with time to think, and learned early in life how to deal with adversity. He spent three teenage years in what is now the National Asthma Center, an institute for severe asthmatics in Denver, which first brought him to Colorado and exposed him to the backcountry with weekend camping trips. After finishing school back in Kansas (including the discipline of training as a high school wrestler) he returned to Colorado. His commitment to live a life outdoors grew with the joy, strength and beauty he found in his wanderings as a young man: climbing, skiing, ranching, mining, guiding and years of sleeping on the ground in the great outdoors. This hippie climber gradually developed a dream.

Plans for a hut system were inspired by his love of the climbing and skiing huts of the Canadian Alpine Club, which he used as a mountain guide. The idea coalesced in conversations with a buddy who was killed in an avalanche before they could commence the work of building a hut system together. Settling in SW Colorado, Joe fell in love with the San Juan’s. He skied and hiked the mountains intensively in the early 1980’s to find just the right traverse and locations for ski huts. In 1984 he bought a piece of land on Hastings Mesa, planted a large garden and built a house, which remains “off the grid” today. He had a family and a place to live and was ready to build his first huts.

While the Canadian huts Joe admired were developed with a combination of government and alpine club resources (similar to the European alpine huts), Joe needed a different business model. The Tenth Mountain Division Hut System was just getting started with two initial huts. It used a non-profit business model and benefitted from the assistance of some very deep pockets in Aspen. Joe’s path to creating the San Juan Huts System was different and distinctly American: that of the rugged individual, the small businessman. He struggled with federal land managers to figure out just how federal regulations applied to this brand new enterprise of backcountry huts. Suffice it to say Joe fought long and hard to realize his vision for huts on public lands.

The San Juan Hut System opened for business in 1988 with 5 backcountry ski huts on the Sneffels Traverse, from Telluride to Ouray. As a child, Kelly helped. He operated out of an office in Telluride, which included a ski rental shop, until 2000, when the office moved to Ridgway. Initially the USFS required him to take the huts down and store them at the end of each ski season. He would put them up again in time for the next ski season. It was hard, time-consuming work and he needed a summer revenue stream to make the business viable.

Necessity is the mother of invention: Joe soon realized that mountain bikers share with skiers the dream of travelling on their own power all day to end up in a cozy hut, cook a meal, and then get up and do it again. He decided to build the first hut-to-hut biking system in the USA. This was just when mountain bike technology was really starting off and people were able to ride the type of terrain in the region. Running from Telluride to Moab, this 215 mile bike trail opened in 1988.  It was built on logging, mining, and ranching roads and included 6 huts. It linked two major recreation areas, offering a whole new backcountry riding experience to American bikers. Bikers loved it from the start.   In 2013 Joe developed an alternate single-track route along the same traverse, utilizing the same huts. The success of the first bike trail inspired a second one from Durango to Moab, also with 6 huts. This second bike route started in 2004 with cobbled-together huts that were gradually replaced with huts similar to the others in the SJHS system. Very soon they added single track alternate routes between huts. With the help of his young daughter, Kelly, and others, Joe built all 16 of these huts himself. He carried load after load of wood and building supplies into the mountains. Eventually Joe secured permits to keep the five original huts up year-round, utilizing them for hiking in the summer. A 2002 article in National Geographic provided international exposure and a big boost to the business.

Today SJHS consists of 16 huts over 600 miles of trails all told, spread over a large area of SW Colorado and into Utah, is one of the largest and most popular in the nation. Joe jokes that he works in a 20,000 square mile office. Provisioning and maintaining each hut several times a week is a logistical challenge requiring a lot of driving, hiking, and carrying. Two of these huts are on BLM land, four are on private land, and ten are on USFS land. The business continued to grow steadily with the new bike trail and summer hiking options, but by 2010 Joe was overwhelmed with work and with regulatory hassles. He was on the verge of selling the business, but first checked with Kelly to see if she wanted to take over.

Meanwhile, Kelly, who had worked in the business off and on for years, was guiding in Alaska and doing her own adventuring. A highly talented Nordic skier in high school, Kelly opted for academics rather than a focus on high level collegiate athletics and attended Colorado College. During and after her college years Kelly followed her interests in arenas such as: qualifying for the Junior Olympic whitewater kayaking team; a five month walkabout with horses in the mountains of Chile and Argentina; exploring South Africa and Namibia with an 18 year old girlfriend in a pickup truck for several months; walking with two friends across islands in the Aleutians; sailing from Massachusetts to Greenland and back; kayaking for three months the coast of Greenland, stopping to bag unclimbed peaks along the way; and, for her day job, working as a climbing guide on Mt. Denali.

When Kelly got the call, she said something like, “Hang on Dad, I’ll be there.” And she has been there fulltime since 2010, coordinating every aspect of SJHS logistics and operations, developing a web-saavy marketing plan and social media presence, and thinking about how to meet the increasing demand for the kind of backcountry services for which SJHS is known. Kelly is said to be an excellent judge of people and their needs. She handles the scheduling of work that get the job done, but with sensitivity to the changing needs of the team as a whole and to the individual players. Looking back, and forwards, Joe says, “Kelly’s energy has been huge! Nobody works as hard as Kelly, organizing things, working on the web, humping loads to the huts, and whatever needs to be done”.

This father/daughter team has exceptional drive, and prizes hard work, local knowledge, and teamwork. Kelly emphasizes that “…our awesome crew of staff are largely responsible for the great experiences our bikers, skiers, and hikers enjoy”.  Kelly has a saying that the SJHS staff has adopted: when you have a hard day you “have an epic”. As SJHS employee Jake O’Brien said, “Joe and Kelly are both “epicing” every day.” And not just on SJHS projects. Joe is finishing an addition to his house. He is deeply committed, along with his partner Anne, to expanding their outdoor work with kids and families, Veterans groups, and injured athletes. And talking to Joe you quickly realize he is deeply interested in social justice issues and informed and curious about current events in the world. After work, Kelly and her husband Dan are building their own house, and helping friends and neighbors in large and small ways. Kelly continues to bike and ski competitively. It does seem that every day is an “epoch”, and that both father and daughter like it that way.

SJHS is an exemplar of one model of hut system: privately owned and operated, affordable, and constantly evolving in response to the market. This is the prevalent model in the western USA, and I suspect it presages a major direction in the future growth of hut systems in the USA. It looks as if Joe and Kelly have proved not only that a privately operated hut system succeed as a small business, but that business continuity can be maintained over two generations. There is no question that SJHS is not only one of the oldest and most successful hut systems in the USA, but also one to watch in the future. This is because, as Bob Kingsley of the Opus Hut said, “ her father raised the perfect daughter for taking over from him.”