Hut-to-hut at Mount Tahoma: a history and a love story

Hut-to-hut at Mount Tahoma: a history and a love story

MTTA is a labor of love. Bob Brown loved back-country skiing and wondered why he had to travel to Colorado to ski hut-to-hut when they had such great terrain in Washington. He rallied others and they created the Mount Tahoma Trails Association (MTTA), an all-volunteer hut system. Judy Scavone came along, fell in love with the trail and hut system, became an inspirational volunteer, and she and Bob fell in love. This is the story of their shared passion for the outdoors and of their dedication to MTTA and to its remarkable corps of volunteers. The current strength and quality of MTTA is a testament to the work of this couple and their volunteer friends.  Many people helped make MTTA what is today. This story is about two of them: Bob and Judy.

[See a touching slide presentation on the life of Judy Scavone, courtesy of Bob Brown and friends.  The part directly concerning MTTA starts at about 10:47 minutes.  For a detailed overview of how the MTTA operates, see the related operational profile.]

Bob Brown and the founding of MTTA


Bob Brown at MTTA Office 2015

Bob Brown at MTTA Office

Bob Brown Outside MTTA Office 2015

As a District Forester for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Bob was in an unusually good position to understand what it would take to create a hut and trails system: a lot of diplomacy, lots of help, and plenty of hard work. He knew that the network of existing forest roads could serve as the basis for a trail system, that the many landings for yarding logs were a potential asset, and that existing relationships with the timber companies could be fruitful. He and a group of friends formed a 501(C) 3 non-profit to advance the original concept of 150 miles of trails and six huts. Bob’s credibility and good political sense made it possible to get DNR approval of the land for recreational purposes and to secure permissions from timber companies. His know-how made MTTA a good recreational tenant on public and private lands.

As MTTA people say, “If it wasn’t for Bob MTTA wouldn’t exist.” Bob acknowledges that he was the one who came up with the idea of a hut system and did a lot to advance the cause, but says, “Its easy to come up with an idea.” He quickly shifts the conversation to discussing the 8,000 – 10,000 hours of volunteer labor that keeps MTTA running.

Through the Eatonville, WA Chamber of Commerce Bob met the president of the Eatonville Bank, who really liked the idea of a hut and trail system and its potential for economic development in the region. This led to discussions with a local state representative, which in turn led to a state legislative appropriation of $190,000 to build four huts! The funding came through the DNR budget, which was a surprise to them!

The original players in this initiative were MTTA, DNR, the National Park Service, and Champion Timber Company. The National Park Service did a survey of visitors to Mt Rainier National Park that revealed extremely strong support for the idea, but eventually NPS drifted out of the picture. As a DNR Forester, Bob served as liaison to MTTA. He was instrumental in getting DNR cooperation, and in recruiting and coordinating a growing body of volunteers to get the MTTA idea implemented.

In the period of building the original two huts and one yurt, 1990 – 1992, there was a great deal of enthusiasm and over 600 members. As with any non-profit, there were growing pains. Once the huts were built, some of the second wave of leadership had no interest in working with the landowners to develop the system, an attitude that Bob found their anti-DNR and anti-timber company attitudes unfounded and self-defeating. Bob’s strong conviction is that MTTA is a guest of the landowners and maintaining strong working relationships is essential. As he says, “If they say, ‘Jump!’, we say, ‘How high?’ ”

The next phase of organizational development was characterized by a high degree of growth and cooperation. By 1998 the trail system went from a relatively unknown skiers paradise for the cognoscenti to a popular destination.

Enter Judy Scavone

Poster Tribute to Judy Scavone

Poster Tribute to Judy Scavone

As the number of folks booking hut trips increased, the workload became overwhelming. The founders were accustomed to operating a small, low-key operation and needed to adjust to the growing demand. About this time someone brought Judy to ski MTTA trails and she was. MTTA was right up her alley.

Hailing from Chicago, she fell in love with the mountains in Colorado after high school and never went back to the flatlands. She moved to Eatonville, WA in the 1970’s and became active in the community immediately.

Judy became an active volunteer at MTTA and folks quickly grew to appreciate her “can-do” attitude, hard work, and enthusiastic grin on the trail. Seeing that the real pressure point was in handling reservations, Judy cheerfully stepped up and took it over. As with everything she did, she was positive, welcoming, organized, and persistent in handling and improving the reservations system. Over time Judy took on a host of volunteer responsibilities, including, but not limited to:

  • led a fundraising drive to acquire a $175,000 snowcat;
  • handing reservations and finances;
  • worked with the Nisquali Land Trust to purchase 250 acres of big trees and prevent plans for clear-cutting them; that effort grew to protect 2,500 acres; the Copper Creek Hut is located on this land.
  • provided leadership in fundraising and grant-writing for MTTA;
  • worked to secure funding to rebuild the Snow Bowl Hut after it burned,
  • raising $75,000, which qualified MTTA for challenge grants from the Mountaineers and the Forest Foundation; helped to secure corporate support from REI, Whittaker Mountaineering, and Calibre Systems;

Through all this, Judy had a way of gently encouraging and leading MTTA to improve and modernize as needed. While she was easy to get along with, she was firm in her belief that things should be done properly. For example, she didn’t like cutting corners and felt professionals should be hired for certain tasks because it would result in a more professional outcome. And she made sure MTTA had the money to purchase professional services to supplement the huge volunteer effort when needed. Some of her other operational principles were:

  • telling the MTTA story through grant proposals;
  • getting and keeping people involved in MTTA;
  • advocacy for conservation of natural resources;
  • not over-crowding the huts by over-booking;
  • honoring and recognizing volunteers; and
  • gracing the huts with beauty, keeping them clean, and making them comfortable.

MTTA Board Member Dave Stonington called Judy the “heart and soul” of the organization. Tony Abruzzo says, “Judy was inspirational. She kept us together administratively. Everyone respected her.”

Judy Scanove Honored by MTTA Friends

Judy Scanove Honored by MTTA Friends

A shared passion

Bob and Judy under the Mountain, courtesy Bob Brown

Bob and Judy under the Mountain, courtesy Bob Brown

As Judy became more and more involved with MTTA, she and Bob were increasingly drawn to each other, professionally and personally. They respected each other’s talents and contributions, and they shared a passion for the outdoors, for MTTA, and for sharing that passion with others. She led trips for a mountain climbing club, and he was a trip coordinator for several clubs. Bob jokes that they talked about their mutual “addiction” to the outdoors, and thought of themselves as “pushers”, committed to rallying others to share their “addiction”. Together they expanded their circle to hundreds of people supporting MTTA including a remarkable corps of volunteers. They shared their lives together for 15 years before her death, marrying near the beginning of her 2.5 year battle with colon cancer.

Six months before her diagnosis Judy and a group of eight women friends went trekking in Tibet. They brought prayer flags and tales of the ecumenical spiritual dimensions of these mountain prayer symbols. Today there are prayer flags in each of the huts and along some of the trails. As Bob said, “Cancer might have killed her, but it did not take her dignity.” Donations in memory of Judy have established the “Judy Fund”, which is designated to do “nice things” related to MTTA. Judy herself donated funds to construct a gazebo near Snow Bowl hut, specifying that it is to be constructed by contractors, to ensure that building it didn’t become another job for volunteers to take on. The gazebo will be dedicated Summer 2016.

In a lengthy obituary in the August 1, 2015 Tacoma News Tribune, Bob Myrick, President of MTTA, was quoted as saying, “As time went by she became more and more involved. She became the matriarch of the group”. It seems the matriarch and the patriarch were well suited, or, using another metaphor, Bob, often called the Godfather of MTTA, married the God Mother.  Their love and hard work are part of the history and the well being of this hut system; along with the love and hard work of the many volunteers who make MTTA what it is today, truly a labor of love.

By Sam Demas with generous  input from Bob Brown, Tony Abruzzo, Leyton Jump, and Ziggy Zlatkus. Nov. 8, 2015