Three Sisters Backcountry (TSBC) Huts – Nordic Traverse
- Overview: (mission, purpose, programs, etc.)
This operational profile is about Three Sisters Backcountry’s 22 mile hut-to-hut Nordic Traverse, which was established in 2014. They have another enterprise, Tam McArthur Rim Huts, comprised of two yurts that has offered guided backcountry skiing since 2009. Both are family owned and operated businesses run by two couples. These hard-working folks have an impressive skill set and their success is a product of a great idea, patience and persistence in realizing a dream, and continual on-the-job learning.
The business appears to be a labor of love and a choice of lifestyle. It grows out of the love of ski touring and, as they say on the website, “the heart and soul of our small, family-owned business is to share the beauty of backcountry skiing. “ They are justifiably proud of the infrastructure and program they have developed. As they say on their website:
Everything from our hand built huts, sauna, haul trailers, custom snowpark office, mountains of firewood, remote bathrooms, and the establishment of ski routes is the culmination of an insane amount of work both on and off the slopes.
The three day, two night Nordic Traverse is not for beginners! The experience requires experience in off-trail skiing, a high level of fitness, and a very specific skill set that most people simply don’t have. The route can be challenging because of the changeable weather and snow conditions, and because it requires accurate navigation over long distances. They do not advertise, are not interested in publicity, and prefer to fly under the radar of public notice. Their business has grown by word of mouth, and that’s the way they want it. Because it’s a very specific kind of experience requiring a skill set that most people don’t have, they don’t want to waste a lot of time in the “office” fielding questions from folks who aren’t prepared for the experience, and they don’t want to have to come to their rescue if it turns out they (unprepared customers) shouldn’t be out there.
I found the owners engaging, charming, serious and enjoyable, but also reluctant to talk about themselves and their business. So there will be significant gaps in this profile (as always!). I’ll respect their preference for privacy by not saying any more than necessary to help along my project: gathering information to get an overview of hut systems in USA and doing it in a way that lends itself to comparing how things are done in different regions, terrains, and types of hut systems.
- Huts and shelters:
- Description, location, capacity
The Nordic Traverse comprises two huts, Happy Valley Hut and Lone Wolf Hut, located along 22 miles of backcountry ski trails in the Sisters National Forest. Each hut sleeps up to eight people.
Huts self-service, but stocked with most of what you need for a safe and comfortable stay in the back-country while carrying minimal gear. Quite similar to the level of amenities provided by the San Juan Huts cycling.
The huts are warm, comfortable and well-designed. A couch is provided along with bar stools for sitting around the kitchen table/counter. A guitar, a bit of miscellaneous reading material, and playing cards are provided. Some nice touches: there is an attractive print on the wall of each hut, and Shane has welded decorative animal motifs on the doors of the huts and outhouses. See below for further details on food, lights, sleeping, etc.
- Policies and hut ethics
Melting snow in a pot on the wood stove, or in the chamber provided on the side of the stove. Can then be boiled on the propane or wood stove, or filter pumped if desired.
- Waste management
Gray water from sink is collected in a 5 gallon bucket under the sink and then emptied into a chamber by the outhouse. The outhouses are set on trailers. Each outhouse has two chambers of 250 gallons each, one for gray water and one for “black water” or sewage waste. Per USFS requirements, at the end of each season a sanitation company licensed to transport human waste drives to the sites and empties both chambers. These are cleaned and the outhouses are hauled away from the site until next season.
Woodstoves keep the huts warm and for emergency purposes a propane heater and five 16.4 oz. canisters of propane are provided. Pre-cut and split coniferous firewood is provided. Because the walls and roofs of the huts are insulated with 6 inches of blown in closed cell spray insulation, the huts use only about 3 cords of firewood to heat for the season. [This is compared with the two uninsulated huts used for All Terrain Skiing, which require 20 cords of wood.] A maul and axe are provided for use in splitting kindling to get fires started. Matches are provided. Since the fire will not last the night if not fed, it is wise to split kindling the evening beforehand and be ready to fire up the stove in the morning.
No electricity is provided. A centrally located propane lantern provides sufficient light for cooking and relaxing. Reading requires a personal headlamp or other light source.
- Cooking and eating
Huts are supplied with a good selection of pots and pans, and cooking and eating utensils. These are stored in durable, animal proof metal Craftsman Tool Chests, which support the central kitchen island. A very nice design feature! Similarly, food is stored in a very tall Craftsman Tool Chest, which keeps it safe from mice and still easily accessible for cooking. The two-burner propane stove was sturdy and placed in the middle of an ample prep area with a sink for washing dishes. Food for breakfast, lunch and dinner is provided. Ingredients are available for a different menu at each hut, avoiding repetition in menu. The food allows for easy preparation of the sorts of foods most people like, e.g. burritos or other Mexican dishes, and pasta with a nice sauce and cheese, eggs and potatoes, oatmeal, etc. The quality of ingredients is good, including a nice selection of canned vegetables that allow one to customize recipes. A cooler is provided with ample eggs, cheese, and butter. And a large quantity of local beer is provided. See Appendix for list from TSBC website of foods stocked at each hut.
Sturdy bunk beds with ladders are constructed of welded square tubing. They hang from the ceiling, making six of the eight sleeping spaces at least 6 feet off the floor and consequently high in the warmer air of the hut. Two of the sleeping bunks are doubles and six are singles. All are provided with comfortable, plastic-covered sleeping mats. Sleeping bags rated to 0 degrees Fahrenheit are provided for each bunk and guests are advised to bring their own sleep sheet. Alternatively, one can bring one’s own sleeping bag.
- Maintenance and repairs
Presumably maintenance and repairs are ongoing as needed and are also performed when huts are disassembled for removal from the site each summer.
- Capital projects
None planned. No information on budgeting for capital improvements, but the owners said it took a long time to secure the funding and permissions to build the huts.
- Hut design
The owners designed and constructed the huts themselves based in part on their experience with the yurts. The huts are 16 feet x 18 feet, steel frame buildings designed in two halves, so they can be separated and hauled out on a large truck in two pieces. The huts are constructed mostly of metal (frames, walls and roofs), but walls are finished with pine wood. Welded metal construction can withstand the rigorous shaking the huts get when transported up and down the mountain at the beginning and end of each season. These huts are durable, comfortable, and efficient. They are the product of a lot of thought and experience leading up to their construction. The finishes are not elegant, but they are sturdy, serviceable, and comfortable. Among the nice design features we noticed are:
- A long clerestory running the length of the hut lets in lots of light, even when the rest of the hut is covered with snow.
- Metal cladding around the exterior of the hut to prevent wood-rot and leakage was the huts are nearly covered in snow most of the winter.
- Heavy duty rubber matting on the floor, which provides cushion, is water-proof, and is easy to sweep snow tracked in.
- Wood storage under the hut to keep it dry and accessible.
- Well-designed kitchen island work and eating space, with a lantern placed where it maximizes lighting. The arrangement, perpendicular to the front wall, is central, yet on obtrusive. It is sufficiently large and flexible to allows for multiple uses. The bar stools tuck under the island, and the island is supported by storage cabinets (sturdy Craftsman Tool Chests).
- Plexi-glass windows that have less chance of breaking during moving of huts.
- Maximizing usable space and taking advantage of heat rising by elevating beds to a loft level. Welded bedframes hung from ceiling.
- Welded artistic touches on the doors.
- Metal frame to withstand snow load and the elements.
- Permitting process
As with all hut systems located on public lands, the key to the business model is developing and maintaining good relationships with the relevant land management officials. TSBC appears to have done a very good job of this. They appear to an outsider to be serious, responsible, responsive and cooperative in their work with the USFS. They manage the hut system safely and competently. As is often the case, over the years they have experienced turnover in the forest ranger position they deal with; but they report that the new folks they deal with are reasonable and cooperative and they are able to develop good working relations. The huts are operated under a 10 year Special Use permit from the Sisters National Forest which requires moving the huts off USFS land during the summer months for site re-growth. TSBC would like some day to be granted permission to leave the huts in place year-round.
- Hut supplies provided for guests
In addition to the food and cooking supplies mentioned above, each hut is supplied with emergency propane heater and canisters, maul and axe, snow shovel, extra toilet paper, broom, playing cards, and a first aid kit.
- Hut supply: how do you get supplies in and waste out?
Huts are stocked and garbage is removed and by snowmobile in winter. TSBC owns and operates 5 snow machines for use in its business. They use two snowmobiles for the Backcountry Huts business and two others for their All Terrain Skiing system. Both huts are removed from the site each summer and then returned in fall with a Mitsubishi Fuzo truck mounted on a trailer (see photo).
- Distances and elevation changes
The 22 mile traverse comprises:
- Day 1: 8 miles and 1,440’ elevation gain
- Day 2: 8 miles and 1,500’ elevation gain
- Day 3: 6 miles downhill to parking lot, or a 4 mile downhill return on snowmobile trail.
- Navigation and connectivity among huts
A linear route connecting two huts. TSBC provides/recommends:
- Laminated map provided that can be attached to backpack for easy consultation
- Verbal instructions provided at beginning of the ski
- Visual navigation by following over 700 orange or yellow flags hung in the trees. The flags can become obscured by snow collecting on the trees, the tricks wind plays, etc. As one approaches the hut the flats become yellow and orange, signaling proximity to destination. Experienced skiers and navigators are free to explore the area and find their own routes.
- A PDF of a topo map is provided which can be used with a cell phone GPS app, or
- TSBC rents GPS units
- Recommends bringing a compass, altimeter,
- Trail building and maintenance
Trail roughly follows the route of Metolius Windigo Trail along the eastern boundary of the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. Trail follows USFS cross country ski trails at the beginning and end, and is sometimes on forest roads. The trail is nicely laid out to take the skier through a variety of mostly rolling terrain, open and wooded, flat, uphill and some mostly tame downhills. They try to avoid popular snowmobile trails. Skiers are told not to ski on snowmobile trails. And vise-versa.
The marked trail glides along the top of many feet of snow (c. 12 feet when I visited) so trail maintenance consists primarily of hanging the plastic ribbons high in trees to provide visual cues. This is done with a pole tool we didn’t see. The Frequent snow means that the tracks of previous skiers may not be evident. Breaking trail is hard work in a snowstorm and folks take turns!
- Data, policies and practices relating to environmental impact of hikers and of huts?
- Governance, Staff and Management:
- Governance – not discussed
TSBC is operated by the four owners, with assistance from one staff person, who is an internationally certified mountain guide and an AIARE Avalanche instructor. Together they have a remarkable range of skills (e.g. carpentry, welding, various first aid certifications, artist, avalanche education, serious mountain biking and skiing, etc.) which are listed on their web site. They don’t like to talk about themselves that much, so we’ll leave it at what is on their website.
They have an office at the Sno Park where they meet with clients to go over the route and answer any questions. See Photo of office.
- Volunteers – not used
- Summer interns – not used
- Reservations, Marketing, Memberships:
- Reservations – Reservations are required and can be made online after consulting a calendar indicating vacancies. One reservation per group is accepted from a designated group leader who handles payments. A group requests a start date, which reserves space in the hut for the two night, three day Nordic Traverse. Because the route is always skied in one direction it is possible to have groups starting out each day of the week, following each other by a day. Other details from website:
- Weekend start days are Thursday – Saturday. A party must book the entire hut for weekends. Eight people @$225 each = $1,800 for full hut.
- Weekday start days are Sunday – Wednesday. Minimum two people for a reservation. “Open house style”, i.e. may be sharing the hut with others. Same daily rate.
- Information packet – Website has very useful information on the experience. No written information provided in advance of arriving for the trip.
- Waivers – we signed waivers in the van on the way to the SnoPark. Didn’t keep a copy.
- Rates –
- $225 per person for the two night, three day Nordic Traverse.
- A deposit of 50% is required with the balance due before the trip.
- Can reserve up to a year in advance.
- No refunds offered for cancellation, including for poor weather or injury. Customers are advised to consider trip insurance.
TSBC does not do any advertising or marketing. They get customers by word of mouth. They believe this helps to ensure a clientele that knows what they are getting into and has the skills and fitness level necessary to complete this traverse.
- Membership – not a membership organization
Access to the huts is by ski only, except for snowmobiles for hut servicing by the owners.
- To the trailheads
- Transportation to trail head is provided by a driver from Cog Wild Bicycle Tours, a local ski and cycle outfit. Customers are met at the Three Creeks SnoPark where they leave their cars for use at the end of the trip, then ferried to the Dutchman’s Flats SnoPark, where they begin the journey. The Cog Wild transportation cost is included in the overall fee.
- One of the owners meets the group at one of the SnoParks and explains the route, provides a weather report and laminated map, and answers questions.
- Catered trips
- Guiding services
The two night, 22 mile Nordic Traverse is self-guided. The separate All Terrain Skiing adventure that uses the hut is a offered as a guided trip.
The only snowmobiles allowed to travel to the huts are those operated by the owners.
- Horses and pack animals (not applicable in 12 feet of snow!)
- Car access to huts – none
Safety information is provided on the reverse side of a laminated map provided to customers by the owners, which:
- Provides telephone contact information for the owners to ask questions and report any problems,
- Advises that non-emergency calls be made to a number provided for Deschutes County and Forest Service Law Enforcement, and
- Sates that emergencies be reported by calling 911, which connects to Search and Rescue operations.
Cellphone service is available for much of the route and at both huts. However there are dead spots. Customers are advised to take measures to conserve battery power, to bring along an external battery, and to consider carrying a locator beacon.
The owners report that they do occasionally need to come out on snowmobile to rescue folks who lose their way.
They get insurance through World Wide Outfitters Association (http://www.insureguides.com/) and report that it works very well.
- Use of hut system: capacity, demographics, survey data, trends over time, etc.:
The only thing we learned in this regard is that the weekend use of the Nordic Traverse is commonly by groups of women. A glance at the reservations calendar shows that weekends tend to be booked well in advance.
The families are able to make a sufficient living from the hut and ATS businesses to support themselves year-round. They try hard not to owe money and make a sufficient living on their business, but “will never get rich”.
- Partnerships and educational programs:
We didn’t get into this arena in our discussions. TSBC is known for their Avalanche Training programs.
- Founding/origin stories:
The owners preferred not to talk about their story, except to say that they love backcountry skiing and wanted to develop a lifestyle that allowed them to use their skills, indulge their passions, and share them with others.
- Some important lessons learned by the managers of the system:
We managed to talk with all four owners and this is what came through, though not in response to this direct question:
- One must be very patient and hard-working to build a business like this.
- Careful cultivation of a cooperative relationship with the USFS is the key. They work closely with the USFS and help them out by reporting on things they may observe in the forest that seem dangerous or wrong.
- Keeping a low profile, letting word of mouth spread the news of their work, and catering strictly to a crowd that is “up to the job” of navigating this traverse is a key to their approach.
- Learning as you go and making constant improvements.
- The years of experience in running the guided skiing trips with Tam Rim Backcountry Huts provided invaluable experience to inform the development of the Traverse.
- Central Oregon is a recreation hotspot and they are able to rely on word of mouth advertising. Rather than spend money on advertising and marketing, they invest in improvements to the huts.
- Simplify: don’t offer clients too many options or choices. It gets too complicated and isn’t worth the hassle. Offer one good product and stick with it.
- Observations by Sam:
TSBC is an exemplar of the small business backcountry ski hut system on public lands. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but quickly developed a strong respect for what they are doing and for their low-key but serious approach. This is a family owned small business that is not out to get rich, but to make a living doing what they love. The owners are dedicated to their mission and highly skilled. They are clear about who their market is and careful to maintain their focus. Some key impressions I came away with:
- This is a labor-intensive enterprise that requires dedication, and both very specific skills to operate as well as as the sensibilities and instincts of intelligent generalists.
- The seemingly exclusive reliance on word-of-mouth is testament to the values of the owners and the region, and the tight-knit community of dedicated off-trail skiers.
- The model of stocking the huts with food that customers cook is great! Its like the San Juan Huts cycling huts and reminiscent of Norways’ self-service hut category.
- The hut design is simple but very serviceable. The sturdy, hand-crafted construction and the thoughtful and functional details make it a pleasure to experience.
- Like most hut systems it appears to be well-rooted in the local community.
- I believe the low-key approach, careful attention to safety and good operational practices, attunement to the environment, and commitment to maintaining good relations with the USFS are just what citizens would want of a “concessionaire” on their public lands.
- This hut system is a great model for serious, skilled young people dreaming of operating a hut system to study.
- Challenges and opportunities: not discussed with owners; anything you’d like to include here?Challenges:
- Taking down the huts and putting them back up seasonally.
- Rising show levels; only need 6 inches of snow for good Nordic skiing, and they get way more (10-12 feet).
- Communicating the difficultly level of the experience. Nordic skiing means different things to different people. One needs to be an experienced off-trail Nordic skier. Some folks don’t know that that means.
- Skiing off route. Experienced skiers and navigators may want to explore the terrain on their own.
- Making the huts a little nicer.
- Fun event to ski the route in one day with each hut a food/rest stop.
- Additional Resources:
- Web site: http://threesistersbackcountry.com/
- Contacts: email@example.com
- Document written by: Sam Demas, based on brief conversation with owners, observations during a ski of the traverse, and information on the website. February 2017.
Appendix from TSBC Website:
Each hut is stocked with the ingredients listed below. Please supplement these ingredients with fresh fruits, veggies, meats, snacks or anything else you wish to carry. These supplies are stocked once week or as needed. We cannot make any additional substitutes/changes etc… please be respectful and limit the amount of beer you consume.
Happy Valley Hut Food Supplies:
- tortillas (flour & corn)
- beans & rice
- canned salsa & jalapeños
- onions & garlic*
- olive oil
- assorted spices
- coffee & tea
- dried fruit
- peanut butter & jelly
- energy bars
- Good Life Beer
Lone Wolf Hut Food Supplies:
- pasta (GF available)
- tomato sauce
- canned olives & capers
- onions & garlic*
- olive oil
- assorted spices
- coffee & tea
- dried fruit
- peanut butter & jelly
- energy bars
- Good Life Beer
*These items are perishable, we make an effort to keep stocked and fresh, but they are not guaranteed.