Three minutes into the seven-minute ride on the Super Gauge Express chairlift at Winter Park, one of my guides turns, pulls down the turtleneck of his red ski jacket and says, "I think I'm not feeling safe enough. I think we should get safer."
Soon I'm following the two skiers and one boarder through a double-black section of glades covered with about a foot of loose powder wind-loaded into the trees overnight on top of crusty, week-old snow. In my wake are jagged boulders, fallen trees, spear-like branches and stumps. We stop for a second, and I learn that there are cliffs about 500 yards to the right. Usually the snow is good enough to ski them — but not this season. So we veer downhill, to avoid going over the ledge like Gore-Tex-wrapped lemmings.
After dropping another hundred yards down the pitch, we come to a more mellow part of the woods, where the tracks are a bit more packed down. Those tracks converge at a flat spot, where my guides have stopped in front of a clump of trees with what looks like a snow-covered stack of firewood at their base. By the time I've carved my way down to them, my guides have ducked into the entrance of Frog Hut, a hobbit-sized wooden shack camouflaged from view.
Secret shacks and huts like this exist in the woods not just at Winter Park, not just at ski resorts across Colorado, but across the United States and Canada. And they're all designed as places where skiers and boarders can duck in for a quick warm-up and sometimes to get safe — mountain slang for puffing a quick bowl. It may seem counterintuitive in a demanding, athletic sport, but getting stoned is an intrinsic part of the snow-day routines of many skiers and boarders. Some say it helps them focus on the singular task very literally in front of them; others enjoy the spiritual connection with nature often provided by a joint of good herb.
The anonymous trio I'm with has been meeting at this hidden hut for years, getting safe before heading back out into the knee-shattering moguls of a nearby double-diamond run. Though other skiers, snowboarders, mountain managers and ski-patrol members certainly know of the Frog Hut's existence, the spot is still officially a secret, and I've sworn to keep its location secret, as well. (I've also promised to keep the identities of my guides — respected members of the Denver business world — confidential.)
While the few resort spokespeople who acknowledge that they've heard of smoke shacks all insist that they don't exist at their mountains, many of these spots have stood for decades, relics of the past and beloved testaments to individualism in a sport growing increasingly corporate. Once a secret shared only by word of mouth, today a quick Internet search brings up scores of discussion forums on which riders detail their favorite on-mountain escapes and post pictures. Some are mere shanties with dirt floors and logs to sit on; others are extravagant structures outfitted with tables, benches made of snowboards and stairs constructed of skateboard decks leading to second-floor observation towers. Some have attained near-mythical status and earned such nicknames as The Igloo, Leo's, Bob's Office, The 420 Club, Horsecock Cavern, The Cheetah Den, Topher's Trees, Frog Hut, The Foggy Goggle, Marley's and No Fat Chicks (so named because of its very small entrance).
Legend has it that some of the shacks on Mary Jane date back to before there was even a ski hill to schuss down. A few evolved from lean-tos left behind by miners; others were created by the logging crews called in to clear the trails before Mary Jane's opening season in the winter of 1975-1976. Instead of heading down the mountain at night, the workers would build huts where they could stay during the mild summer nights. One well-known hut that sat in a small grove near what became the free parking lot at Mary Jane was largely dismantled this past off-season, the log walls left behind to create a snow-covered modern ruin.
Other huts have been put up as memorials to lost friends. One of those is a smoke shack in Topher's Trees, named for 26-year-old snowboarder Christopher Sendroy, who died after falling into the quicksand-like snow of a tree well in 1995. There's a small shrine to Sendroy put up by family and friends on a tree near the site of the accident. But what has become the biggest monument to Sendroy is Topher's — a two-story wooden smoke shack bearing his name that reportedly was built around the evergreen where Sendroy died.
Needless to say, protecting the shacks is a time-honored tradition. While a few are out in the open — like a bench above Springdipper at Keystone that's visible not only from the trail, but also from the chairlift and gondola, and which patrollers and lift operators are more than happy to point out — people who know about the shacks generally keep their existence quiet. As my Winter Park guides stress over and over, most of these places are well hidden and their actual locations known only by a small, unofficial club of skiers and riders skilled enough to reach the precariously located huts and smart enough to keep their locations secret so that a good thing can last.