For the past 10 years, Willie Trowbridge has lived a part-time fantasy. The 47-year-old carpenter is one of a half-dozen “hutmasters” employed by the Summit Huts Association, a network of four high-alpine cabins located above 11,200 feet in Summit County, Colorado. This means Trowbridge gets paid to skin into breathtaking terrain six to eight times a year, spend a night in the surprisingly cozy hutmaster’s quarters, and milk powder turns when he’s not stirring up compost toilets. There’s more to it than that, of course, but Trowbridge — a father of two boys who moved to Colorado at age 18 and still skis 130 days a year — relishes the perks more than he laments the work.
So how’d you become a hutmaster?
I started out as a bartender for the complete ski bum fix. Then I worked my way to being a waiter so the nights weren’t quite as late, but I could still keep the ski addiction going. I was involved with the Nordic community, and I knew the people with Summit Huts. Then I got into carpentry and remodeling, which was good for the maintenance aspect. I always just loved the hut system, I guess.
First you talk to Mike Zobbe, who’s the director of Summit Huts, and he gives you the rundown of things that have to be checked. The voltaic system, the composting toilets, the kitchen, the stocking of goods, checking out the propane tanks, the general appearance of the hut, any visible broken items — you could end up carrying in a small pane of glass, for instance. It adds up to about four or five hours of work per trip. The worst part of the job is you gotta stir the poop. Mix the new stuff with the old, liquid with hard, keep the microbes happy.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve come upon at a hut?
I was going up to the Section House on top of Boreas Pass. I get up there, everything looks fine, cruising around, I go to use the bathroom, and there’s a couple sleeping in the bathroom. They couldn’t unlock the lock to get into the hut, so they spent the night in the bathroom. Just a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, and they were fine with it. I think they were just disoriented or super cold.
Didn’t it stink?
John’s John? It’ll cone up on ya and freeze, but it doesn’t really stink.
How often do you end up spending the night at a hut?
Almost every trip. It’s just an opportunity to get away. If you spend 36 hours up there, you feel like you’ve left the planet for a while. That’s what I like most about the people at the huts, is they’re out of touch with everything. Everyone’s on a level playing field, in a jovial state. I drag my boys (ages 10 and 13) up there as much as I can, make ’em do chores. They’re junior hutmasters. I throw ’em some fun tickets, like 20 or 25 bucks. They love it.
What kind of reactions do you get from guests?
Oh man. They kiss your feet, lots of food, massages, free booze. [Laughs] No, no. The funniest thing to see is just their awe at a job like that, because they think you’re making a living doing this. "You’re the hutmaster? What do you mean? Do you live here all winter? Where do your kids live? How do you pull this off?" I’ll go as far as they’ll take it, because I think they enjoy that fantasy as much as I do.
So everyone’s going to want to know: How does the gig pay?
[Laughs] Minimally. I think we get $120 a trip. Which makes it worth it, enough to feel like you’re not just up here as a glorified volunteer.