The “poo stirrer:” Behind the scenes at Janet’s Cabin in the Summit Huts Association system | SummitDaily.com
Story and photos by Page McClean
Special to the Daily

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The “poo stirrer:” Behind the scenes at Janet’s Cabin in the Summit Huts Association system

Most people headed to Janet's Cabin are not going to work. They arrive after some exertion to a clean hut with stacked firewood, a tidy kitchen and a working toilet — and it's all thanks to folks with the Summit Huts Association, who skin up once a week to check in on the cabin.

Mike Zobbe, director for Summit Huts, is on his morning commute to Janet's. It's spring break at Copper Mountain Resort and we are stuck in traffic. While the chairlift to the backcountry gate on the west end of Copper saves us some energy, it may not be saving us time today. As we pass through the backcountry gate, however, the crowds dissipate and we are left to our own legs and lungs.

"If I put my head down, I can do three miles in an hour," Zobbe says. We pass a group that will be sharing the cabin with us tonight.

"I do it a lot, but it's pretty hard for some people," Zobbe adds. I think he may mean me, the writer who's trailing farther behind at each turn. He has made the commute to Janet's 11 times this season and it shows.

Staying on track

At one point, Zobbe steps out of the skin track to remove a blue diamond trail marker misplaced on a tree.

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"I've tried for six weeks to keep the trail in place," he says. "People don't realize the trail is where it is for a reason."

Zobbe points out contours of a streambed that are making themselves visible in this warm, spring snowmelt. We cross paths with a few winter travelers on their descent from Janet's and he yells down to two skiers on the other side of the gully.

"I'm trying to get folks to stay on the trail," he yells in the name of safety. "You're going under the only avalanche path!"

We break a new trail — the real trail — and before the last pitch Zobbe warns me, "This is the part that kicks people's a**es."

Taking care of business

By the time I finally make it up the hill, Zobbe has a fire going in the hutmaster's quarters (HMQ) and is already on the phone.

"Hey, remember that broken window?" he's saying. "Well, now it's worse."

The bay window upstairs has cracked and there was a note waiting for him on the HMQ door when he arrived.

"I don't have a whole lot of time to fix windows," says Zobbe, who explains he might need to replace the entire window frame and not just the window. "If we start building the new hut this year I'm going to be up to my a** in alligators."

Zobbe first got involved with Summit Huts as a volunteer more than 20 years ago. Eventually he started getting paid, then it became hourly, and now he's the association director. He works with a crew of eight hutmasters who do the work he's come up here for, but he still visits once a month. The rest of his job description includes operations, construction, capital projects, volunteer days and executive meetings. He works closely with the U.S. Forest Service, donors and clients — the backcountry junkies who keep the system occupied from winter through summer. Overall, he says he's "the face of Summit Huts."

He's also the poo stirrer.

"Now I have to go stir the poo," Zobbe says after changing into his work clothes. "It's not my favorite part of the job."

I've been shadowing Zobbe through his workday, from morning commute to cabin inspection, but I tell him I might pass on composting toilet duty.

"It's usually pretty routine," he assures me, "unless there's a problem. Then it's not routine."

Zobbe dons a gas mask, goggles and rubber gloves for the task. I take off my ski boots and start peeking around the HMQ. Along with the kitchen and dining room area, there's an adjacent dormitory with two bunk beds. I notice the faint smell of feet and old sweat, and then I see two dishes with baking soda on the floor to soak up the stench. I later learn that the bedroom is right next to the compost room, which may account for some of the smell.

Also on the first level is a well-stocked tool room. Zobbe checks on the batteries that store energy from a set of solar panels — the cabins in-house source of electricity for lights and more. They can run for up to five days without sun.

Good hut etiquette

Upstairs, visitors are arriving. Zobbe bleaches the water pot, checks all the dishes and makes sure everything is in its proper place.

"If you can start things out tidy, then it encourages people to keep it that way," he tells me, a strategy he calls "subliminal messages." Some of the visitors thank him for his work.

At this point, Zobbe can do most of the items on the hutmaster's checklist without even glancing at it. Among the more interesting tasks is "haul out trashy novels, magazines and propaganda." And Zobbe usually packs out a lot more than he packs in to the hut. People often leave things that they think will be useful for others, like plastic bags or packets of hot sauce, but it usually ends up going downhill in the hutmaster's backpack.

We change back into ski clothes to take care of the outdoor maintenance. First, we clean out the sauna (yes, there's a working sauna at Janet's Cabin). Then I watch Zobbe disappear into a giant snow hole as he digs out propane tanks he affectionately calls "pigs." He checks the gauges, which are sometimes buried under five feet of snow.

Signing off

In between tasks, Zobbe checks off the completed items from his list. Sometimes he annotates, writing notes like, "Did my best" next to the box, or "Correct trail if it is wrong or confusing." A copy of this list goes in a binder for all hutmasters to see. Zobbe usually signs his name MZ, but when he wants to get the hutmasters' attention, he puts "Da Boss."

This time in the book, Zobbe writes that he's leaving at night to make a 7:30 a.m. board meeting in Breckenridge the next day. He hopes the board will continue letting him make trips to Janet's and the other cabins for maintenance.

"I don't know if they think I'm too valuable to do this anymore," he says, "But I'm like, 'Come on guys, you have to let me have some fun!'"

As I watch him ski down under the moonlight, it looks like he's doing just that.

Book your Summit Huts trip

Janet’s Cabin, Francie’s Cabin and Ken’s Cabin, along with Section House, form the Summit Huts system. The winter season runs through the end of April, with huts available for summer travelers from July through September. To find out more and book a trip online, see SummitHuts.org.