Skiers and hikers who spend the night at a backcountry lodge in Breckenridge every year might not realize they’re sleeping in a monument.
Francie’s Cabin, one of four backcountry cabins operated by the Summit Huts Association, is named for Frances Lockwood Bailey, a former Breckenridge resident who died 25 years ago in a plane crash about 600 miles away.
On July 19, 1989, United Flight 232 was traveling from Denver to Chicago when the DC-10 lost all hydraulic power after the rear engine exploded. The crew used the remaining two engines to steer a winding course to Sioux City, Iowa, where the massive plane crash-landed, cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames before breaking apart in a cornfield.
The crash resulted in what’s considered one of the most impressive life-saving efforts in aviation history. Of the 296 people onboard, 184 survived.
That day, Bailey was traveling with two of her three sons, and both 6-year-old Brandon and 3-year-old Spencer survived.
Brandon Bailey, now 31, said although the hut began as a tribute to his mom, it has since evolved and taken on life of its own.
Staying at Francie’s Cabin unites people, he said. Skiers who snag open beds and share the cabin with a dozen people for the weekend often walk away with a bunch of new friends. And Summit County locals and visitors alike bond over the shared experience of staying at Francie’s.
“That’s ultimately what the hut is about,” he said. “It’s all about bringing people together.”
This Sunday, people will come together once again for Francie’s Cabin.
The Summit Huts Association will host a barbecue at Carter Park in Breckenridge Sunday, July 27, from 4 to 7 p.m. Besides food and drink, the event will also have a raffle and games.
The afternoon will be mainly a celebration of the hut, the people involved in creating and maintaining it and the people who’ve enjoyed it over the years, said Mike Zobbe, the organization’s executive director, but the event is also a fundraiser to replace the hut’s windows.
The nonprofit operates the huts on a fee-based reservation system and sometimes holds fundraisers to support large capital projects.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Summit Huts Association was started in the late 1980s by Breckenridge Mayor John Warner, Tim Casey, Abbie Cobb and other residents, said Leigh Girvin, the nonprofit’s former executive director.
Zobbe said the idea was inspired by huts in Europe. He described large shelters in the Alps that can sleep 100 people and are staffed by full-time caretakers who sometimes serve meals.
In 1990, the association built a hut, Janet’s Cabin, near Copper Mountain, then decided to build one south of Breckenridge Ski Resort. Francie’s namesake had deep family roots in Breckenridge, and the project was funded by her widower, Brownell Bailey.
Several sites within a half mile were chosen in the Crystal Lakes drainage area for the hut, said Paul Semmer, community planner at the Dillon Ranger District, who was involved with the Forest Service permitting process. He said officials ultimately decided on the hut’s current location because the other sites looked like they might be home to Canada lynx.
Breckenridge resident Kent Sharp, who also worked on the project from the Forest Service side, said the hut’s construction was a community effort.
“We all worked together to make sure that the footprint for the hut was really kept to a minimum,” he said.
Zobbe said construction was challenging after a couple tough winters. He remembered dragging tools behind him on a sled to build the hut.
The hut was completed in 1994 and hosted its first visitors in January 1995.
Semmer said Francie’s was originally designed to be a shelter for people traveling in the backcountry from hut to hut. It quickly became a place where people wanted to stay for several days.
Now Francie’s is the busiest hut in the state’s system, which includes about 60 huts and yurts. Brandon Bailey said he thinks it’s seen 60,000 visits in the last 20 years.
Francie’s sleeps 20 people in single and bunk beds. Though its supplies are basic, it has mattresses, pillows, solar-powered lights and a well-furnished kitchen. It’s heated and even has an attached sauna. And unlike other huts, where users have to bundle up and trek through the cold to an outhouse, Francie’s has indoor composting toilets.
“That’s the kind of thing that would’ve gotten Francie on a hut trip,” Brandon Bailey said.
He said his mom would’ve liked that the cabin is close to a trailhead and especially suited for families with kids.
Francie’s attracts all kinds of people, he said, from hardcore skiers and backcountry enthusiasts to people putting on snowshoes for the first time.
“One of the great things about Francie’s is that it’s relatively easy to get to compared to other huts in state,” Girvin said.
Sharp said the 2-mile hike in takes about an hour on skis with a pack on.
“It’s such a great hut for families,” Shelly Grail-Braudis, the Dillon Ranger District’s snow ranger, said.
She once went to the hut with several families for Easter, and they left the toys and electronics at home. The kids enjoyed wandering around with their skis on, “having the sort of adventures kids like to have,” she said.
Zobbe said it’s not unusual to see three generations of a family at the hut.
Visitors still need a good degree of avalanche awareness, but Francie’s is perfect for introducing kids and beginners to backcountry skiing because of the wide variety of nearby terrain.
Semmer added that because the hike to the hut isn’t as far as others, the hut also draws people snowshoeing in to snowboard.
Brandon Bailey, who now lives in Boulder, said he’s spent a weekend with friends and family there every year for the last eight years.
“It’s been really fun for me to see or hear about friends going on hut trips or their very first hut trip, especially,” he said. The hut is “more broken in then it was 20 years ago, which I think is great. Shows that it’s getting used.”
For many people, the trek to the hut might be the hardest thing they do in their lives, Zobbe said, and he’s glad the hut can provide that experience they might not otherwise have.
“It’s more than just recreation,” he said. “People really come to learn that they can do different things.”
Girvin agreed about the hut’s psychological benefits.
“There’s a great sense of accomplishment and reward when you arrive at the hut under your own power carrying your own stuff,” she said.
Semmer said the hut also gives people a chance to appreciate the nature around them. “This is a way of slowing people down a little bit.”
A few years ago, when the association was hosting an avalanche awareness clinic, he said, participants saw a lynx right where the Forest Service vetoed a location for the hut.
That was like a nice pat on the back, he said. Like nature was saying, “You made the right decision 20 years ago.”
It’s also proof that people staying at Francie’s have plenty of opportunities to see wildlife.
“We’re moving into Mother Nature’s backyard,” Semmer said. “If you wait long enough, she’ll give you a present.”
In the summer, the cabin has a different feel but is still busy with reservations. Grail-Braudis said she knows people who have had intimate weddings at the cabin.
“It really is a beautiful place to just go and enjoy the outdoors,” she said.
20 MORE YEARS
Because of the hut’s popularity, especially with young people, its large windows have taken abuse over the years.
“They’re just old,” Zobbe said. “Some of them don’t close completely.”
He said replacing them could cost $20,000 or more.
Grail-Braudis said the cabin just needs an upgrade. “Time for a little bit of TLC.”
In hindsight, Girvin, who directed the nonprofit for 14 years and oversaw Francie’s construction, said she wished the organization had spent more money on the original windows so they wouldn’t need to be replaced so soon.
Though she wouldn’t call it her favorite of the huts, “Francie’s is definitely one of my babies,” she said, adding that she breathes a sigh of relief every time she visits. “It’s kinda like coming home again.”
“Francie’s Cabin, at 20 years old, she’s an enduring girl,” she said, “and I hope she’s around for many years to come.”