David Jefferson remembered for building Summit Huts Association — literally and figuratively

David Jefferson, right, and his daughter Bailey sail on Dillon Reservoir in 2017. David died in February after being diagnosed with ocular melanoma 12 years ago.
Photo from Lauren Jefferson

David “Alfie” Jefferson was given two years to live after he was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He surpassed that diagnosis by a decade.

His sense of adventure didn’t slow down in his final years thanks to a wild spirit present since he was young.

Born April 19, 1951, in Illinois, he grew up in Darien, Connecticut. Both of his parents died early in his life due to alcoholism, so his friends and the community of Darien essentially raised David, his daughter Lauren Jefferson said.

“It instilled in him a sense of community being so much further beyond your family and that communities take care of each other,” she said.

He played sports like football and baseball and was in Boy Scouts, but a lack of adult supervision led to pranks such as filling the high school common area with a homemade cement swimming pool. He first became more serious about life when it was time for college. David studied journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University and would always seek out both sides of every story and verify sources, a skill he passed on to his daughters.

Yet David didn’t stick with writing for very long. While living in Tahoe, California, a friend informed him of job opportunities in Breckenridge. He hitchhiked to the mountain town in 1973 with only 73 cents to his name and got into the construction business. David built mainly custom homes but also landmarks such as Main Street Station in Breckenridge and Leadville’s Outward Bound building. He always got the job done, and his slow and steady work ethic earned him the nickname El Tortuga Grande — the big turtle.

Despite the nickname, David still knew how to have fun.

“When he got here, he didn’t have any skis, so he and a friend hiked Peak 10 and wrapped themselves in saran wrap and just slid down Peak 10 in saran wrap,” Lauren said. “We joked that it took 20 tumors to take the guy out because nothing else could.”

The second time David got more serious was when he met his wife, Sharon, in 1981. She was going to see Emmylou Harris in Vail, but her date — David’s roommate — couldn’t make it up the pass in his Studebaker, so David gave them a ride in his Saab. She found herself attracted to his combination of mountain-man confidence and strength as well as his cultured tastes in music, art and poetry.

They married in 1983, and their daughters Lauren and Bailey were born in 1988 and 1991, respectively.

“I’ve never met anyone that was so full of adventure and researched to find the adventure,” Sharon said. “He would go out of his way to find an obscure part of some place and make the adventure not only getting there but being there.”

David Jefferson, left, hangs out at Lake Powell in 2020. His bridge club frequented the lake, along with backcountry huts and other locations.
Photo from Lauren Jefferson

Aside from the family, his social circles included a friend group infamously known as The Gray Guys and a bridge club that was often more about drinking wine than playing cards. The club would bounce around from house, to backcountry ski hut to Lake Powell. Meanwhile, The Gray Guys would play golf any day of the year — only quitting for a beer if the ball couldn’t move through the snow on a putt — and do the backcountry Haute Route from Saas Fee to Chamonix in the Alps.

The Gray Guys’ trip on the Haute Route influenced David to create the Summit Huts Association. He built Janet’s Cabin near Copper Mountain Resort in the 1990s and was involved in the nonprofit throughout his lifetime, most recently becoming vice president of the executive board in 2019. David even helped current Executive Director Josh Flenniken get his position.

As Summit Huts was finishing the new Sisters Cabin, David and his friend Larry Crispell were there to work around the clock and build the bunk beds.

“You could always count on Dave to take care of stuff if it came down to a crunch,” Flenniken said.

David Jefferson, left, and his wife, Sharon, hike in 2019. Despite losing sight in his right eye, David stayed active up until his death.
Photo from Lauren Jefferson

His love of skiing was naturally passed down to his children. One of Bailey’s earliest memories is being in a sled yelling “mush” as David dragged her and the rest of the supplies to a backcountry hut. For 25 years, the Jeffersons spent New Year’s Eve at Francie’s Cabin, and they’ve done annual visits to The Shrine Mountain Inn followed by skiing into Red Cliff.

Along with backcountry, Nordic, telemark and in-bounds skiing, David was an avid sailor who was always torn between the mountains and the ocean. He sailed across the Atlantic and went to exotic locales such as Croatia and the Caribbean.

Lauren said he wasn’t an adrenaline junkie but rather had a curious mind that always wanted to know what was over the next hill. Even as he lost sight in his right eye due to the cancer, he was in the outdoors as much as possible.

David died Feb. 23 surrounded by family in the house that he built with Sharon. He was cremated with a copy of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” and a sextant and artworks were passed down to his children. Sharon and the others found it humorous that a man with such a colorful life had little in the way of assets.

“When we looked at the piece of paper, we started to chuckle,” Sharon said. “In the eyes of so many, it wouldn’t be very impressive. But I laughed and said, ‘Well, the man stood on the side of the Matterhorn and swam with whales in Tonga.’ I guess his assets were truly doing those things, as many as he could, with both friends and family.”

The past year was painful as the pandemic hampered travel and Lauren — an ICU nurse — isolated herself from her father for the early part of 2020. But even as the cancer spread and the diagnosis worsened, the family still planned trips. He skied Tennessee Pass a week before he died, and Joshua Tree National Park and a summer sailing excursion were next on the list. Adventure was on David’s mind until the very end.

“There’s an old saying on maps, that when they haven’t navigated past the edge of the map, that part said, ‘Beyond here there lie dragons,'” Lauren said. “That was one of the last things my dad talked about. My sister said, ‘Beyond here there lie dragons,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to look for the dragons.'”

A memorial for David is planned for Sept. 13 at Francie’s Cabin. In lieu of flowers, a donation to Summit Huts is encouraged.

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