Featured Image Attribution: Wesley Wright, left, and Jim Clapp enjoy the view while sitting outside the stone hut near the top of Mount Mansfield during the 2010 ski season. The hut was destroyed by an accidental fire on Christmas Eve five years later. (Courtesy Scott Danis)
Hallowed ground, up in smoke
ADAM WHITE, Freshies
Scott Danis had to see what was left of the stone hut.
The 49-year-old Burlington man made his way from the top of Stowe Mountain Resort’s quad chairlift on Christmas morning, careful to avoid the patrol that still had the scene of the fire staked out. He ducked under an orange rope, climbed the steps to the hut’s foyer and looked through what was left of the door.
“Someone had boarded up the entrance so you couldn’t walk in — but there wasn’t anything to walk on,” Danis said. “The floor was completely gone, the woodstove and charred logs from the woodpile toppled over in a heap.”
Danis descended, then skinned back up that night. This time, he looked through the north facing windows.
“All the glass was gone, and the window frames were melted,” Danis said. “All the wood paneling was gone. For the most part, just part of the roof remained, and the stones themselves.
“Oddly enough, the first aid kit on the mantle was charred but not destroyed. The only thing I could recognize beyond that was the ash can, and some iron wood stove tools. The giant log beams that spanned the width of the hut were a fraction of their original size.”
Danis turned away from the “heartbreaking and devastating” scene and went back down the mountain.
“A lot of the best moments of my life were spent there,” he said. “To think of the spirit and memory of that place sitting in a pile of ash is overwhelming.”
Built as a warming hut for Civilian Conservation Corps workers on Mount Mansfield, the stone hut stood for 79 years before it was destroyed by a fire this past Christmas Eve.
A member of Stowe Mountain Resort’s mountain operations team first noticed smoke rising from the structure just after 7 a.m.; by the time the initial blaze and a subsequent flare-up later that afternoon were knocked down, the hut was a total loss.
Wes Wright of Starksboro spent 28 nights there by his count, and was known for sitting outside and telling passers-by that it was “his hut,” built by his grandfather.
“It’s been a cross between deer camp and private, family-owned Swiss chalet,” Wright said. “The feeling now is like that if my parents’ house, or my sister’s, had just burned down. Or like Disneyland was destroyed by an earthquake.”
Wright said he started skiing at Stowe in 1966, and that annual ski weeks there have been a tradition in his family for more than two decades. The stone hut has provided him with a home base from which to pass along a treasure of experience that goes far beyond just sliding down a mountain on snow.
“Skiing is more than a sport — it’s a lifestyle, handed down from my parents to me and now to my boy,” Wright said. “From closing bell through aprés, dinner, bedtime, breakfast, first tracks, repeat — it’s total immersion.”
Wright has dozens of photos taken during stays at the hut, of adults and children alike. For all the differences between the subjects, the emotions that resonate are universal: joy, laughter, camaraderie, adventure.
“The bonds formed transcended age,” said Danis, who appears in a number of Wright’s photos. “We were all family.”
Reservations at the stone hut are awarded almost exclusively through a lottery system, which has somewhat limited the number of people who have had a chance to experience a stay there.
Danis has an on-mountain nickname,“The Hutmaster,” which he acknowledges came from his “numerous lottery wins and generous visitor policy,” at the hut. He estimates he has spent upward of 50 nights there — including 17 consecutive in 2010 — and credits his frequent and prolonged stays to “being lucky and diligent.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to be in the hut on huge powder days, nights when it’s 20 below (and) when spring skiing was prime,” Danis said. “Every night was different, and remarkable.”
A traditional ski rental brings to mind a certain aesthetic: weathered barnboard trim and a bearskin rug; a corner bar stocked with top-shelf booze; antique wooden skis mounted in an X high over a roaring fieldstone fireplace.
But this most hallowed ground of alpine accommodations had none of that — not much of anything, in fact.
“The hut is a throwback to simpler times,” Danis said. “No water, electricity, you had to cook your own food, haul your own gear.”
That lack of sophistication helped create the unique atmosphere that largely defined a night in the hut, according to Wright.
“With only candle lamps and a wood stove to fend off the night and falling snow, the mood was quiet anticipation,” he said.
Keeper of the flame
The beating heart of the stone hut was its wood stove. Not only was it the sole source of heat; it also provided a flat cooktop — pans optional — for memorable feasts, many of which seemed to consist of sizzling sausages.
According to Wright, it was not uncommon for four friends to convene at the hut and find that every one of them had packed sausages. Danis said the aroma that arose from such meals helped make them unforgettable.
“The fun part about cooking on top of the stove was that the smell would get into your clothes,” Danis said. “You could never forget the combination of wood smoke, onions and sausage. It would linger in your ski stuff for weeks. My best meals were cooked on that stove.”
The wood-fired heat also helped dry out soggy gear after adventures on the mountain. One hut user, Catherine Carvelli, shared on Facebook a low-angle photo of ski pants, parkas and helmets hanging from the hut’s rafters high above.
“I always loved laying on the bench looking up once our stuff was in place,” Carvelli wrote. “Something about the day’s adventures drying above and the camaraderie in the low light below was part of the magic for me.”
Danis said the heat thrown by the wood stove was “more than adequate for such a small place” of less than 500 square feet. James Clapp of Burlington said he remembers “nights when it was a 100-degree differential in temperature between the outside (-20 degrees F) and the inside (80 degrees).”
But the stove was not without its issues. Due to factors such as the elevation and exposure of the hut and how the stove was vented, it was not uncommon for blustery nights to produce fierce downdrafts that pushed smoke back in on the cabin’s inhabitants.
“The stove was also the biggest challenge,” Danis said. “The stove pipe went sideways for quite a distance before turning up the old chimney. On windy nights, the hut could fill up with smoke in a very short time if the fire wasn’t hot enough. I’ve been smoked out of there a lot.”
The task of determining what started the Christmas Eve blaze fell to Trooper Todd Ambroz, who investigates fires for the Vermont State Police. Ambroz interviewed the hut’s tenants from Dec. 23, and was told they brought in wood to feed the fire just before leaving that afternoon in preparation for “a family friend who was supposed to arrive later … to spend the night.”
“The wood was wet and needed to be dried before burning,” Ambroz wrote in his report. “Once the metal wood stove was burning the wet firewood was stacked next to it, some of it actually leaning on the stove itself, to dry. The door to the stove was propped open slightly with another piece of wood in an attempt to keep the stove drafting.”
The second party never arrived. Ambroz theorized that the fire likely spread outside the stove — through the propped-open door and/or wood leaning directly against the hot surface — at some point after the tenants departed, and was left “smoldering all night long, starving for oxygen,” until the next morning when it became fully engaged.
Whatever wooden parts of the structure weren’t consumed in the initial blaze were finished off when the fire rose again later that afternoon. By the time the Stowe Fire Department rolled up its hoses around 9 p.m., the blaze had consumed “the entire wooden contents of the interior to include the roof, rafters, bunk beds and floor,” according to Ambroz’s report.
Told of the investigator’s findings and conclusion before those details were made public, Danis was in disbelief.
“They didn’t know how to use the stove, then,” he said. “If they left it open as described, it’s no wonder.”
Asked to elaborate on how he felt knowing that the destruction of his beloved hut resulted from such blatant misuse of the stove — particularly after more than half a century without any such trouble — Danis took the high road. He shifted focus away from blame and back to the real reason people sleep atop mountains.
“Most importantly, it was always about the skiing,” he said. “Still is.”
Fate, flakes and friends
Danis’ first overnight at the stone hut occurred in 2005, with a small group brought together through a listserv for skiers hosted by Wright. Danis’ memory of the trip centers on one particular near-disaster on one of the steeper parts of Mount Mansfield.
“We went on an excursion to the Chin, where I slipped off the north face and had a harrowing slide before self-arresting,” Danis said. “With some help, I managed to climb back up and go on to ski Profanity and Hellbrook. I was a horrible skier back then.”
Danis and Wright have more than a few hut memories in common, and tops on the list is a stretch in January 2006 that sounds like something straight out of mountain lore. It all started when their “master plan” to reserve prime nights at the hut fell through at the 11th hour.
“Scott was reduced to frantic phone calling, speed dialing and holding endlessly until making it through during the first hours of the ‘first-come, first-served leftovers frenzy,’” Wright said.
Rather than locking up coveted spring skiing slots, they had to settle for a Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 25 and 26 — which Danis chalked up at the time to “Fate. Cruel fate.”
Wright’s journal-style recollection from there is as follows:
Tuesday, Jan. 24: A funny thing starts to happen, late in the day: it starts to snow.
Wednesday, Jan. 25: 7:45 a.m., first tracks. Plan was to go in for breakfast. Plans changed. Skied powder instead. Then skied more powder. Characters come and go across the set; we ski more and more.
Then a funny thing starts to happen, late in the day: it starts to snow. Again. Harder, harder, harder.
Thursday, January 26: 4:15 a.m., go outside. Still storming, visibility 15 feet. Yes, this is fate.
Couple more hours sleep, then at 7:45 a.m. it’s first tracks AGAIN. And then again and again and again and again and again. At 2 p.m. on a powder day, I’m still pulling runs out of my hat.
“Be kind to children and small animals, be generous to local charities, love your family and friends, and sometimes fate smiles down on you,” Wright said.
Maria Stadlmayer of Moretown also found that a seemingly unlucky reservation at the stone hut could be rewarded with an unforgettable experience – even on a night when sleeping on top of a mountain is probably the last thing on even the most dedicated skier’s mind.
“Some years back my friend won the lottery for a Wednesday night, (and) ended up with Christmas Eve – less than an ideal draw,” Stadlmayer said. “She invited all the Christmas orphans, and we did a yankee swap and potluck dinner. It wasn’t quite a full house, but it was full enough – and included two dogs.
“I recall it was a good snow year. I remember skiing out on Christmas morning before any other soul was on the mountain, looking up into the notch and feeling like I had the place all to myself.”
Among Danis’ most treasured on-mountain memories are similar moments of sublime solitude.
“Sunrise was always the most special,” Danis said. “Walking out alone before the lifts would turn; taking a sunrise ski run on fresh corduroy with no one else on the mountain.
“Also, the moment the lift stops and the last of patrol has left. Knowing I’m in my favorite place.”
That solitude could be fleeting, however. Even a planned solo stay at the hut rarely stayed that way. Danis said “friends and strangers would constantly drop in,” and he eventually made a rule that “as long as you kept the Hutmaster fed and properly ‘hydrated,’ you could stay as long as you want. Some did.”
Wright recounted an instance that would be nothing more than ordinary had it occurred on a neighborhood porch, but seems almost surreal given its alpine setting.
“It was February 2007, a solo Wednesday night all alone in my hut on my mountain – or so I thought,” Wright said. “There was a knock at the door. Some friends had climbed up the west side and dropped in for beers around 7 p.m. They stayed an hour or so, then headed back to Underhill – not an unusual occurrence at 3,650 feet.”
Phoenix from the ashes?
The stone hut’s future will ultimately be decided by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, the agency that owns it and manages its use. Commissioner Michael Snyder said Tuesday it would be “premature” to say any one course of action is likely, whether it be rebuilding the hut around what is left of it or demolishing and starting anew from foundation level.
Snyder said there has a been a “huge outpouring of support” in favor of rebuilding the hut, and he counts his voice as part of that chorus – in more than just his official capacity as its ultimate overseer.
“I myself have spent nights up there,” Snyder said. “On a personal level, as someone who has enjoyed it, I am hopeful and enthusiastic about finding a way to rebuild it – like it was, or maybe even better.”
There is a chance that the Christmas Eve blaze did so much damage to the structure that it is indeed gone for good. Trooper Ambroz notes in his report that “a structural assessment of the building will take place at a later date to determine if the integrity of the walls can handle the weight of rebuilding the roof and interior.”
Danis has concerns that the hut as he knew and loved it – a “happy place” for him and his daughters – may be gone forever, regardless of what happens. He said he is “not sure if the state will let it be built as it was, with regard to fire codes and building regulations.”
“I hope they rebuild it,” Danis said. “Too many people love that place not to. I can’t see it being the same, though.”
If the Hutmaster’s final chapter has indeed already been written, it is the perfect ending to the story:
“Last year in mid-April, on the last day of my five-night stint, was the perfect day,” Danis said. “A constant stream of skiers and riders were stopping by, and the skiing was perfect. The bumps were huge, the snow was soft and the sun was beaming. A big crew of my friends lingered well past closing, since the sun set hours after the lifts closed. One by one they all left, until it was just me.
“That was the last night I stayed in the hut.”
Adam White can be reached via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vtsportsguy.