MAX ELEVATION: 13,321 feet MAX VERTICAL DROP: 2,500 feet AVERAGE VERTICAL PER DAY: 3,000 feet price: $95 per day for lodging and three meals Getting There: Parking is on the east side of Red Mountain Pass (11,100 feet) off Highway 550. From there, you'll ski in one mile and 330 vertical feet to the lodge. Info: 970-387-5367
Beta: A synthesis of American and European skiing, St. Paul Lodge is like a Swiss Haute Route hut plopped in the John Wayne scenery of southwest Colorado. Sitting atop one of the San Juan Mountains' countless mines, it's a funky, rustic structure built in 1974 by Chris George, an esteemed British mountain guide. George had climbed in the Alps, the Andes, and Afghanistan before buying the mining claim at 11,440 feet. He wanted to operate a hut where skiers could overnight and tourists could trek up the one-mile, 350-vertical-foot path from Red Mountain Pass for gourmet lunches.
So far, so good. St. Paul had its biggest success during the cross-country skiing boom of the early '80s. Although the bloom vanished from that rose a billion kicks-and-glides ago, St. Paul is becoming increasingly popular these days among vert-and-pow-hungry backcountry skiers. The lodge, poised among endless stashes, is within easy access of U.S. Basin, a yawning bowl rimmed by 12,500-foot peaks. Daylong outings can gain 13,321-foot Trico Peak. During blizzards, skiers run laps in the conifers and aspen of Bighorn Gulch. Throw in the copious snowfall and long season (Christmas to April), and you get earn-your-turns holy land.
With no snowcats or helis to ferry your duff uphill, St. Paul is not for the weak of leg or lung-though it's surprisingly comfortable once you get there. It's also somewhat of an institution in Colorado skiing: George staged speed-skiing events nearby during that sport's heyday in the '80s and helped establish the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, still headquartered here. Over time, St. Paul Lodge has introduced the San Juans at their snowiest to Durango school kids, U.S. Army Special Forces, Chamonix physicists, internationally known avy experts, gamy Colorado telemarkers, and little old German damen. Says George, "You never know who's gonna come through the door."
Red Mountain sucks a stunning 300 to 500 inches out of east- and northbound storms. Coverage is never a worry, but instability is: The San Juans are notoriously slide-prone. Fortunately, the surrounding peaks offer lower-angled alternatives should conditions demand. (Call the Colorado Avalanche Information Center at 970-247-8187.)
McMillan Peak (12,804 feet), located just east, and Ohio Peak (12,673 feet), just south, are the marquee tours. Both promise 1,200-foot vertical lines mixed with fun knobs and sub-peaks.
The Southern Rockies don't get any better: 300-plus clear days giving way to fast (but powerful) storms. The altitude preserves snow and keeps rain at bay.
Though St. Paul is ideal for independent tourers, it offers guiding to those not familiar with the San Juans. You'll follow only George, who instructs for the American Avalanche Institute and once guided for the British Mountaineering Association.
Unlike its Haute Route counterparts, the lodge features a sauna and hot showers (a nearby spring provides plenty of running water). It's a warm, worn place, furnished with antlers, prayer flags, old books, and gas lanterns (there's no electricity). Guests-up to 25 of them-sleep in dorm rooms and eat family-style.
George is a Renaissance man. Not only did he build St. Paul himself, he's also a professionally trained chef who once cooked for Charlie Chaplin. For you, he'll make hearty spinach lasagna, shepherds pie, and flapjacks with bacon.
Thanks to St. Paul's relatively large size, last-minute reservations are a possibility, though New Year's and Presidents' Day weekend usually sell out.
The terrain here-wide, mostly treeless expanses of unmanaged snow-demands fat skis. So get the skins built for them: The Ascension GlideLite STS skins ($115; 100mm) come as wide as 120mm and are easily adjusted, thanks to a camming device and a stretchy elastomer strap.