The Untouchables: Summit County hutmasters stick with dirty job for more than two decades
Dan Munyon 25+ years
Scott Toepfer 25+ years
Thane Wright 25+ years
Steve Huyler 20+ years
Willie Trowbridge 20+ years
Todd Rosko 15+ years
Devon O’Neil 6 years
Anne Gaspar 5 years
Ella Greene 2 years
Joe Howdyshell Rookie
Jeff Westcott Rookie
As they gather in a circle at the Summit Ski Museum in Breckenridge, Scott Toepfer, Steve Huyler and Willie Trowbridge mull the proper way to describe their roles as Summit County hutmasters.
The longtime locals are three of the longest-tenured hutmasters working for the Summit Huts Association. It’s a nonprofit organization that maintains the five backcountry cabins accessible only by non-motorized trails. Since the ’90s, all three of them estimate they’ve been out to the huts more than 200 times each.
Most trips require the hutmasters to execute a combination of janitorial work and carpentry skills. They also need a concierge’s flair with the huts’ guests. Considering these realities, the longest-tenured hutmaster of the group, Toepfer, offers up the first description of the job.
“We’re renaissance men,” he says.
“Yeah,” Trowbridge responds, “in a lot of ways, we probably are.”
Renaissance men would be one way of putting it. Another is to view the job, as Toepfer jokingly does, through the lens of the traditional caste system in India, considering how much of the hutmaster duties revolve around cleaning up poop. He jokes that, if the town of Breckenridge had a similar caste system, they’d be the Untouchables.
“We’d be the lowest caste,” Toepfer says to laughs from his longtime friends, “which is kind of cool being able to go around town, ‘I’m an Untouchable. I rake poop!’”
When the laughs subside, Toepfer focuses back in on the serious nature of the job. Of all of the gigs here in Summit County, hutmaster truly is unique. These three, and the eight others who work for the association, were picked because they possess the special versatility in skills needed to keep the remote, near-tree-line cabins miles away from civilization operating through the deepest and coldest of Rocky Mountain winters.
That’s just to be selected as a hutmaster. To work as they have for two-plus decades in this role while Mother Nature dishes out her worst at the remote cabins? That takes a special kind of Summit County grit.
“I take great pleasure, personally,” Trowbridge said. “I just love being out there in the winter. It’s quiet, peaceful, Boreas Pass is a nut fest in the summer. In the winter, you might not see a soul. As silly as it sounds, I love being a hutmaster. I love it all.”
Yes, Trowbridge loves it all, even the process of tending to the fecal matter of hut guests at his favorite hut, Section House. Atop Boreas Pass, the hardest part of working as a hutmaster at Section House is making sure that the typical Forest Service pit toilet that is detached from the hut stays in good shape.
That means Trowbridge and other hutmasters have to make sure the frozen cone of fecal matter doesn’t rise the six-plus feet through the vault and above the top of the toilet. To do so, Trowbridge uses what he calls “Cone-Be-Gone.” In reality, it’s just salt. When he first arrives at Section House, Trowbridge dumps salt onto the frozen poop cone. He said, if it’s a good day, by the time he returns to the cone hours later a simple chop will knock the frozen cone to the bottom of the vault. There, it remains until the autumn when the melted remains are sucked out before the next winter season begins.
Along with the toilets, the hutmasters also check to make sure each hut’s power system is good to go. The huts are powered by solar panels that require batteries that sometimes need to be changed out. Other than that, typical housekeeping duties like changing linens, stocking ordinary cleaning supplies and sweeping and buffing the floors are also required.
The work they do on each trip up to the hut is only the half of it. Aside from the five to 12 times hutmasters go up to a hut each year, there is also the pre-season preparation. At the heart of that process is the association’s “Copter Day.” Each autumn before the first big snowfall, the association contracts out a helicopter to fly in copious amounts of supplies to these remote locations. That means upwards of six to 10 cords of firewood at each hut as well as all of the propane tanks that will be used to help power the huts through the winter. Then, come winter, hutmasters on each trip shovel out the propane tanks to make sure each customer has exactly what they need.
Over the years, these longstanding hutmasters have also helped with bigger projects outside of their typical trips. Way back in the mid-90s, Toepfer first got Huyler involved in the huts when they used their carpentry skills to build the sauna at Francie’s Cabin. Since then, they and Trowbridge have also teamed up on projects such as redoing the deck at Janet’s Cabin and cleaning out the old fiber glass insulation at Francie’s Cabin after it was ravaged through the years by a hutmaster’s worst enemy: pack rats.
With Summit Huts ushering in their latest era with the opening of their new state-of-the-art Sisters Cabin just last month, Toepfer, Trowbridge and Huyler are all nearing their third decade of hutmaster work. All these years later, the trio more often than not sticks to their traditional Nordic or telemark skiing gear to get to and from the cabins. They’ve noticed times have changed for hut guests, though. More families. More snowshoers. More snowboarders.
Whoever it is on the other side of the door when they come knocking, the Summit hutmasters are still stoked to do their job.
“It’s a funny thing,” Trowbridge said, “you never know who’s going to be behind those doors. But we are always well-received.”