Summer is construction season all around the San Juan Mountains. And this year, saws are ripping and hammers are banging even in the normally quiet environs of Red Mountain Pass, which towers 11,018 feet above sea level.
Why? Because this summer has witnessed the construction of Red Mountain Alpine Lodge (RMAL) — which, its owners say, is designed to “serve as the ultimate year-round backcountry accommodation for discerning clientele.”
RMAL, which is scheduled to open in late December, sits a half-mile north of Red Mountain Pass in Ouray County — and about a mile away from St. Paul Lodge, which was built in 1974 just south of the pass in San Juan County.
According to co-owner Nate Disser, RMAL “will bring a more Canadian lodge feel to the area.” Backcountry lodges in Canada are known for their amenities, and Disser touted RMAL’s “gourmet eats, its bar/tavern, running water, three showers, flushing toilets, wood-burning sauna and in-floor heat.”
Red Mountain Alpine Lodge will feature three private rooms that each sleep up to four people and a large loft that can sleep nine. A year-round operation, the lodge will cater to backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers in winter, and hikers cyclists, bikers and jeepers in summer.
Disser — also the owner of San Juan Mountain Guides in Ouray — said he’s been dreaming of opening a backcountry ski lodge for decades. He said his San Juan Mountain Guides business partner, Mark Iuppenlatz, “started buying hundreds of acres of mining claims and private property over the course of the last five years” to provide a site for the lodge, and the co-owners broke ground unexpectedly early, in May.
“For us, a silver lining to last winter’s lousy snow season was a longer build season,” Disser said Monday. “We’ve got the roof on, and the timber frame is up and the floors are done.”
Red Mountain Alpine Lodge is located just off of U.S. Highway 550 and Ouray County Road 31, a one-minute walk from the highway. Sven Brunso — former marketing director of Durango Mountain Resort and a longtime veteran of the ski industry — said, “The nice thing about this spot is that it sits down in the trees so it is protected from the wind and has endless options for skiing right out the door, with lots of great storm skiing and lower-angle tree lines for times when avy danger is higher.”
Southwest Colorado’s backcountry aficionados consider the Red Mountain Pass area something of a Utopia due to its steep lines and annual snowfall of 300-500 inches. When Chris George, an esteemed British mountain guide, built St. Paul Lodge here in 1974, he picked the right spot.
George staged speed-skiing events nearby during that sport’s heyday in the 1980s and helped establish the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, still headquartered here.
Skiing magazine described St. Paul as: “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.”
Reaching St. Paul requires a one-mile, 350-vertical-foot climb from Red Mountain Pass. Ophir Pass’ OPUS Hut, meanwhile, demands a 3.5-mile hike/skin in winter.
“RMAL fills a niche because it has some of the amenities places like OPUS and St Paul Lodge don’t offer,” Brunso said. “I love OPUS and appreciate the fact that it takes some effort to get there, but there are also times when I don’t have 90 minutes to skin up to OPUS before it gets dark. I can now leave Durango at 5 p.m., park on Red Mountain Pass at 6:30 and be drinking a cold beer in the lodge by 6:35. I am fine going without hot showers as needed, but sometimes they just hit the spot.”
According to the Winter Wildlands Alliance, Americans now spend over $4.8 billion each year on equipment, clothing, and services related to non-motorized winter recreation — a trend that thrills Disser.
“We are huge supporters of human-powered recreation,” he said. “We’re really trying to push that here in this beautiful, pristine area.”
Costs to stay at Red Mountain Alpine Lodge start at $134 per person per night. For more information, visit redmountainalpinelodge.com.