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The Hull Cook Journals: The Cabin

April 7, 2010 Hike 2 Comments

The Boulderfield Shelter Cabin, at ca. 12,750 feet on Longs Peak. This European-style mountain hut served meals and housed guests from 1927 to 1936.

Hull Cook worked at the Boulderfield Shelter Cabin on Longs Peak during the summers of 1932, 1933, and 1934. These are his stories.

“Hooray, the Boulderfield at last! Level ground for a change.” That was the average climber’s reaction as he topped the final rounded rise of ground, high above Granite Pass, and beheld the nearly square-mile basin of jumbled rock that was the Boulderfield. He could now enjoy an unobstructed view of the famous Keyhole and the entire North Face. He was more than 12,000 feet above sea level. But where was the hotel? Then someone would see the distant small cube of granite masonry that was the Boulderfield Shelter Cabin.

“Don’t tell me that’s the hotel! That cracker box surely can’t be a hotel!” But it was.

As hotels go, ours was tiny and Spartan. We called it “the cabin.” There was no electricity and no running water, unless you ran while carrying it from the spring. There was also almost no privacy. It was a two-story structure, the upper floor accessed by a ladder hinged to the ceiling of the ground-floor room. By Hilton standards it was indeed small, only 14 by 18 feet, so the space had to be efficiently utilized. Upstairs, springs and mattresses were placed directly on the floor, three on each side of the stair hole, and above the stair hole was a double-decker single bed. This arrangement could accommodate 14 people in relative comfort, unless someone had to go to the bathroom during the night, in which case comfort might be called into question. He or she would have to stumble over fellow sleepers, descend the ladder and seek relief outdoors, presumably making the effort to follow the dark rocky trail to the distant privy. No lights. Possession of matches or flashlight was desirable even to find the place, and to obviate the need for a somewhat unsanitary old-fashioned pot, and although canvas curtains could be drawn between the beds, there would have been few people with the callous temerity to use it in such a setting of crowded togetherness. If you rolled over you were apt to find yourself in bed with a stranger, possibly not all that bad if it happened to be someone of the opposite sex.

Inside the cabin. A wind-up Victrola provided music.

On the ground floor, in one corner, was a double-decker double bed that increased the overall sleeping capacity to 18. There was also the “bridle suite,” about 100 feet from the hotel building. It was part of the horse stable, a stone shed about 80 feet long that was completely open on one side, except for a small enclosed room at each end. The room at the far end was the privy; the near end was the bridle suite, containing horse gear and feed, and a double bed where two or three of the Boulderfield crew slept when the hotel building was full. When really pressed for sleeping space we could apologetically put three in each double bed upstairs and four in the double-decker single. Then, with three in the bridle suite and a crew member on each of the toboggan mats, plus six in the double-decker double, we were able to sleep a total of 34. On one occasion we housed (I’ll not say slept) 46 very wet and cold members of the Colorado Mountain Club, but several were lying on the floor and two on the dining table. Climbers and fishermen will jokingly endure phenomenal hardships in pursuit of their hobby, when at home they might act more like the princess who complained about the pea under a stack of mattresses.

On the ground floor in the corner opposite the double-decker double bed was a wood- and coal-burning cook stove, and to the right of it a small kerosene stove. To the left was an inadequate workbench for the preparation of food. A six-foot horizontal storage chest sat on each of three sides of that room, and each of these was covered with a toboggan mat so that it could double as a bench. During daytime hours the ladder for upstairs access was swung up and fastened to the ceiling to give the ground floor the illusion of spaciousness.

The privy at the far end of the stable was a four-holer, two and two, male and female, separated by a partition but serving a common pit that shared bouquet and sound impartially back and forth. Some spillage of urine evidently occurred on the seats, because marmots were attracted by the residual salt. They gnawed on the rims of the seats, rendering them splintery and most uncomfortable, so that at rather frequent intervals we had to “sand” them smooth. Lacking sandpaper, we used a piece of granite rock, a relatively satisfactory substitute. The main disadvantage here was that over time the combined actions of rockchuck and chunk-of-rock gradually increased the size of the hole to where a slender patron might conceivably become jammed to the elbows in a tightly doubled-up position, clutched in the teeth of the jagged maw from which extrication would require outside aid. I never was called upon to perform such a rescue, but the prospect was sobering.

Our unique hostelry was leased from the National Park Service by Bob and Dorothy Collier, who hired a few young men to do most of the work. I happened to be there during the seasons of 1932, 1933, and 1934. In addition to offering food and shelter to all climbers, the Colliers’ main interest was that of providing guide service (for a small fee) to those who desired a little professional supervision in climbing Longs Peak. Our typical client would come up trail in time for dinner (a feast), stay overnight, have a hearty breakfast, climb the peak, devour our sack lunch on top, return to the Bouderfield, and go back down trail in the afternoon. For all of this he would pay ten dollars. When Bob was there he would do his share of guiding and cooking, but much of the time he was off to Europe as a tour guide. If neither he nor Dorothy were present, it was all up to us boys. The Park Service was supposed to get a small percentage of the profits, but they apparently realized that the profit margin was too small for them to bother with demanding a share; hence they never checked on Bob’s rather creative bookkeeping.

When Dorothy (Mrs. Collier) was present she would take charge of the kitchen, and working in that cramped space did not curtail her ability to put out wonderful food. She taught us boys to cook so that we could take over when she was absent, as she frequently was. Cooking at high altitude differs from cooking at sea level. At Boulderfield water boiled at 189° Fahrenheit, as I recall, necessitating modification in some baking recipes and a drastic change in cooking times for boiled foods. Navy beans were still crunchy after boiling for 12 hours, so for most boiled foods we used a pressure cooker.

Proof of Dorothy’s ability to teach cooking was manifested by the many compliments we boys received on our preparations, although it could be argued that after struggling up that long trail to Boulderfield a person might be sufficiently famished to tackle the south end of a skunk. One of our favorite meals consisted of soup, Virginia-baked ham glazed with brown sugar and “hob-nailed” with whole cloves, this accompanied by sweet potatoes and some other vegetable, hot biscuits, canned fruit, home-made pie, and coffee or tea. When making pies I liked to use an empty .22 cartridge for punching vent holes in the top crust because they made such neat round holes. Nobody ever left our table hungry.

Our water supply was a seep hole about 150 feet away that derived its clear, cold water from the dove-shaped snow and ice field on the North Face. There was no wood nearby, as we were three miles from the nearest tree. Wood and coal, gasoline for the lamps, kerosene for the oil stove, laundry, food, and all other supplies (except what we might carry ourselves) were packed in to the hotel on our donkeys: Jake and Dammit. Dammit was so named to save breath when shouting orders.

Our hotel boasted a telephone, the old hand-cranked kind that required batteries. It was housed in a large wall cabinet, and clung tenuously to the upper end of a wire whose lower terminus, several miles below, connected us unreliably to civilization. During electrical storms, balls of lightning were occasionally seen zooming along this wire. When using the phone, we enjoyed the illusion of safety by standing on a small platform that had for supporting legs four large glass insulators that diminished the danger of grounding. However, during electrical storms no one touched the phone.

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Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Clare Cone says:

    Was Dorothy struck by lightning up there ? Is that to follow is subsequent stories ? I was just yesterday telling my 9 year old daughter the story about the cabin and couldn’t recall what happened to Dorothy (or Bob) I know someone female who “ran” the cabin was killed by lightning – not sure who ? Love these stories – keep up the good work !

  2. MoJo says:

    Yes, Dorothy Collier was struck by lightning inside the cabin, but she was not killed. Merrrill Mattes, another Longs Peak guide, said she was hanging a pair of crampons over a steel rod inside when the lightning struck. She was knocked out and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, and had then had to be carried out to the road the next day. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Denver but eventually recovered completely.

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