GET OUT: Winter cabin inspection for Burt

By on February 3, 2015
The Death Canyon Cabin nestled in the snow. (Photo: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

The Death Canyon Cabin nestled in the snow. (Photo: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Sometimes I feel a striking need to go up Death Canyon. It’s not really for the skiing or the exercise or about the beautiful views or the fresh air. The reason I go up Death Canyon is to “check” on something to be sure it is still standing and no act of nature has taken it out. I figure I owe it to my friend, who has spent the last 50 summers working in the Tetons.

I cannot remember a summer in the Tetons without Burt Russell. Perhaps this is because I have never been alive to see it. Burt has been on the Grand Teton National Park trail crew for a long, long time. He started working in Death Canyon and staying at “the house” in the early 70s, and Burt continues to take responsibility for the care and upkeep of the Death Canyon Cabin every summer.

I’ve spent a couple of backcountry hitches up there at the cabin with Burt. Throughout the summers he paints the cabin, cleans it, patches up the doors and seals up the cracks. The Death Canyon Cabin is in fantastic condition because of this man. Picture the most in-shape 70-year-old you know climbing on ladders in the searing heat of summer to paint every inch of the cabin.

Each year, he scrubs down the cabin as if it is the last time he will ever see it. He works late, and rarely stops; at least I’ve never seen him stop. He moves so fast you can barely recognize there is a person around. He looks like a green and grey blur zipping about throughout the woods. Some may even mistake him for a fairy.

Anyway, to get back to my mission up Death Canyon, it was time for me to check on the cabin. It was time to take a look at the outside to be sure no wild animals were chewing on the logs or living on the roof and to give Burt an update with some pictures and cabin comments.

After convincing a friend to go with me on this jaunt, we made our way down the Phelps Lake moraine, keeping our skins on for some extreme free-heeling. From there, we cruised across the west side of the lake and made our way into the canyon.

Death Canyon is somewhat accessible if you enjoy creeks, willows and boulder fields, but even the smallest view up the canyon made the trip completely worth it.

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Prospector mountain beams a bright view in Death Canyon. (Photo: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

When we arrived at the place, it looked, well, very log cabin like. Snow was on the roof. Everything was in its place, but I did notice some unidentified prints on the roof. I documented this via iPhone camera to send to Burt. I also took a picture of the creek and the summer trail, just in case he was curious.

In just a few minutes, my documentation was done but my friend and I wanted to keep on wandering. From there we skied up Death Canyon and booted a couloir that looked good to us. The snow was excellent. It was a unique line that ended right above my favorite summer swimming hole. I began to lose myself in memories that occurred above freezing.

I remember swimming in that hole last summer and noticing a black bear jump in as I was getting out. I stood up and yelled, bear spray in hand but the bear saw me and ran away. That night, I told Burt about the bear as he was making dinner at the cabin. He knew the exact bear I was talking about and informed me that I need not worry because it was afraid of people.

Upon returning to civilization, down Death Canyon and back into cell reception, I sent Burt a picture of the cabin with animal tracks. Together, we concluded that it was probably just a squirrel and nothing too big to worry about. He thanked me for checking on it but told me to be very careful coming in and out of Death Canyon. Over the years, he has seen some large avalanches come down, so it might not be a good idea to venture there except on safe days.

After my brief texting conversation with Burt, I felt like I had done something productive. Not only had I provided a news update for someone who can’t be there, but I also came to a greater understanding of the importance and fun of just “checking on things” every once in a while. Maybe one day, if I’m on the trail crew for 50 years, some young chap can go up into the mountains in the winter and check on the things I care most about.

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