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Thursday, March 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GET OUT

Rendezvous Huts offer softer side to Methow ski touring

Seattle Times staff reporter

ABOVE MAZAMA, Okanogan County - They've got a name for us: "soft adventurers."

The travel industry slaps that label on we who like our sleeping bags dry each morning, our wildlife a binocular's distance away and our backcountry recipes a bit more artful than "tear bag, add hot water, enjoy."

Don't toss out your camp stool in shame, you of tender foot. While the grizzled few are lying in dripping snow caves and feeling superior, enjoy a backcountry trip without hardship by heading to the Rendezvous Huts of the Methow Valley.

Sprinkled about every five miles along the cross-country ski trails of the Rendezvous area, they form a unique Nordic "Haute Route" of sorts - and a place to dry socks, craft a gourmet meal and rediscover the solace of near-wilderness.

The Methow boasts the second-largest nexus of groomed cross-country ski trails in the nation, but it only sees about 30,000 skiers annually. The loneliest of the Methow's lonesome trails are those that climb about 1,500 feet up the valley's eastern shoulder. Most skiers' only companion as they huff up Fawn Creek is the wind's tuneless whistle through stands of red-skinned ponderosa.

There's good reason for that peace and quiet: Rendezvous' roughly 27 miles of trails are a bit off the beaten track, and they're steep - no flat-as-Kansas green trails, as in Mazama. In three days, we saw only a few other cabin-dwellers, and a handful of ruthlessly fit locals on a morning's skate-ski up and over Rendezvous Pass, their legs looking like lean sausage in Lycra casing.

As for the huts themselves: Check your expectations at the trailhead. "The first thing we tell people: `They're not like the 10th Mountain Huts,' " Colorado's system of well-appointed chalets near Vail, said Jay Lucas, executive director of the nonprofit Methow Valley Sport Trails Association and one of five owners of the hut system.

The cabins are framed plywood affairs, usually with a loft for sleeping, and a lower room for eating, board-gaming and arguing about whose snoring rattled the walls most the previous night. But the cord-wood is abundant, the cast-iron woodstove could heat Minnesota and the cabin has everything from sleeping pads to cookware, propane lights and stove.

Add a service that hauls in gear via snowmobile for an extra fee and "it's very cushy," Lucas said. "You can bring luxuries that you don't normally need."

We met the freight-hauling snowmobile on Saturday morning of a long weekend, dumped our cache and made the three-and-a-half-hour ski up Cow Creek to Rendezvous Hut, our home for two nights.

After unpacking, we lazed in the trademark margarine light of a Methow afternoon and dreamed of dinner.

That night we tucked into plate-sized sirloins and looked out at a view that even a $100 dinner at Canlis couldn't trump: Looking east, most huts' front windows frame a congress of distinguished peaks like Hoodoo, Silver Star and Gardner Mountain. That night, we skied without headlamps under a full moon to an overlook off the Cougar Mountain Loop, where the Cascades were rinsed in mercury light.

Skiers commonly favor one hut over another, but each hut has something to recommend it:

-- The Heifer Hut is set deep in the woods; it's a good first night's stay for families and novice skiers.

-- Gardner Hut can sleep 10 and may be the nicest hut, both in construction and central location.

-- Not far away, the Rendezvous Hut shares similar views and is near backcountry skiing on Rendezvous Mountain.

-- At the end of a spur trail, Cassal Hut has perhaps the best telemark skiing, right outside the front door, along with in-your-face panorama of North Gardner peak and the rest of the toothy North Cascades.

-- Fawn Hut is the closest to Mazama via an unrelenting trail up Lower Fawn Creek. More than one Jell-O-legged skier has wept with joy at finding the cabin and the drinking water inside.

Nordic and skate-skiing aren't the only options here: You can use the snowmobile freight-haul service to pack in snowshoes and telemark skis, to explore the skiing found off 5,481-foot Rendezvous Mountain, 6,577-foot Fawn Peak and around Cassal Hut.

After finding fresh powder five days after the last storm, we all agreed that paying to have our downhill skis delivered to our cabin door showed wisdom beyond our years.

And as we skied home, there was consensus about one more thing: If this be soft adventure, we'll learn to live with the label.

Chris Solomon's phone message number is 425-745-7804. His e-mail address is: csolomon@seattletimes.com

------------------------- If you go:

Most of the five Rendezvous Huts can accommodate eight people. Winter 1999-2000 rates are $25 per person per night, or $150 per night for exclusive use of a hut. Some discounts are available for midweek and family stays.

Each freight haul of gear and food costs $75 for up to 500 pounds.

Prices do not include ski trail passes, which cost $14 daily this season. Three-day passes are $33.

For more information and reservations, call 800-257-2452, or Central Reservations at 800-422-3048. The huts' Web Site, www.methow.com/huts, is required reading.

To get there: From Everett, take Highway 2 east to Wenatchee. Take Highway 2/97 north to Pateros, then take Highway 153 to Twisp, where 153 becomes Highway 20 and heads north to Winthrop. Trailhead parking for the Rendezvous ski trails is 13 miles northwest of Winthrop, near Mazama, or about seven miles up the West Chewuch Road and Cub Creek Road.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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