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Francie’s Cabin sits 11,360 feet above sea level in the Crystal Basin south of Breckenridge. While at first glance that location may sound daunting to reach, it is actually one of the more accessible backcountry huts in Colorado. The cabin, which can accommodate 20 people, is situated less than two miles from the Spruce Creek trailhead and involves a hike or snowshoe of less than 1,000 vertical feet.
That convenience also means it is the most popular backcountry hut in the state. It sees an average of 3,424 visitors per year, and in its 28 years (it opened in 1994), the space has hosted more than 75,000 people. It’s booked nearly every night of the winter and every weekend of the summer.
“One thing that makes Francie’s special is that it enables relatively inexperienced people, or people who don’t have the ability to do longer approaches, to still have a real backcountry experience,” says Summit Huts Association executive director Josh Flenniken, adding that on a recent work visit to Francie’s, he met a three-generation family enjoying the hut together. “The grandparents had taken their kids there when they were young. They now have kids of their own, and all three generations were in the hut together. The grandfather said something like, ‘I wouldn’t be able to do anything too much tougher anymore, but I’m glad I got to ski up here with my kids and grandkids.’ That’s the legacy of a hut that has been around for almost 30 years.”
Francie’s Cabin’s tremendous popularity over the years also means it is slightly worse for wear. To ensure its durability, sustainability, and energy efficiency for many years to come, the Summit Huts Association, which operates the space, set out to raise $200,000 to complete renovation projects. At press time, the organization has received about 75 percent of the desired funds, which means it is still seeking donations.
What will the money go toward? Last fall, Summit Huts Association replaced the worn-out plywood floors with high quality hardwood in the bedrooms and hutmaster quarters. This summer, a full kitchen renovation is planned, including replacing the hut’s original tile countertops with stainless steel surfaces, installing energy-efficient cooktops and appliances, replacing original pine floors with new hickory hardwood in the common areas, and adding daylight-spectrum LED lighting.
Still need a reason to donate? Maybe the story of the hut’s namesake will help.
Born in 1953, Frances Lockwood Bailey grew up in Lake Placid, New York. As the daughter of a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper, she loved the outdoors from an early age. She moved to Breckenridge with her husband in the 1970s, where she was an avid skier, hiker, snowshoer, and beloved community member, as well as mother of three.
In 1989, however, she died in the famous United Flight 232 plane crash en route from Denver’s Stapleton Airport to Chicago O’Hare. Two of her children, Brandon Bailey, then age six, and his then three-year-old brother, were also aboard the same DC10 that crash landed Sioux City, Iowa. The pair survived, and despite their young age, they still have fond memories of their mother.
“I remember beach vacations, building sandcastles. I actually do remember sledding at Carter Park [in Breckenridge] and doing my first skiing there on a pair of Snoopy skis that strapped onto winter boots,” Brandon says. “I know she liked to do quite a bit of hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Backcountry back then was snowshoes or telemark skis, and accessibility to these areas was more challenging, but she made it happen.”
Following her death, the Summit Huts Association honored Francie by naming the new hut after her in 1994. “Francie was a friend, a lovely lady, great mother and family member,” says Tim Casey, co-founder of Summit Huts Association. “We lost her way too soon. When she had the tragic airline accident, we wanted to do something special to memorialize her involvement in the community.”
That spirit can still be felt nearly 30 years later. “Up at the cabin there’s some framed letters, things that people have written about my mom. What gets touched on is that kindness and generosity. The sense I get is that she had the ability to connect with all kinds of different people,” Brandon says, adding that the hut’s relatively easy-to-reach location paid homage to this trait, ensuring that backcountry visitors of all backgrounds could have access and enjoy it.
“Part of the site choice, design features, and considerations were to build a cabin that she would have approved of,” Brandon says. “Given her commitment as a mother and raising a family, having an accessible location for families would have been a requirement.”
Donations will ensure that continues to be the case. “The story of Francie resonates with me and so many others. To have this wonderful cabin, which caters so well to families, built in her memory, further testifies to her legacy as a woman who loved her family and the backcountry,” says Summit Huts Managing Director Karen Yule. “Personally, I love the aura of the cabin and feel that her spirit lives on in it. The aim is to keep it here for future generations to enjoy.”