Since moving back to Colorado last August, I’ve actively tried to gain more experience in backcountry pursuits. I’ve been a downhill skier all my life, but prohibitive costs and weekend warrior traffic are a drag. At this point in my life, I also find more enjoyment in the contemplative, peaceful nature of snowshoeing and nordic skiing.
My ultimate goal for the backcountry has always been to explore Colorado’s extensive and historic 10th Mountain Division Huts. It’s a long-standing source of shame that I’ve lived in this state off-and-on for 17 years, and have never stayed in a hut (pictured: McNamara Hut).
The non-profit hut system was established in the early ’80s by 10th Mountain Division veteran Fritz Benedict and a handful of other Aspen locals. Its origins date back to pre-World War II, however, when the U.S. War Department began training mountain troops for combat. Camp Hale, located near Colorado’s Eagle River Valley, was selected as the army training grounds for over 11,000 men, in December, 1942.
In January, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division found themselves in Italy, where, according to the website, “they played a crucial role in several battles.” During this time, many of the Division had developed a shared love of the mountains and Colorado. Post-war, a number of 10th Mountain vets settled here; some were instrumental in the founding of ski towns such as Vail and Aspen.
The hut system is in part a memorial to the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, and some of the early huts were built with donations from the family and friends of fallen vets. Today, the huts rely upon donations (click here to contribute) for construction, maintenance, and operation, which help to keep overnight fees low. The average bed runs about $30/night; it’s also possible to book the entire hut for a flat fee. It’s best to make reservations months in advance since the huts fill up, but if you become a member (fees range from $25/year to $1,000/lifetime), you’ll be able to participate in the 10th Division reservations lottery, and book early.
The 10th Mountain manages and takes reservations for all 29 of their off-the-grid huts. They’re connected by 350 miles of suggested routes, and range from cabins located fairly close to trailheads, to serious backcountry locales. Some of the huts are owned and operated by the Braun and Friends hut systems, near Aspen, as well as Summit Huts Association, near Breckenridge; information on all can be found on the 10th Mountain website, huts.org.My interest in the huts goes back to childhood; my dad is a WWII vet, and prior to enlisting, his dream was to be part of the 10th Mountain so that he could ski and work with horses (along with mules, the animals were used to transport gear and explosives over the Alps). Instead, he joined the infantry, and moved to Colorado to attend veterinary school at Colorado A & M (now CSU) on the G.I. bill.
Today, at 86, Dad is one of the world’s foremost experts on equine medicine and behavior, and until a couple of years ago, he was still skiing. My love of Colorado must be in my DNA, because my parents met at A & M, and I grew up skiing in Colorado (Dad, along with a few colleagues, also founded the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association, or SVMA, over 50 years ago; like him, it’s still going strong). So. My need to do a hut trip has perhaps been biological imperative.
In the final days of 2012, I visited Crested Butte with the express purpose of learning how to do alpine touring (AT). It’s a discipline of nordic skiing that involves wider skis with convertible bindings, which enable you to ski on a “fixed” or “free” heel. The boots can also be switched into “walk” or “ski” mode. In traditional cross-country skiing, unlike downhill skiing, only the toe is fixed to the binding, and the skis are narrower.
You can tour uphill with the aid of “skins,” which are self-adhesive, reusable fitted liners that adhere to the bottom of your skis. The outer surface has a fibrous covering, which provides traction so that your skis don’t slip. When you’re ready to ski downhill, you peel off the skins, and away you go.
Note that ideally, you should never attempt any backcountry pursuit alone, or at least not without having your avalanche certification. Plenty of people do it, and every season sees totally preventable deaths (see end of story for tips, and where to get certified).
To give AT a try, I hooked up with Crested Butte Mountain Guides (photos above and below, owner Jayson Simon-Jones) for a half-day trip ($125), led by part-time guide Amy Stevens. Amy is adorable, but also admirably tough (ask her to tell you about her fall from an 80-foot cliff some time). She schooled me on AT basics, and we embarked on a four-mile round-trip tour of the backcountry of the Snodgrass Trail, just past the ski area of Mt. Crested Butte.
It was a glorious, two-hour skin up to the Lookout, which provided us with a view of the tiny town of Crested Butte and surrounding peaks. By contrast, the trip down took a matter of minutes, since we were effectively downhill skiing. I was hooked, and immediately began plotting how I could do a hut trip, given my lack of experience.
Fast-forward to early March. I’d enlisted Scott Messina, longtime field operator for the 10th Mountain and an employee of Aspen Alpine Guides, to take me and a fellow hut-virgin, E, on an AT trip to the McNamara Hut, outside of Aspen. One of the first of two original huts, McNamara was built in 1982 as a memorial to Margy McNamara, whose husband, the late Robert McNamara, served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. It sleeps 16 on its two floors (which include bunk and single beds, and one private double).
After meeting at the 10th Mountain office in Aspen, Scott drove us a few miles up Red Mountain Road to the Upper Hunter Creek trailhead, in the White River National Forest. The hut itself is just under five miles away, in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness, at 10,306 feet. A recent dump meant there was loads of snow, making this a particularly scenic trip.
We could only stay one night because the beds were booked, but it was enough to provide us with a taste. E and I both share bad backs, so our primary concern was how we’d fare packing in our sleeping bags and other gear, as well as food. The huts are solar-powered, with gas cooking equipment and compost toilets in the outhouses. You source water by melting snow in huge stockpots atop the wood-burning stoves (at right, Jackal hut, similar in appearance to McNamara)
The trip in, mostly uphill, is considered intermediate. E and I quickly overheated and shed layers every 10 minutes, but we were entranced by the beauty of our surroundings. We skinned through snow-covered meadows, into aspen groves, and up through forest thick with spruce, Douglas fir, and Lodgepole pine. There were bear claw marks on trees and ermine prints in the snow. This time of year, much of the wildlife is hibernating or lying low, but the McNamara is actually one of the few huts closed in summer because it’s in the midst elk calving grounds (it’s open Thanksgiving through April 30). As we climbed, Scott told us about the moose he’d seen the previous weekend in the nearby Maroon Bells.
We arrived at the hut– a most welcome site if ever there was one– approximately four hours after setting out. The first to arrive, we shoveled snow, lit the stove, and hauled in buckets of snow for water. The hut itself was more than just functional: it was a cozy wooden cabin that reflected the conviviality that defines the hut trip experience. There were rows of built-in beds; communal dining tables; a book shelf and board games, and an open kitchen. The outhouse was outside on a small back deck, and a side room was stacked full of cords of wood.
While we changed into warm, dry clothes and got settled, our hutmates began to straggle in. It had started to snow, and the sun was setting. We ended up with a friendly group of six snowshoers and skiers, and by night’s end, we were sharing our food and drink. I put together a cheese plate; handcrafted elk sausage was passed around; wine was poured, and beers were cracked. As the snow outside intensified, we sat around talking the outdoor life. Two of the group, a young couple, had spent the previous night sleeping in snow cave they’d dug (by choice). “It only took a few hours,” the female half of the couple said. Talk about a match made in heaven.
For dinner, I prepared a pasta dish for E and Scott (as a food writer, I had to prove to myself that it’s possible to eat well on a hut trip, even when one has a crapped-out back) While we cleaned up, the other groups moved in to prepare their dinners. Later, two young women prepared S’mores to order for the rest of us using the wood-burning stove (my eternal devotion to these ladies).
That generosity is characteristic of the hut trip mentality. Sure, people visit for romantic getaways (if sharing a cabin with up to 14 other people can be considered as such) or for a solo escape. You certainly don’t have to mingle or be an extrovert, but you’ll likely be depriving yourself of some great conversation and experiences if you don’t. It’s so rare these days to connect to other people in an environment that prohibits the beeping, blinking, ringing, honking distractions of daily life. A hut stay, for lack of any other description, is pure.
The next morning, we powered down breakfasts of instant oatmeal mixed with almond butter (my pre-hardcore workout fave), and looked in wonder from the front porch at the thick frosting of powder that coated the trees. Scott suggested we skin up the north face of Bald Knob, nearly 1,000 feet up from where we stood, so that we could have a downhill sesh before heading back to the trailhead. Despite E’s and my initial doubts about skinning a steep ascent, Scott was, as always, patient and encouraging, and distracted us with information about flora, fauna, and avi safety (he teaches certification classes). Before we knew it, we’d reached the summit.
It was thoroughly rewarding. We could look down upon the entire valley, and over the Elk Mountains. There was also a front moving in, so we stripped off our skins, converted our bindings and boots, and thigh-burned our way through unmarked powder back down to the hut.
By the time we made it back to our truck at the trailhead, it was a white-out, but that’s honestly the time I most enjoy running and cross-country pursuits (as opposed to downhill, in which I’m an utter wuss about weather). It’s like I’m in my own country, a place where the only sound is the whoosh of my feet moving through drifts of snow, and my own breath. For just a brief moment, the world is muffled and still, but my connection to it is far more tangible than that of my daily life spent behind a computer. It feels like a good day to be alive.
How to safely experience the backcountry
Avalanches occur due to the convergence of a series of conditions. Never treat a backcountry outing casually, especially when these conditions are ripe.
If you’re not experienced at backcountry pursuits, get a guide or go with friends who have certification.
Always check conditions and let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back before heading out.
Have the proper avi gear with you, with will include a shovel, beacon, and probe.
Depending upon where you live, get a backcountry rescue card. The 10th Mountain offers CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue) for $3.00/year, or $12.00/five years. To quote their site, “Money generated from the sale of these cards goes to the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund, which then provides reimbursement for expenses incurred during search and rescue missions.” It can not only mean the difference between life and death; it can save you and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of a mishap. It’s the cost of a PBR; no excuses!
[Photo credits: McNamara and Jackal huts, 10th Mountain Division; skiers, Jayson Simon-Jones; aspen backcountry, Flickr user KR1212; Bald Knob, Laurel Miller; white-out, Flickr user Cangul]