What does it take to thrill a serious outdoor adventurer in Aspen? A backcountry trek, by foot or by ski. Destination: the huts located deep in the mountain woods.
ASPEN, Colorado – As I strapped the avalanche beacon to my body, I realized this was serious backcountry skiing. Was I ready for it?
As a Colorado resident transplanted from the Deep South, I had more ambition than experience in the snowy wilderness. But an avalanche safety class and a group of knowledgeable friends gave me the confidence to head out on my first hut trip.
Colorado is home to several systems of backcountry huts that are reachable in the summer by hiking and biking and in the winter by skiing or snowshoeing. The 34 huts in the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association are widely recognized as some of the best in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
The most extensive of the Colorado ski hut systems, it was formed in the 1980s by several Aspen skiers, including 10th Mountain Division veteran Fritz Benedict. The name 10th Mountain honors the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army who trained in Colorado. Five of the huts were built with donations from family and friends as a memorial to the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who died in World War II.
The huts may be very basic (think bunk rooms for communal sleeping, photo-voltaic lighting, a wood-burning stove, cooking utensils, and an outhouse), but they achieve Taj Mahal-like status when the journey to reach them is, on average, six or seven miles and climbs roughly 2,000 feet in elevation. The huts can be strung together for an epic journey — a "hut-to-hut trip" in local parlance — or single huts can be accessed for a one or two-night adventure.
Fittingly, my first hut trip was to McNamara Hut, which was one of the first huts built in the 10th Mountain system. The hut is located just ten miles from downtown Aspen and is a great option for those looking to combine a backcountry experience trip with resort skiing at one of Aspen/Snowmass' four local mountains. My hike to McNamara was a six-mile trek through aspen groves – just enough for me to reach exhaustion from carrying my sleeping bag, food, clothing, and beverages on my back. Just when I thought I couldn't hike any farther, the cozy wooden hut appeared in all its isolated, cell phone reception-free glory. While the trek to the hut is stunning, it's the skiing that brings most people there. McNamara has access to intermediate ski touring on Bald Knob, and experts can strike out on long tours east towards the Continental Divide.
While I get the attraction of backcountry skiing, it isn't what keeps me heading into the wilderness. I now have five more hut trips under my belt, and what draws me back is the camaraderie of joining my friends in a journey few will ever experience.
It's the solitude of knowing we're the only humans for miles and miles. It's seeing the Milky Way on a clear night. It's carefully planning the delicious meals my friends and I will attempt on the wood-burning stove, and daring each other to see who can carry the most wine.
With my pack on my back, my friends at my side, and my lungs full of the cleanest mountain air, I feel nothing but peace and an unbelievable gratitude for the world around me.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Safety First: This isn't a spontaneous trip. You have to plan. 10th Mountain Division Huts has all the information you'll need. And be sure to check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center before embarking on any backcountry activity.
Guides: Don't have a group of experienced friends to go with? Professional guide services are available. Aspen Alpine Guides and Aspen Expeditions are great options.
Footwear: If you're going when it's warm, you'll need good hiking boots. If you're going in the snow, you'll need snowshoes, cross-country skis, telemark skis, or alpine touring skis with climbing skins that allow the wearer to ascend snow-covered slopes. Rentals are available. In Aspen, check out Ute Mountaineer.
Everything else: You will need a sturdy pack to carry a sleeping bag, food, water for the hike (you can melt snow and boil the water at the hut for additional drinking water), clothes and other personal items, a detailed topographic map and a compass (and the ability to use them), as well as an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel in the winter.
The Platypus PlatyPreserve Wine Preservation System is an excellent way to bring your favorite bottle of vino into the wilderness without the extra weight.
Reserve early. Huts can fill up fast, especially over holiday weekends. Huts vary in size, but most sleep around 16.
Bring duct tape and other blister repair gear, as well as basic first aid items.
Purchase a Colorado Search and Rescue Card. For the cost of the card ($3), it will cover any search and rescue fees incurred by the local sheriff's office if you or anyone in your group gets lost.