Colorado ''s 10 th Mountain Huts Give Visitors the Best of the Backcountry
By Paul Baldwin
What could be wrong with the typical weekend at a ski resort? You spend a few hours going up on a ski lift and heading down the slopes. You unwind in a hot tub; the restaurants are exceptional; the shopping is swell and the accommodations outstanding.
But as your ski-lift chair hauls you up the slopes for another descent, the mountains in the distance beckon. You''ve always wanted to give backcountry skiing a try. Maybe next season. After all, the hot tub is waiting.
Don Burch understands such affection for top-tier skiing. He''s been hitting the slopes at world-class resorts like Vail and Aspen , Colo. for years. But the Quest Outdoors store co-owner also has also developed a love for Colorado ''s backcountry as a regular visitor to the state''s 10 th Mountain hut system.
"Anyone who likes backpacking or being out in the wild.this is sort of the ultimate winter experience," Burch said. "I love being in the mountains in the winter. All you can hear is a little bit of the breeze and your heartbeat."
Colorado ''s 10 th Mountain hut system is named in honor of the U.S. Army''s 10 th Mountain Division, which trained in the state''s Eagle River Valley during World War II. Sandwiched between Vail and Aspen , most of the huts are between 9,700 and 11,700 feet in elevation, which can be a test for even the most experienced skier.
"The altitude is always a challenge," said Jim Straus, 57, who has made nearly a dozen trips to 10 th Mountain with Burch and other Louisville-area residents during the past 10 years. "The typical climb from a trailhead would be a couple thousand feet."
Since 1982, 29 huts have been built in the same area, offering crosscountry skiers access to the states rugged, high-altitude backcountry. The first two 10 th Mountain huts - the McNamara and the Margy''s - were funded by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and built as memorials to McNamara''s wife, Margy. Since then, other huts have been built as memorials to those who loved skiing in the mountains of Colorado and those who founded the hut system.
Depending on the weather, skiers can expect to spend up to a day traveling from one hut to another. However, skiers in relatively good shape can complete many of the routes in a few hours, said Oldham County resident Prewitt Lane , 54, who has made several trips to 10 th Mountain.
"This is not just a mountain climbing death march," Lane said. "There are difficult stretches, but if one takes it at their own pace, it''s comfortable."
Although calling the dwellings "huts" might evoke images of a squat, slapdash shack, most are anything but. Almost all are built to accommodate 16 people and usually include a combination of single beds, private bedrooms and communal sleeping areas.
"They''re substantial structures," Lane said. "The typical huts often have multiple floors and can be between 5,000 to 8,000 square feet. They''re just beautiful pieces of architecture."
Visitors to the huts use wood-burning stoves for heating and cooking and, depending on the dwelling, melt snow for water. Firewood and cooking utensils are also provided. Because the structures provide visitors with shelter, skiers will carry substantially less gear-and enjoy a much more pleasant experience-than those who might be used to roughing it with winter backpacking.
"It''s very hard work getting there, but part of the reward is having a nice meal, filling your water bottles with wine, and enjoy a real upscale backcountry experience," Lane said.
Besides the recommended clothing and gear, including cross-country skis, visitors will also bring "skins," strips of fabric that help skis grip the snow. Straus also brings snowshoes for rougher sections of the trail.
Although guides are available, Straus said he enjoys finding his way using a topographical map, a compass, and an altimeter. Others who travel with Straus and Burch, like long-time skier and Louisville resident Irv Bailey, 61, will take a GPS device and a cell phone as well. (The 10 th Mountain Division Hut Association lists the GPS coordinates for huts and trail heads on its website at http://www.huts.org/hut_details/gps_information.html#Datum. The organization also recommends that travelers not rely exclusively on GPS devices to navigate the trails.)
Although most of the huts have been placed in areas where avalanche is not a danger, some routes, such as the one to the Skinner hut (at 11,620 feet), cross areas where an avalanche is possible. The 10 th hut organization suggests that groups pick up an avalanche advisory and snow conditions report from the local U.S. Forest Service office and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center .
Tenth Mountain ''s paid memberships offer visitors preferences for hut reservations. Membership begins at $25, allowing visitors to reserve three trips during its early booking period, and ranges to $100, which allows visitors to reserve unlimited trips during the same time. The organization also holds a lottery in March for reservations during the following winter.
Single night hut rentals range from $25 to $39. Certain huts require visitors to rent the entire cabin for between $69 and $250. For more information, visit the 10 th Mountain Division Hut Association website at www.huts.org.
Paul Baldwin, who enjoys running, swimming and cycling, is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Louisville .
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