A guide to backcountry skiing bliss in Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Hut System
With Eagle County and the surrounding area set to receive a much-needed blast of snow, the winter season for the 10th Mountain Division Hut System is less than a week away.
Thanksgiving marks the start of the winter season for skiers, snowshoers and other backcountry adventurers who, through a reservation lottery, were lucky enough to book one of the 35 huts deep in the mountains between Aspen, Leadville, Breckenridge and other Rocky Mountain winter vacation destinations.
Littered throughout several wilderness areas south of the Interstate 70 corridor, treks into these huts range in difficulty, from, say, about 2 miles into Francine’s Cabin near Breckenridge to much more remote locations without official trails such as the handful of Braun Huts south of Aspen.
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Wherever backcountry adventurers end up, the hut system is truly one of the most wild winter experiences deep in the Rockies. And Tuesday at the REI in Dillon, James Fulton, a longtime member of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, gave a pre-winter presentation on the system.
Here are three of the more interesting takeaways from Fulton’s session. You can find more information about the hut system at Huts.org.
DON’T SHY AWAY FROM BIG DUMPS
Fulton was pointed when he described the kind of conditions he most enjoys traveling to the huts in. When a storm is dropping inches of snow on the trail.
“Sometimes the weather is not nice,” Fulton said.
“A lot of people might feel like they might need to shy away from the huts, but I love these times,” he added. “You can put your hood up, you got your pack on, you’re skiing up to the huts, you can ski around the huts when you are out there. And it’s always so quiet and so muffled.
“And I love the sound of the snow,” he continued. “It’s really beautiful because there is snow on the trees, snow all around you. And I swear you can hear the snowflakes coming down and hitting the trees. To me it’s just wonderful. It’s just you and the trail and hopefully you have a really strong man or woman up front breaking trail. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned, ‘Go on, I’ve got to tie my shoe.’ So it’s wonderful. Just don’t shy away from going to the huts at this time.”
WEAR A PACK YOU CAN SKI DOWN IN
As an avid backcountry skier, Fulton cautioned those traveling to the huts to practice before their trip with pack weight suitable for their ability to ski steep, narrow descents.
Fulton also encouraged the use of snowshoes, even for competent skiers, when accessing the huts due to the difficulty of skiing down in the backcountry.
To illustrate his point, Fulton described an ordeal he had leaving the Peter Estin Hut at 11,200 feet near Charles Peak.
“One of my nemeses forever was the Iron Edge trail which is the winter trail to the Estin Hut,” Fulton said. “And I’ll never forget my first time down that, and I had some skinny leather boots — back in the day — backcountry touring skis, which I think were just tele skis.
“Man,” he continued, “I thought I was going to die. I literally thought I was going to die and as I took my skis off, I was post-holing, I was going through, and a lot of it is packed, right? You have skiers going up, skiers going down. And, man, I learned a lot. I cussed a lot that day coming down, I really did. I wasn’t proud of myself. I think I even invented words coming down.
“So I just want to tell you,” Fulton added, “make sure whatever gear you use to go up to the huts make sure you feel secure on it, that you can ski down with a pack safe and secure and that you can control your speed.”
WITHIN THESE PAGES
Along with bringing organic food ingredients to cook and bake with up at the hut, Fulton also spoke highly of the kind of writing, reading and art that takes place in these wild locations.
Logbooks of memories reside at several of the huts, and Fulton described the illustrations, poetry and stories told in those pages as ones that “could fill a novel.”
“It’s amazing when you can be there for an entire day,” Fulton said. “It’s really great, that’s when you are creative with your cooking, you can enjoy, read a book. And there is a little library up there as well with a lot of books on the environment and birds and flowers, and history.
“You can actually get creative with your log,” he continued. “When you sign a log, what you write in there — man, I tell you what. I’m serious about that. When you get up there look through these logbooks. There are artists up there. They draw amazing. And then storytellers, and whatnot. And then there are people like me that are like ‘Had a good time in the hut, must ski down.’
“But it’s a lot of fun to look in those logs. And there are usually copies of past years. So if you are up there for two nights it is really wonderful.”
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.