From Uncle Bud’s to Skinner and back: a tale of two huts
It has always been on my list to tackle a hut trip. Being a complete snow junky, it hadn’t occurred to me to take to the trail in the summer until a friend brought it up earlier this spring. The biggest challenge in organizing a trip for me was always booking the space and somehow coming up with all the money up front to hold the reservation while hoping everyone committed will actually follow through. With hut trips the more space you can fill in any given hut with friends the better off you are. At least that was the idea behind it. With a little help from friends we got the reservation together. Determined to celebrate the 4th of July weekend independent from fireworks, parades and crowded streets we took the opportunity to get into the forest in quest of higher elevations and the simple Zen of the mountains.
If we knew we could drive all the way to Uncle Bud’s hut we would have packed a lot differently. Expecting at least a few miles of hiking to get to the first destination, we focused our weight more on clothing and survival gear rather than frivolity like alcohol and pork chops. The 10th Mountain Division strongly discourages motorized travel to the huts. And rightly so, these huts were built in honor of soldiers and mountaineers. They pay tribute to the skills and fortitude of the 10th Mountain Division. To drive somehow cheapens the experience.
We arrived in the early afternoon and were completely blown away by the incredible workmanship and beauty of the hut itself. With little or no exertion our group of six found ourselves sitting on Catherine’s bench with a beautiful southern view of Mt. Massive and Sugarloaf Mountain. Our group was a compilation of old friends and new acquaintances, all with varying degrees of experience.
As we began to unpack and unwind I came across a small packet of wildflowers in my pack. I spread them under the window on the southern exposure and thought great wishes for the lives the seeds symbolized. A short hike to Bear Lake was just the thing to get our blood flowing and appetite for adventure stirring. After a cold swim by a few in our group and some contemplative time near the water we stuck back toward “home”.
The vodka began to flow in rousing toasts to new friendships, new trails, Burdell Winter and welcoming horizons. In truly Bacchanalian reverie we consumed as much food as we could hold while the vodka evaporated and the whiskey began to dwindle. The sunset settled on our contentment as we sat by the warm fire and one by one, quickly drifted into a sound sleep high above industry and closer to the stars.
The day began with the sunrise dancing like a pink and orange curtain over the range to the south. The burning white moon hung fat and full above the sharp peaks on the horizon. After banana pancakes and a small ration of coffee the six of us set out west along the Colorado Trail with a final destination of the Skinner hut some 11 miles away. The majority of the morning was spent hiking toward the Timberline Lake trailhead. As we dropped elevation from near tree line through the lush green forest the sense of wanderlust which I had been bottling up inside began to dissipate under the blue sky.
As the miles piled behind us and we neared our next trail head we found our various maps were slightly different in their designation of water crossings and trail heads. Our route was clearly marked on one map before a water crossing and clearly after on another. After consulting an Outward Bound guide with an official USGS topo map, we headed south following Glacier Creek. The trail disappeared quickly and we found ourselves breaking trail and gaining significant elevation as we pushed further into the wilderness. The 10th Mountain Divisions website recommends strong map and compass skills for groups traveling between huts. We found out why. We followed the creek and eventually reached the base of the ridge, close to our destination. We began scrambling over a massive boulder field which, combined with the additional weight of our packs and over nine miles of hiking, proved very challenging. After a grueling climb up the ridge and one false summit we reached the road and shortly after, the Skinner Hut.
Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the 10th Mountain, or potential drawback, is the opportunity to experience truly communal living. Exhausted, exuberant and stunned by the high alpine vistas surrounding the Skinner Hut at an elevation of 11,620 ft., we simply dropped our packs and sat down to take it all in.
We were sharing the hut that night with another group of four. Three of the group turned out to be very experienced climbers, mountain goats in fact. Their goal was to travel the entire Continental Divide. Not all at once mind you, but in segments. It was only a matter of moments until the maps came out and we began talking routes and ridgelines, ascents, destinations and goals. We found a common ground in the quest for a summit, be it literal or metaphorical. We were regaled with stories of climbing Denali, ‘the great one”, the challenges of being a hiking/climbing junky and balancing a family, kids and life on the front range.
The mountain goats, Enzo, Rocking Rob and Chuck, came prepared with a support vehicle. A birthday bash complete with pork loin, chocolate covered strawberries and plenty of alcohol was laid out by support team captain Denise. It wasn’t long before we were graciously offered a large bottle of red wine. A celebration ensued as we enjoyed the wine and began preparing dinner. Thankful for everything involved with the day’s worth of living.
Water boils faster, even at altitude, if the burner stays lit and the pot covered. This proved the hardest task for our exhausted team of culinary experts. Like everything else that day, we got there eventually. After filling up on spaghetti and a hard nap on one of the wood benches by one of our crew the day came to a close around the campfire. We toasted the day, the mountains and the journey with the last of our water and whiskey.
The morning ritual of preparing breakfast (bagels, fruit and coffee), filtering water restocking kindling and woodpiles began early as we confirmed the upcoming route in the morning glow of the Mosquito Range on the eastern horizon. The goats were out early, off toward Hagerman Pass then possibly on to Moab.
Rather than risk a sketchy descent down the ridge we climbed the day before, we decided to hike down the road just over six miles and eventually connect with the Colorado Trail. The journey down the road was long and dry with a gradual decline in elevation the entire way. Trucks and jeeps dusted by in almost constant procession. We waved at all of them and cussed the ones that didn’t return the gesture. By midday we reached the trail and plunged back into the green forest. After a break where we consumed most of our remaining fruit and trail mix we took another look at the maps. All of the elevation we had just lost over the last six miles would be regained in a steady four mile uphill. The hardest part of the day was yet ahead.
We all knew it was coming but didn’t realize what it meant until it our feet felt like lead and our packs seemingly tethered to the valley floor below. The final four miles required quite a bit of mental strength and more than enough physical exertion. Breaks became more frequent and our group became more determined. Talk turned to cold beer and dinner. One step at a time we climbed up the trail we had so effortlessly descended a day earlier. With each step we grew stronger despite exhaustion. We realized we were no longer the same people who traveled the same trail just a day before. We had overcome something inside each of us. We had shared an experience few know. We had gotten there together and returned together. To me this is the real importance behind the 10th Mountain hut experience, to overcome and survive a journey into the unknown and unexpected. Although no one outside of the soldiers themselves will ever know the experiences they shared both before and after WW II, I believe we can share the feeling of triumph generated by mountain travel. This seems to me the real motivation behind the development of the hut system: to experience, even for just a few days, the strength required to survive in the mountains and the accompanying sense of accomplishment.
We climbed the final ascent of the day and slowly trundled across a field of wildflowers. Uncle Bud’s was within a hundred yards. When we reached the hut and our vehicle we found a whole family of motorized maniacs with three wheelers, four wheelers and a very apathetic and unhealthy bunch sitting around eating cheese and drinking beer. Not a one of them looked as if they could even make the half mile hike down to the water source and back. Leaving them to their machines and technology and trash, we took off our packs and rejoiced in the fact we would not have to put them back on for the first time in three days.