Huts are backcountry havens
December 22, 2011
VAIL, Colorado – Finally, the fire wrapped its warmth around the tips of my frozen toes. We had been snowshoeing for six hours, and my wool socks and sturdy boots were hardly enough to shield my feet from the cold and wet snow we had been breaking through for most of the December daylight.
It is here that our feelings of fatigue fall away, dripping like snow from the seams of our hanging base layers and Gore-Tex waterproofs. Here, at 11,180 feet above it all, we are surrounded by natural beauty and enriching companionship. Eiseman Hut is home, even if only for the weekend.
Hut trips can hold the moments of winter solace that you may not find amidst ski season crowds and holiday frenzy. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association manages a system of 30 backcountry huts, connected by over 300 miles of routes in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The huts are open in the summer for mountain biking and hiking trips, and in the winter for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing trips.
The trek to our hut was a long walk in – eight miles from the Red Sandstone Creek trailhead. We each carried our own packs and backcountry gear, slowly making tracks up the snow-covered road. Our talkative exchanges began to subside as we gained elevation, gradually replaced with our persistent steps and heavy breaths breaking the surrounding stillness.
Although Eiseman Hut is one of the more difficult huts to get to, the views reward your efforts in every way. There we were, sidled up in a cozy mountain hut and surrounded by the snow-covered peaks of the Gore Range and the Holy Cross Wilderness. Here, we found peace and humility in the space we shared, and rejoiced together in moments of simplicity and bliss.
Plan ahead for your next hut trip and everything should go smoothly. Here are some preparations that will help you get ready to head out into the hills:
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• Book a hut in advance. The huts fill up fast, but there are often spots that open up on short notice. Visit http://www.huts.org to check hut availability and to read up on the different hut features.
• Plan what to pack. The 10th Mountains Division Huts are fully equipped with kitchen utilities, sleeping quarters and fire amenities, but you still need to bring in all your food, beverages, sleeping bags, dry and warm clothing layers and backcountry recreation gear. Bring a first-aid kit and a cell phone for emergencies (you may get lucky with reception), and be sure to bring avalanche safety gear if you are trained to use it and plan to do any backcountry skiing or riding. Don’t forget the combination to the hut that they will send you after you book it (my group learned that lesson the hard way).
• Plan your route. The average route to a 10th Mountain Division Hut is six to seven miles long, and climbs 1,500 to 2,500 feet in elevation from a trailhead that is 8,000 feet or higher, according to the 10th Mountain Division Hut website. The site states that “someone in each group must have leadership, route finding, avalanche awareness and first aid skills.” Make sure that you are equipped with a topographic map and are comfortable navigating the route you are taking to the hut. Contact the Hut Association with questions or concerns regarding your route before leaving for your hut trip.
• Know the risks. “The Colorado backcountry is known for widespread and long lasting snowpack instabilities,” according to the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association website. “Avalanche hazard is a real concern for all winter travelers.” If you are uncomfortable with the risks, you may want to look into a U.S. Forest Service guide service, which will provide your group with knowledge of the backcountry and routes to the huts, as well as instruction and guides on transportation, food and gear rentals.