Local writer shares hut expereince | VailDaily.com

Local writer shares hut expereince

Ryan Slabaugh

The short-tailed weasel climbed onto the window ledge and looked inside the 10th Mountain Division Hut, just outside of Leadville, and was gone – poof – back into the bush. This was Wednesday, moments after we entered the hut with our guides, Tom Gaylord and Sandy Hower, both of the Vail Nature Center.

“Voracious little guys,” Tom said. He has a little voracity of his own. The 70-year-old runs three hut trips every summer, the next coming in September.

“The saying goes,” he continued, “if they were as big as a dog, nobody would go outside.”

But going outside, it seemed, was the point. It’s why we had just hiked three miles up a rocky road into hut territory. Jerry and MIchelle Warshofsky, second homeowners from Miami, hiked with us, ignoring the spitting rain and the thunderclouds. They paid the $120 fee for the two-night, three-day trip that goes on, rain or shine.

While the Nature Center expects anyone interested in the trip to be accustomed to elevation (the 14 huts scattered about Colorado range between 10,000 and 12,000 feet), they also expect the group to be hungry. Tom brought enough food for the 10th Mountain Division themselves, Michelle said, after seeing the spread Sandy prepared.

Covering the counters were apples, bananas, oranges, plums, strawberries, energy bars, candy, bread, sandwich slices, cookies, cheese, crackers, water, tea, coffee, and that’s not all. For dinner, Sandy fixed chicken marsala with mashed potatoes (instant, I did them), salad and for dessert, a choice of lemon meringue or coconut creme pie.

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Barring any apocalypse, we knew we’d be well fed throughout. Plus, the huts are stocked with pots and pans, as well as paper towels and toilet papers, but not drinkable water. Still, in the middle of the forest with solar power, we were hardly roughing it.

We arrived Wednesday in the early afternoon and after settling in our hut, which is part of a 19-hut system started in 1980 by a non-profit group looking to memorialize the 10th Mountain Division warriors of World War II, we hiked to Slide Lake. Tom informed us the cold water makes the fish heads bigger.

The ones that leapt were too far away to notice.

Behind the lake was Slide Peak, a 13er the group would hike Thursday, long after I’d returned to work. The lake was just a half-mile from the hut, so when the rain started to make our lives uncomfortable again, the return hike wasn’t such a rush.

Cooking, on the other hand, was a different manner. While we ate dinner inside the comforts of the fire-less cabin (keep blaming the drought), conversations still acted as the fuel. Like any talk around a campfire, we all learned about how Tom and Sandy met, and when Vail residents Lucy Hopkins (avid hiker) and Joleen Crook (guide) joined us, we saw pictures of Lucy’s kids and learned how both Lucy, Joleen and I grew up in Iowa. We noticed the hut lacked mirrors, which Lucy defended immediately.

“We don’t have mirrors. No way,” she said. She hikes everyday, when she’s not visiting her kids in Houston. “We’re all beautiful. It’s the spirit. We don’t have mirrors, because everyone is beautiful with spirit that comes out here and we don’t need them. Mirrors. No way.”

Then, after more wine and more conversation, most retired. I stayed awake to thumb through the journals past hikers had left. I read poems like “Their moms and dads, they ain’t bad, took ’em from school, now that’ ain’t sad, is they glad?” On another page, after reading the many references to “paradise” and “heaven,” it finally came about that Sharon won the dice game, not Ann. Volumes date back to 1991, include pictures, observations and helpful hints to newcomers like us.

Tired, I joined the group in beds that were softer than most hotels I can afford. Although the ban on fire kept us cool through the night, and Lucy and Joleen forgot their sleeping bags, we made it. We woke in the morning to Lucy cooking eggs – Iowa style – with sausage, fruit and yogurt if you like. Then again, the group began the hike up Slide Peak while Joleen and I headed back to the real world, through the falling sleet, down the road and back to Vail’s version of civilization.

Before I left, I asked Tom, who leads up to four hikes a week through the nature center and all the hut trips, if it ever got old.

“It never does,” he said. “There’s always something new to learn. And there’s always something new to do.”

It’s understandable. Really, it was the answer I expected. In the morning before we left, on my way to the outhouse, I stopped to watch two deer grazing with a backdrop of evergreens and close mountains.

A little anxious, they didn’t display the fear most urban animals have of humans.

Or maybe it was just the group, stuffed with eggs, a picture of serenity not as clear as the skies. For the moment, the clouds had dispersed, not a threatening one among them.