Love, skiing and one hot yurt |

Love, skiing and one hot yurt

Cassie Pence
Special to the DailyThe Tennessee Pass Cookhouse yurt provides an intimate setting for a romantic meal. The cookhouse is located near Ski Cooper between Minturn and Leadville along Hwy 24.

TENNESSEE PASS ” It was just about a year ago when my beau Tim sunk one knee deep into the snow and popped the question. We were Nordic skiing beneath a full moon in Aspen.

Having first kissed in middle school, a long engagement seemed quite natural for us. We couldn’t decide what kind of wedding to have anyway: to elope, not to elope, to elope, not to elope ” that was our question.

But alas, we decided to salute our love among family and friends and have a fall wedding in the mountains. So at the end of January, we found ourselves celebrating the one-year anniversary of our engagement with eight months left until the real knot-tying.

To honor this moment, we set off on yet another Nordic adventure. This time, the destination wasn’t a ring. It was a mango-sherbet sunset behind Mount Massive. It was the cozy confines of a rustic yurt, pumped full of heat by a pot belly stove. It was a four-course gourmet meal and an exhilarating ski through lodge pole pines in the dark with only starlight to guide us. Our destination was the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse.

The cookhouse is part of the Piney Creek Nordic Center, located 10 miles north of Leadville on Highway 24 just at the base of Ski Cooper. It’s a one-mile groomed trail to the cookhouse yurt from the Nordic center lodge ” a trail which can be toured on cross-country skis, snowshoes or by snowmobile. But the real way to experience the cookhouse is to arrive well before dinner.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.

Tim and I set out about 1 p.m. with our skate skis (a speedy type of Nordic ski) to explore the center’s 16 miles of groomed trail. We first whipped around trails in the trees ” the course incredibly fast from the cool shade of the pines. We hit some of the bigger climbs next, like Lung Burn and Griz, and then skated our way to Fish Flats, about 4.5 miles of open lowlands boasting huge mountain views, plenty of sunshine and electric-blue Colorado sky.

Feeling hunger’s tug, we skied back to the Nordic center lodge to stretch in the cabin’s open lounge. I sat on the large deck basking in the sun’s first attempt to break from day. Other diners had just arrived and were gearing up in snowshoes or cross-country skis to travel the 300 vertical feet to the cookhouse. Urgency set in as we all didn’t want to miss the sunset from the yurt’s deck.

“When we first bought the Nordic center 11 years ago, there was just a picnic table where the yurt is now,” said Ty Hall, who owns the cookhouse with his wife, Roxanne, and Cannon Shockley. “We used to have lunch there, and the view was amazing so we decided to expand the picnic bench.”

There is no electricity or running water at the cookhouse. Soft light from candles on each table and propane lanterns greet diners as they enter the yurt. A wood burning stove, originally from Camp Hale, where 10th Mountain Division soldiers trained, pumps in heat and adds ambiance to the one-room, wooded structure. Music sounds from a solar powered stereo.

“Once the Forest Service realized we were going to stick around, we had the option to put a more permanent structure in,” said Hall. “But we really decided that the yurt was quaint and romantic and added to the whole uniqueness of the experience.”

Chef Casey Puntenney cooks on a commercial stove and grill that are powered by propane. Entrees are ordered ahead of time. Tim opted for the grilled elk tenderloin with blueberry, sage and port wine sauce. I chose the vegetarian special. I guess opposites do attract.

The appetizer plate couldn’t have arrived sooner: We were starving from skiing. The wild boar sausage, goat cheese and pesto pizza with vegetables and grilled portobella mushrooms toppled our hunger for the time, at least until the salads arrived. Fresh greens with pears and a mint dressing prepared our palates for the main course, as we continued to sip on red wine from a local vineyard.

The chef was good to me, serving up a huge plate of green coconut curry with vegetables and seared tofu ” a perfect combination of spicy and sweet with hints of pineapple. The elk was equally as satisfying, fresh and not gamey.

Room for dessert is never a problem for Nordic skiers, and the homemade fruit pie hits the spot each time. The chef rotates flavors, and we lucked out with the classic strawberry rhubarb.

Just as digestion yawns start to set in, we exit the yurt into the night’s brisk mountain air, perking us up for the ski back. No moon tonight, but the twinkling Milky Way more than makes up for it. Still feeling the warmth of red wine, I stick one ski into a cross-country track and prepare for the descent. I turn off my head lamp for the full effect and catch glimpses of snow-covered peaks through the pines as I fly along the trail.

This wasn’t our first adventure to Tennessee Pass Cookhouse. We’ve taken city-slicking sisters and friends who have never even seen snowshoes up to the yurt, and the experience never disappoints. But for Tim and I, this particular trip proved just what we needed in the fog of wedding planning. It was more than an anniversary dinner, it was a reminder of how we came to share a love for skiing, the mountains and each other.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14640, or

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