The Hut Hike
Alone, without shelter, this would be the definitive winter survival situation – it is nighttime in Colorado high country and, at first glance, it seems there isn’t a soul around for miles.But only a few hundred yards away is the comforting glow of lights from the windows of a mountain hut – an oasis of comfort in the middle of winter backcountry. Inside a fire is blazing, warm beds and hot meals await and an evening’s cross-country ski through isolation ends with a cup of cocoa and the camaraderie of a few friends.These faraway havens are part of Colorado’s Hut System – remote log cabins located in some of the state’s wildest, most untouched locations. During the summer they are reached by hiking or biking over mountain terrain, and in the winter by ski or snowshoe.The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association began building huts in the early 1980s with the goal of developing a European-style hut system between Vail and Aspen. The two huts closest to Vail are the Eiseman Hut, about seven miles north of Vail, and the Polar Star Inn, south of Eagle.Former soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division are members of the association board and helped build Colorado’s first huts. Some of the 10th Mountain Division men who trained at Camp Hale, a former military training base near Leadville, came back to Colorado after playing a crucial role during mountain battles in World War II."The 10th Mountain Division was very self-reliant. They carried everything they needed on their back," Hut Association director Ben Dodge says."The hut system is devoted to bringing out those values and make them available to people."The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, named in honor of the 10th’s veterans, manages and takes reservations for 13 of its own huts, and also takes reservations for Colorado’s oldest hut system: the Alfred A. Braun Hut System.Huts can accommodate as few as three people or as many as 20 and are rented on a bed-by-bed basis. Multiple guide services around Colorado offer single- and multi-night hut trips, allowing groups to experience the backcountry during the day and the comforts of a mountain ski lodge at night.Individuals and private groups, though, fill the majority of beds at Colorado huts."The guides provide a wonderful service to people who haven’t been on a hut trip before," Dodge says. "And even for those people with experience, they can enhance the trip, but people can feel free to call us and make their own reservations."The heart of the hutsBuilt of plank and log, the average hut is a world full of unique and creative luxuries. Propane and wood-burning stoves provide a place for cooking, and solar power offers limited electricity."Hut users are very good about respecting the huts," Dodge says. "They enjoy them, they respect them, they have a good time – it doesn’t get any better."The popularity and relative rarity of the huts makes them a hot commodity in the backcountry skiing world. Most huts are filled to capacity during winter weekends, and the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association employs a lottery system to accommodate its thousands of users.During the day, most hut users will hike to the top of backcountry hills and mountains, then ski down through thousands of vertical feet of untouched, bottomless powder.Kids, the elderly, and those who simply want to take a day off have plenty of options as well. Evidence of snow caves, snowmen and snowball fights still fill the snowfields around the typical hut.The outdoor lifeThe view from a hut window at high altitude (generally 9,500 feet or higher) can appear quiet and lifeless.But colonies of hardy mammals live a unique lifestyle underneath the snow.Every hut comes equipped with more than 50 books on various outdoor and wildlife subjects – those with a nose for knowledge can spend the day researching high-altitude wildlife."People might not know how the small mammals react and respond to the change in winter – the big animals just go lower," Dodge says."It’s a nice part of the hut experience and a way to appreciate being outdoors."Being prepared is an essential element of the outdoor life – especially when it comes to avalanches.Those who are looking for safety guarantees should look elsewhere – the nature of avalanches, Dodge says, makes them entirely unpredictable."We recommend that everybody at least has a clue what they’re getting into," he says. "There’s no such thing as a safe route to a hut, absolutely not."The routes we recommend have been selected to avoid as much avalanche terrain as possible, but there’s no way to eliminate all of the risk."The snowmobile ethicHut users also should be prepared for a high-altitude workout during the day.Reaching the typical Colorado hut requires 7 or 8 miles of trekking through winter conditions, including possible snowstorms.But some users choose to ride snowmobiles almost all the way to the hut door.Some huts are located on private property or are too far from groomed trails to be accessible by snowmobile, but others are near motorized use trails.Each hut also has a small, non-motorized "bubble" around it, so snowmobilers cannot drive right to the door. Snowmobilers may park nearby, though, and hike the rest of the way.This option, rarely used, is looked down on by most hut users and the organizations that manage the huts."We encourage non-motorized use of the backcountry," Dodge says. "People are having a snowmobile carry up all their gear, or bringing up a person with a broken leg, and that’s not what the huts were made for."The spirit of the 10th Mountain Division, Dodge says, is self-reliance in wild, natural conditions.Heavy snow in remote places makes for a kind of quietude rarely found elsewhere, and that silence is the prize hut users seek.A snowmobile, Dodge says, breaks the silence and the sanctity of the hut system creed.Go to http://www.huts.org for more information or to make a reservation.