A warm roof over your head
The storm blew cold snow down the back of our necks as we struggled through waist-deep drifts.
You could see, if four feet of visibility could be called seeing. We skied on and off the trail, wallowing through the snow, following the faint tracks of our buddies, who had a two-hour jump start on us.
Then, we smelled it.
The warm, unmistakable scent of wood smoke. The hut appeared suddenly out of the storm. We clumped across the deck in our ski boots, shook off the snow and ice coating our parkas and stumbled inside. The party had already started, but there was plenty of hot chocolate and schnapps warming on the stove and the wine hadn’t even been opened yet.
As good as it gets
Ski huts are one of the greatest creations since sliced bread. In fact, they’re much, much better than sliced bread.
Forget those fools who claim that snow caves are cozy and winter camping is fun. I’ll take a Tenth Mountain Hut with room for 20 of my best friends, a well-equipped kitchen and a wood-powered sauna over a snow cave anytime.
The choice is easy. Haul in food instead of survival gear, dry your boots next to roaring fire and kick back with a cold beer in a sauna. Snowcaves? Those are for misguided Eagle Scouts who are hunting for their last merit badge. Sadly, though, there’s no merit in suffering, and huts are about living in luxury.
OK, so not all huts have wood-powered saunas. But plenty of them do. In fact, the legendary Tenth Mountain Hut Association rents a whole slew of backcountry accommodations that are perfect for ski tours. And while the nicer ones do have a sauna, many are more humble abodes.
But, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be warm and dry in them, and those two latter attributes make huts the ideal venue for a backcountry ski or snowboard adventure.
Warmth is good
The beauty of huts is that you can be truly warm. Every hut I’ve been to has been blessed with a cooker of a wood stove. The first thing you do on arrival is stoke that sucker until it glows red hot.
Nothing feels better than putting on warm and dry boots in the morning. Not only will these stoves take care of that small chore, but they’ll dry out those wet mittens, soggy fleece jackets and soaked socks.
While your gear is drying, you can lounge about in a T-shirt and flip-flops. Show me a tent or snowcave that gives you access to that kind of lifestyle.
Then, there’s the kitchen. If you go winter camping, you’re limited by what you can carry. A big part of that will be a stove, plus the fuel to melt water and heat your dinner. In a hut, the stove heats you, melts snow for drinking water and the kitchens are usually pretty well equipped.
In fact, some even have propane powered fridges and stoves. In other words, leave the stove, pots, pans and fuel at home and load up with some vino tinto, a fresh salmon steak or two and plenty of other things, like brie, crackers and beer. Your stomach will thank you.
Don’t worry about the neighbors
Finally there’s the ambiance. Twenty people stuffed in a snowcave can be fun. But stick 20 of your best friends in a hut, and you’ve got a party.
There’s enough man (and women) power to haul in bottles and bottles of vino.
There are folks to stoke the stove and do the dishes. There are even the poor fools (such as myself) who will chain themselves to a sled and haul in a keg. Don’t laugh, the beer tasted very, very good after three miles of sweat and suffering.
In other words, twenty folks with whom you’ve worked and skied hard all winter make for a pretty good party once you’ve arrived at the hut – the kind you’d like to throw at your house, but the neighbors would complain and the landlord would evict you.
At a hut, you’re miles and miles from the nearest neighbor so there’s no need to worry.
Variety is good
Fortunately, Colorado is blessed with a wide variety of huts. In fact, there are more than 50 in the state, anchored by the two refined and excellent systems operated by the Tenth Mountain Division and the Summit Hut Association. Many of these structures are as nice as the million dollar homes on Forest Road.
They have sweet kitchens, solar power for electricity, propane stoves and wood-powered saunas.
Then, there are the independent huts like the Tennessee Mountain Cabin that’s part of Eldora Ski Area’s Nordic trail system.
Smaller, funkier and more romantic than the big systems, the independent huts offer groups of two to four people an intimate wilderness experience. While some of these huts have rudimentary kitchens, they all have wood stoves and they stay nice and toasty.
There are also the huts that you don’t find in any guidebook: Old miner’s shacks, trapper’s cabins and other huts that locals have fixed up over the years and which operate on the lowest run of hut living.
Funky is the operational word here, but everyone of them worth their salt will have a wood stove. And that’s what matters because in the wintertime. It’s all about cranking that sucker so you can relax and sleep like a baby.
No matter what kind of hut you decide to drag your friends to, remember to pack the wine or other beverage of your choice, get an early start and bring matches, candles and some paper to light the fire in the belly of the wood stove. A warm sleeping bag is a must for the huts off the map, but you’ll be living the good life if you pick one of the Tenth Mountain or Summit Huts with a wood-powered sauna.
The sauna not only helps you sweat out all the impurities of a winter living and working in Vail, but acts as a furnace, releasing heat all night long as you dream of fresh tracks and hut trips to come.
Just the facts
The Guide Book: Colorado Hut To Hut by Brian Litz
The Tenth Mountain Hut Association: http://www.huts.org, 970/925-5775
The Summit Hut Association: summithuts.org, 970-453-8583
Tennessee Mountain Cabin: 303-440-8700
Tom Winter is a freelance writer based in Vail.