By Christine Benedetti | November 21, 2014 | Lifestyle
Aspen’s ski slopes may be a global tourist attraction, but the Colorado backcountry and its 10th mountain division hut system is the ultimate rocky mountain high.
High trek: Heather Hudson and Craig Muderlak, of Boulder, set off for a day of backcountry skiing from their multi-night stay at the 10th Mountain Division’s McNamara Hut—one of 30 rentable cabins set on more than 350 miles of trails around Aspen and Vail.
As we begin our final climb through dense, twilit trees, the only sound we hear is the shallow crunch of snow beneath our skis, heavy under the weight of backpacks filled with food, drinks, sleeping bags, and a change of clothes for our overnight in the woods.
Strapped to our feet are alpine touring skis, which have the capability to free the heel for going uphill, much like Nordic skis. On the bottom of the skis, we’ve attached synthetic climbing skins—crucial for preventing us from sliding backward on the steep ascent.
Like a “Finish” banner at the end of a marathon, two tiny structures emerge, signaling that we’ve reached our destination after four hours: the Fritz and Fabi Benedict huts, located nearly six miles from Aspen and 3,000 feet above it. Fritz’s wood cabin, built in 1997, has three miniature bedrooms with double beds and an open living room with three single beds and a daybed/couch to comfortably sleep 10 people. It is our home for the evening; next door, a group of three father-son pairs have occupied Fabi’s cabin. We all share a communal outhouse with floor-to-ceiling glass walls on two sides—arguably a bathroom with some of the best views in the world.
To reach the huts in the winter, visitors must snowshoe or “skin” across the backcountry.
Named for Fritz and Fabi Benedict, who were the founders of the 10th Mountain Division hut system, these two shelters are part of a 30-cabin network set on more than 350 miles of trails surrounding Aspen and Vail. To reach most of the huts during the winter, one must either snowshoe or “skin”—the term used to describe climbing uphill on skis—to the remote wilderness cabins on marked but ungroomed trails. (In the summer, many are accessible on foot or by four-wheel-drive vehicle.) From there, skiers can connect to other huts in the network or simply enjoy the serenity of a backcountry escape.
Built from pine and as sturdy as bunkers, the cabins are entirely self-sufficient. Large wood-burning stoves provide heat and fill the rooms with much-needed warmth and the Zen-like sound of a crackling fire. The stove serves a double purpose, melting pails of snow for drinking and cooking—after all, there’s no running water. (There’s a strict “no dogs” policy in the system to avoid contaminated snow-turned-drinking water.)
Much like camping, routine daily activities serve as a form of entertainment: People spend time splitting logs that are stored on-site, drying out damp clothes from the hike in, shoveling snow from the walkway to the outhouse, and chopping vegetables for the communal dinner. Standard items like cast-iron stoves and tea-kettles are kept in the cabins, but food, flashlights, and items such as board games have to be carried in.
After dinner is made on the small gas-powered stove, everyone settles in for an evening of candlelit card games and reading through decades of guest books. Entries detail everything from topless 60th birthday parties to stoic solo trips and pencil sketch drawings, each illustrating some of the magic that happens when people can get away from the chaos of the real world and settle down in nature without distractions.
The more remote cabins are located up to seven miles outside of Aspen and at considerably higher altitudes.
It turns out there’s a large demand for this kind of getaway. The huts are booked on a lottery reservation system that starts nearly nine months in advance of the season. Last year more than 1,000 parties and individuals submitted applications for overnight bookings from Thanksgiving through April, and 87 percent were accepted (the other 13 percent’s desired dates had already been filled). Hut capacity ranges from three to 20 people, and spots are booked on a per-person basis, so people often end up making new friends out in the middle of nowhere.
The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association manages an additional 12 huts from Aspen to Winter Park, called the Summit Huts, Grand Huts, and Braun & Friends Huts. But the 20 huts between Aspen and Vail are specifically named to honor the ski troopers who trained at Camp Hale, near Leadville, and fought in the harsh climate of the Italian Alps in World War II.
More than 11,000 soldiers were stationed there, learning the mountaineering skills necessary to fight in Europe’s unforgiving alpine landscape. Nearly 1,000 died and another 4,500 were wounded in combat. When the 10th Mountain Division was demobilized in 1945—69 years ago—several of the living soldiers returned to the United States with a passion for skiing. These veterans, Fred Iselin, Friedl Pfeifer, and Fritz Benedict among them, were influential in developing the ski industry in the Northeast and Colorado.
Some of those who didn’t make it back were eventually honored by family and friends through the 10th Mountain Division hut system, where huts were named after legacies such as Peter Estin and Sangree M. Froelicher. Introduced in the ’80s, skiing the 10th Mountain hut system has grown to be one of Colorado’s more iconic wintertime activities. Many of the huts were originally constructed as shoddy backcountry outposts and have gradually been rebuilt into the charming, solid structures they are today.
While a number of the huts are relatively easy to get to, such as Continental Divide or Point Breeze, which are three-quarters of a mile from the Tennessee Pass trailhead, others require serious mountaineering skills and some navigation experience to reach, like Opa’s Taylor hut, accessed by a seven-mile journey along an unmarked trail. Like the iconic routes in Italy and Switzerland, it’s possible to link up multiday trips between huts for an authentic off-the-grid experience. For others, one night suffices.
Regardless of the distance traveled or time spent in the snowy mountains, the reward on hut trips is usually the same: a sense of achievement followed by complete awe for the vast expanse that makes up the Rocky Mountains and the sheer solitude that can be found there during the winter—when most of life has gone into hibernation and all that’s left is a group of friends, the pack on your back, and a glistening, white, untracked trail waiting to be discovered. For optimal dates, become a member with the 10th Mountain Division hut system and enter the annual lottery. Applications are due mid-February. After all member requests are filled, hut reservations open to the public in June. For more information, visit huts.org
photography by c2 photography