Worldwide, the ski touring hut experience varies from noisy and mechanized to sublime and nearly monastic. Depending on attitude and goals, either style can be one of the crowning experiences of our sport.
Here in Colorado, we tend to keep it on the tranquil side. Our style is human-powered winter travel (including hauling our own food), complimented by the peaceful solitude of wilderness areas the huts often nestle against. One of our best groups of backcountry huts is the 10th Mountain, a network of cabins ranging the spectrum of “spartan elegance” in a mountain area roughly between world famous ski resorts Aspen and Vail.
We were looking for something new with easy skiing nearby. The 10th Mountain McNamara Hut east of Aspen is a good intro to the hut skiing experience. The 6 miles in, and 1200’ of elevation is fairly mellow for a route in the mountains. The skiing near the hut is also well-suited to intermediates, lots of low angled options, with little avalanche danger along the route and around the hut.
We packed for comfort, not for speed. Utilizing a Lucky Bums sled, we towed in our food and libations along with a load in our backpacks. Little of my gear is specialized for ski touring; most is simply what I have acquired for car camping and mountain biking. As I’ve spent more time doing backcountry ski trips, “light & packable” has moved near the top of my gear concerns, but for now, my Coleman sleeping bag takes up half of my 50 liter pack, and my down jacket compresses to the size of a mushy cantaloupe. I didn’t bother to weigh my pack, but it certainly did not make Lou’s recommended 16 lbs. A rough heft-of-the-hand guesstimate would be well over twice that much.
One of the more difficult, but under-rated navigational cruxes in a hut trip is finding your way out of the parking lot. For all the time spent poring over contour lines and memorizing trail junctions, it is easy to overlook figuring out exactly which trail to take from the door of your automobile.
Not until I feel the blood pumping warm through my veins again do I even begin to wonder if we are headed the right way. The road cut arcing across the hillside above us is where we need to be, not meandering along the valley floor. Fortunately, it was a little less than a quarter mile detour in the Hunter Creek Valley, and made for some nice pics with the Aspen Highlands ski resort in the background.
The trail up to Van Horn Park is open and scenic, with mellow elevation gain. Once you’re out of the valley, the route is well marked and traveled, making navigation simple. Stopping for a break and snacks at Van Horn Park, we met with a group heading out from the McNamara hut. They apologized for “tracking up all the snow,” but the grey clouds ranging in from the west promised refreshment. We made it to the cabin just as the last guests were leaving, and the first flakes falling. Few things feel as cozy as coming into a wooden shelter, stoking a fire in the stove while unpacking food & beverage, then watching snow pile up on the deck.
We debated long and hard about exactly which spritzers & mixers to bring, but we didn’t bring anything for blisters. Between much heavier than normal packs and trading off sled-pulling duty, Alison and I had both developed this bane of the backcountry slogger. But with snow coming down from a thick, grey sky, blisters are a great excuse to stay close to the warm stove and rummage the first-aid kit.
Snow continued to fall on our second day, enhancing our atmosphere of languor. . .err, recovery. Having the place all to ourselves while fat flakes piled on the deck, and soft avalanches whumped off the roof is as luxurious of living as I desire. During a late-afternoon lull in the storm, I got in a brief tour to the top of Bald Knob, following the rapidly disappearing skin track up through the glades & trees to the edge of what seemed to match the description of Bald Knob, but the heavy snow revealed only a lightning singed cluster of spruce, and an open meadow stretching into a white-out of infinity. This is where the route from the Mcnamara to the Benedict huts crosses into legal Wilderness, becoming one of the most difficult route-finding endeavors in the 10th Mountain System. It would be challenging enough in the best of conditions, horrifying under the present. So I was glad to turn around and ski back down through boot-high powder to a warm shelter.
My duct tape/band aid hybrid blister protection worked well enough to power me up for a second lap up through the trees directly off the deck. Though the spruce can be thick, it is all low-angle skiing, and the deepening fluff made controlling speed for tree weaves delightful.
Bluebird sky and fresh powder on the day you have to depart the hut is one of the more bittersweet registers on the scale of ski touring experiences. When the powder is so light & fluffy ski poles drag through the top 6” of snow without noticeable drag, your mind is split between reveling in the quiet winter beauty, and wondering if there is any way to prolong your stay. Indeed, hauling your own food is an ingenious method of making sure you don’t overstay your booking when conditions feel too good to leave.
We made a quick tour to the top of Bald Knob, reveled in the panorama of views, and milked all the fun we could out of the turns between the trees, and glades. Alison, whose previous backcountry experiences had been on a splitboard, found skis much easier to control in unfamiliar terrain.
On the return trip, I made another ascent of the densely forested peak southwest of the hut, planning on descending a route to Van Horn Park. By the time I reached the top, I knew I was already running behind time to make my rendezvous with Alison, and I still had not counted on a relatively lengthy flat section off the west side. I began descending across the fall line until I reached the road cut the skin track follows, then found myself faced with a hearty boot pack session in the tracks of Alison’s sled till I was able to make the low-angle descent into Van Horn Park, with much supplemental poling.
The descent along Hunter Road is an easy glide on ski touring gear, with views of the lofty Elk Mountains you may have missed on the way in. Spotting the car on the way back in is always good for a sigh of relief, and bittersweet longing for the simple, snow-driven hut life left behind.
For more information about the 10th Mountain Huts, check out huts.org.
(Guest blogger Aaron Mattix grew up in Kansas and wrote a report on snowboarding in seventh grade. His first time to attempt snowboarding was in 2012, and soon switched over to skis for backcountry exploration near his home in Rifle, CO. His skill level is “occasionally makes complete runs without falling.” In the summer, he owns and operates Gumption Trail Works, building mountain bike singletrack and the occasional sweet jump.)