10th Mountain Hut profiles – backcountry at its best
February 11, 2004
Tired of chairlifts? Had enough of powder-day crowds? Or maybe you’re just looking for another way to enjoy Rocky Mountain serenity while shedding a few pounds at the same time.
If so, maybe a backcountry trip to one of the many 10th Mountain Huts between Aspen and Vail is the winter recipe you have been craving.
For years, mountain huts have sheltered the world’s skiers and climbers. In the Alps, hundreds of structures cling to cliffs and sit in alpine meadows, giving mountain enthusiasts access to remote, high-altitude precipices or mountain escapes from the daily bustle.
Colorado saw its first chain of shelters in the 1940s in what is now the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. But it was not until the early 1980s that the first 10th Mountain structure appeared.
Often referred to as some of the most luxurious mountain escapes or “Hiltons of Huts,” the 10th Mountain Hut System was started 15 years ago by a group of Aspen locals led by the late Fritz Benedict, a prolific Aspen architect and town patriarch.
After writing his thesis in architecture school on the Midwest’s public trail system and then moving to Aspen, Benedict pursued his dream of starting a hut system in the Rocky Mountains modeled after the 100-year-old hut system in New Hampshire and the famous “Haute Route” system that runs between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland.
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Benedict enlisted the help of Robert McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, who helped convince a skeptical US. Forest Service of the project’s potential success and got the first two huts funded. After that, Benedict was able to launch his dream.
The new hut system soon took on the name of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which trained for mountain fighting more than 50 years ago in Camp Hale just west of Vail near Tennessee Pass. The training grounds prepared 11,000 soldiers in 1942. Many went on to fight critical battles in the Italian Dolomites toward the end of World War II. After the war, many soldiers returned to Colorado and helped develop the state’s ski industry.
Although, Benedict’s backcountry hut dream honored the famed Army division, it was initially agreed that if the huts did not reach anticipated use after five years, they would be torn down.
Today, not only are there 12 10th Mountain huts standing, but the Aspen-based non-profit organization also manages two other Colorado clusters of cabins, and the entire system is one of the country’s most popular hut networks.
Venturing into backcountry solitude not only instills camaraderie but it offers a refreshing change from the rush of daily life. But if you opt to don a pack and skis or snowshoes and journey into the mountains to enjoy a 10th Mountain experience, which hut do you choose?
With 12 huts in the 10th Mountain system — including two new additions in the last two years — the options are many.
All 10th Mountain huts cost about $24 a night per person and include wood-burning stoves for heat, propane burners for cooking, photo-voltaic lighting and handicap accessibility.
But the surrounding landscape and architecture of each hut is distinct. Some offer steep, high-altitude skiing and grandiose views while others boast cozy quarters and pristine mountain meadow touring.
For a 10th Mountain enthusiast, hut trip choices are usually molded by which huts have not been visited yet. But for the less experienced backcountry hut goer, it is wise and critical for safety to have a strong grasp of which hut and trails fit your needs and abilities.
All hut trips require planning and sufficient backcountry food, clothing and gear. Although the huts are considered comfortable and often times luxurious, they are still shelters in remote areas at high elevations of the Rocky Mountains. Without proper planning and the right equipment, a typical Colorado storm can turn what seems to be a simple hut trip into potential disaster.
Aside from taking safety precautions, hut guests must also plan ahead because of 10th Mountain’s popularity. Huts fill up quickly and they also are frequently full night after night so skiers should pay close attention to hut etiquette developed by the 10th Mountain and its users to ensure equally pleasant stays for future guests.
The following brief guide of the 10th Mountain-owned Huts offers details about location, surrounding terrain and trails, history and other trivia.
McNamara – elevation 10,360 feet
Built in 1982, the McNamara was one of the first two 10th Mountain huts. Constructed in memory of the late Margy McNamara and built with funding from her husband, Robert, the former Secretary of Defense, this older two-story hut offers cozy quarters ideal for long talks around a hot stove.
However, with both stoves on the first floor, a hot fire in the living room or kitchen can often create an uncomfortably warm sleeping experience since all the bunks except one room are on the second floor.
Located in Burnt Hole to the north of Bald Knob (11,092 feet), the notched log structure lends itself to easily accessible intermediate backcountry skiing.
The surrounding landscape also provides great touring throughout the young-growth forests. Since lumber was a valuable commodity in the late 1800s — for fuel, mining timbers and buildings — the entire area around Burnt Hole stretching from Red Mountain to Bald Knob was stripped of trees, leaving a relatively young forest today.
The region was also victim to a slew of forest fires — thus the name Burnt Hole. Many sawmills used to operate in the area including the Burnt Hole mill. The mill’s remains can still be seen today to the east of the hut.
For the most common route to McNamara, skiers or snowshoers can leave Aspen via the Hunter Creek Trailhead and travel through Van Horn Park. The trail is rated intermediate with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. It’s six miles to the hut, with an estimated travel time of six hours up and four hours down.
Like all 10th Mountain trails that run on Forest Service land, blue diamonds mark the way. However, certain classified wilderness areas do not allow any trail markings or limbing of any sort. That leaves hut goers to depend on their orienteering skills.
Skiers can also reach this oldest of 10th Mountain huts via Woody Creek by starting at Lenado. Like the Hunter Creek route, the Lenado access is intermediate but with a slightly shorter distance of 5 1/4 miles and a 5 1/2 hour trip up and five-hour-trip down.
Margy’s Hut – elevation 11,300 feet
Much like the McNamara, the Margy’s hut was built in 1982 with funds donated by Robert McNamara and friends as a memorial to Robert’s wife. The design is almost identical to the McNamara, offering the same cozy atmosphere and similar overheating problems in the upstairs sleeping quarters.
Unlike the McNamara, Margy’s offers a great but short downhill skiing run off the front porch allowing for a few quick laps before breakfast or some entertaining telemark spectating from a warm seat in the hut. More popular downhill skiing can be discovered close by on Mount Yeckel. The hut also provides vast views of the Elk Mountains to the south.
The immediate surrounding forest was logged in the early 1900s but virgin woods can easily be found nearby to the east for peaceful backcountry touring.
The Margy’s can be accessed from the Lenado entrance with an intermediate trail via Spruce Creek. Skiers should allow six hours up for the 6 1/2 mile route and four hours down or more if you want to take advantage of the 2,660-feet-elevation change for skiing.
Skiers can cut their ski-in time by a half hour if they take the Johnson Creek Trail — also intermediate. But the trail is often referred to as the “interstate highway” to the Margy’s.
Benedict Hut – elevation 10,900 feet
The newest addition to the 10th Mountain System sits just above Aspen. Built in memory of the organization’s forefather, Fritz Benedict, and his beloved late wife, Fabi, this newcomer opened in early 1998. Unlike other huts, the Benedict offers two structures, the Fritz (sleeps 10) and the Fabi (sleeps six and must be rented out in its entirety) to offer small groups the privacy of renting out a smaller hut.
The most notable element of the Benedict is its outhouse. Unlike most 10th Mountain Louies, which are cold, dark and usually places you try to spend as little time in as possible, this new ba?o includes two transparent walls (out of view from the huts) made entirely of glass, offering the best views of any outhouse in the system.
In fact, its creative design by Aspen architect Al Beyer and remarkable southern views of Pyramid and Castle peaks are so inviting that the Benedict outhouse might one-day need a waiting list.
Although the new memorial structure does not provide any nearby steep terrain for downhill skiing, there is exceptional touring nearby through one of the Forest Service’s strictest wilderness areas.
The one-story cabins also provide tasteful and cozy interiors. The exterior was carefully recycled from an old peat farm building that used to sit just down the hill on the edge of some rare high-altitude peat bogs.
To reach the hut, take the Smuggler Mine Road on the north edge of Aspen. The intermediate, 5.8-mile trail shadows the road to Warren Lakes and skiers should expect an estimated six-hour journey in and four hour ski-out. If you are hoping to see the new Benedict Hut, expect reservations to fill up quickly since it is the talk of the town.
Harry Gates Hut – elevation 9,700 feet
Built in 1986, this fourth addition to the 10th Mountain Hut system is the largest of all the structures. Its log construction offers three floors, two kitchens (one main and one reserved for guided groups and maintenance people) and it sleeps 20 although reservations are limited to 16. Funding came from the Gates Foundation in memory of the late Harry F. Gates who held a deep passion for mountains.
With the lowest elevation of any 10th Mountain abode, the Gates is easily accessible and the setting offers novice backcountry skiers a perfect place to practice their skills, with Burnt Mountain as an easy playground. Plenty of windows enable clear views of Avalanche Ridge and Peak for those who prefer to remain near a hot stove.
More advanced skiers, however, have plenty of opportunity to find steep skiing if they are willing to explore. Trails access higher mountains to the east and northeast of the hut. Tellurium Park is an appealing side trip.
The Diamond J Trailhead via Montgomery Flats is the easiest and suggested route to the Gates Hut. The 6 3/4 mile trip is mostly on a logging road through the forest with clear vistas of the Elk Mountains to the south. The trail is rated novice and the expected travel time is six hours up with a five-hour return.
Peter Estin Hut – elevation 11,200 feet
Just northeast of the Gates sits the third oldest member of the 10th Mountain system, the Estin Hut, funded by the Estin Family in memory of Peter Estin.
Like the Margy’s and the McNamara, the Estin follows the standard 10th Mountain two-story log style. But unlike the modest ski time to the Gates, the Estin Hut’s suggested route calls for a ski-in time of 11 hours. It takes eight hours to ski out on the 9 1/2 mile trail (with an almost 3,000 foot elevation gain.)
This long grind, which incorporates miles of a popular snowmobile track, is referred to as the Sylvan Lake Trailhead via Crooked Creek Pass. (Other trail options exist; ask the 10th Mountain staff.)
If you overcome the long grind up, you will enjoy breathtaking views of the Elk and Williams mountains to the south and access to a myriad of trails and old logging roads for skiing and touring. There is also plenty of steep downhill skiing available right out the front door or on Charles Peak to the northwest (12,050 feet). But skiers should be watchful of avalanche dangers.
Betty Bear – elevation 11,100 feet
Built in 1991, the Betty Bear Hut — named after the wives of donors Jack Schuss and Al Zesiger — was a milestone in 10th Mountain history. Since the inception of the system 15 years ago, a goal was to connect Aspen to Vail by huts. Until the Betty Bear was developed, skiers could not reach Vail without the help of an automobile.
Now, skiers can tackle the trail system without car shuttles from Aspen to Vail. Located above the Frying Pan River valley near the summit of Hagerman Pass, the Betty Bear offers the critical link between the Aspen huts and other huts to the east. Aspen architect Harry Teague designed the two-story log cabin with the living and kitchen areas on the second floor to remedy the “too-warm” situation in the sleepy quarters of many other huts.
However, in its first years, the sleeping area was so cold that another heating source was added to the downstairs, allowing skiers to control the temperature of both floors with ease and creating a comfortable climate for all.
With immense views of the Continental Divide, the Betty Bear provides exceptional vistas from its bay-windowed breakfast room and its location serves intermediate skiers well.
Access to the hut up the 6.9-mile Road 505 trail is an estimated seven-hour ski-in and six-hour departure with a steady and mellow climb up for the first part. But the last pitch to the hut rises dramatically, calling for a medium length “skin up” to reach the hut.
Skinner Hut – elevation 11,620 feet
Nestled on the edge of Timberline just over the east side of Hagerman Pass from the Betty-Bear Hut, the one-story Skinner hut is the second highest in the system. Its unique stone construction and one-floor design offers sleeping for 19, nice interior cedar woodwork and a cozy living room that is sunk slightly lower than the rest of the floor plan.
With the Skinner sitting almost atop the Continental Divide, the views to the east of Mount Sherman (14,036 feet) in the Mosquito Mountains are superb. But due to the high mountain setting, the hut is frequently buried beneath snowdrifts making the structure occasionally hard to find.
Such deep snow and nearby steep pitches offer great downhill skiing, but as always, guests should heed the heavy avalanche danger. Because much of the terrain surrounding the hut is highly susceptible to avalanches, all routes to the Skinner are rated advanced.
Unlike other 10th Mountain Huts which all have at least one intermediate route where ski waxing can be sufficient, adventurers to the Skinner will quickly realize that skins are a necessity.
The 8 3/4 mile Glacier Creek trail is the most popular route, but it involves an extremely steep climb and descent. Expect travel time of up to eight hours with a six-hour descent. Named after 10th Mountain Division veteran William Wood Skinner and funded by Skinner’s sister Elizabeth Guenzel, the Skinner was completed in 1990.
Uncle Bud’s Hut – elevation 11,380 feet
While similar in size and style to its neighbor, the 10th Mountain Hut, Uncle Bud’s Hut was built with framed construction, not log, and it incorporates stone masonry giving it a unique feel. This hut with exceptional views of 14,421-foot Mount Massive out its south windows was named after 10th Mountain Division veteran Bud Winter, who died in Italy during World War II and is dearly remembered as a true mountaineer. Funds were donated by Bud’s brother, Dr. Fred Winter, and their sister, Laura.
Strong skiers can enjoy a hardy loop over Hagerman Pass to the Frying Pan River Drainage by connecting this hut with the Skinner and the Betty Bear. Less ambitious backcountry goers can make use of an easy access to Uncle Bud’s up a short 3 3/4 mile route called Turquoise Lake Trailhead.
With such a short distance, novices can use the hut as a solid stepping stone to more aggressive trips, while advanced skiers can enjoy the short distance to set-up a base-camp at Uncle Bud’s and then set out on longer day trips, or continue on to other huts.
10th Mountain Division – elevation 11,370 feet
Funded by a group of 10th Mountain Division veterans – Bill Boddington, Col. Pete Peterson, Maury Kuper and Bill Bowerman – and built in 1989, the 10th Mountain Hut clings to a gladed hillside on the edge of the Continental Divide west of Tennessee Pass.
With all the usual 10th Mountain amenities and beds for 16 and a private bedroom upstairs, this log structure provides a winter’s escape as good as any. The surrounding terrain is more subtle than most huts giving ski tourers a great high altitude base-camp.
For those looking for steeper chutes, the Continental Divide soaring above the hut offers plenty of peaks, climbs and bowl skiing.
Trekking to the 10th Mountain Hut is most frequently done by the Tennessee Pass Trailhead via the North Fork West Tennessee Creek. This 5 3/4 mile route takes roughly five hours to get up and it avoids a few popular snowmobile routes. However, since the Colorado Trail and a few Forest Service managed ski trails intersect the route to the 10th Mountain Hut, skiers should pay close attention to their maps and the T.M.T.A. blue diamond trail markers.
The Jackal Hut — elevation 11,660 feet
Sitting on the edge of timberline, the Jackal Hut provides exceptional skiing and brilliant views of many 14,000-foot peaks. The two-story log structure maintains a standard design. And due to the hut’s lofty elevation, helicopters were needed to haul in building supplies. The Jackal includes one of the many new outhouses that were added in the summers of 1994 and 1995. The new facility remedied many complaints about the hut’s old and cramped outhouse quarters.
Funding for the Jackal came from donations made by Jack Schuss and Al Zesiger, two strong 10th Mountain supporters who repeatedly have donated their time and resources to the non-profit organization.
While there are many routes to the Jackal, the quickest trail is the Ranch Creek. But the 10th Mountain Association suggests the longest path — the Pando Trailhead. Rated as intermediate, the Pando route is 7 1/4 miles with a 2,516-foot elevation gain.
Fowler/Hilliard Hut – elevation 11,500 feet
Not far from the Jackal and constructed in the same footprint, the Fowler/Hilliard is perched a half mile northeast of Resolution Mountain’s summit. It was built in memory of the well-known Denver residents Ann Fowler and Ed Hilliard who perished in a climbing accident on North Maroon Peak near Aspen. Funding for the memorial hut came from more than 260 people and businesses.
With space for 16 and a roomy kitchen with two stove burners, the Fowler/ Hilliard provides plenty of space for a large group and plenty of privacy for smaller groups sharing the cabin for a night.
Southern views of many fourteeners are outstanding as is skiing the surrounding terrain. Like the Jackal, the route is also along the Pando Trailhead. But if you’re going to the Fowler/Hilliard, skiers should travel via McAllister Gulch. This intermediate 5 1/4 mile trail is the recommended (and most direct) route to the hut.
Eiseman Hut – elevation 11,200 feet
Another recent addition to the famed Colorado Hut system, the Eiseman Hut was completed in December of 1996 and named after Dr. Ben Eiseman, a life-long backcountry enthusiast and good friend of Robert McNamara.
As the only hut in the network north of I-70, this new kid on the block sits above Vail in the Gore Range and is purely a destination hut — any effort to ski on to another hut would require re-entering civilization before rejoining another trail to the south.
The Eiseman log structure has been termed the “Vail Hilton” due to its grandiose scale — — 2,200 square feet and a vaulted ceilings — and its proximity to Vail. You can see the top of the Vail ski area from the hut. At night, the lights are especially noticeable.