Aspen Untucked: Take Me to the Backcountry
January 4, 2017
Sprinkled throughout the high peaks and deep valleys of Colorado's Rocky Mountains lie a system of huts. Each one has its own history, dating back as far as the mid-1900s. When looked at all together, there are a total of 34 that span more than 350 miles. Each one is managed by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping these cozy shelters preserved for visitors.
Each winter, as the snow begins to accumulate, the huts fill with eager travelers who are looking to get a sense of Colorado's backcountry. Since living in Aspen, I've been told by numerous people that I must (repeat: MUST) go on a trip to one of these secluded huts. This experience has always been at the top of my Aspen bucket list, however I'm not alone in that regard. Whenever I looked into booking a trip it was impossible to find an available night that worked with my schedule. That was up until last week when my cousin took it upon himself to book a trip to Tagert Hut. Our entire family was in town visiting and he thought a night in the backcountry would be a fun experience for the younger generation.
Tagert Hut is located above 11,000 feet in Pearl Basin, which is at the base of Castle and Star Peak. It's named after Billy Tagert, a well-known local who ran away as a child to the Roaring Fork Valley. One of Tagert's favorite areas to play was in the Castle Creek Valley. In the 1920s, he and his friends spent many hours recreating in the high country and took over a dam tender's cabin. That structure is long gone today, but the one in its place, which was built in 1960, is the current Tagert Hut.
To get there, we hiked in about 5 miles from Ashcroft. Up until this point, my closest experience to winter in the backcountry had been hiking up Highland Bowl. Being off the grid, entirely immersed in these mountains was humbling, to say the least. The hike was also much more challenging than my measly legs, which are accustomed to groomed terrain, were prepared for. Luckily, my backcountry-trained cousin brought a snowmobile that carried the food, beverages, equipment and (embarrassingly enough) my own slow arse at one point.
When we all finally arrived at the hut, I was shocked by how orderly it was. The people who had been there before left us freshly cut wood and clean dishes. Nothing was out of place or in disarray. It showed how the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association isn't the only entity looking out for the well-being of these cabins. The visitors care for them and see to the upkeep, as well. This made Tagert Hut feel even more special upon arrival, because all of its visitors know that having access to these secluded places is a privilege, not a right.
With high peaks all around us, evening time arrived earlier than expected at the Tagert Hut. We cooked chicken tacos while sipping on Aspen brews and boxed wine. We played card games, told stories and laughed until we started to cry. Maybe it was the great company, or the impressive amounts of alcohol we consumed, or perhaps it was occupying a historic space where so many good times had been had before, but this evening will go down as one of my best Aspen experiences.
The next morning, most of the group hiked up from the hut and got some backcountry skiing in. My boyfriend and I had to get back into town, so we strapped on our snowshoes (he snowboarded) and started walking downhill toward Ashcroft. We returned to civilization once we passed Pine Creek Cookhouse. Crowds of people were being taken up to the restaurant in horse-drawn sleighs. They were the typical Aspen tourists for this time of year, decked out in fancy furs and snapping photos of the gorgeous scenery. They were dressed to the nines, in contrast to both of us, who looked raggedy from our two-day adventure.
As I looked up at the happy tourists that afternoon, I realized something. Most visitors, and probably a good amount of locals, are only skimming the surface of this little place called Aspen. There's so much more to see and experience than meets the eye. When we get past the dinner reservations, the designer handbags and the luxury vehicles, we can see the true side of Aspen, the place that people like Tagert and his friends fell in love with.
When you get a glimpse of that side, you will feel more prosperous than the wealthiest people in Aspen.
For more information on the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, go to huts.org. To reach Barbara, email her at email@example.com.