Hut tripping around Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Hut tripping around Aspen

Paul Andersen
Special to The Aspen Times

A skier zigzags up a backcountry slope during a ski tour in the Aspen backcountry last winter. The avalanche risk went from high earlier this season to moderate and low during the January-February dry spell. The risk is expected to increase again with new snow.

To most people, a "hut" conjures the image of a dingy shack hidden in the woods. Only in Aspen can a hut morph into a beautiful mountain refuge set in a stunning location.

After you've made a journey to one of the huts around Aspen, a hut becomes far more than mere refuge. It is a home away from home, a sanctuary from the frenetic world, an invitation to adventure and a place of love and laughter where friends gather, new and old.

The 10th mountain huts

The Benedict Huts are artistically designed mountain chalets perched together on a timbered hilltop just 6 miles from Aspen. Their windows overlook snow-covered meadows and distant peaks.

Access starts right from town up Smuggler Road, followed by a long, steady climb through a spruce-fir forest mantled with pillows of downy snow. The Benedict Huts are arranged as a pair because they memorialize Fritz and Fabi Benedict, two beloved Aspenites.

Fritz Benedict founded the 10th Mountain Division Hut System (www.huts.org) in 1980 in honor of the 10th Mountain Division, a mountaineering unit of the U.S. Army that trained in these mountains for brutal combat duty in Italy and a foray to the Aleutian Islands.

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Benedict served with the 10th Mountain during World War II, and he oversaw construction of the first two huts in the system — the McNamara and Margy's huts — modeled after the huts of Europe. These matching huts also honor a prominent couple — Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, and his wife, Margaret ("Margy").

Ben Eiseman, a friend of the McNamara family, raised funds for these huts, which were built in 1982. The Forest Service permitted them with the caveat that if they were not successful, both huts would be torn down and the sites reclaimed.

Success was proven, and today the 10th Mountain manages 34 huts from Aspen to Vail to Summit County, spread across 300 miles of trails radiating north and east of Aspen.

THE BRAUN HUTS AND FRIENDS' HUT

To the south of Aspen is another set of huts, a favorite of which is the Goodwin-Green. Dwarfed in its high-elevation, treeline setting at the far end of Richmond Ridge, this tiny gem of a hut has Shangri-La qualities.

During winter storms, it is known to magically appear and disappear at the whim of the weather. Errant hut trippers tell epic stories of trying to find this "Hobbit"-like shelter as snow blows, daylight dims and temperatures plummet.

The Goodwin-Green is one of seven Braun Huts, a system of humble and lovable huts founded in the 1950s and named for hut manager Alfred Braun, a hard-bitten German mountaineer and founder of Search and Rescue Aspen.

If you really want to stretch your capabilities, the tour over dramatic 12,700-foot Pearl Pass to the Friends' Hut between Aspen and Crested Butte is a focused exercise in avalanche-risk assessment, route finding, compass reading and discretion on if, or when, to turn back.

The Friends' Hut is booked through the 10th Mountain Huts but was built independently in the early 1980s as a memorial to 10 friends from Crested Butte and Aspen who died in a head-on plane crash over East Maroon Pass in 1980.

A book-length history of the Friends' Hut is available through the 10th Mountain Huts online store at http://www.hutstore.org.

PLANNING A HUT TRIP

All of the huts may be booked on advance reservations either online or by phone. But that's the easy part. Getting to and from most huts requires a degree of map-reading skills, mountain fitness, functional gear and a willing attitude.

The huts come with wood-burning heat and propane cooking stoves, utensils, solar-powered lights, bunks, an outhouse and a cozy ambience. Visitors bring sleeping bags, food and personal clothing and equipment.

Essential ingredients to any successful hut trip are mountain savvy and winter preparedness. Most of the routes are demanding and laborious at high elevations, and with fresh snow, trail breaking becomes a team activity that can sorely test even the most stout-hearted men and women.

Many of the Braun Hut routes are exposed to some avalanche risk, while the 10th Mountain huts are mostly without. Awareness of avalanche and weather conditions is essential.

The huts of Aspen have become popular because of the opportunities they provide for peace, quiet and natural beauty. That's why hut users run the gamut from retirees to schoolchildren and from cancer survivors to combat veterans.

Huts for Vets is a nonprofit group based in Aspen that uses Margy's Hut as a summer sanctuary for combat veterans seeking serenity and healing from the invisible wounds of war (www.hutsforvets.org).

The huts of Aspen are world-class amenities. They draw backcountry aficionados into the wild to celebrate camaraderie, down-home comfort and the many joys of what nature has provided so richly in these mountains we call home.

Paul Andersen is an Aspen Times columnist, contributing writer and book author. He is executive director of Huts for Vets and an avid hut tripper. This story originally appeared in Winter in Aspen, a free winter-guide-style magazine currently available on racks and in hotels throughout town. 

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