10th mountain huts: high-mountain havens
January 12, 2007
They’re tucked into the deep woods near the Continental Divide, a system of trails and “huts” that some consider too big and too comfortable for the name, but that most see as vital to the public’s enjoyment of its wild spaces in the coldest times of the year.For a quarter of a century, the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association system of huts, which stretch like a string of aerobically linked pearls between Aspen, Vail and Leadville, have found increasing popularity among backcountry enthusiasts around the world.Starting with two huts built relatively close together in the peaks above Hunter Creek and Aspen, the system has grown to 14 huts built and owned by the 10th Mountain association itself.
Another 15 are part of the 10th Mountain registration system, but they range from veritable snowbound hotels to structures barely more substantial than a yurt. These are either private property or part of separate hut systems.Still other unaffiliated hut networks are scattered around the region, such as the San Juan Huts that offer skiing in the winter and mountain biking in the summer, including a hut-to-hut tour from Telluride, Colo., to Moab, Utah.According to current 10th Mountain Hut Association director Ben Dodge, who grew up in Minnesota, came to Aspen in 1983 and became director of the association five years ago, there are plans to build two more huts. And that, if the current leaders have their way, may be where it all stops – except, of course, for the maintenance of the system and the pleasure derived in its use by tens of thousands of people every year.But even with two more in the chain, supply will likely never keep up with demand.”The more I get to know about the huts, the more I realize the importance of the huts to a lot of people,” Dodge remarked, noting that the 10th Mountain reservations office clocks roughly 49,000 “user nights per year.” A user night, he said, is the use of one bunk for one night by one person. Half of that number, he said, is in the 10th Mountain association’s own huts. The other half is in huts owned by other entities but managed by 10th Mountain.
The system, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, was started by a combination of veterans of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, who fought with distinction in Italy at the end of World War II, and a small cadre of like-minded backcountry skiers.The principal idea, as the story is told, came from 10th Mountain Division veteran and noted Aspen architect Fritz Benedict. In a history of the hut system written about 16 years ago, Benedict explained that some time around 1940 he had written a graduate thesis at the University of Wisconsin on the establishment of a ski-trails system in that state.Later he joined the Army, trained at Camp Hale near Leadville, and ended up in Italy fighting with the 10th Mountain Division. Returning to Aspen with many other veterans after the war, he wrote, he helped the late Fred Braun fix up an old miner’s cabin above Ashcroft in 1946, starting what later became the Braun hut system between Aspen and another Colorado Rockies ski town, Crested Butte. The Braun system, now owned and operated by the U.S. Ski Association, is managed under the 10th Mountain association’s reservation system.It was some time around 1960, according to Benedict’s history, that the idea of a trail linking backcountry huts in the other direction, toward Vail, started forming in his mind.”Hiking and skiing in the backcountry while planning Vail Village 30 years ago, I first thought of a trail between Aspen and Vail,” he wrote, explaining that a number of Aspen men, including Jim Ward, Bill Mason, Amund Ekroll and Lars Larson “made a winter tour from Vail to Aspen” one year, and that “Gary Wall, Vail police chief, ran from Vail to Aspen in the summer in 13 hours.”Perhaps most famously, two groups of 10th Mountain Division soldiers trekked between Leadville and Aspen in 1943 and 1944 (see related story).”I felt this trail could be a memorial to men of the famous alpine troops who had done so much to build the sport of skiing throughout the country,” Benedict wrote.
But it wasn’t until 1980 that Benedict “gathered a small group of volunteers together to form a non-profit organization which we later named the 10th Mountain Trail Association.”Benedict and his group worked with an initially skeptical U.S. Forest Service, which resisted having ski huts located on White River National Forest terrain, while hut system advocates Robert McNamara (former U.S. Secretary of Defense) and Dr. Ben Eiseman went about raising the money to build what was planned be the first hut, in honor of McNamara’s recently deceased wife, Margaret.The drive was so successful, though, that the association could afford to build both the McNamara (designed by Benedict, at 10,360 feet in altitude) and the Margy’s (designed by Benedict and former association director Elizabeth Boyles, at 11,300 feet) in summer 1982 at a cost of $167,000 for both, in Margaret’s honor. Permission to build came only after Robert McNamara agreed to pay to have them torn down and hauled away in five years if they weren’t used heavily enough to suit the USFS. The huts roughly have followed the same plan as the first two – two stories, with benches that serve as beds on both floors, one or two private bedrooms – a total capacity of 16 or so. Some have more space, some are more luxurious than others, but all call for the same basic plan of use – pack in only your food, sleeping bag and clothes; pack out your trash, and leave the place cleaner than you found it.Almost right away, recalled Dodge, the huts became immensely popular. In per-hut terms, he said, today’s use levels were achieved nearly from the first year of the system’s existence. From the beginning, he said, users had to call earlier and earlier to find a vacant bunk on any weekend night during the prime months of January, February and March, and it was almost as difficult to find a vacancy during the week.Over the next 15 years, another 12 huts went up, as did the costs and, with each new hut, the overall numbers of skiers using the system. Second to last was the Eiseman, north of Vail, built for $275,000 in 1996. The final two huts to be built so far are the dual Benedict Huts, named Fritz and Fabi as memorials to the system’s founder and his wife; they were built together on Smuggler Mountain near Aspen in 1997 (the year Fabi died, two years after Fritz’s death) at a total cost of $203,000.
Throughout the early years, said Dodge, the system was sustained by the volunteerism that made it possible to build and maintain the huts and the trails, as well as raise the money for it all. Soon, though, the fiscal needs of the system’s upkeep began to outstrip its original simplicity, and new ways of raising money were needed.With the construction of the Peter Estin hut in 1985, donors to hut construction projects also agreed to donate to a separate “endowment fund,” which amounted to $50,000 for the Estin Hut. By the 1989 construction of the 10th Mountain Division Hut, the endowment request to big-money donors was for an amount equal to the cost of the hut, or $126,000 in the 10th Mountain hut’s case. That level of contributions, which has continued to this day, has enabled the system to maintain its financial footing in the face of mounting overhead costs.At an early point in the system’s development, according to the recollections of Benedict and others, a group of association activists went to Europe to tour the fabled Haute Route from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, staying in different huts for six nights.From that fact-finding mission, Benedict wrote, they brought back “some new ideas, especially the ‘endless beds’ rather than the American bunk bed system.” He was referring to the use of long wooden platforms, on which hut-trippers could sleep like rungs on a horizontal ladder, using as much room as needed or available depending on the numbers of people in the hut on a given night.As the 10th Mountain system grew, it was matched by other, less ambitious hut-building projects that complemented and extended the reach of the linked system.”In 3 or 4 years it will be possible to ski from Crested Butte to Ashcroft to Aspen via the Fred Braun Huts, to Beaver Creek or Leadville, to Vail, to Copper Mountain, to Frisco, to Breckenridge, to Keystone and end up at the Montezuma Inn (a distance of 150 miles) without ever sleeping in the snow,” Benedict exulted in his history. “We will then have achieved our own ‘American Haute Route.'”
And it’s not as though only skiers use the huts. Nearly all of those built by the 10th Mountain association, except for the McNamara and the Benedict huts, are now open for summer use.That wasn’t always the case. Former director Peter Looram, Dodge’s predecessor, recalled that his own predecessor, Rob Burnett, thought summertime use would represent what Looram termed “an attractive nuisance.”That changed, though, when Looram, now 59, became director in the late 1980s.”It seemed to me we were leaving an unused opportunity” in not allowing the huts to be open in the summer, Looram said last week, noting that he realized “the huts could use the income.”
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Although the huts are increasingly used in summer by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders, Looram said “it took a little time” and the summer use still is not as intensive as the winter use. He said he doubted a system such as the 10th Mountain group of huts could be built today, given all the conflicts about the use of public lands.Cindy Rippy, a Glenwood Springs resident who has been using the hut system for a decade or so, said she uses them as much in the summer months as she does in the winter.A winter camper prior to becoming a hut-tripper, Rippy said she “became hooked on the first go-round. It was a great way to go further in the winter” without the hassles of pitching tents in the snow or digging ice caves, and without worrying about avalanches.As for the summers, she said, “You don’t have to be a backcountry guru [to get deep in the woods for an extended stay], and I think that’s what’s great about it.” She said even her aging mother has been able to go on summer trips, riding in a truck on four-wheel-drive roads to wheelchair-accessible huts – “She really got to be on top of the world. I think it’s a wonderful family activity … for people that don’t like the winter, but love the summer” in the backcountry.
Ben Dodge said there have been proposals to extend the hut system linkages to other parts of Colorado, or even to create a system stretching clear up into Canada.But such plans are not in the works now.Starting in the late 1990s, the White River National Forest, where the 10th Mountain huts are located, began formulating a new forest management plan. At the same time, the 10th Mountain association delayed any plans for new huts and focused on maintenance and energy-efficiency improvements to existing huts. They were waiting, Dodge said, to see where motorized trail users would be allowed, so as to avoid conflicts. Dodge said he and the 19-member board approached the USFS with plans for perhaps 11 new possible hut sites at one point, but the plan has been trimmed back to two. One of those is now being reviewed by the USFS. It is located near the base of Tennessee Pass, northwest of Leadville, according to a USFS statement, and is intended for use by skiers, snowshoers and horseback riders in the summer months.Dodge cringed slightly at the idea that the 10th Mountain association is considered by some to be a “backcountry developer,” though he conceded the point.Still, he said, it was the 10th Mountain board that pared the list of future projects down to two, in locations that would create “loops” linking huts now limited to out-and-back trips. The aim was to add huts without radically increasing traffic counts or otherwise creating environmental problems.”Tenth Mountain is really simple,” Dodge said. “We do huts. It’s simplicity of mission and staying true to the vision of the founders. We know we can’t preserve the integrity of the system, or improve the system, and screw up the areas around it.”The managers of the 10th Mountain Division Hut System gave the organization a 25th anniversary party this year, at a gathering of nearly 150 10th Mountain Division veterans, hut system supporters and volunteers and others Jan. 20 in Denver at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.