County seniors head for the hills in hut trip | AspenTimes.com

County seniors head for the hills in hut trip

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

“Valerie’s here illegally, because she’s not really a senior,” said Dr. Herschel Richter, Valerie’s husband.

She smiled back appreciatively.

Valerie and Herschel were among the handful of senior citizens who took off for an overnight trip last week to the Uncle Bud’s Hut in the mountains above Leadville.

It was the second trip of the summer organized by the Pitkin County Senior Center to a 10th Mountain Division hut. If voters decline to pass a temporary property tax increase in November?s general election, it may gain the distinction of being the last such hut trip for the foreseeable future.

Valerie and Herschel, fishing rod in hand, were interested in seeing all the lakes and ponds around the hut and took the initiative to find them. Their enthusiasm and willingness to take off for an extra walk by themselves was shared by some of the 60- and 70-somethings (and maybe a few 50-somethings) along for the trip, but not others.

“I ask myself what am I doing here? The last hut trip I took was about five years ago ? and I said never again,” said Gloria Wellen, a full-time Florida resident who has spent the last six summers in Aspen.

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Nevertheless, something called her back to the woods and convinced her to give hut-tripping one more try, even if it meant spending the night high in the Rockies with a group of people she didn’t know.

The party included eight “official” seniors (you only have to be 55 to qualify for that title), one underage masseuse, one guide/facilitator from the 10th Mountain Division and a reporter.

They all gathered at the senior center early in the morning last Tuesday. They packed their clothing and other personal items into waterproof bags that were loaded into the back of the truck driven by the 10th Mountain Division?s Scott Messina that, along with a car and two SUVs, was part of the caravan. Around noon, the vehicles and their passengers arrived at Uncle Bud’s Hut, located a few miles up a dirt road in a remote section of Lake County.

The first order of business was lunch, followed by what for most was a relatively easy, mile-long walk down a hill to Bear Lake. Everybody walked the walk, regardless of their hiking abilities and physical conditioning.

Julie Heyman, a 70-something woman who has lived in Aspen on and off since the 1970s and full-time since the mid-1980s, made the hike with two canes needed to cope with ankles that no longer work as designed. Joann Johnson, the underage masseuse, was also walking with a cane, necessary because of a debilitating ski injury that’s been slow to heal.

Julie, who spent most of her career in the field of international development, was the trip’s hostess. She answered people’s questions about the huts and what they needed to bring, collected money and assigned responsibility for buying and making each of the three meals (dinner on day one and breakfast and lunch on day two) or supplying the spirits.

Julie was once an avid backpacker, but arthritis in her ankles has since made that impossible, so more and more she relies on Senior Center-sponsored hut trips to get into the backcountry.

“I think seniors need to realize that even if you can only hike two steps you can still go to the cabin and paint ? you still have these mountains and can enjoy them,” she said.

Terry End, a 50-year resident of Aspen, motored across boulders and down trails with the agility and speed of someone in her mid-30s. Herschel and Valerie had little trouble getting where they wanted to go, either. Nor did Jack Wilke.

“I’ve done this before,” said Jack, a restaurateur who calls Los Angeles home but has a house in the West End. “I remember last time it was hot enough that all of the young people who were helping out went skinny dipping.”

When she heard about Jack’s comment, Terry thought for a moment, perhaps calculating the average age of last week’s crew, and commented, “After a certain age, that’s likely to give you a heart attack.”

Gloria, Mo Hawkes and Bonnie Wilke walked at a leisurely pace. Bonnie and Jack have been married for more than 40 years.

?Holy Moses! Is that the lake?? said Gloria from Florida as the view of Bear Lake, a relatively large, high-mountain lake surrounded by giant boulders and forest, opened up from the trail.

Everyone spent an hour or so at the lake talking in small groups, or in Herschel?s case fishing before most of the group started back up to the hut. Four or five decided to bushwhack their way around the lake, just to see what was on the other side.

The bushwhackers didn?t find much to report, except for an odd gathering of trout in the stream leading out of the bottom of the lake. As many as three dozen cutthroats or browns or rainbows, it was hard to tell looking down through the water?s surface, were gathered closely in a small pool near the lake. They weren?t moving around much, even though it looked as if they were stacked on top of each other, and none of them had any appetite for Herschel?s fly.

No one was sure what the fish were up to ? not even Scott, the 10th Mountain Division employee and veteran backcountry guide who was along to facilitate the trip.

Scott, who owns and operates Aspen Alpine Guides, has been on several hut trips over the years with the seniors from Pitkin County. Both the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association and Pitkin County help cover the cost of the trips, although the seniors are each required to pay $36 for the hut plus grub, gas and gratuity.

?The 10th Mountain donates an enormous amount of support to make this happen,? he said. That support includes having someone like Scott along to help out in the summer, and even more staff on the two or three annual winter hut trips sponsored by the senior center. Although, he noted, seniors are expected to carry their own weight.

?We try to help them understand that they need to be self-sufficient,? Scott said.

He said he enjoys getting out with the seniors, even though their pace is a little slower than he?s used to. ?I get to hear their stories ? to sit back and partake of the miles and miles these people have gone through in their lives,? he said.

Back at the cabin, the hike was followed with free foot massages by Joann, wine and hors d’oeuvres, and eventually a dinner of lamb stew, salad and bread. As darkness curtained the not-so-distant peaks around the cabin, everyone sat around and talked about their lives, their previous wilderness experience and their reactions to last year?s attack on the World Trade Center.

Terry shared her recollections of working as a volunteer last fall, feeding the firefighters and others who were digging through the rubble at Ground Zero. Valerie recalled picking up hitchhikers a few days after the attacks and realizing they had been out in the woods since before 9/11. They had no idea what had happened, until she told them.

By about 10 that night, everyone was asleep. Each couple had their own room; the rest of the seniors, plus Joann, slept in a common room upstairs. For the most part everyone slept well. Even Gloria from Florida, who got into her sleeping bag with four layers of clothing on, which she then woke up to shed at around midnight, reported having a good night?s sleep.

On Wednesday morning, everyone woke up and ate at their own pace. At about 8:45, they joined hands outside in the fog and shared a minute of silence for the victims of last year?s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Gloria actually found the whole trip a little too cold for her liking, and left early with me and Mo Hawkes, who didn?t feel comfortable hiking without her day pack, which she had left in Aspen. Everyone else took off for a lake at the base of Galena Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness area.

The next hut trip is scheduled for December and requires participants to get to the hut on snow shoes or cross-country skis. For more information contact the county senior center.