Helping the huts | AspenTimes.com

Helping the huts

Joel StoningtonPhotos by Joel Stonington

Like all 10th Mountain Huts, Harry Gates Hut receives a yearly makeover. During the annual work session, trucks drive right up to the hut and the sounds of chain saws ripple the air.

Every summer for the last 16 years, the husband and wife team of Carol and Ted Billings have driven to each hut in the 10th Mountain Division network to fix broken items, chop firewood and generally shine up the popular backcountry cabins.

Often referred to as the “Hiltons of Huts,” the 10th Mountain Hut system, started in the early 1980s, are maintained every summer by the hands of hundreds of volunteers at the direction of the Billingses.In the winter, the Billingses take care of the seven huts on the Leadville (eastern) side, while Scott Messina looks after the huts on the Aspen (western) side of the mountains. This is no simple feat. The Billings ski 1,000 miles and 155,000 vertical feet in an average winter. The summer, however, is when the big repairs take place. For three or four days per hut, the Billingses direct 10 volunteers and two hired helpers in a whirlwind of fixing, painting and log-splitting. The work is fun and earns the volunteers a few free nights at the huts. The work sessions have become almost as popular as the huts themselves. Already, five of the 13 sessions in 2007 are full, and the rest fill up quickly.

“We do a lot of stuff with these volunteers,” said Carol Billings. “When you spend three days with people, they’re your friends, they keep coming back.”Many of the people who have signed up for next year are repeat customers who put a group together each year. There are groups of REI store managers, an “over-the-hill gang” of seniors, 10th Mountain staff and many others. “The volunteers are the backbone of the huts,” said Ted Billings. “We usually have about 150 volunteers each summer. It saves thousands of dollars.”The 10th Mountain Huts rely on contributions and volunteer hours to keep down the nightly hut-rental price. The $28 per person fee is not enough to do capital improvement, though they generally cover the operating costs. “The work volunteers do allow us to keep it affordable,” said Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Huts. “If we had a crew do that work, our rates would go up.”

In the early 1980s, Aspen architect Fritz Benedict pursued his dream of building a hut system like the famed “Haute Route” between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland. He teamed up with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to build the first few huts in the Aspen area, with the idea that if the huts didn’t catch on, then they could be torn down.A quarter-century later, the mountains between Aspen, Vail and Leadville boast 13 huts and some 24,000 customers each year. The system was named after soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, 11,000 of whom were trained at Camp Hale, just west of Vail on Tennessee Pass during World War II. After the war, many returned to Colorado and some were instrumental in developing the ski business. The first two huts were named after the McNamaras while a more recent hut was named for Fritz Benedict. Those three huts, McNamara, Margy’s (Robert’s wife) and Benedict are the closest to Aspen. The huts on the Western Slope, though popular, don’t get quite as much use as those on the Leadville side of the Continental Divide.

“Margy’s, McNamara, Benedict, Gates and Estin are generally slower than the huts on the Leadville side,” said Dodge, speculating that Front Range users don’t usually come all the way to Aspen to use the hut system.

The roots of the 10th Mountain Division extend through to today. At a recent work session at the Harry Gates Hut, two of the volunteers were descendants of 10th Mountain soldiers and Harry Gates himself was a soldier.The Billingses arrived at the Gates hut – in the Fryingpan River drainage about 10 miles north of Thomasville – early on Monday, Aug. 14. They had two pickups laden with chain saws, a wood splitter, hammers, buckets of nails and screws, paint, checklists, scrapers and hundreds of other items.”We call ourselves the little mobile hardware store,” said Carol. “We can fix just about anything.”The major projects include cutting firewood, trail work, restocking supplies and kitchen cleaning. Then there are the many things that require painting, such as the ash drums, fire water drum, tables, doors, deck and beyond. Quickly the volunteers get to work. Paintbrushes are distributed, safety instructions are given for the log splitter and work commences.Carol begins with a checklist for everything in the hut, from the door knobs to the dishes in the kitchen to the solar lights and toilet-paper holders. By the time she and Ted leave, everything has to be in working order or noted for future fixing.Attention to detail is paramount. There is, for instance, an approved 10th Mountain interpretive library inventory. The books, from “The Lorax” to “The Avalanche Book” to “Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms,” all have to do with the locality or nature. Trashy novels are generally tossed.The biggest job of each work session is the firewood. A hut’s wood room can hold about 13 cords of wood (one cord is 128 cubic feet, a stack 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long). So the first project to start and the last one to finish is generally the cutting, splitting and stacking of firewood. Hut users use the wood both to warm the huts and to melt snow for drinking water.

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Ted and Carol Billings were married in 1983, when the 10th Mountain hut system first started. At the time, Ted was running the Mountaineering School at Vail. Later, Ted and Carol became partners with two other people in Paragon, a guiding service. In 1988, when huts were being built near Leadville, the Billingses began working for 10th Mountain, doing maintenance in the summer. Mostly that just meant cutting firewood. Back then, log splitting was done by hand.Eventually, however, they gave up guiding to focus on the huts. The Billings continue to put a good deal of love into their work. Recently Ted built new tables and benches by hand for the Sangree M. Froelicher Hut. And though each work session is fast-paced, no job is too small to require care and attention.The Billings work their tails off, though they wouldn’t ever say that. So even though they have the best office scenery in the world, the days are long and strung together. And they generally leave the fun jobs to the volunteers to take on more difficult or more distasteful chores, like cleaning the outhouse.”We’re just hut slaves,” said Ted. “There’s no perfect job.”

The Harry Gates work session went more quickly than anyone expected and by Tuesday afternoon, the Billings’ trucks were loaded and the job was mostly finished.”So pat yourself on the back,” Carol told the volunteers after handing out the special volunteer T-shirts. “We couldn’t do it without you.” The wood room was full, much of the outside was painted with water seal, Carol had cleaned the outhouse, the inside was swept and cleaned, most of the furniture was varnished and a ton of other small projects had made the hut ready for another long winter.”The people who are volunteering work so hard,” said Dodge. “They get something of considerable value out of it. It’s not just the hut credit and T-shirt.”Indeed, there’s a sense of ownership that goes along with helping out. The feeling of going back to a hut and knowing you chopped the wood, painted the ash bucket, taped the stairs, and did other projects only add to the experience. Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com