Making tracks: Link huts, not just turns
January 24, 2007
LEADVILLE Some devotees of hut trips measure the success of their outing by how many tracks they leave in the powder stashes near the cozy shelters, or the quality of the dining experiences they enjoy inside.Others prize the miles they get to cover – a factor that can be amplified by traveling not just to a hut, but from hut to hut.That was the original concept behind the creation of the 10th Mountain hut system between Vail and Aspen. It was modeled on European systems designed to let people cover extended distances in the mountains while using the huts for shelter each night. Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, said the system’s huts were built with the idea of using them to link communities.He thinks quite a few people do hut-to-hut trips, but not as many as once was the case. That may be partly a factor of today’s better but heavier telemark equipment, which makes it easier to link turns in the vicinity of the huts but harder to travel between them, Dodge said. But he said skiers still can find good, lighter-weight equipment that’s more conducive to hut-to-hut travel – an undertaking he highly recommends.”It is, I think, a very unique experience, to ski hut to hut,” he said.That certainly was the case for me recently when I joined two friends in skiing a stellar route between Jackal Hut and Fowler/Hilliard Hut. The huts are located east of the old Camp Hale area, north of Leadville, where the soldiers of the huts’ namesake 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II. Several routes link the two huts, including one that involves a traverse of more than three miles on a ridge more than 12,000 feet high. It’s called Machine Gun Ridge – possibly a name with ties to the 10th Mountain soldiers who once trained in the area?
The ridge route is best left for a clear day, which we gratefully enjoyed. With only a frigid wind to contend with, we took in the top-of-the-world views in every direction as we followed the border of Eagle and Summit counties.While careful route-finding should be exercised in gaining the ridge, the route generally poses minimal avalanche danger, which is the advantage of ridge travel in the winter. If anything, the problem can be too little snow. The west side of the ridge is so wind-scoured that some short portions are better walked than skied.The danger on top comes from cornices that can break away if skied on. But there’s plenty of room to travel safely, with the route presenting just one tricky spot. Getting around the steep protuberance of 12,545-foot Sugarloaf Peak requires hiking around the south and west sides – an only slightly exposed route, but not an entirely obvious one as you approach it from the Jackal Hut.Dodge called the ridge one of the classic hut-to-hut routes in the 10th Mountain system “because you’re way up high.”For most people, it wouldn’t be a good choice for a first hut-to-hut trip. A better one might be the first hut-to-hut route established in the 10th Mountain system, between McNamara and Margy’s huts near Aspen. Route-finding is fairly straightforward, although it is a lengthy 8.2 miles. Unless you plan to retrace the route, it also requires a car shuttle between Aspen and Lenado, above Woody Creek.A slightly shorter but more difficult route is the classic connection between the Uncle Bud’s and 10th Mountain Division huts near Tennessee Pass outside Leadville.”Navigation can be tricky,” Dodge said. “People have to have a compass and a map and know how to use both, and that’s the case with all of our huts; you have to know where you’re going and how to get there.”From a navigational and difficulty perspective, one of the hairier connecting routes between huts is a backcountry link between the McNamara and Benedict huts near Aspen. The route is in the wilderness, and marked with tree blazes rather than the blue diamonds usually used on 10th Mountain routes. The huts’ logbooks contain numerous accounts of arduous journeys along the route – journeys that sometimes included a cold night spent outdoors.My first shot at the route with a friend proved easy thanks to some fairly fresh ski tracks that led us in the right direction. But often, hut-to-hut routes are less well traveled than those from trailheads to huts, which also means more trail-breaking through deep snow may be required.
Dodge recommends being physically fit to try hut-to-hut routes; traveling with lighter packs than if you’re just skiing into and out of the same hut (you probably should leave that bottle of wine at home); and being sure to have safety equipment, including what would be required to spend an unplanned night outdoors. A serious shoulder injury suffered by a skiing partner on my latest trip – fortunately just a few miles from our exit trailhead – served as a reminder of hut skiing dangers that can increase in their potential consequences the farther you are from civilization.After you’ve tried linking two huts, consider trying three. Polar Star Inn and the Peter Estin and Harry Gates huts offer an attractive north-to-south trip south of Eagle, with various route and car shuttle options available.Dodge said the hut association is looking into ways to offer more hut-to-hut options that don’t require vehicle shuttles. He thinks more people would travel between huts if not for concerns about things such as shuttles, equipment and scheduling.Meanwhile, for whatever hut-to-hut trip you may choose, Dodge also suggests spending multiple nights at one hut before continuing to the next, to offer a better balance between backcountry adventure and relaxation. Making tracks is an occasional feature detailing backcountry opportunities in the Aspen area and beyond. Dennis Webb is a reporter with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.