Andersen: A snowy epic at Skinner Hut
I grew up snow-deprived in the suburbs of Chicago, where rain turns winter wonderland into muddy mush. In my youth I frequented a “ski area” built on a landfill in southern Wisconsin. We called it Mount Trashmore.
You can’t choose where you’re born, but you can choose where you’ll spend your life. I chose to live in the snow country of Colorado.
In 1969, I started college in Gunnison. That first winter, when I saw Crested Butte buried up to the eaves, I knew this was it. Living in Crested Butte through the ’70s and ’80s, I loved nothing more than tunneling through snow to my various hobbit houses, haplessly suffering a hernia one spring from shoveling snow over my head.
My first tele turns on wooden Bonna 2400s were carved on deep winter snowpacks up the Slate River. I camped in snow caves before there were huts. During storms I would let the flakes flutter down over me, mesmerized by the magic of downy crystals. I couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t.
Last week my son, Tait, and I skied to the Betty Bear Hut through corridors of snow-laden spruce and fir, the halls of the Snow King. Flakes filtered down that night and, by morning, half a foot was on the deck.
A whiteout over Hagerman Pass the next day had us linking marker poles over the Great Divide. We found Skinner Hut in the gusty prelude to a blizzard. Over the next 36 hours, the storm set down 3 feet of snow. The wind howled, rattling snow against the windows, burying the kitchen window, sculpting drifts 6 feet deep on the roof.
A visit to the outhouse in predawn saw me in long underwear, parka and head lamp. The trench to the outhouse had filled, and snow was over my knees. I struggled through a swirling wall of white just to get back to the hut.
The wind died down that day, so Tait and I linked a dozen turns through thick timber into the valley below. The snow kept sifting down, and we wallowed with glee through a well-shaken snow globe where trees and boulders were mere lumps beneath marshmallow hummocks.
That night, with the mercury at 20-below, Tait was hit with a nasty flu bug that had him dashing to the outhouse half a dozen times. In the quiet of the hut (we were the only ones there) I was privy to his every purgation. Of all the readings I could have brought on a hut trip, I had chosen “The Plague,” by Camus.
Next morning, skies dawned clear and deep blue. The temp was 15-below. We could have stayed another day, but Tait opted to ski out. With no food in his stomach and only a few sips of tea to get him out the door, we skinned over Hagerman in an eyelash-freezing headwind that burned any exposed skin.
I broke trail and carried most of our weight while Tait dragged his skis with great effort across the snow. We reached Betty Bear around noon, barely able to find it with all previous tracks obliterated.
After a dose of hot tea and sunshine, Tait’s energy improved. Soon we were swooping through deep powder on the steep descent below the hut, where we met a group of skiers laboring up toward us.
We were happy to see one another, knowing the trail was now broken in both directions. If that group hadn’t come up, Tait and I would have taken another four hours to break the long trail back to the car, dragging in after 11 hard miles.
Even with a broken trail, it was a slog to where the car was buried, 25 feet from the plowed road. Miraculously, the old diesel sputtered to life just as the sun was setting for another subzero night.
Shoveling out the car used the last of Tait’s energy, but soon we were stomping into our warm home on the Frying Pan where “Mom” was preparing a savory dinner. A cold beer and hot shower finished it off, and we were in bed by 8, dreaming of bottomless snow.
Paul Andersen’s column appear on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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