Off the Grid
With these hut-to-hut Colorado backcountry adventures, consider your winter ski season elevated.
We can all agree the ancient Romans had a lot of good ideas. Civilization as we know it grew thanks to their roads, aqueducts, keystones, and what have you. Less known is the Roman's invention of hut-to-hut ski tours.
It's true...sort of.
The Romans, you see, laid down many of their famous roads across the mountain passes of Europe's Alps. Eventually, refugios, or shelters, were built alongside the roads. When the 19th century rolled around, mountaineering became a "thing," and climbers and skiers began taking comfort inside the huts, while also building new ones.
Although the Appalachian Mountain Club built the first backcountry hut in the U.S. (in New Hampshire, to be exact) way back in 1889, the concept didn’t reach Colorado until the 1940s. Like many aspects of the history and culture of American skiing, an idea that came to fruition in the Appalachians has been perfected in the Rockies.
America’s best-known hut-to-hut system is the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which occupies the Gore Range, Elk Mountains, and other ranges near Aspen and Vail. While the Alps have a century-long head start on the Rockies in terms of backcountry accommodations, Colorado does its best to keep up: The 10th Mountain Division currently manages 34 different cabins connected by 350 miles of trails.
Some huts are reached by easy kick-and-glides up mellow pitches; some adjoin serious, steep mountain descents. The lodges on the 10th Mountain system essentially accommodate anyone with two planks attached to their feet. Make the trip if you can. To spend a night at a rustic mountain refuge is to toggle happily back and forth between the past and the present.
During World War II, some of the finest alpinists in America’s embryonic ski industry journeyed to Camp Hale in central Colorado to teach mountain skills to soldiers. Those soldiers—proud members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division—were then shipped off to Italy to battle in the aforementioned Alps. They endured both the brutality of war and the savagery of volcanic uplifts. One thing they cherished, however, was exposure to Europe’s huts—shelters allowing sojourners to travel light and sleep indoors.
The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association honors the soldiers with intimate shelters in stunning settings located far off the grid. Hut logistics still vibe more 1940s infantryman than 2010s millennial. Most guests sleep in bunks. Heat emanates from crackling wood stoves. There’s no running water—just giant kettles of snow melted over propane burners. It's a simpler kind of luxury winter holiday.
Granted, you might get cell service at a hut, but why even try? Just go with the timeless flow, and play backgammon or read a book.
A couple of years ago, this writer joined friends for a trip to a 10th accommodation: the Lindley Hut in Castle Valley near Aspen. A gorgeous chunk of Colorado, Castle Valley divides Cathedral (13,943 feet) and Conundrum (14,022) peaks from some merely 12,000-foot-plus monsters on its eastern rim.
Because it was the 21st century, we donned high-tech laminates and deployed ultra-light ski-touring gear, then promptly trashed all weight savings by toting plastic sleds loaded with cases of Colorado microbrew.
Most huts, Lindley included, feature outhouses, not bathrooms. It was impossible to find a mirror to aid contact lens insertion. A millennial perked up and said, “You don’t need a mirror for that anymore! Just flip your phone camera back on your face.” Oh. OK. Why didn’t I think of that?
But don’t go thinking this is the ultimate time to be a hut-to-hut skier. While we enjoy advantages and amenities a 10th Mountain soldier would never understand, we suffer from modernity as well. Upon arrival for a trip linking the huts of Switzerland’s Urner Haute Route, for instance, this reporter was horrified to discover a prized possession had vanished somewhere between Denver International Airport and Flüghafen Zürich. My 16-year-old travel cribbage board, which had provided backcountry entertainment from Alaska to Aspen, France to Antarctica, was a goner, for an obvious reason: TSA had forgotten to re-zip my ski bag.