Few things in life max out both your pleasure and pain thresholds quite like a weekend spent at a 10th Mountain Division hut in Colorado. There are 34 of them spread throughout the state’s Rocky Mountains, making up what is considered one of the most impressive networks of backcountry shelters outside of Europe. Most are like the second home you dream of owning, with saunas and large sun decks; others more closely resemble the unibomber’s cabin. Some sit just a few miles away from the nearest road, while many require an entire day, and several thousand feet of ascent, to reach. But all sit among some of the most rugged and beautiful wilderness in the country.
In any case, be prepared for a challenging approach — on skis or foot — and thin air, once you arrive. The average route to a hut is six to seven miles long with 1,500 to 2,500 feet of elevation gain; many sit at or above 10,000 feet, where sleep is restless and so much as lacing up your boots will leave you out of breath. On a recent ski tour trip to the Eiseman hut, perched on an 11,200-foot ridge line, across from Vail, I was part of a crew of 16 that made the seven-mile ski and splitboard tour, 3,000 vertical feet up the Spraddle Creek drainage. The Eiseman hut is notoriously difficult to reach but also notoriously plush, and it has killer skiing right out the front door.
When to Go
Prime hut season is typically April, as days are longer and spring corn snow is in full effect. Midwinter is also a good option if skiing or snowboarding is your prime objective, though days are very short. The summer season is a smart time to visit if you want to bring your kids or simply want a slightly less technically challenging trip. Without snow, some huts have dirt access roads that allow you to drive much of the approach and packs are a lot lighter without skis, boots and winter layers.
While open all year round, The 10th Mountain Division huts really come alive in winter, when they can serve as a regenerative basecamp for cold hypoxic forays to surrounding high peaks in search of virgin snow. Ski touring is huge in Colorado, and much of that has to do with the existence of the hut network itself. While soldiers did spend time in these same areas to hone their skiing and mountaineering skills before heading off to the Italian Alps to fight Nazis in World War II, the huts weren’t necessarily used by them but rather named after them. Like the soldiers often did, the exceptionally fit ski from hut to hut over several days. One such epic, known as the Trooper Traverse, is a challenging 40-mile ski mountaineering trip from Leadville to Aspen. Even the shorter routes, though, require some backcountry experience and advanced skiing skills.
A hut trip in the 10th Mountain Division has a set of rules all its own. It’s not quite camping, but since the huts lend themselves to group outings, your pack will undoubtedly weigh the same as if it were. The main difference is that on top of essentials like backcountry emergency gear and a sleeping bag, you’ll also want “essentials” like bacon and beer. Even more important than the list of what you need to bring is the list of what you can leave behind: Like many huts, the Eiseman had a nicer kitchen than I have in my Brooklyn condo, with a beautiful old wood-burning stove, separate gas burners, enough dishes to cover a three-course dinner party for 20 and a sump pump to provide running water for doing dishes.
A 10th Mountain Division Hut is a pretty easy to place to settle into. During down time, we napped on plush beds (with real pillows!), chopped wood for the stove, played crushed-beer-can cornhole in the snow, and even held a cocktail contest. But mostly, we stared out from the vast front deck, across the peaks of Summit County, and talked about the day’s objectives. Which is a good thing because once you get comfortable at a 10th Mountain Division hut, it’s easy to forget you’re there to ski at all. These tips will help you make the most of your experience should you travel to Colorado for a hut trip.
1 Plan ahead. Many hut regulars feel that finding space during peak season — typically late winter or spring — is harder than the actual ski or hike into the hut. First, keep in mind that the closer to Denver and the easier the approach, the more popular the hut. And if you want an entire hut for you and a large group, you’ll have to enter a lottery that opens up the season prior. On the other hand, a party of two may be able to find spots closer to their desired date (a party of one can often book last minute). Good beginner huts include Francie’s, with its relatively mellow two-mile approach, a sauna and views of Breckinridge, or Janet’s, which you can actually access using a lift at the Copper Mountain ski resort to shave off some vertical.
2 Add a day for acclimatization.
Most huts sit at 10 or 11 thousand feet of elevation. Especially if you live at sea level, try to arrive in Colorado a day or two early and, at a minimum sleep in Denver, which is above 5,000 feet elevation. It’s even better if you can lodge somewhere near the base of your access trail.
3 Know how to read a map.
The hut you’re headed to may be a deceptively civilized place but you still need to travel through full-on wilderness high country to get there, and there’s always a chance you’ll be doing it in a whiteout. Load the route onto your GPS and carry a paper map and compass with you as backup (and know how to use them, of course). Most hut trails are indicated with blue markers on trees but they’re not always obvious and visibility may not be good enough to spot them.
4 Manage the hut stoves like a pro.
Hydration is key, and so melting snow for drinking water should be happening around the clock. But, whatever you do, don’t just fire up the stove and drop a bunch of snow into a totally empty pot. Snow will only melt if there’s already at least a little water in the pot you’re putting it in, otherwise it goes straight from a solid to a gas (sublimation). It’s also easier than you think to overheat a hut. Some have two wood-burning stoves — one for warmth, one for cooking — and two raging fires will crank up the heat to uncomfortable levels. Lastly, at the end of a long day in ski or snowboard boots, immediately throw your liners next to the stove so they can dry out and be ready for action the following morning.
5 Live it up!
Showing up at a 10th Mountain Division hut with trail mix, oatmeal and dehydrated food is a bit like going to a great steakhouse and ordering the fish. Make room in your pack by ditching things like a tent, sleeping pad, camp stove and fuel, and fill that space with hut slippers, bacon, booze and a mini boom box. For more info and to make reservations, visit huts.org.
And now, a warning about avalanches. Just because you’re staying in a hut doesn’t mean the surrounding terrain is any less dangerous. While the approach to and from 10th Mountain Division huts is typically free of avalanche danger, Colorado has a notoriously unstable snowpack and you should not even think about exploring the surrounding slopes in winter unless conditions are favorable and you have a deep understanding of snow stability. Start by checking out Colorado’s excellent avalanche forecast website, avalanche.state.co.us.