In the mountains between Aspen and Vail, Colorado, is a system of backcountry huts known as the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. In 1990, when I skied the system, there actually were two sets of huts connected by separate trails running north and south roughly 10 to 15 miles apart. The two branches of the System have since been linked by new huts and connecting trails over the Continental Divide at Hagerman Pass.
I did the tour with a Swedish friend, Pelle Rundkvist. Both of us were strong skiers, and we had done hut-to-hut skiing together in Scandinavia. But we both lived and worked (behind desks) at sea level. We had been concerned, indeed apprehensive, about how we would adjust to heavy exertion at high altitude. To ease the transition, we spent 36 hours in Leadville before beginning the trip. A charismatic old mining town, Leadville is the nation’s highest city of its size at 10,152 feet.
We began the tour a few miles outside of Leadville and skied north for five days to Vail. It was late March, and we had late-season conditions. Our third day out was typical. We left a hut called Vance’s Cabin, at 10,980 feet, and skied about four and a half miles down a north-facing slope on solidly frozen corn snow into the Eagle River valley, losing 1400 feet of hard-won elevation in the process. We used our climbing skins to slow our descent. Only as we reached the aspens near the bottom did the snow soften up.
We stopped for lunch in the valley but didn’t bother to remove our skins. After a quarter mile of level skiing, we started to climb a south-facing slope on snow that had been exposed to the sun all morning and remained soft to a much higher elevation. It was four miles and over 2000 feet to what was then known as the Schuss/Zesiger Hut. By the time we got there, we had been on the trail for roughly eight and a half hours and had covered roughly eight and a half miles.
Like most of the huts in the 10th Mountain Division System, the Schuss/Zesiger Hut was unmanned. It had bunks, mattresses and pillows for 16 persons, as well as wood burning stoves for heating and melting snow, propane burners for cooking, a few electric lights powered by photovoltaic cells and batteries, cooking and eating utensils and other kitchen supplies. We carried sleeping bags, food, personal items and emergency gear such as shovels, a stove and fuel, tools and repair items.
Our next hut was the Shrine Mountain Inn which, like a few other huts in the 10th Mountain Division System, was privately owned and had not been built as part of the System. It had more to offer. It consisted of several buildings, one of which housed a sauna. It also had hot and cold running water, showers, flush toilets, real beds and electricity provided by a generator located well away from the buildings. Snowmobiles were permitted to come to a relatively close point, and the group with whom we shared a building took advantage of this to have the makings of a gourmet meal brought up — fresh salmon with a mustard-dill sauce, fresh asparagus with hollandaise sauce, wild rice and wine. They insisted on sharing the meal with us.
We also took advantage of the availability of the sauna. As it turned out, Pelle and I shared it in the traditional Scandinavian way with two young women who were staying at another building. When we collected our things after the sauna, Pelle found that he had a watch that didn’t belong to him. We rightly concluded that it must belong to one of the women. This gave us the unique opportunity to meet fully clothed women we with whom we had first gotten acquainted without any clothes on.
This was not a good point in the tour to be softened up by easy living. Our run the next day was 16 miles — our longest planned daily run — over a series of peaks with a total climb of over 2000 feet before descending into Vail. After enjoying freshly brewed coffee with our gourmet friends, we made a late start in several inches of new snow. For a change of scenery, we had decided to use the Vail alpine ski area to reach the town, rather than the last few miles of the official trail which followed a wooded stream valley. Progress was slow in the new snow, and after climbing the Back Bowls, we reached the top of the lift system at 5:45 pm. The lifts had long since closed, and the mountain was deserted. It was too late to get a trail map, so we memorized a route from a sign and started down, as darkness gathered.
By the time we were half way down the darkness was complete, and a hard crust had formed on the snow. A note of surrealism was added by a series of grooming machines which, with lights blazing, were ascending one of the trails we were using. One of then saw us and followed us with a spotlight for a time. But the grooming made the descent much easier by leveling out the day’s accumulation of moguls and icy patches, leaving a uniformly hard, corrugated but skiable surface. It was 7:30 pm when we finally reached Vail.
We found ourselves in the midst of affluent shops selling fine art, jewelry, designer clothes and T-shirts. The alpine skiers, having been evicted from the mountain hours earlier, were showered, changed and fed. Many obviously found shopping the best way to spend the balance of the evening. We felt distinctly conspicuous in the Nordic ski clothes we had worn more or less continuously for the last five days and with our large packs, each of which sported a shovel. I was reminded of bringing my small sailboat into the affluence of Nantucket after crossing the North Atlantic.
We checked into a hotel, washed ourselves and our clothes, had a restaurant meal and slept between sheets. We had a food cache waiting for us, but we needed to purchase some fresh food. Not one of the many retail shops in the town center was a food market, and we had to go to a strip mall along the highway outside of town. We did so the next day as we shuttled by taxi to the northern terminus of the westerly branch of the System. Shortly after we got back on skies, it began to snow, and the snow continued as we climbed 3000 feet in eight miles to reach our next hut, the Polar Star Inn.
Our companions at this hut were perhaps more typical of the users of the 10th Mountain Division System than the group we had seen at Shrine Mountain, or ourselves, for that matter. They included a young couple who had booked space back in November and had skied up on the same day as ourselves (a Friday), using a trailhead closer to the hut than the one we had used. They planned to ski out late on Sunday. The days were spent “doing turns” in the powder snow that is found at the higher elevations.
We were also there for the snow, and we enjoyed the fresh powder when we set out the next morning. But on this branch of the trail system, Colorado’s mining history was in evidence. Rather than follow the marked trail, we climbed briefly to inspect the derelict buildings of the old Polar Star Mine. The next day we skied past the “ghost” mining town of Fulford.
We finished the tour at another old mining town, Lenado. This one was at the end of a maintained road, and while most of the old structures were derelict, a few were lived in. We needed to get to Aspen, and as luck had it, we found a man who lived alone with two dogs in the first occupied house we tried. He agreed to drive us out, probably more for the company than the money, as he hardly stopped talking the whole way.
Another conversation we had was more memorable. As we were having lunch along the trail a couple of days earlier, Fritz Benedict, the founder of the 10th Mountain Division System, and several others came up the trail and stopped to talk. One of the members of his party turned out to be Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense (for whom one of the huts is named). You never know whom you’re going to meet on the trail.