There are half a dozen backcountry huts near my Aspen home, so it wasn’t easy convincing 11 friends to drive 100 miles—and ski another eight—to reach a hut near Vail. But, like me, they’re suckers for superlatives. Perched at 11,180 feet, Colorado’s Eiseman hut is the highest of 29 “alpine hostels” in the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association system. It accesses some of the best backcountry skiing in the state, and it boasts the system’s largest sun deck. Ours was an out-and-back mission, but if we’d wanted a longer adventure, we could have skied as far as Leadville, 70 miles from the Eiseman. Unloading the cars at the trailhead, I realized our weekend trek would be neither light nor fast. This crew was into bacon, beer, and whiskey. One brought a BB gun; another, his special pillow. Someone even packed a set of metal horseshoes. No one was to go hungry, sober, or bored.
As it turned out, we didn’t do much sunbathing. A late April storm rolled in our first night and delivered midwinter powder to every aspect in sight. We broke into smaller groups during the day—some to lap the shorter but steeper shots to the north, some to ski the glades facing south. A few guys built a kicker and launched over the hut for our viewing pleasure. Someone just read by the roaring fire.
Excellent skiing on a hut trip is extra credit. If you’re counting your vertical, you’re missing the point. Evenings are what you’ll remember most. Ours consisted of lively fireside chats and raucous games of Jenga and gin rummy; group cooking incorporated copious cured meats. There wasn’t an iPhone in sight; we talked rather than tweeted. When I retired to my bunk, full, tired, and content, reflecting on this hut tour among the many we’d done before, one word came to mind: superlative.
WHEN YOU ARRIVE
- A warm hut is a happy hut—keep the wood stove stoked. The stockpile of firewood is a privilege. Replace what you use.
- A sawhorse, a railing, or a pair of benches is a good place to tune skis, hang skins, dry socks, or cure meats. Board games are to huts as gin is to juice. Party of two? Backgammon. Party of four? Texas hold ’em. Big old party? Slap the bag (skiingmag.com/slapthebag).
- Shovels are good for clearing snow off the sun deck and building kickers (extra points if they’re visible from the hut’s windows). Take a book, leave a book: a novel hut-trip tradition.
A GOOD KITCHEN COMES STOCKED WITH:
- Pot: For melting snow, cooking stew, and mulling wine.
- Stove: Wood or propane.
- Tools: Pans, knives, cutting board, assorted spices, cooking oil, dish soap.
- Light: Candles, lanterns, and/or flashlights for navigating in the dark and adding effect to late-night ghost stories.
THINGS YOU SHOULD BRING:
- Cook: In our illustrator’s vision, this person should be female, possibly barefoot, and handy with an old-time water pump.
- Smokables: Your favorites.
- Coffee: With cream and sugar for dawn-patrol pick-me-ups; black for the common hut hangover.
- Wine: In a bag (we like the Climber pouch from Clif; $17, cliffamilywinery.com) or box (a Tetra Pak from Bota Box has the equivalent of three glasses in a recyclable handheld vessel; $5, botabox.com).
- iPod and travel speakers: Wood cabins have great acoustics.
- Portable solar panels: Power just about any device without batteries or an electrical outlet—if you must.
- Toilet paper: For obvious reasons. A few sheets stacked together make a decent coffee filter in a pinch.
It pays to be light and fast in the backcountry, but you can do better than energy bars and ramen. Hut tours are the raft trips of backcountry skiing; it’s perfectly acceptable to pack five pounds of pork products (if you have the legs and lungs to carry them). Spaghetti and burritos are staple group dinners. Cooked meats and sturdy veggies make good additions. Oatmeal with nuts and dried berries makes for a lightweight breakfast. If you prefer eggs, carry Egg Beaters in a Nalgene. Cheese and nut butters are worth their weight in calories. Snow helps make great margs or even ice cream (add cream, condensed milk, and flavorings).
5 HUT TRIP TRUTHS
1. Do your research. Know what terrain you’ll encounter and what gear you’ll need. Be familiar with it before the trip. This isn’t the time to break in new boots or test out a pack.
2. Make a reservation—especially on weekends. Book an entire hut or single spots, but expect to share your space and provisions.
3. Route-finding is paramount. A topo map, a compass, and the ability to use them are essential. If your group lacks navigational skills, hire a guide.
4. Brush up your avy skills. You should have some level of avalanche education. A formal course is a good place to start. Also, monitor weather and snow conditions via local avalanche forecasts and online forums the week or two before you set out.
5. “It always takes longer to get to the hut than you think,” says Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. Pack a headlamp just in case.
1. The North Face Aleutian
Wood stoves make most huts too warm for a 0-degree down bag. The Aleutian is a classic synthetic, 20-degree mummy that won’t lose its warmth or loft after being compressed in a pack. [$99; thenorthface.com]
2. Black Diamond Revelation AvaLung A large top opening reveals a cavernous interior; an exterior tool pocket keeps shovel and probe easy to grab; the AvaLung is a reassuring extra in the backcountry. [$260; blackdiamond equipment.com]
3. Backcountry Access Tracker 2 Avalanche Transceiver An improvement on the Tracker DTS, the Tracker 2 is the only triple-antenna transceiver in the U.S. It’s lighter and smaller and displays in real time. [$335; backcountryaccess.com]
4. Brooks-Range Ski Multi-Tool Steel makes it strong; aluminum makes it light. Fixes skis, boards, bindings, and boots. Pack it with electrician’s tape, soft wire, parachute cord, and duct tape for a complete ski-repair kit. [$66; brooks-range.com]
GREAT HUT SYSTEMS
- 10th Mountain Huts, Colorado: The most extensive hut system in North America: 29 comfortable and regularly stocked “alpine hostels” connected by 350 miles of trails. [from $25 per person per night; huts.org]
- San Juan Hut
- System, Colorado: Five rustic huts in the Sneffels Range link Telluride and Ouray via U.S. Forest Service roads and hiking trails. Each hut holds eight people comfortably. [from $30 per person per night; sanjuanhuts.com]
- Sun Valley Huts, Idaho: Sun Valley Trekking operates six huts—yurts, tents, and cabins—in the Sawtooth, Smoky, and Pioneer mountains. Link as many as three huts together. [from $35 per person per night; svtrek.com]
- Appalachian Mountain Club Huts, New Hampshire: Spaced six to eight miles apart, the AMC’s eight huts are connected along the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains. [from $39 per person per night; outdoors.org]
- Wallowa Alpine Huts, Oregon: Known as the Little Switzerland of Oregon, the Wallowa’s two camps with yurts and outbuildings offer skiing in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. [from $200 per person for three nights; wallowahuts.com]