Trail Mix: Colorado’s Backcountry Ski Huts

Backcountry ski huts offer a classic Colorado experience.

Students take a break on the deck of the hut during an avalanche course with Kling Mountain Guides in the San Juan Mountains. Courtesy klingmountainguides.com

Students take a break on the deck of the hut during an avalanche course with Kling Mountain Guides in the San Juan Mountains. Courtesy klingmountainguides.com

Colorado and skiing are synonymous, sure. But bumping it up a notch with some backcountry hut ski touring might well occupy the apex of signature activities in this part of the Rockies. If you’ve ever strapped on climbing skins or schlepped a heavy pack crammed with winter essentials, count yourself among a select group of solitude-seeking, exhilaration-driven snow lovers.

It comes as no surprise Colorado has an enviable collection of more than 60 backcountry shelters, from rustic sheds to near-palatial cabins. Arriving at a hut under your own steam, enjoying the camaraderie of friends and hut mates, preparing hearty meals and sleeping in a snug bed deep in the frozen backcountry—these are classic hut experiences no able-bodied outdoor lover should miss.

Colorado’s hut concept traces back to Rocky Mountain National Park, where the opening of Fern Lake Lodge in 1916 marked the beginning of what would become the nation’s most extensive backcountry hut system used by skiers. One notable pioneer was Billie Tagert, among the first to build a true ski hut in the late 1940s near Aspen. The growing popularity for ski touring eventually spawned the Alfred A. Braun Memorial hut system that plumbs the central Colorado high-country. Further expansion inspired Fritz Benedict to develop huts to meet the increasing demand— and to pay tribute to his World War II Army Unit, the revered 10th Mountain Division ski soldiers who fought in the Alps.

Colorado’s famed 10th Mountain Division Hut Association is the progeny of his effort, and the state’s headliner. Managing some 30 huts and cabins in the belly of the Colorado Rockies, many designed with the concept of multi-day hut-to-hut traverses, the nonprofit system is the state’s largest and includes the Alfred A. Braun, Summit Huts and 10th Mountain cabins. There also are scores of privately owned independent huts available for reservation in the winter.

Backcountry winter travel is critical business, but this shouldn’t deter newcomers who have basic snowsports experience. Some huts, such as Dancing Moose Yurt (.25 miles) and Shrine Mountain Inn (2.75 miles), are relatively easy to reach and pose no avalanche danger on the trail. Yet many of Colorado’s huts are more arduous, sitting above 11,000 feet and buffeted by Arctic temperatures and major snow loads. These often require approaches of more than 10 miles and several thousand feet of climbing. Backcountry know-how is a given for any serious outing, including the use of avalanche beacons, probes and shovels and how to read snow loads.

Because huts are sturdy, snug, wellequipped and feature basic modern amenities, you don’t need to worry about packing in cookware, utensils, fuel stoves, lights, water filters or sleeping pads. Besides your skis, snowshoes, outdoor apparel, winterrated sleeping bag, personal items and emergency gear, food and beverages are your main items. Virtually all commercial huts for reservation post detailed route descriptions, maps and boldly describe the needed experience level and what you’ll need to have a safe, enjoyable experience.

SKI TOURS FOR ALL TYPES

EPIC AND EXTREME:
Benedict 100 Hut to Hut Ski Trip (January 24-29)

Think you’re up for this epic endurance ski tour from Aspen to Vail, entering its 37th year, that celebrates the challenges posed to the World War II ski troops of the 10th Mountain Division who trained here? If you’re not sure, the 100 miles of mixed terrain and 17,000 feet of accumulated climbing is no place to find out. Participants on this six-day traverse log up to 20 ski miles per day in remote wilderness and extreme winter conditions. Certified guides take the lead, shepherding skiers to Mary’s, Betty Bear, Uncle Bud’s and Jackal huts, as well as the destination’s end, Shrine Mountain Hut near Vail Pass.
970.925.6618

PRIVATE AND CUSTOM:
Kling Mountain Guides Hut Skiing in the San Juan Mountains

Durango-based KMG is more than a basic guide service. With a private network of six reserved huts, its custom ski tour trips allow participants to enjoy the backcountry experience independent of communal conditions common to many public huts. Ski tours are geared for beginners, big mountain free skiers and any experience level in between, with certified guides taking care of all logistics so participants can ski epic lines during the day and sit by a fire at night sipping wine and enjoying freshly made snacks and more for après fun.
970.259.1708

DAYTRIPPER-FRIENDLY:
Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides

For beginners who aren’t sure about overnight commitment, or those who want to brush up on skills and are looking for a safe, guided day trip, Rides and Guides is a Front Range (departures from Boulder, Denver and Estes Park) fave. Certified guides cover all aspects of winter backcounty travel, including avalanche awareness, ski technique and equipment, as well as certification courses. Find fourto eight-hour tours, with safety (followed by fun) as the top priority.
720.242.9828

GEAR GUIDE

Accessories and gadgets for your next hut trip.

suunto-core-altimeter watch

SUUNTO CORE ALTIMETER WATCH, $299.

osprey-backpackOSPREY KODE 42 HUT-TO-HUT TRIP BACKPACK, $170.

NU-avalanche-tracker

BACKCOUNTRY ACCESS TRACKER DTS AVALANCHE TRANSCEIVER, $240.

probe-pole

BLACK DIAMOND CARBON PROBE SKI POLES, $129.95.

llbean-slippersL.L. BEAN WICKED GOOD LODGE CHUKKAS, $99.

NEED-TO-KNOW INFO

backcountryskiing.com: Curated from more than 30 years of backcountry experience, legendary local skier Lou Dawson created an online version of his out-of-print guide book that outlines equipment, technique and routes in the Colorado backcountry.

hutski.com: A consolidated online guidebook for researching and booking hut trips through the 10th Mountain Division, Braun Huts, Summit Huts and Friends Hut systems in Colorado. Free downloadable topographical route maps are available.

huts.org: Site of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, the most popular hut system in central Colorado.

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