Hut, Hike, and Survive?
by Heather Purcell
One lawyer shares her experience on a hut trip.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.~ Helen Keller
Five friends, two dogs, seven miles and 2,000 feet up on telemark skis carrying 35-pound packs. Three days at a backcountry hut nestled at 10,200 feet. Bushwacking through steep forests to skirt avalanche fields. Dicey stream crossings on narrow ice bridges. Sharing a bunk with two buddies and a border collie. Swaddling blisters in duct tape to make it through the day. Skiing up icy switchbacks to worship at the "Cathedral of Mt. Sneffels."
If any of this sounds fun to you, then read on for the tale of our hut trip — you might even find that you’ll want to get ready for your own hut trip next season. Sound about as miserable as a frozen forced march? Read on anyway — you likely will feel even better about staying warm at home, or you may even catch a vicarious chill from some armchair travel to the Ridgway Hut in the San Juan Hut System.
I first started hearing this mysterious term "hut trip" soon after I arrived in Colorado in 2000. Some of my more fit law firm friends would take off for winter wilderness weekends and return with breathless tales of pristine powder bowls reached only through epic climbs. Then, last year, I actually ventured out with six friends to a hut in the 10th Mountain Division Hut System near Vail. I did the five-mile hike up to 11,200 feet on snowshoes, while my friends were all on telemark skis. I was amazed to find that the Peter Estin "hut" is actually a spacious two-story chalet with a wood burning stove, propane burners for cooking, and every utensil you could ever need (other huts in this system even have saunas).
As on most hut outings, responsibility for meals was divided among pairs in the group and each pair competed to create the best culinary triumph — pasta primavera with chicken, pad thai, breakfast burritos, and fresh blueberry pancakes were on the menu. We savored each dish even more knowing that the ingredients had been hauled up the mountain on the chef’s back. By the time we made it back, I was hooked on "hut culture" by the solitude, beauty, camaraderie, and physical challenge. So, I decided to take the plunge the following season into the world of telemark skiing.
For the unitiated, which included me until just recently, telemark skiers are the folks you see at the ski resorts going into a deep lunge at every turn — a baffling form of athletic torture invented by our Nordic forebears to get them through those interminable winters. Telemark ski bindings allow the heels to come up with each move forward and, with "climbing skins" clamped onto the bottom of the skis, an adventurer can climb up snow-covered mountains without sliding backwards.
Some people attempt to ward off the effects of aging by doing sudokus, buying a sports car, or getting a younger spouse. Others, like me, opt for taking up a new sport every couple of years (this may be a hereditary trait as my 84-year-old mom just took up water pilates). Advantages include always having a fresh "beginners mind" — as the Zen masters say; disadvantages range from never actually getting very good at anything to a basement filled with sports and outdoor gear.
I promised to prepare for a big hut trip in the San Juans with my pals in February. First, I had to buy all new gear (boots, skis poles, bindings, kneepads, avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel). In this "new-gear hell," even my dog Gracie needed new snow booties, liners, and a back-pack. When the salesman asked me why I was interested in telemarking, I told him it was because all of my friends were telemarkers and I wanted to join them on hut trips. His response: "You don’t need new gear, you need new friends." Tip: If you decide to take up this sport, ask to see last year’s model gear at one of the big summer sales like Ski-Rex at Colorado Ski & Golf. Bring along an experienced buddy who can help you navigate the intricacies of telemarking gear.
Then, I committed to a telemark lesson each weekend in January leading up to the trip to convert from snowboarding. Tip: Head to A-Basin on Saturdays or Sundays for "Tele-Days" — a half-day group tele lesson is only $48 and the beginner group always ranged in size from 1 to 2 (basically a private lesson for the group price). Many thanks to Nick Tesi, A-Basin’s tele-instructor extraordinaire who made preparing me for this hut trip his personal mission.
Along the way, I also managed to take an avalanche awareness class to prepare me to spot and avoid opportunities for sudden death on my upcoming vacation. The films shown in these classes are reminiscent of the old driver’s education flicks. The story arc usually goes as follows: A group of backcountry skiers are out for a lark when their pal with the videocam captures the whole mountain suddenly giving way and the skiers getting swallowed up by a tidal wave of snow. "The dog made it out," our instructor said after one particularly stunning avalanche scene. It is important for backcountry adventurers to take avalanche risks seriously. To prepare for our journey, our hut trip group also performed practice search-and-rescue drills using buried avalanche beacons.
The weekend of Feb. 8–10 finally arrived. After a wild push to get the out of the office by Thursday at 5 p.m. (why do events and clients always seem to unharmoniously converge on any lawyer who dares to try to leave the office early?), I piled into a truck with my friends Maggie Ruddy and Todd Collins (experienced hut-trippers, thankfully). Our dogs, Zeke and Gracie, are best pals and were happy to spoon in the back of the truck for our six-hour drive through a snowstorm to Ridgway, just north of Telluride — the storm closed I-70 in the other direction – hoorah!
We awoke to a bright, clear Friday morning and began our trek to the hut. With eight inches of fresh snow there was no trail to follow, just vast snowfields to cross with the San Juans glistening in the distance. We lost and then found our bearings using a map and compass, as well as a route description provided by the hut system. The new snow also meant that we were "breaking trail" for all seven miles to the hut, turning the journey into a longer, harder, but beautiful slog through aspen and pine forests.
The dogs covered at least twice our distance, as they raced happily back and forth to help break trail at the front, and then to the back to check on the stragglers (namely me). Each dog carried a pack with its own food, like a good trail dog should. One of the great and unique things about the San Juan hut system is that dogs are allowed at the huts. This is a real treat for dog lovers, but because all water at the huts is made by melting snow, the old admonition about yellow snow takes on added urgency.
After seven hours of climbing and orienteering, we came upon the most beautiful sight of the day – the Ridgway Hut. This simple 16´ by 16´ hut sleeps eight comfortably on three rows of bunks stacked to the ceiling. We quickly started a fire in the wooden stove to warm the place and our frozen bones. Todd shoveled the snow drifts away from the window to bring in some light and brought in some buckets of the stuff to get our water production project on the stove.
Our friends Ann Marie O’Connor and Greg Wolff joined us at the hut on Day 2 (using our trail, they made much better time) and on Day 3 we climbed about 800 feet through snow-covered forests, "bootpacking" (that is, carrying our skis on our shoulders) part of the way to reach a breathtaking ridge bounded by majestic fourteeners one side and an endless valley view on the other. Then, we skied back down to the hut through deep powder and forest glades.
On a hut trip, there is an exquisite appreciation of simple pleasures: a cup of hot melted snow tea sipped after a day in the cold, singing old songs (or at least the parts you can remember) with friends as you power up the mountain, working through a crossword puzzle or a good book around the fire, a surprise chocolate bar pulled from a friend’s pack and shared on a sun-soaked summit; drifting off to sleep in a toasty down bag with muscles that have given their all and more.
All of these moments combined to make our foray to the Ridgway Hut a truly peak experience — good friends, loyal dogs, awesome mountains, and the feeling of having made it through all of the unexpected challenges that a backcountry adventure can throw your way. So, if the feeling moves you, take Hellen Keller’s advice and get out there! Maybe we’ll see you up the trail at one of Colorado’s amazing huts.
Heather Purcell is a partner at Levine + Purcell. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.