Twice a year I ditch the office and head to Colorado to hike, ski, or snowshoe into one of the 10th Mountain Division huts.
Have you heard of them?
It’s a series of backcountry cabins, most of them built at or above 10,000 feet in the Rockies, that provide hardscrabble accommodations for wilderness adventurers. If you’re good with a bunk and a gas burner, it’s home sweet home near the top of North America.
There are about 25 huts, and I’ve grunted my way into to 20 of them. And once I’ve checked them all off my list, I’ll commence visiting them all again in the opposite season from my first visit.
I’ve been in to Betty Bear Hut, high above Leadville, Colorado, in September, but it will be a whole different challenge to schlep in in February. And it will be a different kind of beauty, as well.
There are two great things about these huts. First of all, they commemorate the soldiers who served in the 10th Mountain Division, a group of hardy mountaineers who trained in Colorado. Their mission: to take it to the Axis powers in the Alps, during World War II.
After heroic service in Italy, and victory in Europe, the survivors returned to the U.S. and founded the ski industry here, including what is now the Vail resort plus dozens of others. If you enjoy pointing them downhill, you probably have a 10th Mountain Division soldier to thank for it.
And, having bonded in battle and on the ski slopes, these guys sought to memorialize their comrades by building Colorado huts in their honor. So nearly every visit I’ve made to a 10th Mountain hut has given me the opportunity to read about sacrifices made by my father’s generation of soldiers.
I can’t think of a better memorial to that mountain spirit than a hut built to welcome the current generation of adventurers.
That brings me to the second reason I’m grateful for the 10th Mountain Division huts. A 6-mile ski-in, plus low temperatures, 10 feet of snow, and sketchy route-finding, cuts out the riff-raff from these huts. Every time my buddies and I throw down our skis and burst through the door of a 10th Mountain hut, we’re greeted by the best and fittest that Colorado has to offer.
On a February trip to the Ben Eiseman hut near Vail, we managed to blunder off trail about a mile into our trip, and it resulted in a 12-hour snow slog that felt like it might never end.
We finally saw the glow of the hut lights at a little after 10 p.m., and were welcomed by 10 people who really wondered where the hell “Moore, party of four” was.
As we collapsed on benches, our hutmates sprung into action, plying us with cocoa and words of welcome and encouragement. It rivaled any exhaustion, or joy, I ever felt while crossing a finish line in a marathon or adventure race. But this line was at 11,180 feet, and I was carrying a 50-pound pack on my back. I was finished in more ways than one.
The key to that story came early, when four intelligent and well-equipped men succumbed to mass hallucination and decided to follow random footprints in the snow, rather than the actual trail to the hut. But being lost is a big part of my experience of the 10th Mountain Huts.
It’s happened to me in all sorts of ways.
Once, when my buddy Ron and I were leading our wives and my two sons into Uncle Bud’s hut, we set out from a parking lot on the Continental Divide Trail. We were all full of brio and excitement, and walked for a full hour in the wrong direction before we realized our mistake.
Can you blame our wives for wondering just who they’d entrusted our party to, for this hike? We did make it to the hut that afternoon, albeit a couple of hours later than planned. That night my wife took one of my favorite photographs of our boys: Sacked out at 7p.m., exhausted from their father’s Rocky Mountain backpacking blunder.
That said, what more can you do for your children than to guide them to full exhaustion in pursuit of something awesome?
And the 270 degree view of the Rockies from that hut was indeed spectacular. And it has the very best outhouse I’ve ever visited, in fact. The south wall of the crapper has a window that perfectly frames Mt. Elbert, the tallest peak in the Rockies. To take a dump there is a sublime experience.
I have convinced myself that getting lost on the way up to Uncle Bud’s Hut was an important part of the experience for my sons. I demonstrated early on in that trip that yes, their Dad was capable of marching off in the wrong direction for an hour at a time. But, importantly, I was also capable of reversing myself when the error cane to light.
And the result of the day, the error included, was encounters with marmots and elk as we humped it up to the top of the ridge, plus our arrival at a magical place.
Lesson learned: When you’re attempting to do something remarkable, you just might screw up along the way. You probably will, in fact, because going someplace new and unexpected also means it will be unfamiliar. But it’s no reason to turn back or give up.
As for the trip this year: We’re heading to the Benedict Huts, near Aspen. Right now I’m charging a Garmin Fenix watch, to help us find the way. It’s got a built-in altimeter and GPS unit, and I’ll load it with waypoints for the trail in, and at our destination for the night.
My younger son, who followed me in the wrong direction as a 5-year-old, will be joining me on this trip, despite his knowledge that dad screws up stuff like this. But being lost is just part of our history together, and it makes getting found all that much more rewarding.
Plus, there’s cocoa at the end.