Swap­ping snow for snow­drops: The sea­sonal shift of Colorado’s moun­tain ski huts.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RACHEL WALKER travel@wash­post.com

Look out the front door of the Fowler-Hil­liard hut and you’ll see the mas­sive, jagged moun­tains of Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilder­ness ex­plod­ing into the hori­zon in nearly ev­ery di­rec­tion. Through the pic­ture win­dows in the hut’s en­closed back porch are the Gore Range, home of Vail Moun­tain Re­sort, thou­sands of acres of wilder­ness and a bevy of wildlife, from black bears to mar­mots. The stacked moun­tains stretch deep into the dis­tance, cre­at­ing a pur­ple and mot­tled gray mo­saic.

This was the view I sa­vored on a long-ago win­ter trip when my friends and I were kid-free, avid skiers and al­ways up for an ad­ven­ture. And it is the same view— with wild­flow­ers and cliffs of gran­ite loom­ing above dense pine forests sub­bing for snow and ice — that will greet me later this sum­mer, in Au­gust, when I re­turn to the hut for a high-alpine fam­ily re­union.

It’s an en­vi­able one, and it com­ple­ments the cozy, two-story hut. I should say here that “hut” is some­thing of a mis­nomer: Fowler-Hil­liard boasts a light-flooded in­te­rior, rooftop so­lar pan­els, a wood-burn­ing stove with fuel stacked to Swiss-chalet stan­dards and clas­sic rough-hewn-log fur­ni­ture. But an ex­clu­sive moun­tain re­treat this is not. It’s not a posh manse on the out­skirts of an op­u­lent moun­tain town, nor is it a celebrity mag­net.

Rather, Fowler-Hil­liard is one of 34 huts in Colorado’s sto­ried 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion Hut sys­tem, a net­work of lodges in the val­leys and ridges that con­nect Colorado’s abun­dant moun­tains, many of which rise above 14,000 feet. These huts bear the legacy of the U.S. Army’s 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion, which trained in Colorado’s high coun­try to pre­pare for Europe’s rig­or­ous moun­tain­ous ter­rain dur­ing World War II. One soldier, Fritz Bene­dict, re­turned to Aspen from the front lines inspired to em­u­late Europe’s ex­ten­sive moun­tain­side huts. It took sev­eral decades, but in 1982 the first of the 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion huts was built.

Ini­tially, the huts, which were mainly log and in­cluded com­mon rooms, bunk rooms, out­houses and the oc­ca­sional sauna, were open only in win­ter. They were the purview of intrepid back­coun­try skiers trav­el­ing from hut to hut, lap­ping some of the best Rocky Moun­tain ter­rain by day and spend­ing nights tucked away in the high coun­try. In 1993, the 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion Hut As­so­ci­a­tion, the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that main­tains and takes reser­va­tions for the huts, de­cided to make se­lect huts avail­able in the sum­mer; to­day, 21 of the 34 are open from July through Sept. 30. And although win­ter re­mains the most pop­u­lar sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Ben Dodge, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the as­so­ci­a­tion, sum­mer is a sublime time for a hut trip.

“Most peo­ple are look­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to con­nect,” he said, “to the land, to the for­est, to their friends and fam­ily.”

My thoughts, ex­actly. Which is why, some­time in early 2015, I pro­posed that my in-laws, a hardy clan of die-hard Ver­mon­ters, ven­ture west for a high-coun­try sum­mer re­union at one of these gor­geous yet af­ford­able huts. This was no easy sell; Ver­mont in the sum­mer­time is beau­ti­ful, and for as long as mem­ory serves, my hus­band, kids and I (liv­ing in Colorado) made the trek back east for fam­ily vis­its with the whole gang — cousins, aunts, un­cles, grand­par­ents.

I can’t say what, ex­actly, per­suaded them to come, but I sus­pect the prom­ise of a fully stocked house set in the mid­dle of rugged western moun­tains had some­thing to do with it. Af­ter all, it’s hard to beat the de­lec­ta­ble com­bi­na­tion of iso­la­tion of this hut and rel­a­tively easy sea­sonal ac­cess — huts that re­quire a six-mile ski in dur­ing the win­ter can be driven to on For­est Ser­vice roads in the sum­mer. With the low price of about $30 per per­son per night (kids are less ex­pen­sive), a hut trip be­came an af­ford­able ad­ven­ture, per­fect for fam­ily bond­ing. Sum­mer week­ends fill up first, but there are gen­er­ally plenty of mid­week spots avail­able through the sum­mer and there are of­ten last­minute can­cel­la­tions, Dodge said.

We plan to hit Fowler-Hil­liard for three nights, a group of 13 rang­ing in age from 3 to 75. Our days will be spent hik­ing nearby peaks, ex­plor­ing a rock gar­den in a not-too-dis­tant canyon, play­ing Scrabble, pre­par­ing big, nour­ish­ing meals, ad­mir­ing the columbine, lupine and lark­spur, and sim­ply tak­ing it all in.

Any suc­cess­ful re­union re­quires plan­ning; a re­union at an un­staffed, off-the-grid cabin in the heart of the high coun­try re­quires even more. For­tu­nately, the reser­va­tion staff at the hut as­so­ci­a­tion is ex­traor­di­nar­ily help­ful and pa­tient. In Jan­uary, one woman spent over an hour on the phone with me help­ing se­lect the best hut for a trip such as ours (multi-gen­er­a­tional seek­ing easy ac­cess) and then, once we nar­rowed the op­tions, she helped me find dates when the en­tire hut was avail­able. (Hut reser­va­tions are made based on spots avail­able, which means pa­trons do not have to re­serve an en­tire cabin. Although this can be fun and so­cial, it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly de­sir­able for a fam­ily re­union, so we rented the en­tire cabin, which sleeps 16.)

I learned a lot in that con­ver­sa­tion, mainly that the best huts for fam­i­lies in the sum­mer are gen­er­ally near ponds or es­tab­lished trails so they can use the hut as a base camp for ex­plor­ing. You can ride a moun­tain bike to most of the huts, and some have cor­rals for horses or lla­mas. A few pop­u­lar fam­ily huts in­clude Un­cle Bud’s, Peter Es­tin’s and FowlerHil­liard, in large part be­cause they are easy to get to and of­fer plenty to do dur­ing the day.

I also got a re­fresher in how to ac­tu­ally pull off a back­coun­try trip, some­thing I did fre­quently be­fore hav­ing kids about five years ago. Life is harder above tree­line, and at that el­e­va­tion, the air is no­tice­ably thin­ner, and al­ti­tude sick­ness is a pos­si­bil­ity. De­hy­dra­tion is more likely, as is fa­tigue. Put sim­ply, prepa­ra­tion is key. Moun­tains tend to cre­ate their own weather, and above tree­line, storms can roll in un­ex­pect­edly. In Au­gust, also known as mon­soon sea­son, af­ter­noon storms are ex­pected and reg­u­lar.

The ex­perts ad­vised me to des­ig­nate a trip leader (yours truly) and en­sure that he or she com­mu­ni­cates the im­por­tance of bring­ing warm clothes and rain gear. Be­cause cell­phones don’t work at the ma­jor­ity of the huts, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing bring­ing two-way ra­dios, es­pe­cially if the group might split up for dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­i­ties. Study a map and make sure ev­ery­one (or at least the grown-ups) knows how to get to the hut. Plan out the meals and pack all your food. At a hut, there is no “run­ning down to the store” if you need an onion or ex­tra milk. (If plan­ning on this scale seems over­whelm­ing, there is a mul­ti­tude of pro­fes­sional out­fit­ters that of­fer guided hut trips and man­age all the lo­gis­tics.)

About a month af­ter book­ing the hut and hashing out the lo­gis­tics, I suf­fered a cri­sis of con­fi­dence. My ex­cite­ment gave way to trep­i­da­tion. How would my fam­ily fare at 11,500 feet above sea level? Would we re­ally be able to pull off three days of meals for such a large and var­ied group? What if we all got bored?

That’s when I pulled out photos frommy pre­vi­ous hut trips. In them, my friends and I are aglow with that happy, re­laxed look that comes with spend­ing un­in­ter­rupted time in na­ture with good peo­ple. The huts are beau­ti­ful in their sim­plic­ity, and the views are as breath­less as I re­mem­bered. The pic­tures re­minded me why it’s worth all the work re­quired to pull off a suc­cess­ful hut trip: These spe­cial, sturdy high-coun­try homes were built as a la­bor of love for trav­el­ers of a cer­tain ilk. They’re mag­i­cal. And get­ting to share them with fam­ily this sum­mer, when wild­flow­ers paint the moun­tains with vi­brant col­ors and rivers swell with wa­ter, will truly cre­ate a trip of a life­time. Walker writes about travel, the en­vi­ron­ment and fam­ily from her home in Boul­der, Colo. Find her on Twit­ter at @racheljowalker.

PHOTOS BY CRAIG HOFF­MAN

The Fowler-Hil­liard Hut, above, is one of dozens owned and op­er­ated by the 10thMoun­tain Di­vi­sion Hut As­so­ci­a­tion, which hon­orsWorldWar II sol­diers. The net­work of rus­tic moun­tain­side huts in Aspen, Colo., top, make a sublime re­treat year-round.

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