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