COLORADO

Close quar­ters and high al­ti­tude not­with­stand­ing, a moun­tain so­journ sat­is­fies three gen­er­a­tions.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JOHN BRI­LEY travel@wash­post.com Bri­ley is a writer based in Takoma Park; his web­site is John­bri­ley.com.

‘How do we even know we’re alive?” my 7-year-old son Kai asks. He is un­leash­ing a tor­rent of ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions, and be­fore I can make up some bogus dad an­swer he’s on to the next one: “Right now, all over the world, peo­ple are dy­ing. Aren’t they?”

Yes, but not right here, right now. We are in a rental Toy­ota Se­quoia lurch­ing along a 4WD road two miles above sea level in Colorado, some­where near the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide. To our left, rugged slopes and thin­ning patches of conifers rise to tree­less, wind-scoured peaks. To our right, a meadow pix­i­lated with wild­flow­ers de­scends to a lily pad-dot­ted lake.

With us are my 4-year-old daugh­ter Christina, my wife Cath­leen, her sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian par­ents, Jack and Mau­reen, and our guide Derek Seurynck, 29. We are re­turn­ing from a hike to our tem­po­rary home, an off-the-grid back­coun­try hut.

We are seek­ing a multi­gen­er­a­tional ad­ven­ture, some­thing be­tween com­fort zones and disaster — an elu­sive space when 74 years sep­a­rate the youngest and old­est group mem­bers.

I had con­sid­ered march­ing the fam­ily on a 12-mile hike through the Ma­roon Bells, from Aspen to Crested Butte, a walk I had done in 1997, but quickly con­cluded that the au­thor­i­ties might never find my body af­ter the re­sult­ing mutiny. Even a sim­ple camp­ing trip might have been a lo­gis­ti­cal fi­asco for an ur­ban-dwelling gang flying into Colorado from the East and Mid­west.

A few phone calls led me to Aspen Alpine Guides, where an ex­pert sug­gested a hut trip. Moun­tain­ous re­gions in the United States and many other coun­tries har­bor hun­dreds of huts for pub­lic use, rang­ing from bare-bones shel­ters where users must sup­ply their firewood to, in the Euro­pean Alps for ex­am­ple, catered af­fairs with cooks on site.

Be­cause we were start­ing our sum­mer 2016 va­ca­tion in Aspen, we ze­roed in on the 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion Hut As­so­ci­a­tion, named for the light-in­fantry unit of World War II moun­taineer­ing sol­diers who trained in hos­tile weather and ter­rain around Camp Hale, near Vail. The di­vi­sion de­ployed to Europe in late 1944, serv­ing in the war for only four months but show­ing the value of their ex­treme train­ing: On a freez­ing night in Fe­bru­ary 1945, 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion sol­diers scaled an icy rock wall in the north­ern Apen­nine Moun­tains of Italy to take Riva Ridge from a star­tled bat­tal­ion of Ger­mans that had oc­cu­pied the strate­gic van­tage point for six months.

To­day the as­so­ci­a­tion, which has no mil­i­tary af­fil­i­a­tion, owns and man­ages 34 huts be­tween Aspen and Vail. The first of these was built in 1982 af­ter for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary Robert Mc­Na­mara, along with two friends, per­suaded the U.S. For­est Ser­vice that such a shel­ter would be a hit with those who shared their pas­sion for back­coun­try ski­ing. That cabin was chris­tened Margy’s Hut, in mem­ory of Mc­Na­mara’s wife, Mar­garet, who died of can­cer in 1981.

The cab­ins, which can ac­com­mo­date from six to 16 guests, were in­deed pop­u­lar with skiers, some of whom used them to link week-long Vail-to-Aspen back­coun­try tours. The huts were opened to sum­mer use in the 1990s but re­main far more pop­u­lar in win­ter, with many ex­ceed­ing 90 per­cent ca­pac­ity from Christ­mas to the end of March, says Pa­trick Es­sig, a reser­va­tion­ist with Aspen Alpine Guides. The huts were built as way sta­tions for back­coun­try skiers seek­ing to do mul­ti­day tours with­out hav­ing to camp.

Vis­i­tors can re­serve in­di­vid­ual beds or an en­tire hut. We went whole-hut. The com­pany steered us to one named the Betty Bear, which of­fered big views and a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able nearby — hik­ing, fish­ing and moun­tain bik­ing. Hir­ing a guide also spared us the has­sle of buy­ing and pack­ing food for our 48-hour stay and com­mit­ting pun­ish­able-by-in-law er­rors.

“You don’t have sleep­ing bags?” Derek had asked, as po­litely as pos­si­ble, on a phone call two days be­fore our trip. We were al­ready in Colorado, im­mersed in Aspen’s se­duc­tive sum­mer sea­son, and hadn’t both­ered to parse the full de­scrip­tion of the “beds” in the hut. (So you know: Army-style frames with com­fort­able mat­tresses, sheets and pil­lows, but no blankets — vi­tal items in a place where overnight lows can plumb the 30s in the heart of sum­mer.)

“Um, no.” I replied. Af­ter a wor­ry­ing pause, he said he would round some up, along with hik­ing poles for Jack and Mau­reen. When we met him in Basalt, a town near Aspen, for the three-hour drive to the hut, he also had two moun­tain bikes wedged in the back of his truck — an above-and-be­yond re­sponse to my ca­sual men­tion that I would love to ride in the high coun­try.

The drive in took us up a two-laner through the Fry­ing­pan River Val­ley, past red­dened sand­stone buttes and an­glers arc­ing flies into ed­dies, then onto the dirt-rock road and into the rugged heart of the White River Na­tional For­est.

My en­joy­ment was tem­pered by a loop play­ing in my head: Will my in-laws en­joy this? Will we find enough to do to keep the chil­dren en­gaged? If the answers to those are “no,” did I bring enough beer? Nei­ther the kids nor their grand­par­ents had ever spent a night above 8,200 feet, and we were headed to 11,100 feet, an el­e­va­tion at which al­ti­tude sick­ness is com­mon.

The dis­quiet evap­o­rates in the thin moun­tain air as soon as I see Betty Bear, a chalet of burly, pol­ished pine nes­tled in a grove of Dou­glas firs and blue spruces. Spa­cious, clean and bright, the up­stairs fea­tures a bank of win­dows and nar­row deck fac­ing south to the gun-sight notch of 13,845-foot Mount Ok­la­homa along with two wood-fired stoves for heat­ing and cook­ing) and a full sup­ply of kitchen­ware. Three pic­nic ta­bles with benches pro­vide space for eating and a horse­shoe of wide-cush­ioned benches lines the walls around the heat­ing stove. A set of shelves is stacked with board games, play­ing cards and books on wilder­ness sur­vival, an­i­mal track­ing, the his­tory of sol­diers on skis and more.

Down­stairs, a main room holds its own heat­ing stove, along with eight sin­gle beds, one bunk and three pri­vate rooms, each with two or three beds.

Pull-string light­bulbs hang through­out the house, juiced by small so­lar pan­els above the deck. A two-burner propane stove aug­ments the wood-fired one. Dish­wash­ing wa­ter comes from a cis­tern via a spigot to the sink.

Out­side: a fire ring, benches and, on the op­po­site side of the hut, an out­house. Be­yond: mil­lions of acres of pub­lic land and not an­other build­ing within miles.

A gem of an alpine scene

“Bring a rain jacket,” Derek says as we step from the Betty Bear into 70-de­gree cloud­less sun­shine for the five-mile drive to the Lyle Lake trail­head. (There are short paths, but no sub­stan­tial hik­ing trails im­me­di­ately around the hut).

We achieve tar­get heart rates im­me­di­ately, chas­ing the kids down to ap­ply sun­screen, but soon we are all peace­ably fol­low­ing the bur­bling Lyle Creek up­hill through sunny fields of wild­flow­ers.

Lest we mis­take this for a back­coun­try epic, Derek is dressed in jeans and a flan­nel shirt, a stark con­trast to our sweat-wick­ing, sun-re­pelling, ul­tra­light lay­ers .

Af­ter am­bling a mile and a half, we crest a rise to find a gem of an alpine scene: The lake, shim­mer­ing in the sun­shine — wait, sorry: The lake, strug­gling to shim­mer in fleet­ing breaks among thick­en­ing clouds.

The tarn sits in a gran­ite basin, ringed by grass and rocks. We are at 11,369 feet, near­ing the tree line. From the far shore, a trail squig­gles up to a high sad­dle. It looks invit­ing, a path to the next un­known, but be­fore I can sug­gest a group mis­sion the wind kicks up and the sky starts spit­ting.

This both­ers no­body. Kai bal­ances on a lake­side log, scan­ning for trout. Christina joins him, toss­ing flower petals into the wa­ter. The adults linger silently in the pu­rity of this place.

Soon, though, the rain in­ten­si­fies and tran­si­tions to hail. Now, it is down­right cold. Mau­reen asks if we would be bet­ter off in the trees, prompt­ing Derek to sug­gest that we would be bet­ter off in the trees. A path leads us to a shel­tered grove.

I see that Christina is shiv­er­ing.

I start to re­move my jacket for her but Derek beats me to it, cloak­ing her in a down puffy coat that reaches to mid-shin. The squall ends but the clouds re­main, and I know our only hope of sus­tain­ing good cheer is to keep mov­ing.

Back in the marshy mud of the lakeshore, we come across mule deer prints, and one that looks a lot like a bare hu­man foot­print. I think back to a poster on the wall of the Betty Bear — “An­i­mal Tracks of the Rocky Moun­tains” — and re­al­ize this one was left by a black bear.

The sun re­turns, vault­ing us back into sum­mer. We are push­ing the lim­its of the kids and their grand­par­ents, but Cath­leen and I feel spry so we send the oth­ers down, drop our packs and jog off for that en­tic­ing trail on the other side of the lake.

We bound to the top, in the sense that stop­ping ev­ery four strides to hold one’s knees and wheeze qual­i­fies as bound­ing, and are re­warded with a view north to a turquoise pond amid shad­owy peaks and val­leys. Be­hind us is a com­mand­ing vista of Lyle Lake. Clouds are re­group­ing and we hear thun­der in the dis­tance, na­ture’s ver­sion of call­ing the cops on its own party. We jog down the trail, light, free, and a few steps ahead of dan­ger.

Back to the ’70s

Good va­ca­tions of­ten lack crit­i­cal story el­e­ments and (sorry to dis­ap­point) our trip passes with­out ma­jor con­flict. I do over­hear Mau­reen telling Jack: “We’ll leave ev­ery light in this place on overnight,” pre­sum­ably to il­lu­mi­nate a path to­ward the out­house, and by the fi­nal morn­ing he is pin­ing for a shower.

But over­all, our hang time around the hut in­vokes leisure time of the 1970s, or maybe the 1870s: un­hur­ried meals and con­ver­sa­tion — via lar­ynxes and jaw move­ments, not thumbs and screens — while the kids in­vent games from a mash-up of play­ing cards, dice and ran­dom fig­urines.

In fact, Cath­leen the­o­rizes that the ab­sence of the fa­mil­iar rou­tine — play dates, sports prac­tices and elec­tronic tonic — opened the gates to Kai’s psy­che and the Big Life Ques­tions, which he said he had been want­ing to ask “for thou­sands of years.”

One evening, as the group flits around an ap­pe­tizer board of cheeses and cured meats, I hop on a moun­tain bike and head far­ther down the jeep road that brought us here. Deep ruts, loose rocks, and the steep­en­ing grade add a dash of drama. A half mile on the road ends at a huge sand­stone boul­der.

Past that, a sin­gle-track trail bi­sects a steep slope that tum­bles to the Fry­ing Pan val­ley floor. I stop of­ten to take in west­ward views of ridges march­ing down the val­ley, brushed in the pas­tels of late af­ter­noon. Most ar­rest­ing, though, is the sound: All I can hear is the rush of the river, pump­ing from its head­wa­ters 1,200 ver­ti­cal feet be­low. No horns, dogs, kids, mow­ers, blow­ers, beeps or buzzes.

I step off the bike, climb a short pitch to a rock out­crop­ping and sit. My mind, typ­i­cally a chaotic tan­gle of ideas, wor­ries and dreams, soft­ens in the au­di­tory balm of that dis­tant river. For this brief time I am Muir, Pow­ell, Thoreau, Roo­sevelt, Car­son and the mil­lions of oth­ers for whom na­ture served as first-line ther­apy.

I need more of this in my life, but it’s get­ting dark and I’d rather not join the mil­lions of oth­ers who ended up in the jaws of noc­tur­nal preda­tors. I head back to the hut, sit down to an al­most-cold beer and tell my son how we know we’re alive.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN BRI­LEY

FROM TOP: The au­thor’s wife, Cath­leen Kelly, cen­ter, helps their daugh­ter Christina nav­i­gate a stream cross­ing at the foot of Colorado’s Lyle Lake while Cath­leen’s fa­ther, Jack, looks on; Mau­reen Kelly, the au­thor’s mother-in-law, en­joys a morn­ing view of Mount Ok­la­homa from the deck of the 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion’s Betty Bear hut.

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