Colorado’s Backcountry Hut Systems

Colorado's Backcountry Hut Systems
Stephen Szoradi

A family-friendly guide to planning winter adventures to nearby backcountry huts.

So, there’s a backcountry hut trip on your bucket list or calendar…

I’ve planned a lot of trips to backcountry huts, and now that I’m a parent, I like to compare the thinking that happens before a hut trip to the long-ago planning for emergency contingencies we did before going to the hospital for the birth of our first child. Imagine, seasoned parents, a “labor & delivery bag” that takes into consideration the physical needs of yourself, your kids and spouse, plus weather, winter snow, cars with racks and boxes, skis, snowboards, sleds, frozen fingers, padlock combinations, friends, other peoples’ kids, food, allergies, cold toilet seats with headlamps and a fairly endless list of other essentials.

Thorough planning makes the difference 

With the guide service, most of our operations are oriented to guest care and laying the groundwork, so that a vacation or weekend trip is a successful and positive experience for multiple levels of participants. Our basic formula revolves around asking many questions upfront before even looking at where to go.

These questions can be helpful for those going on a first trip, as well as for experienced hut travelers who are hosting others who may be less comfortable or familiar with the hut experience. For parents who have never gone to a backcountry hut, yet your kids are packing for their first school Ex-Ed, keep in mind that our schools have some awesome outdoor educators and coaches who are trained in working with kids in this kind of setting, and they will enable your child to participate in a great adventure with their classmates. My hope here is to help diminish your stress and give you a picture of what the allure is all about.

Photo Credit: (cover image and above) Catherine Aeppel, taken on a “Leave the Boys Behind” Aspen Alpine Guides Hut Trip
First, the Backcountry Hut Back Story

The backcountry hut tradition comes out of the European Alps and the Himalayas where getting across mountaintops from town-to-town, hut-to-hut has been a way of life for centuries. The first American huts were built in the Northeast in 1904. When the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division trained in nearby Camp Hale on the other side of Tennessee Pass, they prepared for campaigns across the Italian Alps by skiing a route from Leadville to Aspen. One night a small group bunked in a cabin near Halfmoon Creek, and this overnight stay has become a story of legends (and documentaries). Later, in the 1980s when a Colorado hut system was being planned, the families of several 10th Mtn. Division soldiers donated funds to name huts in their honor.

You can almost feel this history when you step inside a hut and take in the simple furnishings, rugged kitchen, wooden beams, sitting areas in nooks, and bunk beds. Spots are booked per person, so unless you have a large group that fills every bunk, you’ll likely meet other backcountry travelers.

There is a certain feeling of comradery found sitting around a fire with friends, family and people you’ve just met.

It’s part of every overnight hut trip. You’ve earned it. You’ve packed in everything you’ll need across miles of snowy woods on skis or snowshoes. You’re off the grid – no cell phones, no running water. You cook meals and melt snow on a propane burner or wood-burning stove.

If this is what you’re looking for, or if you have been invited to join a friend or group on your first hut trip, please consider this as a brief introduction to getting started. Setting yourself and crew up for success with a well-thought-out trip is a whole project that needs some serious consideration weeks or months in advance – way more planning than we’re used to here, even for those of us who tend to push the limits to satisfy our adventurous spirits.

Risk Management

Winter and snow conditions can pose real challenges. Cold temperatures and wind can suck the energy out of anyone, and particularly our smaller kids. White-outs can make finding the way to and from the hut difficult. For that matter, a bluebird day preceded by a good fresh snowfall can cover tracks, which means you’re breaking trail, which is tiring and furthermore comes with the potential of losing your route. Watch weather forecasts and make sure your group understands from the beginning that last-minute changes in weather may warrant modifying your trip.

Avalanche Risk

Avalanche risk in our continental snowpack is a critical factor in decision making. To be very clear, skiing in avalanche terrain is a much different prospect than traveling in the backcountry where routes and terrain conditions are not subject to avalanche activity. It is entirely possible to head out into the backcountry on a high avalanche risk day and not be in avalanche terrain. Conversely, it is also possible to be in nominal avalanche risk conditions and trigger an avalanche. Know your route and understand the terrain, so you are prepared to make the ultimate “go or no-go” decision.

To make a Go or No-Go decision, you need to understand:
      1. Your particular group dynamic.
      2. Recognizing and avoiding avalanche terrain.
      3. Reading a current avalanche report.
      4. The weather forecast and how it will impact your specific area and terrain.
      5. What to do if… contingency plans for route, medical, gear and cold.

 

Choosing a Backcountry Hut

Sometimes the hardest part is reserving the right hut.

The Green-Blue-Black rating system listed below is based on access to and from the hut in good conditions.  It looks at factors such as: terrain, route finding, distance and elevation gain. Be aware that inclement weather with heavy snow, high winds and/or cold temperatures can shift an easy green to a difficult black rating. Also, this rating system is for the standard routes noted here and does not account for variations off-route that may involve potential avalanche paths. It also does not assess the terrain and potential avalanche hazard in areas around the huts.

      • Book well in advance as weekends fill quickly
      • Hut fees for children 12 and under are generally half price
Training

Getting to and from a backcountry hut is not a race, but it still needs some practice and attention. Kids do run around all day. They also spend time in a classroom just like many of us spend time at a desk. Training to prepare adults and children for a full day of exertion is important and may be the key to avoiding the, “plop down on the trail bonk or meltdown.”

      • A strong downhill skier is not necessarily a strong uphill skier.
      • Don’t book a hut that is beyond your or your group’s stamina or skill.
Distance and type of terrain should be decided based on:
      1. Who’s going on the trip? Family? Friends? Out-of-town guests?
      2. How is each person getting to the hut? Hiking? Skiing? On Split boards?
      3. What’s the experience of each participant? First-timers? Seasoned hut users?
      4. What’s the skill level and athletic ability of each participant? Can they make the distance to the hut? Can they manage the time it takes to get there? Are they able to withstand sun, snow and wind?

Colorado Huts System

Nearby Backcountry Huts

Green: 

1. Continental Divide & Point Breeze Cabins

Tennessee Pass TH; Route Distance +/- 1 m; TH Elevation 10,424 ft, Hut Elevation 10,500 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 50 ft

2. Francie’s Cabin

Spruce Creek TH; Route Distance +/- 2.2 m; TH Elevation 10,360 ft; Hut Elevation 11,360 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 1,000 ft

3. The Shrine Mountain Inn (Walter’s, Chuck’s and Jay’s Huts)

Vail Pass TH; Route Distance +/- 2.7 m; TH Elevation 10,580 ft; Hut Elevation 11,223 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 700 ft

Blue:

4. Barnard Hut

Top of Gondola / Sundeck; Aspen Mtn TH; Route Distance +/- 7 m; TH Elevation 11,212 ft; Hut Elevation 11,500 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 700 ft

5. McNamara Hut

Upper Hunter Creek Drop-Off TH; Route Distance +/- 4.7 m; TH Elevation 8,660 ft; Hut Elevation 10,360 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 1,760 ft

6. 10th Mountain Division Hut

Crane Park TH; Route Distance +/- 4.4 m; TH Elevation 10,137 ft; Hut Elevation 11,370 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 1,350 ft

7. Vance’s Hut

Ski Cooper TH; Route Distance +/- 2.8 m; TH Elevation 10,424 ft; Hut Elevation 10,980 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 1,300 ft

Black:

8. Benedict Huts (Fritz and Fabi’s)

Upper Hunter Creek Drop Off TH; Route Distance +/- 4.8 m; TH Elevation 8,660 ft; Hut Elevation 10,970 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 2,300

9. Harry Gates Hut

Montgomery Flats TH; Route Distance +/- 6.9 m; TH Elevation 8,250 ft; Hut Elevation 9,700 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 1,900 ft

10. Sangree M Froelicher

Buckeye Gulch TH; Route Distance +/- 3 m; TH Elevation 10,180 ft; Hut Elevation 11,650 ft; Elevation Gain +/- 1500 ft

NOTE:

Elevation gains shown here represent the total gain over the course of the trail, not the difference between the elevations at the start and finish of the route.

 

Getting Ready

Assess your Gear and Clothing in Advance
      • Do a gear check or pre-run in controlled environment with clothing and gear.
      • Clothing: base-layer, mid-layer and hard shell; one uphill (lightweight) set and one warm and dry set for breaks and downhill skiing.
      • Summer-rated sleeping bags are lightweight and provide enough warmth in the huts with wood stoves.
      • Note that you don’t need to pack certain things that you would otherwise take on a tent trip. Huts are not stocked with food, but they are equipped with basic amenities such as pots, pans, utensils, plates, cups, basic cooking tools, plenty of firewood and TP.
Weeks in Advance
      • Plan a day trip of a similar distance, elevation gain and terrain to test how much time you may spend on the trail.
      • Written meal plans work well in groups, and allow various people to take the lead and distribute the weight.
      • It’s easier to keep your crew hydrated and fed, rather than trying to make up the deficit in energy.
On the Day Before Your Trip

Keep in mind, you will need an early morning start on the day of the trip, to allow enough time to travel to the trailhead, manage gear and make the ski-in before the sun sets behind the hills. So, the best practice is to be completely packed the day before, and make sure that you have a plan for each of the following topics:

1. Meeting and start time adequate to get to the hut

Meeting at the trailhead with multiple vehicles from different areas has the potential to become a problem. Trailheads and backcountry areas rarely have good and reliable cell service. So, meet at a place of known cell service and then if someone is delayed, stuck in bad weather… a plan can be discussed. Think: town or close to a town. Who forgot their skins?

2. At the Meeting Spot, the trip leader updates the group about:
      • Terrain map
      • Current avalanche report
      • Risk evaluation
      • Food and shared gear
      • Equipment and personal gear check
      • Hut combination
3. Current weather forecast

Pay particular attention to changes in weather from when you are starting your ski-in to when you plan to ski out. An overnight storm or second day of storm weather changes your travel plan.

 

Stephen Szoradi 

Stephen began guiding with Aspen Alpine Guides in 2008 after moving from Switzerland where he spent the previous seven years training and working. In the summer, Stephen guides the regional 14,000 ft peaks, as well as day hikes, rock climbs and high-altitude training coupled with trail running. In the winter, he is a backcountry ski and snowshoe guide, avalanche educator, and has worked for five years as a ski instructor. His expert knowledge of winter backcountry adventures helps us, in this edition, to plan a fun and safe family hut getaway.  MORE by Stephen Szoradi

Resources:

Backcountry Hut reservations, maps and hut details:

10th Mountain Division Hut System (970) 925-5775

Backcountry Hut Trip planning, support and booking:

Aspen Alpine Guides   (970) 925-6618

Other:

Colorado Avalanche Information Center

American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education

Weather: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration