10th Mountain Division Huts: Backcountry Sanctuaries

Last Dec. 31, the crisp air at the trailhead between Leadville and Vail felt invigorating. I had been looking forward to this day since March when I’d first thrown my name into the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s lottery system.

Because I simply filled out an application and sent in the $25 membership fee, 16 happy people were pulling out ballooned backpacks and strapping on snowshoes and cross-country skis for the trek to a New Year’s celebration site sitting at 11,370 feet. We wiggled on our packs and, like dogs after a long car ride, vibrated with energy, ready to hit the trail.

The term “hut” is misleading. It conjures up an image of tent poles and tarp, like the “Swamp” in M*A*S*H. But these are massive solid structures with wood-burning stoves; sinks; kitchens well-stocked with pots, pans, plates and flatware; solar-powered electricity; and solid-structure beds with pillows and pads to perfectly accompany a hiker’s sleeping bag. Each 10th Mountain Division hut is a sanctuary in the backcountry.

What started as one smiling group quickly became a spread-out chain of people, huffing up 1,200 feet of trail.

We started walking as one group, but soon each individual’s pace would kick in. Our athletic abilities spanned from ski patrol employees, to competitive mountain bikers whose lungs were as large as the state, to a woman with asthma armed with an inhaler. For peace of mind, I collected walkie talkies from those who brought them and divvied them out by speed, so the swift gazelles could keep in touch with the ambling tortoises if the weather turned or folks needed some extra assistance.

The journey that day was 4.4 miles with a 1,200-foot elevation gain from the Crane Park Trailhead to the 10th Mountain Division hut. We started out chatty as we walked along the flat beginning. Before long, the words changed to deep breaths as we made our way up.

At points, I moved into a quiet trance, mesmerized by the incredible beauty surrounding me. Colorado is covered with gorgeous trails, but when you are on a hut trip you have the added bonus of being on the trail alone or accompanied by only a couple other folks. Rarely is anyone, outside your fellow hut mates, on the same path.

The forest felt as quiet as a church sanctuary on Monday. Sometimes the trail would wind along a wide edge to reveal one of those incredibly breathtaking rolling mountain views. The time was perfect to drink some water, eat an energy bar and try to memorize the moment.

With hordes of food and even a bit of yoga, the trekkers lived for two days in a backcountry sanctuary

After plowing my way through what felt like and endless snowfield, I saw the hut. It stood like a monument. Just the sight of it put my legs in fast-motion, my snowshoes flinging wider sprays of white powder. Then my wheels spun out from under me and I fell on the hill right in front of the building’s huge picture window. Three friends inside cheered and laughed as I stood up, shook off and started again. On the hut’s large front porch I plopped my backpack and my butt down on the bench and took off my snowshoes.

The rest of the party trickled in from the trail and was greeted with a toasty warm interior, hot tea, cheese chunks, crackers, apple slices and orange slivers displayed on pieces of white paper towel. Everyone packed in an abundance of food for our two-day stay and generously threw their bounty on the picnic table to share. It was the ultimate potluck. That night we’d eat our “community meal”: Fajitas. Through some e-mail coordination we had enough tortillas, veggies, chicken, rice, beans, salsa and sour cream to feed the hungry group.

For two days we lived in our most comfortable flannels and slippers. For two days it was about brushed teeth and baseball caps. No showers. But the outhouse provided a sense of civilization with toilet paper stacked to the roof.

At night we played Texas spit, a favorite card game among the group, where bragging rights were worth more than a Las Vegas jackpot. We also brought up the board, game cards and dice from Cranium, which proved hilarious. The hut was black except for tea candles and our headlamps. We beamed blinding light into each others eyes too many times to count, learning the lesson and then promptly forgetting it in the next active moment.

That night we slept soundly, our bodies happily spent from the hike, bellies full from a big meal and deeply content to have kicked off the New Year in high (altitude) style.

If You Go

The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association includes 29 backcountry huts in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, connected by 350 miles of trail. The average route is 6-7 miles long and climbs 1,500-2,500 feet in elevation from a trailhead that is at 8,000 feet or higher.

Huts sleep from 3 to 20 people.

Costs range from $18.75 to $43 per person per night, as well as price options for booking entire cabin units.

Most huts operate throughout the year, but may be closed at particular times.

Most reservations are taken by phone at 970-925-5775, with the exception of the lottery, which is conducted by mail and fax.

To participate in the lottery you must join as a member of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association for at least $25/year. For an explanation of member benefits and levels visit www.huts.org and click “Join.”

At night the hut was black, except for tea candles, headlamps and the flash bulb of a camera.

E-mail reservation requests and online reservations are not accepted.

For information on seasons and specific huts visit www.huts.org