A winter ski tour in Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts system is the stuff adventures are made of: cold weather, iced-up skis, heavy packs laden with survival gear (plus a wee pint of brandy to keep you warm at night), snowshoe hares, wide-open wilderness without a soul in sight, and open skies with a million more stars than you ever thought possible.
The famed backcountry hut system is linked by 350 miles of trails and ski tracks, allowing serious modern-day explorers the unique opportunity of having truly epic winter ski adventures far from the chairlifts and creature comforts of Colorado's big downhill resorts. It is the kind of adventure your grandfather may have taken on – in fact the system was used to train soldiers in mountain travel during World War II.
And while a bit of experience in wilderness and winter backcountry travel is required, a trip within the 10th Mountain Division is an adventure that anyone in decent physical condition, combined with a spirit of adventure and a cautious respect for the power of nature, can take on.
Before you strap on skis, the first step in your winter hut expedition is the planning phase. You need to work out what are you looking for, who is coming, whether you need a guide and how you get there without getting lost or stuck in an avalanche. The planning should start anywhere from six months to a year in advance, as the 29 huts fill up quickly, and you should also take into account the physical fitness of your group and your overall backcountry skills.
Though the huts and backcountry trails are open in the summer, there is something about the cold, wind and snow that make winter a special time to test yourself in the Rocky Mountains’ bold and beautiful wilderness.
Tailoring your trip
With hundreds of miles of trails, you have a million and one choices in the Colorado hut system. Do you want to stay in one hut and hang out for a few days, taking the occasional day ski? Do you want to hit up good spots for steep-and-deep backcountry skiing? Do you want to test your endurance with a five-day, hut-to-hut ski? All these questions will determine where you end up going. The hut system website is an excellent resource to help you custom-tailor your trip.
According to Ron Rash, the head guide and owner of Aspen Alpine Guides, many people do not realise how hard hut-to-hut skiing can be. Most huts are six or seven miles apart, with elevation gains of anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500ft. Add a 40-pound pack, a blizzard and two feet of fresh snow, and you can be looking at a more than 10-hour ordeal to make it to the hut. Think about just how much energy you are capable of exerting as you make your plans. Biting off more than you can chew in the wilderness can be a wildly humbling experience.
Choosing your team
Rash recommends having one person trained in avalanche awareness and backcountry winter travel, another with some medical training, and someone else who is good at using a map and compass to find his or her way through the wilderness. A solid trip leader with all these skills will work, but, unless you have a high skill level across the board, you will want to lessen the distances and altitude gains you plan for each day. If you do not have any of these skills in your skiing party, you should definitely look to hiring a guide for the trip. Guides can cost upwards of $500 a day.
What to take is a balancing act. In the wilderness, less is definitely more, and a pound less weight is definitely worth a ton more fun. But you will need the following survival essentials.
Avalanche beacon, probe and shovel (And you must know how to use them!)
First aid kit, including a lighter
Compass, map and somebody that knows how to use them. You can bring a GPS, but remember batteries freeze and satellite-signals can fail
Quick-dry clothes (polypropylene on the bottom, then a fleece and your shell)
Mittens and gloves
Thermos with warm water or warm soup
Two litres of water (camelbacks freeze up in the winter, so go with an insulated container and keep one in your jacket)
Repair kit for skis, bindings or snowshoes
Goggles (for heavy blizzards)
Slippers and dry clothes for the hut
Sleeping bag (bring something warm enough to use outdoors if necessary)
Pot, stove and something to make an impromptu shelter (for multi-day hut-to-hut trips)
Carefully planned meals, high in carbohydrates
A Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (COSAR) card. It costs just $12 for five years, and offsets the cost of search and rescue
Backcountry skiing resources
This article was first published in December 2011 and was refreshed in August 2012.
Greg Benchwick is a freelance writer and communications consultant specializing in Latin America, adventure travel, international development and enjoying every second of every day on this little blue planet. Find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/soundtraveler) and Twitter (@greentravels)