On the fifth day of our Colorado high-country ski trip, we set off in grayness down the gentle slope in front of the Harry Gates hut and turned onto the trail leading north. A light snow that had smoothed the land overnight was disturbed only by the sharp impressions of the tracks of an early-rising coyote.
We were traveling the Tenth Mountain Hut and Trail System, which runs for more than 50 miles from the resort of Aspen to Edwards, a town a few miles west of Vail. It passes through a spectacular winter wonderland far removed from the lift lines and bustle of the chic downhill ski centers.
In the quiet we glided across Lime Creek at about 9,500 feet as the leaden skies began to open, giving us glimpses of 13,000-foot Eagle Peak off to the east. We were bound for Peter Estin hut at 11,200 feet, the final night's stop of our hut-to-hut journey. It promised to be a great day.
We faced a long climb up a ridge, but by midmorning, when we reached the the base of the ridge, the sun had come out. A chill wind had sprung up, but it was not bothersome. After all, at this altitude in mid-February the temperature is guaranteed not to be warm. Lovely or fierce or perhaps peaceful in a falling snow, but never warm.
Tracks left by descending skiers crisscrossed the steep open slope, but when we tried to take advantage of them, they gave way beneath us. It was rough going in two feet of powder. But by this time, my wife and I had gotten used to the altitude, and our packs had grown considerably lighter along the way.
And when we finally gained the ridge crest, the panoramic view toward the south and Aspen -- where we had started the trek -- was, like the whole trip, well worth the effort. One day after another, we had witnessed spectacular scenery, taken a few chilly spills and then spent toasty warm evenings with pleasant people in what must be one of the most beautiful and comfortable group of back-country huts in the world.
After taking in the view, we continued upward along the ridge crest, moving though an open forest of aspens and then larger firs. When we hit a series of steep uphill switchbacks, I gloried anew in how easy it was to climb them if your skis have "skins" -- the synthetic fiber mats with a surface that is smooth when rubbed in one direction but stiff and prickly to grab the snow when rubbed in the other direction.
The Estin hut, our final destination, is perched at the edge of a grove of trees and has a view that runs 35 or 40 miles to the Maroon Bells, the wonderfully photogenic mountains south of Aspen. From here, we could pick out parts of our route, recalling our week's adventure. In the distance we spotted the pass at Sawmill Park beneath Mount Yeckel, where we had traversed with a foot of breath-light new powder hiding the trail. It had been our first glorious experience with deep-powder skiing.
The hut and trail system is operated by the Tenth Mountain Trail Association, a nonprofit group of volunteers created in 1980. They built the system to honor members of the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops, a World War II outfit that had trained in the nearby mountains.
The entire trip, or even shorter portions of it -- each of the huts can be reached from intermediate points in a day -- requires considerable effort. However, the trail is laid out so that it is virtually avalanche-proof and it can be negotiated on metal-edged telemark skis by intermediate skiers wearing good, stiff -- but not rigid -- boots. (Ordinary light cross-country skies and low boots aren't adequate, but you don't have to be skilled in telemark turns to handle the trail.)
In addition, several guides are available offering services that run the gamut from literally just showing you the way and making sure you get to a hut safely to providing full meals and sleeping bags at each hut so you don't have to carry your own. Skis, boots, packs, sleeping bags and other equipment can be rented in Vail or Aspen, too.
My wife and I had done considerable cross-country skiing, but we considered ourselves intermediate skiers at best. Uncertain of our ability to handle the trip by ourselves, we signed up for a guided trip run by the Ute Mountaineer, an outdoor ski and equipment store in Aspen. To cut the cost, we decided to do our own cooking, a choice I regretted when I watched our guide pull some roasted Cornish game hens out of the oven the first night to serve the one member of our party who had opted for full service.
Our group gathered at the Ute Mountaineer on a Sunday morning. It was small and included only a schoolteacher from Massachusetts, a surgeon from Illinois and our guide, John Totman, or "Tots," an Aspen homebuilder who loves both skiing and guiding. Over breakfast at a nearby restaurant, we discussed details of the trip. Afterward, we drove a short distance into the hills on the northern edge of Aspen, got our skis and packs in order and set out.
My new internal frame pack, bought because it was snug-fitting and much more stable than my 20-year-old Kelty external frame pack, had too much capacity. I had used it all, and it must have weighed 60 pounds, perhaps more. I certainly needed my ski poles for stability.
Tots was carrying far more, but he had most of the weight in a "poke," a sled attached to a waist strap by long aluminum poles. The surgeon, who was only going for the first half of the trip and was carrying no food, had a light pack. The teacher and my wife both were carrying about 40 pounds.
The route out of Aspen quickly took us past the last house, which sported a teepee in the yard, and up the long valley of Hunter Creek. We climbed steadily on an unplowed woods road, pausing occasionally to look backward at the unfolding view of the mountains of Aspen laced with their downhill ski trails. Then we turned more to the north, entered Van Horn Park -- in the west a "park" is a flat mountain valley -- and left the evidence of civilization behind. In the park, I took my first spill.
It was just a little gully, about four feet deep and 10 feet wide. I had not reckoned what the weight of the pack would do when I started up the other side, and I promptly flipped onto my back. That was when I realized just how cold loose powder snow can be and how hard it is to extract oneself from it. Tots was quickly there to help, as he was to be throughout the week whenever anyone needed assistance.
We delayed lunch too long for my stomach that day, stopping about 2 o'clock in a bowl just below the summit of Van Horn Saddle, the end of our climbing for the day. A combination of the late food, the altitude and the exertion made me a bit nauseated. The feeling persisted for most of the easy run beyond the saddle to McNamara hut, the first of the four huts in which we were to stay, but as we arrived I felt fine again.
The hut was a revelation. Despite the pictures I had seen, I was still expecting a somewhat cramped building, bunk beds and everyone stumbling over packs and wet gear. Hardly!
All of the huts in the Tenth Mountain System are spacious log structures beautifully designed and painstakingly constructed. Each of the four operated by the Tenth Mountain Trail Association is similar, and construction of a fifth is planned for next summer.
The huts all have large common areas with tables and benches. Large picture windows provide lots of light. Some have solar-powered lights, and all have propane lights. There are sleeping platforms and unusually comfortable mattresses around the edge of the common area and in large bunk areas on the second floor. The huts also have at least one private room that sleeps two people.
Some of the huts have propane burners for cooking, but most of it is done on large wood-burning ranges, such as the one from which Tots pulled the browned game hens. The ranges are also used to melt the snow that is the winter water source for the huts. Huge pots and a large scoop shovel were used for the melting, with everyone taking turns bringing in new pot fulls. One curious point: surprisingly, snow can be scorched, so into each pot some water was poured before the snow began to melt.
The huts also have smaller stoves for space heating, and they come fully equipped with a full supply of wood, dishes, silverware, cooking utensils and the like. You need take nothing, save perhaps a sharp pocket knife.
Our small group did not have the huts to itself since they accommodate 16. Remarkably, during the entire week we encountered not a single grouch. Everybody seemed to be having such a good time, grumbles or anger simply never emerged.
The McNamara hut, and the next one north, Margy's hut, were donated by the family and friends of former secretary of defense and World Bank president Robert McNamara in memory of his wife, Margaret. It is hard to think of a more lovely memorial.
There are no caretakers at the huts, though the association employs one person who travels more or less continuously among them, taking care of any problems that come up. Scott Messina, a cheerful young man who has the job again this year, traveled with us for two days, and at the Gates hut shared his salad and freshly baked bread with us.
Our second day on the trail was one of gliding through dense, silent woods. Sunday's sun had given way to gray skies, punctuated by snow showers. We dropped downward about 800 feet to Woody Creek, with another spill or two on the way, before beginning the long climb up Spruce Creek to Sawmill Park, and then westward to Margy's hut at 11,200 feet. It has a spectacular view, we were told, but we never got to see it because the clouds and snow never lifted.
Among the guests at Margy's was a young couple who had been traveling the back country on skis for years, and they were not about to stop just because they had had a child. We all watched with interest the next morning as the baby, about a year old, was bundled into a snowsuit, wrapped in a blanket and packed into a poke with a zippered cover. It looked like a great way to ride.
It was at Margy's that Tots first shared with us some of his instant ice cream. He had brought with him a couple of quart water bottles filled with a mixture of cream, maple syrup, sugar and other ingredients. Stirred into powder snow, it produced a form of delicious ice cream that also tasted great with cereal, coffee and french toast.
From Margy's, we set off in the wake of the toddler's poke heading back to Sawmill Park and down the back side of Mount Yeckel. The powder was so deep that I could stay in control easily -- until I hit an open meadow where the snow was really deep and loose. There I learned how skis could "submarine." As I kept my weight forward, the tips of my skies went down and down, and I went down, too.
The snow was cold, but it was also soft. In all my falls, I never even bruised anything.
The run down from Sawmill Park probably was the loveliest point of the trip for me. There was a sense of true remoteness in the forest, and the long run was a sort of payoff for the previous day's exertions. And it went on and on, for nine miles, our longest day.
Our goal that night was not a hut but the Diamond J Ranch, a guest ranch on the Frying Pan River, where we stayed in a private room in the main ranch building (there are cabins available, too). At the Diamond J, we enjoyed hot showers and good food served family style -- and a large outdoor Jacuzzi, in which we sat for an hour snacking on cheese, while snow drifted down upon us.
The Massachusetts teacher in our group obviously had not had enough exercise. As we lolled in the water, we could catch glimpses of her practicing her telemark turns on the slope behind the lodge.
The next morning was crystal clear, with the temperature below zero. But it soon warmed up a bit, and as we climbed up out of the Frying Pan valley we generated plenty of our own heat.
After following a series of roads most of the six miles to the Gates hut, Tots decided we should strike out on a pristine trail that would take us to the top of the meadow above the hut. Then we could try to carve graceful telemark turns in the open powder. There are similar slopes near all the huts, and many people stay in the same hut for more than a single night to sample this high-country opportunity.
However, we never got to the meadow. The powder got deeper and deeper, and finally we turned back to the road. With our packs, it was too much.
After our night at the Gates hut and the long climb up the ridge to the Estin hut the next day, Tots, Scott and several other people from Aspen who had skied to the hut from the north went up to a nearby slope to ski. But Tots did not like the looks of the surface of the slope, fearing it could let go in an avalanche. In a major avalanche this same week just outside the boundaries of the Breckenridge ski area, not far away, several people had been killed.
So Tots and Scott dug a pit to expose the different layers of snow and to see whether there appeared to be any old surfaces that were likely to slip. They also measured temperatures at various points in the snow pack. They concluded that the slope might be dangerous, and everyone returned to the hut.
But if they couldn't ski, they could cook. That night at Estin was the culinary high point of the trip. The other guests were a group of women from Aspen who each year made a trip over part of the Tenth Mountain Trail. They had brought with them variously husbands, boy friends, fathers and children. And they had brought delicious food, including a hot artichoke dip and a fresh vegetable pasta. We all shared whatever food we had, and our thoughts as well.
The deep snow and cold outside seemed to enhance and complement the warmth of the companionship that evening.
Our final day was a long, easy run down to the end of a plowed road in Yeoman Park, 18 miles south of the town of Eagle on I-70. Last year that was the end of the trail. But this year a new, privately built and operated establishment, the Polar Star Inn, will be available 8 1/2 miles north of the Estin hut. From the new inn, which is similar in layout to the huts but with more private rooms, it is eight miles to a trailhead on West Lake Creek four miles south of Edwards on I-70. More huts are planned for the future to extend the trail all the way to Vail.
As we headed down the switchbacks in the road to Yeoman Park -- we had chosen the road rather than the much steeper Iron Edge Trail -- I tried to take each curve in approved telemark fashion, one ski leading with that leg bent at the knee and the thigh parallel to the ground, the other ski trailing with that knee lowered close to the ski. On each curve I gained more confidence and speed.
On the very last one, my leading ski jumped the track and plowed into deep snow at the edge of the road. So did my face. I had executed what is known as a "face plant." The cold snow on my face was a shock, and all I could think of was getting my hands free to wipe it off.
Tots, bringing up the rear, came around the curve and asked gently what had happened. I had gotten overconfident, I said. And then I realized there weren't any more curves to practice on. I immediately began plotting when and how I could do it all again.