‘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.
“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.
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.
Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park; his website is Johnbriley.com.
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10th Mountain Division Hut Association
1280 Ute Ave., Aspen
The backcountry huts are scattered throughout the Colorado Rocky Mountains, with beds and minimal blankets, propane and wood-burning stoves, solar-powered lights and outhouses. The smallest hut sleeps three; the largest, 20. Summer dates are July 1 to Sept. 30. Advance reservations are highly recommended. Single spots cost from $25 per person per night; minor discounts are available on some locations when booking an entire hut.
Aspen Alpine Guides
210 S. Galena St., Aspen
Guides tailor activities to your preferences and skill level, and add safety and security to backcountry visits. Available summer and winter months. Two-day, one-night hut trips from $1,030.