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Thursday, January 13,2011

Exploring Colorado's backcountry huts

By James Dziezynski
Europe’s first backcountry huts were ugly, practical things, hastily made by shepherds who sought shelter from harsh mountain storms. With the onset of winter, the flocks would be brought to lower elevations and the mountain shelters would be all but forgotten for the season. As ski touring and winter recreation evolved, adventurous mountain explorers began to cherish these humble huts and modify them into cozy base camps. Europe’s prolific modern hut system has served as the spirit behind Colorado’s own impressive network of mountain cabins.

If the word “hut” conjures up images of stone cold, thatched-roof cottages, it’s worth noting that many of Colorado’s huts are comfortable, modern and spacious cabins. While there are a few older huts that employ basic A-frames with minimal amenities, most of the structures are more like mountain homes with beds, stoves, kitchens, heating systems and sometimes electricity, running water and saunas. Composting toilets are either attached to the hut or a very short distance away. Volunteers provide pre-cut wood for the iron stoves so all you really need to bring is a comfy sleeping bag, clothes and food (in fact, many of the huts can get quite warm even on the coldest winter nights).

The first dedicated winter cabins in Colorado were built in Rocky Mountain National Park, including Fern Lake Lodge, which was opened in 1916. Subsequently, many old mining and shepherd’s cabins were converted into makeshift winter huts. Billie Tagert was one of the first to build a true ski hut in the late 1940s, just outside of Aspen. Tagert’s passion for ski touring resulted in the Alfred A. Braun hut system, a network of huts managed by Braun for more than 20 years, starting in the 1950s.

As hut trips increased in popularity, the need to expand the system helped inspire Fritz Benedict to organize new huts, not only to meet the demand but to honor his Army unit from World War II — the 10th Mountain Division.

Today, 10th Mountain is not directly associated with the Army division, but the nonprofit group that manages the huts. Several of the huts are named for soldiers in World War II who died in battle. (It is a common misconception that the huts were built as training barracks for troops and later converted into cabins.)

The first two 10th Mountain huts — McNamara and Margy’s — were built in 1982 and, since then, 10th Mountain has come to manage more than 30 backcountry huts, all of them built with recreation in mind.

10th Mountain now administers the largest network of huts in Colorado, which includes the Alfred A. Braun, Summit Huts and 10th Mountain cabins. There are also dozens of privately owned huts that are available for rental in the winter.

Visiting the huts

It’s a good idea to plan your hut trip a few months in advance, especially if you’re planning to link several huts together on a single tour. Many people rent the huts for a few days so they can stay in one place and enjoy ski touring, snowshoeing and other winter sports. To keep the areas around the hut sanitary and peaceful for wildlife, most huts do not allow dogs. Huts can sleep any where from six to 20 people comfortably, though the more people you invite the more likely you are to have a rampant snorer in the group — consider yourself warned!

Because the huts are well-equipped, modern buildings, you don’t need to worry about packing in cookware, stoves, water filters, air mattresses or silverware. Food, sleeping bags and clothes are the bare minimum you’ll need to provide, though a few other items like clean pillowcases and thin bedsheets are a good idea.

It is essential that the group have winter backcountry travel experience, including knowledge of avalanche conditions and how to use avalanche beacons. While a few of the huts are short treks of under three miles, many high-country huts sit at more than 11,000 feet and require crossing dangerous terrain along the way. The farthest huts are almost 10 miles in, one-way, which is a long day of skiing or snowshoeing (most huts do not allow snowmobiles).

Guide services are available as well for those completely new to winter backcountry travel.

Generally, a hut is booked as a group, though there are sometimes spaces available to individuals. The booking calendar online at the 10th Mountain website has details on hut availability. It is worth noting that there are smaller, first-come, first-served huts that are not part of the 10th Mountain huts, such as the Arestua Hut and the Tennessee Mountain Hut, close to the Eldora ski area. Privately owned huts will have their own booking and reservation policies.

Visiting Colorado’s huts in the winter is a magical experience and the ideal way to explore the incredible backcountry terrain. While winter camping is always an option for the hearty, most of us would agree that returning to a warm cabin with soft beds and good food is pretty sweet.

The huts are open in the summer as well, for mountain biking and hike touring.

To learn more, visit the 10th Mountain website at www.huts.org, where you can find information for both 10th Mountain and privately owned huts and yurts.

Details, details

For information on booking huts, what to bring, where to go, volunteering, maps and reservations, visit the 10th Mountain huts page at www.huts.org.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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Great article, just one comment though.  A guide service is not just for those new to the backcountry.  Guides are a great resource for seeing deeper terrain around a hut, hearing history and geology of the area and for making some wonderful meals on the wood stoves.  Guides are also ski and backcountry instructors to help you build on your skills as well as be a great companion on a trip.  They also play a mean game of Cribbage. 


Modern mountain cabins are more comfortable than most people think, you won't even notice you are in the middle of nowhere while spending time inside. Some might have even something like the AC installation in Alamo, so you won't have to worry about the weather outside. Backcountry huts are a great way to forget about everything and just relax for a couple of days!



Very few huts have running water (though some have cisterns containing untreated water that can be used for dishes), and the article would do well to mention that most huts use snow melt as the primary water source.  It mentions that dogs are not allowed for "sanitary" reasons, but doesn't mention the snow-melt-for-drinking-water that is the "sanitary" reason.  Some people do choose to bring a water filter because snow melt is not the cleanest water source.  Also, most of the 10th mountain huts can be booked for individual spots, not necessary to book the whole hut. 


Tourists who want to know what winter backcountry travel really means, should stay in one of these huts to find out. However, many people like to travel with their pets, but are they allowed in the huts? If not, these pet friendly cabins should satisfy every tourist but especially their furry friends during the holiday.



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