The smallest, most remote cabin, managed by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, delivered one of the biggest New Year’s possible.
by Rachel Walker | photograph Art Burrows
Northern New Englanders with crullers in their parkas, and butter eaters from Wyoming like to say that it doesn’t get cold in Colorado. Enough with the stereotypes, people: It’s so cold on this December morning that when the mist from my eyes hits the encroaching Arctic cold front by my forehead it’s enough to seal my eyelashes shut. So cold that the glue on our climbing skins won’t adhere to our ski bases. So cold that after we warm the skins in the car and finally ski tour uphill, not even Matt, who weighs 200 pounds, removes his down puffy during the slog.
My old Subaru is now parked and freezing to death where the snowplow turned around on Brush Creek Road outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. The hot coffees we guzzled before this early morning start to the Friends Hut—roughly 10.5 miles and 2,400 vertical feet away—are the last warmth we’ll feel until we gain the cabin, which I’m hoping is stocked with dry firewood. The temperature? Fifteen below zero and breezy.
A blizzard has recently dumped several feet of snow on an unstable early season snowpack. We break trail as we climb. After a few miles, rolling hills give way to scrub oak and aspen. The air feels icy enough to crack. By the time the ground tips more steeply up into the dark pine forest, we’ve been skinning for hours. Our quads whine, and our shoulders bitch under the weight of packs loaded with blocks of food: cheese, chocolate, sausage—all now frozen like Birds Eye peas.
When we finally spot the modest Friends Hut 1,000 feet below Pearl Pass, it looks tiny and not up to the task of sheltering us from the night sky. Behind the hut, the windswept summits of the Elk Mountains. Bursting inside, the first thing I see is the central cast iron woodstove, and, next to it, a box stacked with cut wood and kindling. I jettison my pack and flop on the nearest couch with relief.
Jeff stomps out a path to the outhouse. Evelyn activates the solar system and turns on the lights. Matt builds a fire and fills an enormous soup pot with snow to melt. I fire the propane stove and prepare food: crackers with Gruyère and smoked salmon, pasta smothered in a pound of melted cheddar. Wine. Bellies full of fuel, we sleep dreamlessly.
The Arctic freeze reigns again the next morning—and every day for the remainder of our trip. More storms come and go, dropping just enough snow to keep the avalanche danger high and relegating us to skiing the nearby low-angle trees. Not that we mind. The colder and more hazardous the conditions, the easier our decision making. We establish a rhythm. Eat, ski, thaw by the fire, eat, ski, thaw, drink.
On New Year’s Eve, there’s a tradition in which you write down a burden and then throw the note into the fire. We too burn our sorrows the last night of our trip. But then we slip outside and admire the star-pierced dome of the winter sky at 11,370 feet. For a minute we’re still. No singing. No embracing. No forced reverence. Just four friends sharing the entire universe.
On the first morning of the New Year, we ski the sharp crystals once more before reluctantly gliding home.
If you go:
10th Mountain Division Hut Association, Colorado
The vision of WWII veteran Fritz Benedict and former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, this system of 34 (mostly) connected high-alpine huts—including the Friends Hut—is stocked with essentials like cooking utensils, chopped wood, and furniture. Three have saunas. Reservations necessary. Starting at $25/person/night. huts.org
Five other backcountry options throughout North America:
Wallowa Alpine Huts, Oregon
The rugged geography of northeastern Oregon makes for excellent backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Located in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, the Wallowa yurts are situated in four distinct locations and are accessible only by human power (no snowmobiles). Guests can choose guided or non. Four-day guided and catered trips cost $900/person; Four-day DIY trips cost $200/person. wallowahuts.com
Mountaineering Club of Alaska Huts, Alaska
These seven huts in the Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges are utilitarian and require no reservations. They’re open to Mountaineering Club of Alaska members ($20 annual fee), sit above treeline, and can be linked in a traverse. No heat, no beds, just mountains that rise thousands of feet out the front door. mtnclubak.org
Ostrander Ski Hut, California
A popular stone hut that sleeps up to 25 and is gateway to the glades and open bowls above Ostrander Lake in Yosemite National Park, the Ostrander requires reservations, made through an annual lottery. Ski routes deliver views of Half Dome, the Clark Range, and the northern part of Yosemite. Prices start at $35/person/night, midweek. yosemiteconservancy.org
Bench Hut, Idaho
Nestled in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range, this wall tent is one of six shelters made available by Sun Valley Trekking that can be linked in a traverse. All deliver access to a diverse range of skiing, from low-angle glades to exposed open bowls and chutes. Shelters accommodate 14-20 people. $35/night for the entire hut for groups of 10 or more (discounted prices available midweek). svtrek.com
Harvard Cabin, New Hampshire
At the base of Mount Washington, this Harvard Mountaineering Club cabin is available on a first come, first served basis from December 1 through April 1. The cabin sleeps up to 16, has an on-site caretaker who posts the daily avalanche report. $15/person/night. Register at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. harvardmountaineering.org
From the Deep Winter 2016 issue.