A Colorado original: 10th Mountain Division Hut system

If you said to me a few months ago: “You are going to enjoy spending 5 hours at the brink of your anaerobic threshold, gasping for air at 11,000 feet, carrying a 50 pound backpack to a remote hut in the Colorado back country?” I would have called you crazy.

Having just returned from a long weekend involving a 12 mile round trip to Uncle Bud’s Hut, part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, I can say that it was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience.

Once in a lifetime, because, maybe I don’t need to ever do that again.

For example, a few decades ago (1994!) I trained for and completed the Davis Double Century ride; or 200 miles in one day on a bike. I did enjoy the mind-expanding (and thigh-muscle-expanding) experience. The months leading up to the event were both exciting and grueling (riding 20 to 60 miles on days leading up, just to prepare). The actual event was transformative, and an achievement that I’ll always be proud of. Starting out with thousands of other cyclists, decorating the road with the splashy rainbow of cycling jerseys, chatting as we, amoeba-like, engulfed miles of asphalt with human-powered wheels, devouring hundreds of pounds of cyclist snacks every 20 miles, climbing and descending gentle slopes in the company of adventurous souls.

HOWEVER, the last few hours, the last 50 miles, riding in darkness, our newly-purchased bike lights fading, our legs giving out, the bananas and snack bars and chicken soup no longer filling our always-hungry bellies, the road ahead stretching (literally) into invisible infinity, our saddle sores more urgently uncomfortable, our on-the-road cycling companions dropping away and disappearing. And then pulling in to the start/finish line at 200 miles, and, no longer having strength to unclip from my pedals, falling over in both exultation and exhaustion.

After that ride, I did not get back on the bike for a month, and to this day, still have NO interest in joining another 200 mile ride.

In that spirit, I can report that my Uncle Bud’s experience was also transformative. Here’s how it went down. Come along!

  • Go get your stuff. We headed out to Bent Gate, apparently one of the few stores in Denver Metro (Golden actually) that will rent AT ski’s and backcountry gear (All-terrain, for us newbies). $800 for 2 of us for 3 days: avalanche beacon, avalanche 20 foot collapsible probe, shovel, boots, ultra-light skis that somehow behave BOTH like alpine downhill skis with good edges for sliding down and have lockable heels for a stable foot platform, AND are lightweight and can be made into cross-country, pivoting-toe attachment skis. Don’t ask me more. They’re both like telemark skis and also not. ?!?
  • Read the map (OMG 6 miles to Uncle Bud’s, along a fire road and then UP for the last 3 miles). Stress.
  • Plan on making dinner for 17 people on the trip on Sunday night (what to make? will it cook at 11,500 feet? Where is the online cooking guide and adjustment for time/temp for much lower boiling temperature at 11,500? what will taste good at altitude? Are there vegetarians? vegans? allergies? who’s gonna carry all the materials?). Stress.
  • Watch the weather dump an additional foot of snow the week before going. Stress.
  • Carbo-load the night before. Stress.
  • Borrow my daughter’s hike/camp backpack and stuff it with 50 pounds, including sleeping bag and clothing and lunch and dinner supplies and 4 liters of water. Why would I need 4 liters of water for ONE measly hike? 50 pounds is not bad, but that is without skis on the feet. Son and daughter have plenty of advice for “old dad.”
  • Get up at 4:45am, STILL GET CAUGHT in I-70 skier traffic on the way out of town, and instead of taking 2.5 hours to get to Leadville, take 3.5 hours and arrive around 9am. AND, leave behind a winter shell and have to buy a replacement in Leadville. Stress.
  • Get to trailhead as everyone is ready to head up. Buckle up quickly, half-remembering what they guy in the store said about all the boot settings. Wonder how to use the avalanche probe and beacon, trust that 15 of 17 people in your group are Colorado natives and have done this several times a winter for a decade. Start sliding toward the trail.
  • Hey, this is … fun? It is snowing lightly, the sun peaks through occasionally. Even though it is 7 degrees, I’m wearing plenty of layers and a 50 pound backpack. My last-minute winter shell is bright GREEN which goes great with my bright RED ski pants. I’m focusing on pushing with one leg, bending the other knee and pausing to slide for a second before taking a second step. On flat terrain or a slight downhill, this works well for forward motion (I can slide about 1-2 feet for NO ADDITIONAL EFFORT), but side to side balance is a different thing. I nearly topple several times. Just moving toward the trailhead in the parking lot. Stress.
  • Trailhead! OK, this is just a fire-road; the dirt road that trucks in the summer and snowmobiles (and trucks) in the winter go up to service some parts of the forest. The snow is fluffy, nice, not scratchy or icy. There are ruts in the road from recent passage of snowmobiles, but no problem. My feet start to notice that the rental boots are not a perfect fit. Surely this won’t be a problem later…
  • Sloping uphill: Hey! This is hard work! Most of the team has “jogged” out of sight up the hill, whooping it up on the way; they’re in their native element. On the other hand, the bi-coastal transplant to the Mile Hi City is huffing and puffing. Why hasn’t living in Denver for 2 decades translated to growing a second set of lungs? Nice think about the gasping for air as I slide up the trail is it takes my attention of my increasingly painful feet. I also ask my trail-buddy (who has been left behind to guard me against falling to the pack of wolves that pick off slow, enfeebled members at the back of the convoy): “hey is the rest of the trail ahead also this steep?” Reply: “Oh, don’t worry, it gets much steeper ahead.”
  • Lunch! At 3 miles (hey! almost halfway!) we pull over, take off our backpacks, snarf down some snack bars (and my lifesaving colleague pulls out a Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich and generously donates 1/2 to me) and I have never had such delicious food in all my life. Ambrosia.
  • Then, off the fire road and the REAL trail starts. I become aware of the value of Skins, the unidirectional fibers sticking out of the carpet-like attachment to the bottom of my skis that allow me to slide forward, “catch” the fibers and essentially walk straight up the slope without sliding back, unlike in alpine or even regular cross country skis where a major “herringbone” diagonal walk up the hill is necessary. This is like a stairclimber exercise, but at 11,000 feet with 50 pounds on your back and 30 pounds strapped to your legs. I can feel my heartbeat in my throat going about 170 and my lungs scrabbling for every single O2 molecule. “Hey, isn’t this beautiful, CT?”
    =pant pant= “Huh?
    =pant pant= “Wha?”
    =pant pant= “Where?”
    =pant pant= “Lemme”
    =pant pant= “Catch”
    =pant pant= “My”
    =pant pant= “Breath”
    =pant pant= “Yeh. Nice.”
  • In another 2 miles, my guardian and I catch the 9-year old daughter of friends who is finally starting to get tired. Wow, what an amazing backcountry expert she’ll be growing up! Then some of the teenagers, having reached the hut, dropped their gear, started the fireplace, have come down to help some adults with carrying backpacks the rest of the way. I resolve to carry MY OWN BURDEN the rest of the way.
  • Arriving at the hut is perhaps the sweetest sensation of the past few years. I go in, shuck off everything, swap out clothes, and sleep for a solid 2 hours.
  • We end up making dinners (although cooking is a challenge with water boiling at a lower temp and having to melt all your own snow for drinking water, the food is extra delicious for being so hungry), singing campfire songs accompanied by the ukulele, teaching some kids some ukulele strumming chords, skiing through untracked powder in the coming days and generally having a blast. Moleskin becomes a second skin on my feet.
  • Our slide down is heavenly. There are sections of trail up to a 1/4 mile that qualify as a Maslow’s Peak Experience for me; gliding effortlessly downhill through a glade of trees, the sunlight filtering down, a fine drifting mist of fresh powder, the temperature perfect, my pack and everything balanced just so, knowing that I CLIMBED THIS MYSELF (about 30 minutes of climbing for every minute of gliding down), glimpses of the San Juan mountains encrusted with snow…Wow.
  • Then, back to the car, returning the gear, merging back into I-70 traffic, back to reality. It is something I will never regret having done.

CMIO’s take? I think all Coloradoans should do this. The cameraderie, the triumph of effort over gravity, the cleverness of technology to overcome natural obstacles, the pure transcendent beauty, the sense of achievement and teamwork, and of course, the singing. Have you done a hut trip? Let me know.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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