Sunday, January 20, 2013

COLORADO: Vail and The 10th Mountain Hut

If you're 45 and there's something you've always wanted to do, it seems wise to just do it - especially if it assumes a degree of health and fitness. For years, I've wanted to do a 'hut trip' to one of the 34 10th Mountain Division Huts. Named for the storied US Army Mountain Division, these well-equipped shelters dot the vast wilderness near the Continental Divide between Vail and Aspen. Finally, this past week, I had the chance to make the trip back to the mountains I grew up with and to do the hut trip I'd been dreaming of. 

Reality has a way of disappointing in relation to fantasy, and I was a little worried that the trip wouldn't live up to my expectations. But reality has one great advantage over fantasy: you actually experience it, in real time and with all of your senses. Throughout the trip, I found myself thinking, "I am actually doing this." 

The trip began with four days of skiing at Vail. They got 6" or so of fresh snow the night before my first day (of course, the locals were all complaining: only 6").  The Back Bowls were amazing the first couple of days as we skied the fresh snow out. It was bitterly cold - minus 17 at the summit one day - and the snow was dry and slow, like skiing on sand. Still, phenomenal skiing coming from the East.

I think my favorite area to ski at Vail is the relatively new Blue Sky Basin. It's another mountain deep from Vail's Front Side and Back Bowls.  It takes a few lifts and runs to get to, which means it's never crowded.  Its relative seclusion gives it a backcountry feel, as does the rustic hut - Belle's Camp - that is Blue Sky's summit lodge. 

Thawing out at Belle's Camp.

From the summit, there are spectacular views of Mount of the Holy Cross.


The trip to the 10th Mountain Hut began early Tuesday morning.  My dear old friend and ski-buddy Martha and I drove from Vail to Minturn, turning south on Route 24, The 10th Mountain Memorial Highway.  The trailhead was just over a mile past the summit of Tennessee Pass.


Eagle River Bridge

It was cold and windy when we parked, but the sun peeked out and the wind died down in the shelter of the trees when we got to the trailhead.  

The 4-mile-or-so trek in was mostly uphill. Coming from sea level, I had not yet fully acclimated to the altitude and, in the final stretch, found myself tiring every 50 strides or so - a short rest, then 50 more.  When we finally approached the hut, the wind had picked up on the exposed meadow where it lies and I was never quite so happy to be anywhere as I was to walk in the door and find a bunch of friendly strangers stoking the fire in the wood stove. The hut was beautifully built, with cozy sleeping berths upstairs; on the first floor are long tables and comfortable seating around the stove, a well-equipped kitchen with propane for cooking, and a pump that connects to a cistern that collects runoff from the roof for washing dishes.  For drinking water, there's a large pot on the stove for melting snow. A walkway connects the hut to the pleasant outhouse, if such can be said of an outhouse (sure beats a porta-potty in the summertime).

The Hut

On Wednesday, we headed out with Michael and David and skinned up to the ridge to the northeast from the back of the hut. With temps pushing 30 and nothing but blue skies, it was a perfect Colorado day. 

We heard a few wumps, which was the sound of the snow telling us to seek lower-angled terrain. We quickly complied and made some turns down a nice open snowfield.  After a nosh and some hot tea, we skinned up for another lap.

Thursday, we took it easy and did a quick 40 minute climb up to Slide Lake. At 12,000', the sky becomes a much deeper blue. Magnificent.

Michael and David
Martha and Me

Strangers Tuesday, by Wednesday night we were all playing cards and sharing stories. After getting a little 'Rocky Mountain high' (purely for medicinal purposes), it occurred to me that I could make ice cream out of snow.  So I did, with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon.  It was really good.

The trip out on Thursday took only about an hour and a half, compared to about 4-and-a-half hours in. Apparently, the finish line proved to be too much for Martha and her backpack got the better of her.

I flew home Friday and was back at Plattekill for the BUSY holiday weekend. And, as implausible as it may seem, I'm happy to be back in the beautiful Catskills. After skiing at a huge corporate resort for four days - though incredible - it's great to return to a place where you can find the owner hard at work, helping out as a lift operator and even a parking lot attendant. Plattekill is pretty unique that way.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


There are no words to describe adequately the past couple of weeks of skiing here in the Catskills.  Superlatives fail. We've been having a blast and the natural snow has been silky-smooth and creamy. What a way to ring in the new year.

One big difference between cross-country or back-country touring and resort skiing is that, at a resort, I often find I'm so focussed on the 'terrain' below that I forget to look up at the scenery.  But the natural beauty and spectacular views at Plattekill have been hard to miss these past couple of weeks.  Last year at this time, we only had man-made on a couple runs and no snow in the valleys.  What a difference a year makes...

Skied Sunday with NY Ski Blog's Harvey Road, who freed his heels for the day in search of stashes in the trees at Platty. 

And the big news is that we FINALLY got some tele rental equipment in the shop at Plattekill!  Sizes are somewhat limited, but we have a good range of boots from men's 8 - 10.5, which also takes care of a lot of women's sizes. We even have a few pairs of boots for kids.  It's a beginning, and special thanks to Ferd La Motte at Belleayre for the extended loan from his vast collection of gear. Plattekill Mountain is now the ONLY resort in New York State with telemark equipement for rent. 

We'll be hosting a Tele-fest at Platty on March 6-7.  Laszlo has agreed to open the mountain on the Wednesday and Thursday, when tele-guru Mickey Stone will come down to lead a PSIA clinic, which will also be open to non-members. We'll have special offers for freeheelers and hopefully some demos, too.  Stay tuned to CF and the Plattekill website for details in the next couple of weeks and shoot me an email if you'd like to participate in the clinic - enrollment is limited to 10.  

Leaving Thursday for a week of skiing in the Rockies, the mountains of my youth. For years, I've been dreaming of doing a 'hut trip' into one of the 10th Mountain Division Huts. Next week, we'll be spending two nights at this one, the 10th Mountain Hut - and skiing Vail for the rest of the time.

I adore the Catskill mountains, but one thing I miss about the Rockies is the open expanse, the vast alpine majesty of snowfields above the timberline.  Stay tuned for posts from Colorado.