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Between The Hut
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When 10th Mountain Division veteran Fritz Benedict designed the 10th Mountain Division Hut system in the early 1980s, he envisioned a perfect ski touring route that connected Colorado’s mountain communities. Like the Haute Route that Benedict skied in the high mountains of France and Italy during World War II, his intention was for people to ski from hut to hut to hut experiencing the Rocky Mountains in all of its winter glory.

“When the system was first developed in 1981, the skis were long and narrow, well suited to go between huts,” 10th Mountain Division Hut Association Executive Director Ben Dodge said. “Then there was a shift in equipment. With big wide skis and heavier tele boots, people were more inclined to stay multiple nights in a single hut than stay one night in a single hut and move on.”

Heavy equipment, time constraints of modern life — combined with a heavy desire to crank out an entire day of downhill powder turns — has current outdoor enthusiasts skipping the touring aspect of hut trips all together. These skiers are missing out. The real adventure happens between the huts, when one slows down and takes time to journey for journey’s sake.

“Lots of people start from a standard trailhead and ski to the first hut of the route. People are going in, going out, the trail is packed and identifiable,” Donny Shefchik said, who’s been leading backcountry trips for Edwards-based Paragon Guides since 1990. “It’s between the huts that is different. It takes it up a level. It’s the hidden nugget. You may very well be breaking trail from hut to hut. It’s more remote and you just feel more adventurous.”

Every winter since 1992, Sean Andrish and his family have gone on a hut-to-hut trip with Shefchik and Paragon Guides. Touring from hut to hut is their winter equivalent of long trail runs in the summer. Andrish says it’s not about getting as much vertical as you can. It’s about the experience of traveling through the woods to multiple destinations.

“I just love trotting along nice and easy, kicking and gliding on a single track after a big snow. All the branches are covered. It’s so peaceful out there. You have a destination at the end of the day. There’s no rush. If the weather is good, you stop and have a long lunch in a meadow and take in the views,” Andrish said.

“Touring and powder turns -

 new gear gets you both”

 

It may be all about the journey, but powder turns will always be an essential part of hut trip fun. And again, it’s the evolution of gear that affords modern backcountry skiers the best of both the tour and downhill worlds.

Both telemark and ski touring gear, or “AT” gear, have gotten lighter and the boots a bit softer, making hut-to-hut touring more enjoyable and almost blister free (almost). The skis, although light, are still wide and stable enough to negotiate fun, downhill turns. Both styles require climbing skins for uphill travel, pieces of fabric that attach to the bottom of the skis that allow you to go forward but not backward.

Both telemark and ski touring gear, or “AT” gear, have gotten lighter and the boots a bit softer, making hut-to-hut touring more enjoyable and almost blister free (almost). The skis, although light, are still wide and stable enough to negotiate fun, downhill turns. Both styles require climbing skins for uphill travel, pieces of fabric that attach to the bottom of the skis that allow you to go forward but not backward.

Shefchik calls himself “old school” because he prefers the free-heel system of telemark skis for hut travel.

“What I like about telemark is you can still get that kick and glide feeling of cross-country skis, it’s just a lovely feeling heading down the trail. And of course there’s the beauty of making telemark downhill turns when the terrain and snow are right.”

Clients are often afraid of telemark skiing, Shefchik said, but there is no need to be, especially if you are coming from a cross-country background.

We can take a reasonable skier and get them making basic downhill tele turns in good snow, no problem,” he said.

But people coming from the alpine world may prefer AT gear, which allows a free lifting heel for uphill touring, but latches down for the descent so you can ski downhill with a binding like an alpine ski resort set-up.

Hut trippers shouldn’t expect the kind of downhill turns a resort offers. Typically when you are touring, there aren’t “2,000 vertical foot descents,” Will Elliot said, guide and co-owner of Paragon Guides. “It’s usually about 500 feet of downhill skiing before you have to put your skins back on.”

But as Andrish points out from his decades of family hut trips: “In the backcountry, you don’t need to ski extreme stuff to enjoy the feeling of floating through the snow and skiing through the trees,” he said.

“It’s between the huts that is different. It takes it up a level. It’s the hidden nugget. You may very well be breaking trail from hut to hut. It’s more remote and you just feel more adventurous.”

 

img_trail

“Take a day off from the trail”

 

A big part of hut trips is the relaxed time you have when not traveling. It’s the time to enjoy day excursions outside the hut and the unplugged life unfolding inside the hut. Shefchik recommends scheduling at least one day off from touring for three reasons: It gives skiers time to recoup and acclimate to the elevation. It gives powder hounds a chance to explore downhill terrain around the hut. And, Shefchik said, it’s important for people to get out at least once on their skis without a heavy pack.

“At some point before the day is over and we end up huddled inside the hut, I love to put my skis back on, even if only for 15 minutes, and I go out without a pack and stretch it out a bit with the soft light of the evening and kick and glide a bit. With the long shadows and soft light, I say good-bye to the day,” Shefchik said.

Benefits of having a guide really come into focus during these day (or dusk) excursions exploring off-trail terrain and vistas.

“This is when the guide helps you find a meadow to make your own tracks, or you take short excursions away from trail to find that solitude experience, or you can go up to see a frozen lake or follow a moose track,” Elliot said.

One day off also affords more time for hut life. There are, of course, chores to complete, to make sure the hut is functioning, like starting a fire and boiling snow for drinking water. But hut life is also filled with unplugged, self-entertainment. Activities that are now rare in busy life, like reading a book in a cozy corner, napping, playing games or engaging in spirited conversation.

“Hut life provides that undistracted engagement with friends, or somebody you never met before that you meet at the hut. There’s no phone, and you have the chance to sit down and play cards like you were when you were a kid,” Shefchik said.

If you carve out the time, luxuries like slow-paced hut life and the quiet remoteness of snow-covered backcountry are easily attainable. It’s all about finding the space between the huts.

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