The Fowler Hilliard Hut sits at a lofty 11,500’ elevation about six miles west of Vail Pass.
When Roberta Stein was 69 years old, she made the decision to embark on a wintertime backcountry adventure unlike any she had undertaken. Always an active, outdoorsy person, Stein planned, with two friends, a snowshoe trek to one of Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s high-country cabins. Stein and friends planned a multiday trip to Walter’s Cabin, part of the Association’s Shrine Mountain Inn offerings, accessible in winter only by skis or snowshoes. The group would pack in their own food, sleeping bags, and clothing.
The trio prepared for the trip by attending a 10th Mountain Division Hut System primer at REI in Colorado Springs; heading out on several snowshoe-training day trips; and trying out different packs, boots, sleeping bags, and snowshoes.
Hitting the Trail
Then it was time for the adventure. “We parked at Vail Pass Summit,” Stein says, “then snowshoed to 11,200 feet, approximately three miles up the mountain.” The trek was not easy, but the trail was well marked with ski and snowshoe tracks, and the threesome took frequent rest breaks.
“What a treat when we got to the hut,” recalls Stein. “There was a gorgeous panoramic view of the entire Gore Range. It was so peaceful and rewarding as we shed our backpacks.”
Walter’s Cabin is one of three dozen huts in Colorado’s high country operated by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, named for the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, which trained at Camp Hale near Leadville during WWII. The elite army unit has a storied past, both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
The Legendary 10th Mountain Division
According to the history provided by the Association, “In the early 1940s, with the world on the brink of World War II, the U.S. War Department began experimenting with mountain troops. It was soon obvious that having troops trained for the mountains was necessary. A training ground was chosen in Colorado’s Eagle River Valley just to the north of Tennessee Pass. Known as Camp Hale, the site became home to more than 11,000 troops in December 1942.”
Following extensive training in skiing, mountaineering, alpine survival techniques, and winter warfare, the troops were sent to Italy in 1945, where they fought critical battles in the Italian Dolomites, some of the roughest terrain in the war. Many of the soldiers didn’t make it back.
The Hut System Is Born
Decades after the war ended, Fritz Benedict, a 10th Mountain Division veteran, created the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association along with a group of volunteers and fellow veterans. Benedict was an architect who had a dream of putting together a hut system as a way to honor the 10th Mountain Division infantrymen and to create a network of huts similar to those of the famous “Haute Route” between France and Switzerland. As the story goes, “The group consisted of architects, planners, and backcountry guides, all of whom were keen to see Benedict’s dream realized. Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense, helped convince a skeptical U.S. Forest Service of the potential success of the project.”
The first two huts were constructed in 1982, built with an ecologically sensitive approach that included the use of beetle-kill pine, solar panels for lighting, and water storage systems for collecting snowmelt. As the network of huts grew over the years, each new addition incorporated lessons learned from previous models.
Your Next Winter Adventure?
“We currently operate a system of 36 huts that provide warm, comfortable, affordable shelter to the public in Colorado’s high country,” says 10th Mountain Division Hut Association Executive Director Ben Dodge. “These huts and over 350 miles of suggested access routes provide opportunities for connections—connecting with the people you’re traveling with and meeting at the hut, connecting with the surrounding natural environment, and connecting communities.”
Dodge says all of the huts owned and operated by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association are named in honor of 10th Mountain soldiers, each with a powerful story.
What makes a hut trip so unique and memorable, says Dodge, “is the quiet, the company of the people you’re with, the simplicity of the huts, fewer distractions, really good skiing in the winter, and rewarding day trips during summer…It’s contributing to the ethics/stewardship of backcountry huts. Most people choose to stay multiple nights at a single hut, but trips involving multiple nights at multiple huts are becoming more popular with the advent of light alpine touring gear.”
Roberta Stein’s favorite part of that first hut trip was accomplishing it. “What fun we had exploring on snowshoes, playing games, and enjoying food that always tastes so good after being out and about in the mountains. Our group has grown to five, and this year, we are planning our eighth annual snowshoe trip, which is quite special if you ask me!”
DID YOU KNOW:
• In recruiting soldiers for the elite fighting ski corps, the U.S. War Department sought assistance from the National Ski Patrol.
• The 10th Mountain troops wore white camouflage.
• 992 10th Mountain soldiers were killed in action, and 4,154 were wounded in 114 days of combat.
(Source: SnowBrains, Nov 2017)
• Much of the U.S. ski industry, including the Vail and Aspen ski areas, was started by 10th Mountain veterans.
(Source: SnowBrains, Nov 2017)
The Hut System
Reservations for huts can be made online at huts.org. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s website provides extensive information and trip-planning recommendations.
• There are 14 10th Mountain Division huts in an area bounded by Aspen, Vail, Leadville, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Winter Park. In addition, the hut association handles reservations for many privately owned huts and huts that are part of other systems.
• Trails between huts average six to eight miles. Most trailhead-to-hut distances from parking areas fall in the range of three to 10 miles.
• The huts are situated at between 9,700 and 11,700 feet in elevation. Each includes the following:
* A living/dining area with a wood-burning stove and cut firewood
* A kitchen equipped with propane burners and a wood-burning cook stove
* Basic cooking/eating utensils, mattresses, and pillows
• Most huts (think beautiful cabins) can accommodate 10–16 people. Individuals and small groups may share a hut with other folks unless they reserve the entire hut.
• Trails connecting the huts are designed for intermediate-level skiers/snowshoers and are located to avoid significant avalanche danger.
The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association is a not-for-profit organization.