I hunger to explore. The lines don’t have to be climbing routes or glisse descents. Ski traverse details fascinate me as well. Case here, though I’d done the Trooper Traverse twice (a 40 mile ski trip in Colorado) I’m still confused about the best way out of the Hunter Creek wildlands that form the navigational crux of the journey. As a break from everything being up and down, it seemed like a good idea to dust off the GPS unit, head to the McNamara Hut behind Aspen, then do some trail research. At the same time, I thought some “journal” style writing would be fun to tackle.
Our day begins with motoring up the roads of Red Mountain over Aspen in an automobile that I just for fun calculated we bought, new, for 1/1,600th of the worth of houses we drive by. More power to them, I think to myself — at least the road isn’t gated. Indeed, just there, that’s a house I carpentered on a few decades ago. The checks probably paid for some still remembered climbing trip, perhaps a few months in Yosemite. Even climbing “bums” need cash.
Beautifully, a small muddy parking area at road’s end has a few spaces. It’s reserved for hut users, so we drop our McNamara Hut confirmation sheet on the dash. Parking for free just a few hundred feet from the billionaires!
In the forest above our parking, a snow covered mine dump glimmers white through a mesh of aspen trees. Couldn’t be more than 200 vertical feet. We used to do telemark laps on that thing, over and over again, fueling on dried banana chips and walnuts at every turnaround.
Upvalley from here you’ll find a meadow where I lived for a while in a teepee. Main events: my sweet little cat got killed by a dog and I built a teepee floor from plywood snitched from those construction sites referenced above. I rationalized my crime by carrying the 60 pound sheets of CDX up a mile of steep rocky trail. Living in Aspen, I learned that physical exertion can be nothing less than spiritual redemption. That was the theory, anyhow. My shoulders still tell me so.
Visits to old teepee spots and mine dumps are for another day. Mission of the moment is to gain an old forest road climbing the north side of the valley. This will wend us to the on-snow ski touring trail.
I remember the route. Many many times have I walked up the grassy hill to the sun-torched section of muddy road, and dirt hiked, anticipating that around each corner a white patch would appear. Skins on skis, clip in, and hope. Seems like a few more reefs of mud always lurk. Skis off, skis on, skis off, on, off, on…is mud bad for climbing skins?
Scrub oak mixed with aspen forest is cozy on both sides of the road. I like the alpine, but I like trees too. Especially aspen stems like these, growing straight and strong, perhaps due to previous logging and thinning. I’ve been coming up here for what, 50 years now? I can see the forest growing in — monarch trees going senile, youngsters crowding. The timber needs fire like belly fat needs exercise. Sign at the trailhead says they’re planning a controlled burn. Good.
Mud yields to continuous snow. The route is kind of flat. Actually, it’s really flat. So flat I end up constantly switching my ski binding heel lifters down to the lowest setting (enabling a faux nordic stride). No matter, my goat hair climbing skins on lightweight skis glide along quite nicely.
We take the Van Horn Park trail, climbing through the beginnings of a vast hilly area you could call “foothills” for the Sawatch mountains to the east, that rise to over 14,000 feet. We scoot over the flats of the Park, glad for our slick skis. Even so, nordic wax would work better here than climbing skins. It’s been years since I carried nord wax; sometimes, I still long for it. Once in a while I hear about someone skiing these 10th Mountain hut trails with nord’ wax or skate technique. Good job.
Climbing out of Van Horn feels steep and my feet hurt. One part of that is real. My eyeballs peel south to the high Elk Mountains, in the distance past Aspen. They look stupendous from here — you can truly see how the “massif” geology works, as the range looks like a big rough wedding cake with the 14,000 foot Castle Peak and Bells area at the apex. The Elks didn’t erupt from the earth particularly fast, but from a distance you can imagine the massif did burst from the planet as a great fountain of granite.
We round the horn of Van Horn, meaning we go from sunny southerly to the last section of trail through northerly forest. I scoot alongside mature lodgepole pine, dipping in and out of small basins and humps on the trail created by tree limbs catching snow and causing uneven accumulation.
A couple of friends are at the small 2-story hut when we arrive. They’re having a beer on the deck. It’s peaceful here in the middle of the Burnt Hole forest, just sun and a few bird calls, nothing boisterous like the large populous European huts I’ve been visiting for nearly a decade now. (Things do get crazy here on occasion. McNamara is actually what you’d call a “party” hut as it’s easily accessed and there isn’t much up-down skiing — so you either soak in the peace or get uber crazy. Or perhaps both when the time is right. The party stories are legend.)
My feet hurt so I’m longing for hut shoes, having become used to borrowing such at most of the euro huts. Not to be. I’m stuck running around barefoot so I can dry my liners and not wear out my socks. Yeah, I do have a pair of excellent lightweight shoes I carry to huts. For some reason I didn’t think I’d need them. And then I remember.
Years ago, when the 10th Mountain Huts began, founder Fritz Benedict had been to European huts where they had “castle slippers” for guests, those boiled wool slip-ons you still see on occasion though they’ve been thoroughly pummeled by the misguided popularity of crocks. (Yes, crocks are disgusting especially when combined with shorts on a man. Yes, crocks are also light weight. Another blog post.) In any case, Fritz lost the argument and hut shoes were not provided. Probably the right decision, as the philosophy of the 10th huts is to incur at least a modicum of self reliance in guests. To that end, none of the huts have food and drink service, you haul yours, and your sleeping bag as well. Many a group has failed to reach the cabin because they attempted to haul too many beer canisters.
I’ve not been to this hut in years, but ironically was part of the crew of first paying guests, December 1982. In the present, sitting there on the porch, chatting up the other pair of guests, I realized that Mark had actually been in that group of folks as well! We’d “hut tripped” the McNamara in 1982, and here we were again in 2016. Ski touring works in mysterious ways.
So here I am in a 34 year old ski touring hut, now easily qualifying as “classic.” How does the old gal look? Everything has a patina of age, mostly pleasant, such as the UV darkened natural wood paneling and trim. The kitchen is beat up, but I’ve seen worse. Firewood box shows the most wrinkles; top edges worn down to curves resembling sailing ship rails, from the scraping of countless logs. Nice. This should never be replaced or repaired.
One of the best things about McNamara Hut is the noble Home Comfort brand wood-fired cook stove taking a prominent locations between kitchen and dining area. Many many pies have been here, and many cooks have enjoyed learning how to fire up a wood burner, stabilize the temperature, and get a peach cobbler bubbled to perfection. I have no idea who’s idea it was to put such an icon from the past into a modern hut. But the Home Comfort is still here and that’s what matters.
(Note, we’ve had an epic spring here in Colorado and some of the 10th Mountain huts are offering an extended season. Contact huts.org for details.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.