David Adair and Laura Ryan kicked through the snow for nearly seven miles, ascending into Colorado's backcountry north of Vail.
Their destination: the Eiseman Hut, one of more than 30 shelters in the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. Perched near timberline on the western shoulders of the Gore Range, it is a skier's dream location. They had come for Colorado's deep, unblemished powder, and for sunset views that alter a person's conscience. A backcountry ski trip may be the ultimate Colorado adventure.
A Manitou Springs resident, Adair says he tries to do at least one hut trip a year. The Eiseman Hut is a favorite. It has room to sleep 16 and is heated by a wood stove. Visitors melt snow for water and cook on a propane stove. With good snowfall comes plenty of visitors, but that's part of the attraction. Cost is $35 per night by reservation. There are two private rooms that sleep two; everybody else bunks dorm-style.
"Most of the huts are at 11,000 feet, and a lot of the time they're next to a wilderness area," Adair said. "The views — especially the sunsets — are just beautiful. The powder and the camaraderie are all part of it. The fact that you had to work to get there ... it's just Colorado."
It helps to be reasonably fit, but backcountry trips are doable by many and the accommodations vary from primitive to luxurious.
Katie Benzel and Alicia Pino from Colorado Springs can usually be found running trails on the flanks of Pikes Peak. But they enjoyed an easy two-night stay with a group of friends at the modern High Lonesome Hut northeast of Winter Park. It was ideal for a relaxing rendezvous in the mountains. "Of all the backcountry winter trips I've done, this was the most cushy winter hut I have found," Benzel says. "Compared to going outside to use the outhouse, having a real bathroom cannot be quantified."
The High Lonesome included bed and bedding, running water, hot shower and full kitchen with pots, pans and utensils. Getting there required an easy 2.5-mile hike by snowshoe. Two nights cost about $740 and the group split the cost eight ways.
"I had never done a winter hut trip, so as a kind of girls' trip, it was really nice," Pino says. "We spent half the day snowshoeing. And we packed in beer and wine and played games for hours. It was totally rejuvenating in the sense that you could have all the downtime and all the adventure you wanted."
And the nearby tubing hill, by all accounts, was the highlight of the weekend.
"I could have spent all day there," Pino says.
Adair and Ryan skied into the Eiseman Hut, attaching "skins" to the bottom of their skis for uphill traction. It's not easy traveling, but manageable for a skier in good condition. They used alpine touring gear, meaning they could free their heels cross-country ski style while ascending, then lock into their bindings — like on a downhill ski — for their big runs.
"We did this last year, so I trained up a little more," Ryan says. "It was snowing out the whole time, but the weather was really perfect. Once you get higher, it gets a little steeper, and it's challenging when you have the pack."
They stuffed their packs, which weighed about 30 pounds each, with sleeping bags, food, warm clothes and avalanche gear, including a shovel, probe and beacon. For the gentle High Lonesome Hut, Benzel said she packed lighter.
"You don't need to carry as much stuff, which gives you more room in the pack for alcohol and lots of food," she says. "We had kind of a decadent backcountry experience."
It was all about the skiing for Adair and Ryan, though they worked hard for 5,000 feet of skiing, compared to about 25,000 on slopes serviced by a ski lift. But the experience of Colorado's backcountry is worth it.
"That's the allure for me," Ryan said. "It's not the living conditions. But it's OK because I can get some fresh tracks and I don't have to wait 25 minutes for first chair."
There are many options for those who wish to ply the backcountry. And the huts are not just for winter travelers. They're open in the summer, as well. For more information, including links to other hut systems, check out huts.org.