In a sun-drenched valley between Aspen and Snowmass, along a mildly sloped road with high peaks above and beyond us, we skinned away from civilization in search of good skiing.
A total hut-trip noob in my first season of backcountry skiing, I had joined a lively group, including some folks from Bergans of Norway, to ski in Colorado’s White River National Forest. We toured from a muddy parking lot on a mission to get to the Lindley Hut, which was constructed in 1953 as part of the 10th Mountain Division’s Alfred A. Braun Hut System.
The toughest (or most eager) volunteers pulled sleds loaded with the essentials: protein, carbs, Colorado’s Coyote Gold marg mix, Upslope beer, boxed wine, and cheese.
But we chatted so much that we missed the turn onto the mining road—a slow-climbing flat path that intrepid miners and their mules carved through the rocks—where we saw remainders of avalanches under sun-soaked rocks. It wasn’t until we skinned up a gradual hill, across a snow-covered log “bridge” across Castle Creek, and past a family of cross-country skiers that the local among us spoke up: “This is the wrong way.”
After back tracking, we finally got on the right path, and a steady climb tuckered out the sled-pullers. About halfway up, two slight and leathery alpinists with twinkly eyes met us and relieved the pullers. “Welcome to Bob and Dale’s Huck Your Meat Camp,” they say.
Bob Wade, who co-founded Aspen’s Ute Mountaineering, and Dale Atkins, an experienced avalanche forecaster and researcher now working for Recco, were our camp counselors (aka: guides).
The Lindley Hut, just east of small Copper Creek, is southwest of Maroon Bells/Snowmass WIlderness, and one of several popular huts that fill up a year in advance. It’s not aptly named because it’s an airy wooden cabin that sleeps 14. It has a south facing deck, and a wrap-around covered walkway with firewood stacked high. A wood stove with a big pot of snow sat ready to melt into our drinking, cooking, and washing water, and a cast iron oven-stove stood fast in the kitchen.
Without electricity, the hut felt off the grid. But a solar panel powered spotlights when the sun sank below Mace Mountain’s summit. The wood floors, wood-panel walls, sleeping alcoves, one room, and an airy loft made it homey, but boot liners by the fire, climbing skins hanging on nails, and inside-out jackets told the story of why we were there: to ski.
Dale led us through an avalanche beacon discussion, as well as search and rescue scenarios while twilight fell the first night. The goal, Bob says, is to come home so you can do it again tomorrow. My not-mutually-exclusive goals? Stay alive, have fun, and not let my nerves get the best of me.
In the morning, I woke to pots banging, coffee percolating, and Dale analyzing the wood-fired stove’s smoke that signaled an inversion (a colder cloud settling down in the valley and warmer air above, which could mean it did not freeze on the slopes above). We’d have to wait and see what the avalanche conditions were like as the twilightesque dawn shed more light on the snow. A breakfast burrito and two glasses of cowboy coffee later, I packed and skinned up with the crew.
Think in 3s, says a hut vet—my first hut-trip mentor. Goggles, helmet, gloves. Skis, skins, boots. Beacon, shovel, probe. At transitions: Boots, bindings, skis. Oh, and poles, and sunscreen, and layers, and snacks, and sunglasses, and watch the snow conditions, and …
Our plan: Due to super-springy conditions, we’d only ski in the morning to minimize avalanche risk. And we’d hike together, unless we needed to break off.
Once we emerged from some trees, we saw our objective above and beyond the mining road: Green Mountain. We bootpacked over a rocky patch, and then, as we skinned closer, the snow softened. With the sun now shining down on us, we skinned up a false summit, a little dip, an icy moderate slope, then to an amazing 360-degree view of mountains on mountains on mountains.
At the top, photographer Crystal Sagan did pigeon pose, someone toked up, someone else took a selfie, and I striped off the skins from my skis—thinking in 3s: “boots, bindings, skis.” Then I forgot my fears of sucking, because my excitement, and the anticipation of making turns outweighed my anxiety. Finally, I felt eager, and quite literally on top of the world. I just wanted to go downhill. To have some fun. Had I become a skier? Had I arrived? No matter—there was no time to deliberate, just time to listen to our leaders, to find a buddy and ski down into a rolling meadow with expansive views of glacier-carved bowls, valleys, and couloirs.
I was having fun, and that was the point in this moment—a rare opportunity for which I was already extremely grateful, and I knew would fly by. Even with a conservative descent it went fast. Slarvy turns ignited by kindred spirits and the dream of a sun-drenched, glacier-iced marg, and the realization that I could do it. That I can do it, and did do it without dying.
Our all-too-short descent took us back to a 60-degree porch and dangerously delicious pre-mixed margs. In an enveloping down jacket I sat by a flambongo while people played cards, and the fire crackled as it melted snow into drinking water.