A little-known rite of passage awaits in the peaks and valleys of Aspen’s secluded terrain.
“Are we almost there yet?”
My (ex-)girlfriend is stuck on repeat mode, asking the same thing over and over. I am also vaguely aware that her shoulders are killing her and that she may be developing some wicked blisters.
But then, just up ahead, the hairpin in the old mining road comes into view. It’s a familiar spot, and it signals that—after three-plus hours of trudging mostly uphill at a clip of nearly one tearful episode per hour—we are truly and finally almost there. (I keep that last part to myself.)
Just past the hairpin, I can see the big broad meadow and, looming above it, the gentle-enough looking slope brimming with an ominous history. I keep that bit to myself too because, for the moment, with a gang of friends spread out along the trail in front of and behind us engaged in varying degrees of struggle, we are literally taking it one step at a time.
Another friend, a veteran hut-tripper, sees an opportunity, and as we’re catching our breath, he turns dramatically toward one of the craggier peaks in the distance. He raises a ski pole to punctuate what he’s about to say.
“Yep, almost there,” he says, pointing. “What’ve we got left, the equivalent of one Ute Trail hike—maybe two?”
He’s lying, of course, and another tearful moment teeters in the air… before pivoting into uproarious laughter. In a few minutes we’re across the meadow and through a dark glade and standing on the front porch of our destination—the coziest cabin in the woods imaginable—all safe and sound. A fire in the woodstove inside will be crackling in no time.
Discomfort and struggle fade. “This is the best adventure ever!” she says, runny mascara, red eyes, blisters and all.
In order to understand the huts, and, in turn, the “hut trip experience,” there are a few need-to-know basics. High up in rugged drainages near Aspen, in places like Castle Creek, Hunter Creek, Woody Creek and the Fryingpan, there is a network of cabins, or huts, available for rental throughout the winter (and summer, in some cases) from the 10th Mountain and Braun Hut associations.
Now, these aren’t decrepit plywood shacks. No, some of the outhouses for these huts are so charming that they have been featured in prominent publications. Some huts are comparatively easy to get to and sleep 16, and others are decidedly harder and sleep six; some approach routes skirt avalanche terrain, while others drive directly through it.
Each hut is supplied with all the kitchen gear you’ll need to chef up gourmet cuisine, but of course you’ve got to haul in the ingredients yourself. As for firewood, you’ll find an ample supply on hand to keep the woodstove—and, in some cases, Little House on the Prairie-style stoves too—glowing all weekend.
But getting to the huts on skis or snowshoes, finding a hut in a blizzard, assessing and avoiding avalanche hazards en route, in the dark of night—all the things that go into taking care that you and your friends have fun and stay safe out in the winter backcountry—belongs in the realm of serious conversation.
Al Beyer, a local architect whose firm has designed many local huts and serves on the board of the Alfred A. Braun Memorial Hut Association, takes a philosophical view of all that.
“If riding the gondola was all we had to offer in Aspen, some of the charm of this place would be long worn off,” he says. “There’s a real authenticity to the hut experience; it’s this rite of passage. Most people can’t even grasp what it is until they get invited on their first one.”
Built in the summer of 2012, the Opa’s Taylor Hut is the newest of the local huts. It’s tucked in a meadow at 11,800 feet in the vicinity of Taylor Pass, south of Aspen and north of Crested Butte, and it has been described to me by others who have visited as the crown jewel of the local system. Twice I’ve tried to get there, and twice we’ve had to abort our plans due to avalanche hazard and/or incoming storms.
“Absolutely, far and away, without a doubt—it is the best one,” says Greg Shaffran, a local backcountry enthusiast who works as a ski guide for Aspen Expeditions and Aspen Powder Tours, of the Opa’s Taylor Hut. The magic of the place includes arresting views, great skiing options nearby and further afield, and an approach long enough to make you feel like you’re earning something.
“Every hut has something,” says Beyer, who designed the Opa’s Taylor Hut. “For me, as an architect, I’d say in many ways the purity and scale of the new Markley Hut is hard to beat in terms of functionality and form. Of course it might be a bit close to the road for some; it doesn’t have the big vistas; and so on.”
“But with the Opa’s Taylor Hut, the vistas are amazing, and it’s a zone that, once you stop and hang out and look around, has so many parts and pieces it’s like this enchanted land. So the setting, it’s just awesome,” he continues.
At least two local companies, Aspen Expeditions and Aspen Alpine Guides, offer guided trips to the huts, including high-end affairs where someone like Shaffran, who moonlights as a private chef, might whip up baked Alaska for dessert. More importantly, perhaps, guides can help ensure you can answer in the affirmative big questions like, “Are we almost there yet?”