Vail to Aspen ski highway on the 10th Mountain Division Hut System | SummitDaily.com

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Vail to Aspen ski highway on the 10th Mountain Division Hut System

The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village parking structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.

Since the beginning of off-piste skiing and mountaineering, backcountry travelers throughout the world have long relied on mountain huts to provide a safe port in the storm. The long history of mountaineering in the Alps resulted in the construction of hundreds of these shelters, of all shapes and sizes, perched at every imaginable angle and altitude on the sides of European mountains. Many of them have been used for well over a century.

In turn of the century Colorado, huts were built near populous Front Range cities. Probably the best known of these was the Fern Lake Lodge in Rocky Mountain National Park, which was visited by backcountry skiers as early as 1916. Today, more than 70 huts, belonging to 13 hut systems, dot the state's high country, featuring an eclectic mix of rustic cabins, spacious huts and nylon yurts.

In the 1940s, a series of cabins wound through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area, providing either shelter for sheep herders or guard shacks for the U.S. Forest Service. The state's first true backcountry ski hut is thought to have been created at the end of the decade when a group of friends, headed by Billie Tagert, fixed up an old miner's cabin at the head of Castle Creek, near Aspen. As a result, winter camping in the Colorado backcountry became an option, rather than a necessity, and scores of huts have been built throughout the state since.

Today, the most extensive of Colorado's backcountry ski hut systems is managed by the nonprofit 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. The group was formed in the early 1980s by several Aspen skiers, including 10th Mountain Division veteran and Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame member Fritz Benedict, an architect and town patriarch.

Around 1940, while doing his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Benedict had written a thesis on the establishment of a ski-trail system in that state. Following his return from World War II, he helped Fred Braun refurbish an old miner's cabin above Ashcroft, jump starting what would later become known as the Braun Hut System between Aspen and Crested Butte.

Benedict's real dream, however, was to establish the perfect ski touring experience between Vail and Aspen. Using New Hampshire's 100-year-old hut system and the famous "Haute Route" system between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland, as models, Benedict and a group of friends set their sights on a trail that would feature closely spaced huts, all accessible via intermediate ski touring trails. It was an idea that was born around 1960 as Benedict was hiking and skiing the backcountry while planning Vail Village.

He enlisted the aid of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who helped convince a skeptical U.S. Forest Service of the project's potential success, while also assisting in getting the first two huts funded. While Benedict's dream was about to become reality, it was also initially agreed that if the huts did not reach anticipated use after five years, McNamara would pay to have them torn down and hauled away.

The McNamara and Margy's huts were the first 10th Mountain Huts built, completed during the summer of 1982, at a total cost of $167,000. Margy's Hut was built in memory of McNamara's wife. In the ensuing decades, eight more huts were completed, with several more in recent years, for a total of 13 huts owned by 10th Mountain Association.

For the most part, the huts have roughly followed the same plan as the first two, with two stories, benches that serve as beds on both floors, one or two private bedrooms and a total capacity of up to 16 people. Some have more space or are more luxurious than others, but all call for the same basic plan of use: Pack in only your food, sleeping bag and clothes; pack out your trash, leaving the hut cleaner than you found it.

The hut system is named in honor of the men of the Army's 10th Mountain Division that trained near Vail at Camp Hale during World War II. The mountain troops' best documented use of a ski hut came during their training in 1944 when a small group bunked for the night in a cabin near Halfmoon Creek and North Halfmoon Creek, during their legendary "Trooper Traverse" from Leadville to Aspen. That cabin was intact up until 2005, when it burned down.

Today, the 10th Mountain Division Huts Association manages a system of 34 backcountry huts throughout Colorado, both privately owned and operated by other hut systems and connected by 350 miles of suggested routes. The organization represents the largest backcountry hut system in the United States.

The upcoming transformation of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum will provide more space and modernized technology for the museum to tell stories like this. Please stop by the museum on Sunday afternoon anytime between 4 to 6 p.m. to learn more about the upcoming transformation and how you can get involved.