In many states a winter hut trip would involve heading to pizza hut for a mediocre slice of pepperoni pie. In Colorado it consists of treking through snow to a warm and cushy cabin deep in the backcountry.
Last year a group of us made an easy trip back to Continental Divide Cabin. Since everyone had a blast we decided to pick a different hut and repeat the trip. This year the group agreed to up the challenge, and go for a more remote hut. We settled on Polar Star Inn which is a 17 person hut in the 10th Mountain Division Hut system. We also convinced more people to join us getting the group size up to 11.
As the date of the trip approached the winter storms centered in on Colorado. Wave after wave of storms dumped snow on the mountains. This was exciting, and also intimidating. Tons of fresh powder raises the avalanche danger, and makes backcountry travel very difficult even with snowshoes. As if to set the tone for the trip we started off on Sunday night with a three hour drive in a snowstorm. Nine of us decided to spend Sunday night in Eagle, in order to get a few extra hours of sleep. The storm made the drive slow, but we made it there without incident.
Around 8:45AM we arrived at the yeoman park trailhead, and began to ready our gear as snow continued to fly. Our original plan was to take the newcomer spring route which follows a 10th mountain trail. Due to the conditions we decided to take the Fulford Road route. This route is longer, but it follows a 4WD road for the first four miles. The packed base and obvious road cut made routefinding, and travel easier.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.” -Bill Bowerman
Slogging up the road was pretty uneventful. The grade was easy, and the route was obvious despite the ongoing snowstorm. Even though the road was mellow, it was no walk in the park. As we sat down for our second break it was apparent that four miles of struggling up hill in the snow was starting to take its toll. Worse we were staring at the trail sign which pointed our way toward steep powder covered hill.
After a few minutes of respite we strapped on our packs and turned onto the trail. It was immediately clear that things were going to be much tougher from here on out. The hill was very steep, and the snow was deep. My glutes screamed as I strained to pull the heavy sled. We soon met another party of three who had taken Newcomer spring on skis. It took us nearly two hours to cover the last 1000 vertical feet. Finally Dayton and I caught a glimpse of the Polar Star Inn through the trees. I let out a yell of joy, which was immediately deadened by the heavy snow blanketing the trees. It had taken us about 5.5 hours to make the 6.25 mile hike in.
One by one we removed our packs, kicked copious amounts of snow from our boots, and headed into the warm hut. Like many huts in the system, the polar star has a common area on the main floor, and sleeping areas upstairs. We hauled our gear up the stairs and claimed our beds. There we changed into some dry clothes, and gathered around the fire to warm up, and recover.
We didn’t do much the rest of the afternoon. We just hung out in the hut and enjoyed some laughs. Brian hauled back a small foam roller, which felt wonderful on our stiff muscles. The 1oth mountain huts have a well equipped kitchen. I took up cook duty, and started work on a big pot of spaghetti for dinner. As we sat down to eat a party of three skiers arrived at the hut. They had made the ski up from west lake creek. The hard work and cold temps fueled our appetites, and we demolished an impressive amount of food.
Around 8PM the yawns grew more frequent and people started to disappear from the table. A few of us had an impromptu yoga session, and then we called it a night. The stove in the polar star was small, but efficient. Even as the temperatures plunged outside it was stupidly hot in our room. After a few hours of sweating it out we got up and opened the window. The cool mountain air was refreshing, and sleep soon found me.
I woke up around 7AM and made my way downstairs. The trip to the outhouse was a brisk one, the stinging cold air was a rude awaking. One by one the others were coxed out of bed by the crackling fire, and promise of a hot cup of coffee. The plan for the day was to hike New York mountain. Due to all the recent snow the avalanche danger was extremely high. Only a couple of us had beacons and we were unsure if the entire party was going to do the hike. After some discussion, we decided to at least get up to timberline, and see what conditions were like.
We reached timberline in about 45 minutes. We stopped there to dig a pit and see what the snowpack was like. The slope angle was mellow, and the ridgeline looked wind scoured so we decided to continue. The wind had kicked up, and most of the group decided they had enough so they turned around.
We continued to traverse up and around NY mountain. Spreading out to avoid all being caught if there was a slide. Annie and Eliot (skiiers from the hut) caught up to us around 11,800. It was clear I was going to hold them back on my snowshoes. Brandon and Rocky were ready to call it quits, and I didn’t feel comfortable soloing the mountain in current conditions. So the three of us on snowshoes turned around, and the three skiiers stayed to play in the powder.
Once back at the hut I settled in to read a book. Several others were restless and decided to try sledding in our gear sleds. Occasionally I glanced out the window, as shovels and sleds attempted to turn the skin track into a sledding run. Soon the promise of fun in the snow, drew me from the warm hut. At the time the 2014 winter games were taking place in Sochi Russia. Inspired by the games and surrounded by snow, hutlympics was born.
After a few successful shed jumps a piece the hutlympians were ready to retire to the warm cabin. We cleaned up the skin track to the hut, and headed in to chill.
We enjoyed a big pot of stew, and some wonderful cornbread for dinner. After dinner we played several games, and once again found ourselves tired before 9PM.
The next morning we were up by 7. The hatchet was broken and we were out of kindling, so the fire was a bit more challenging to get started. Steph cooked up a good breakfast while the rest of us started packing up our gear. It took a couple hours to get the hut cleaned up, and all of our gear ready for the trip out.
We once again strapped on snowshoes, and sleds and hit the trail. The slowshoe crew decided to try the Newcomer route on the trip out. The skiers headed for Fulford road, hoping for a fast descent. The trip out was pretty uneventful. The sleds were annoying, but much easier to fight downhill than to pull uphill. We slogged, slipped, slid, and did everything we could to get down hill at a reasonable pace. Dayton sped out on skis, making it to the cars in a little over an hour. The rest of us took nearly three to make it to the car. Even after an easy 3 hour hike the car was a very welcome sight. Motivated by the promise of a hot shower, we quickly got changed into dry clothes and hit the road for the three hour drive to Denver.
It is hard to beat a weekend in the woods with a bunch of good friends. Plans are already in the works for a 2015 trip.
If you are looking for information to help plan a similar trip to Polar Star inn or other 10th mountain huts. Please see this page.