Backcountry Solitude

Dedicated downhill racers around the country have moved their skis from the basement to the garage, ready to hit the slopes at the first sign of flurries. But—if you’re one of them—before you load up that roof rack, you may want to consider which slopes you hit.

Tenth Mountain Division Hut in ColoradoThis year, why not forsake the usual runs and escape into the backcountry, where hut-to-hut skiing provides a welcome alternative to the slickly groomed environment of the downhill rat race. Trails range from beginning to advanced in both length and difficulty, so you can easily find the route that’s right for you. And you can choose your own mode of transportation, too: Snowshoes, as well as alpine and cross-country skis, can transport you from the trail head to the rustic comfort of an isolated hut.

The hut-to-hut system was born in Scandinavia (also the birthplace of nordic skiing) in 1868 with the creation of the first Norwegian huts. Ranging from lavish (sauna and showers) to spartan (a bed), these huts were used mainly by mountaineers, skiers and trekkers. The first hut in the United States was built in the Appalachian Mountains of New Hampshire in 1888. Numerous other hut systems were later established and they continue to be used by both scientists and skiers. As stories of hut experiences began to travel, the concept spread to Utah, Alaska, Washington, British Columbia and Colorado.

Escaping the Crowd

On the trail of your choice, you’ll meet (a very few) fellow refugees and deepen your understanding and appreciation for the quietude of a winterized landscape. As you adjust to life without the drone of modem connections or fax machines, the weight of your pack will become a welcome replacement for societal responsibilities.

And you can reap these benefits without experiencing the guilt that should dog any conscious alpine skier. Crowded downhill slopes contribute to parking shortages, overbooked lodges and endless lift lines that spur the hefty expansion and development of ski resorts—ultimately trading away forested land for a synthetic snow machine.

By contrast, hut-to-hut skiing has a relatively low impact on the natural world. The land and its surrounding vegetation are insulated and protected by a layer of snow. Most of the animals are safely tucked into their winter dens or have descended to a lower elevation until spring. Even the trails disappear with the first thaw, leaving little evidence of backcountry use.

There is some conflict surrounding the building of huts in the backcountry. Dottie Fox, chair of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, worries that the existence of buildings might tempt snowmobilers to cross into the wilderness boundary. “I love the huts, but the backcountry is a fragile ecosystem. And when people have easy access to it, it leads to abuse of the backcountry,” she says.

Elizabeth Boyles, founding member of the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association (TMDHA), argues that huts actually help preserve the backcountry. “These simple dwellings can teach us to get by with less of the world’s resources—and have fun in the process,” she says. “People who love and travel the wilderness will help to protect it. The huts only help with this.”

Although there are concerns about overuse, a strict monitoring system controls access to the increasingly popular huts. Reservations, including a fee that varies according to the state and hut system, are required for each hut, which remains locked until the skier arrives with the combination. Each has its own set of regulations, outlining minimum impact solutions to backcountry travel as well as the need to respect other skiers and the landscape. TMDHA huts even have sun-powered lights, water collection systems and wood heat.

Like all backcountry trips, hut-to-hut skiing requires a solid amount of knowledge and planning. The Hut Handbook by Leigh Girvin Yule and Scott Toepfer is an essential for your pack. And if you don’t already bring with you avalanche awareness, map reading and wilderness medicine skills, there are plenty of guides who would love to show you the slopes.

This winter, as the faithful masses shuffle their way closer and closer to the circling lifts, you could be working your way across a nameless patch of snow. Each pole planted into untracked powder will draw nearer that distinct backcountry moment, which turns society into the unknown and the wild into the familiar.