Last summer, a large wildfire between Basalt and Eagle came within three miles of two 10th Mountain Huts: Peter Estin and Harry Gates, both built in the early 1980s. Large-scale wildland fires, combined with an often low-to-non-existent early-season snowpack and unpredictable and intense storms that raise avalanche danger, point to the biggest threat facing the most extensive backcountry hut network in the country: climate change.
For the first time in its more than 40-year history, the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which manages and takes reservations for a system of 30 Colorado backcountry huts launched its climate project in 2021. Spearheaded by board member and ski mountaineer Christy Mahon, the project aims to increase awareness, promote conversations around climate, and inspire people to think about their actions.
“10th Mountain huts provide opportunities for people to connect with each other and the environment,” says Ben Dodge, 10th Mountain Division Hut Association executive director. “Climate change is affecting the backcountry hut experience, and it is 10th Mountain’s responsibility to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, work with partners to change policy, and make the forests around the huts more resilient.”
While Europe originated hut-based backcountry skiing and boasts most of the world’s alpine shelters, the US’s small but thriving network, which originated in New England in the 1800s, invites backcountry enthusiasts to some of the most remote, least populated ranges that, unlike the Alps, see little human activity. But that hasn’t saved them from threats created by climate change.
“The Rockies are warming faster than the rest of the country,” says Auden Schendler, climate activist, author, and senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. “In Colorado’s high country, we’re seeing massive pine beetle infestation because we don’t have cold snaps in the winter that kill them. On snow, you’re seeing longer shoulder seasons and runoff that happens earlier and all at once.”
First, the association needed to understand its energy use. It partnered with a local consulting company, CLEER (Clean Energy Economy for the Region), to audit its greenhouse gas emissions and improve the energy efficiency of both hut and administrative operations. CLEER provided analysis and recommendations for upgrading the organization’s fleet of trucks and snowmobiles to electric vehicles and behavioral management suggestions on how to convince fire-loving hut users to burn less wood and to replace the huts’ wood stoves with smaller, more efficient stoves. Another consulting partner, CORE (Community Office for Resource Efficiency) conducted an energy assessment of the 10th Mountain’s employee housing unit in Aspen, providing $36,000 in rebates for a PV solar system, mini-split heat pumps, and air sealing/insulation, which will lower the building’s carbon emissions.
In response to more extreme wildland fire behavior, the organization is also re-assessing how best to reduce fuel around the huts, making modifications to reduce their ignitability, and taking other measures to protect life and defend the structures from flames.
Ultimately, the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association will deem the project a success if hut users simply have conversations about climate change with people they care about. The organization’s leaders believe that the more people discuss climate change, the more socially validated the dialogue becomes. As Mahon notes, “Where better to have this conversation than at a 10th Mountain hut, surrounded by friends and wilderness?”
$560/person for a two-day guided hut trip for four; aspenexpeditions.com
Hut Trip for Hire
For hut-trip newbies, a guided trip might be your best bet. Aspen Expeditions (AE) has been guiding clients of varying abilities and ambitions to the 10th Mountain Division Huts and the Braun Hut System around Aspen since the first huts were built more than 35 years ago. Dirk Bockelman, AE general manager, recommends a guided trip to Margy’s Hut in the Lenado area “for proximity, character, decent skiing, and views off of Mt. Yeckel.”
AE’s all-inclusive hut trips are fully customizable—go for a mid-week overnighter to a close hut such as Markley or link multiple huts together over a handful of days to mimic a European hut-to-hut experience. AE takes care of the food, gear, and navigation, so all you must focus on is the ski in and a fireside happy hour.