Melting snow for drinking water, mending damaged egos after a strenuous day, tending to blistered feet and aching shoulders from the weight of an overloaded backpack, and anticipating in your morning movements while six others fight for their spot in line. None are done in vein when the rewards are so great. The magnificence of true beauty found in solitude does not come without a struggle, however the ramifications of your efforts will pay off tenfold if you aim high.
Strap up your pack with as little weight as possible – food, warm clothes and backcountry gear are all you’ll need. Everything else is included as the hut’s basic amenities. The propane 4-burner and cooking appliances, wood-stove, sleeping pads and comfortable bunks for 8 tired alpine tourists all come stock. So does the surround sound stereo w/ iPod hook-up. Sounds a little too good to be true, eh? Well, rest assured. When you book well in advance (the 10th Mountain Division hut system fills up quickly in early season) and motivate your colleagues to strap up and skin in 10.5 miles, you earn your keep, to put it simply. And once you’ve arrived (and recuperated from the trek in), feel free to shred whatever, whenever.
That’s the glory of a stay at the Friend’s Hut, on Pearl Pass, between Aspen and Crested Butte, Colorado. The accessibility is unsurpassed compared to most backcountry cabins. And yes, the Friend’s Hut is more of a luxurious cabin in the woods than it is a hut. The A-frame, two-story getaway rests in the basin south of Star Peak, in the heart of winter-backcountry paradise. And once you’ve put your boots on, the options seem endless. From low-angle glades to steep couloirs and peak descents, feel free to choose your poison. As far as avalanche conditions will allocate, of course.
In 1980 two small passenger planes collided above Pearl Pass, which rests between Aspen and Crested Butte. A few years later their friends erected a log cabin in their memory. The backcountry hut, as they call it, is now available as a vacation rental to those that are willing to leave all engines behind. Besides their hearts and huevos, of course.
Our group visited in mid-February, which is probably the most variable and sketchy time to travel. Our lines were limited to South-facing aspects and low-angle trees on Northeastern slopes, due to a recent heavy snowfall weighing down on persistent weak layers from prior storms this season. However I am highly anticipating a return trip this spring, when the steep pitches will be more rippable, and peak descents will be feasible. I don’t mean to steer you wrong when I say our lines were limited. Our lines were awesome. And when they ended, their run-outs returned us directly to our doorstep. We skied the saddle just lookers’ right of Star Peak (the safe line down in suspecting conditions), after a lunch up top with an incredible panoramic. We also hiked to the top of a knoll in the same basin, where we watched the sun disappear, unveiling pink powder lines and overzealous shouts from the depths of our loins.
We proceeded to repeat these steps three days in a row, and managed to also squeeze in a couple night skis. The full moon provided plenty of natural light for some awesome riding our second night, and we hooted and hollered until the wee hours of the morning. The following evening was cloudy so the photographers busted out tripods and headlamps in order to capture the dark drops and sinister shredding. Success was achieved, and stoke was shared amongst all.
Biscuits and sausage gravy, blueberry pancakes, mocha jo’s, a good stretch and a good bowl. Now that’s a true breakfast of champs. Wash it all down with mouthfuls of light, fresh snow, and we were stoked all day! The third day on Pearl Pass was spent ripping powder turns in the NE facing trees nearby, and although I was having trouble with one of my skins and Trent’s knee was aching, the others returned from their hunt with stories of glory. Face shots galore, one after the next, filled their detailed report. They got in three laps before dark, and declared them the best turns of the trip. The powder hounds laid down to rest by the fire, while their climbing skins and foul base layers adorned the rafters.
The human factor really steps up to swing when you’ve got a trip of this magnitude and a group this large. An all-too-common cliché – we left the trailhead almost an hour later than planned. Why? One guy. No matter how much you think you’ve emphasized the importance of preparation, you should always arrange for a Plan B. Not everything goes as planned when putting a trip like this into action. In fact, you should always count on a great deal of logistical calamity.
Although the trip had been outlined over a month in advance, two people bailed four days prior to departure. Luckily, Trent’s roommate Richard was psyched about a last minute invite, and was able to get his work shifts covered. He filled the seventh of eight slots, which seemed inadequate at first but ended up being just right. Trent and Richard ended up coming out a day later (February 15th), since they were the only ones with girlfriends and had “business” to tend to. I felt bad that they’d have to come out by themselves, but they’re both backcountry and avy–savvy, and insisted they knew the route and would be fine. Richard was a real go-getter when he arrived, and an excellent substitute for the bailing party, so the bit of anxiety I’d once felt was soon replaced with sheer satisfaction for the stoke he had to share with the group.
Another team member travelled even further to join us on our adventure than my grandfather ever had to walk to get to school, and shoot, he’d go uphill both ways! My old college buddy Chris came by 20-hr train ride from Lake Tahoe, CA to Grand Junction, CO. He then hitchhiked (skis in hand) to Montrose, where I was able to pick him up in a borrowed car. Next he had to be broken in, with two days riding the steeps at Crested Butte Mtn. Resort and another day going up and down Mt. Emmons (Red Lady Bowl). Chris was fully dialed-in by the time of departure, and props go out to a diet high in preparation-powder and a lack of anti-slack juice.
The night before we were to ski out it started dumping, and there were over six inches of fluffy white stuff covering our trail the next morning. Although mostly downhill, without the anticipation of an awesome few days ahead, the trek was a bit less enjoyable. The whiteout conditions made things interesting, and the last mile seemed to take forever. When we finally returned to the trailhead, our ride had to be dug out (the resentful plow had packed the truck in from all sides) before we could cram all seven shredders inside and speed back towards reality. Literally. We got back to town as quickly as possible, and did a multi-man drop in the middle of Main Street so that one guy could be at work in ten minutes. Teamwork at it’s finest.
Thanks to everyone that helped make this trip possible. Jon, Matt, Chris, Shane, Richard and Trent – for being excellent teammates and willing to give 110% effort toward a team cause. Trent and Richard’s girlfriends, for being good sports and allowing them to get to bed early the night of Valentine’s Day. The boys at Cold Smoke Splitboards, for letting me rip my stick in their workshop in Gunnison, CO. My mother, for being okay with me leaving for four days while she was in town with friends on vacation (not a joke – she insisted I go). Kele and T, for lending me their car to drive 150 miles and swoop a friend in transit. My roommate, for watching my rowdy dog while I left to play in the woods without them. And of course my co-worker Pete, for understanding the need to visit Gnarnia on a day-to-day basis and covering my ass repeatedly.
Hut Elevation: 11,370’
Location: Latitude: 38° 57″ 49″ ; Longitude: 106° 48′ 40″
Contact Info: www.huts.org , (970) 925-5775