High and wild in the Rockies
Matt Carroll finds aspects to Aspen in Colorado that the brochures don't tell you about
Saturday 16 October 2010
When I told friends I was off to Aspen, the general response was envy. They inferred I would be enjoying swanky hotels on the slopes – but what I hadn't told them was that I'd be staying in a backcountry hut with an outside toilet and no running water.
This Colorado resort is renowned as the winter playground of the over-privileged, with private jets lining the Tarmac at the local airport. Goldie Hawn and Kevin Costner are just two of the A-listers with homes here. But half an hour down the road, at Mount Yeckel, it's a different story.
This is the Aspen the brochures don't tell you about. One where elk, bobcats and wolves roam the woods and there's enough untracked powder to last you a lifetime. Situated on the edge of the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness area, Yeckel is surrounded by an enormous stretch of pristine forest in the High Rockies, containing a huge amount of untouched backcountry. It's a snowboarder's dream come true.
Having booked a guide through Aspen Expeditions, I joined a group of like-minded powder fiends for the five-hour hike up to Margy's Hut, close to Yeckel's summit. This back-to-basics cabin has no electricity; you collect firewood from outside, melt snow for drinking water and bring in all your own supplies.
There are around 17 such huts scattered among the trees in this area, operated by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. Despite the military-sounding name, it's a civilian-run organisation, named after the elite US army unit that used to train around here.
Each cabin is privately owned and individually titled. The early ones were erected in memory of relatives killed in action during the Second World War. Some of the later lodges are memorials to civilian figures. Ours was built in 1982, in memory of Margy McNamara – wife of the former US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, and an education reformer who worked to cure childhood illiteracy among America's poorest communities. The hut is tucked away at the top of the Lenado Trail, a 10km snow-packed path that leads up from the eponymous hamlet in the valley below.
The meandering route upwards saw us snaking between silver birch trees, beginning at a wheezy 2,633m and ending up at 3,444m. For long stretches, the only sounds were the trudging of boots on snow, and my own huffing and puffing. Our guide, Dirk, pointed out some of the nearby sites – including the spectacular peaks of the central Elk Mountains, many of which stand at more than 4,000m.
After stopping halfway up to devour our packed lunches, we arrived at the hut in time for afternoon tea. There were 16 of us sharing the place that night. Logs gathered and wood burner stoked, we sat back and swapped stories while the fire crackled away in the background.
Surrounding the hut, there's terrain to suit all abilities, with one particular run heading off from the front porch: a gorgeous, open glade where you can pop in and out of the spruces on either side. With Dirk setting a boundary line, I dropped in and cruised down the mellow slope on a carpet of fresh fluff, a rooster tail flying out behind as I whipped my board between the trees.
Back at the hut later that evening, a few glasses of glühwein and a round of spaghetti Bolognese had me ready to turn in early. It was all very communal, reminiscent of trips to the countryside I'd experienced as a youngster.
The rooms were rudimentary, but cosy and comfy. Beside the main dorm upstairs (sleeping 10) there's a private double, and downstairs a bunk room that sleeps four. If you book well in advance, you could bag all 16 spaces for a group of friends. Even the trip to the outside loo had a plus-side: the snow was silver in the moonlight.
The next morning, I was lured into action by the sound and smell of sizzling bacon. Dirk explained the plan for the day while arming us with avalanche safety gear. After breakfast, we made our way up to nearby Mount Yeckel (3,583m), a couple of hours' hike away.
At the top, I swapped snowshoes for snowboard and soaked up the view. Stretching out ahead were the powder-packed peaks of the Colorado Rockies. It was time to drop in. Following Dirk's example, I floated down over a blanket of fresh flakes, knees kissing the ground as I cranked out some satisfying turns. Once I'd arrived at the bottom – wide-eyed and ruddy-cheeked, my beard clad in frosty flakes – the only way of doing it all again was to trudge the 20 minutes back to the top of the run.
It was a world away from the high-speed lifts and swanky on-slope restaurants of the Aspen I'd been expecting. But who needs electricity and running water when you've got a whole mountain to yourself?
* A seven-night package with Ski Independence (0131 243 8097; ski-i.com) for early December costs from £1,255 per person including flights, transfers and B&B in a de luxe king room at the Sky Hotel.
* A one-night backcountry hut trip for two people, with Aspen Expeditions (001 877 790 2777; aspenexpeditions. com), including all food, avalanche safety equipment, hut fees for two and a certified back-country ski guide is $700 (£470) per person.
* Margy's Hut (001 970 925 5775; huts.org) costs from $30 (£20) per person per night. Bring your own sleeping bag, food and drink.
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