In a fit of passing motivation, I checked the 10th mountain division site just before Christmas to see what availability was left over the holiday period. The huts normally sell out early in the Autumn, and finding a space involves either knowing someone who booked early, or squeezing a short trip during the middle of the week. I was surprised then to find a completely empty hut just after Christmas.
The Peter Estin Hut sits on the flank of the Holy Cross Wilderness. South of Eagle, North of Aspen, this is an overlooked chunk of the state that is overshadowed by the bigger mountains around it. We drove through Eagle on Brush Creek road early on Boxing Day, then would our way to Yeoman Park. This area was extensively mined and still bares the scars of infrastructure from that time. We left Bryan’s car next to some impressively buried vehicles, then started skinning up Fulford road. Fulford in a small ghost town set far away from civilization, with tumbled down cabins and the occasional lived-in structure. We turned off the road, passed some cabins in the woods and went past some hot springs. From here the trail kicked up steeply. The ironbridge is a gem of a mountain bike trail in the summer, and in the winter forms a well trodden track that gains altitude quickly on the way to the ridge above.
After a couple hours of skinning, we crested the ridge. The temperature dropped immediately as we left the shelter of the valley and were faced with the gusty wind blowing in from the south. The ridge itself had seen a big dump of snow three days before, and our appetite for skiing was whetted by some symmetrical turns cut into the face above us.
While the guide book suggested the 4.5 mile skin would take close to 6 hours, we got to the hut in about three. The situation of these huts is always mind blowing. We lit a fire, made a cup of hot chocolate and warmed ourselves for half an hour, and then headed back out to explore the area.
A quick skin above the hut has us on the top of Prospect Peak. A small pimple on a longer ridge towards the high mountains. Below us was a open face. Perfect for 10 turns of glorious shin deep snow. The light started its transition from cold wintry blue into golden evening as we took off our skins and fastened the boots. 10 minutes later we were at the hut with grins on our faces and anticipation of what tomorrow would hold.
Everything about a 10th mountain division hut is warm: the smell of wood smoke mixing with the musty cushions; the hearty cooking and drying ski clothes. We played a few rounds of cards, drank some whiskey (the efficient traveler’s choice of alcohol: maximum kick for minimum weight), and were in bed by 8:30.
It’s never difficult to leave that warmth of the hut in the morning. Even somewhere as remote as the Estin hut, it seemed like the powder wouldn’t wait around. We were skinning by 9am, taking a similar route to the day before, but with the goal of Charles Peak this time around. Charles is a barely 12,000 foot mountain with gentle south facing slopes that fill in with wind blown snow. In purely skiing terms it was a very mellow goal, but the view was unbeatable. The Western Slope filled unbroken sweep of 180 degrees. From the Flattops near Steamboat Springs, to the Grand Mesa above Grand Junction. Moving south, the real high peaks rose up: Mount Sopris above Carbondale formed the centrepiece of the Ragged Mountains, which blended seamlessly into the West Elk Mountains. The Maroon Bells marked the direction of Aspen, and the small strips of piste on the resort could be seen. Moving southeast, the Sawatch Range grew bigger the closer it got to us. We searched to pick out Mount Elbert; the highest in the state, before our attention was drawn to the very tip of Mount of the Holy Cross, just peaking itself above the closest mountains. In the direct vicinity was New York Mountain: a collection of ridges that I’ve only ever seen from the Ghent household in Edwards. It was great to see the other perspective.
The ski back down started on bulletproof above treeline crusty snow. As we threaded into the thicker trees, pockets of untouched snow exploded as we cut through it. Small natural clearings provided the perfect bowls to let rip, and within 30 minutes we were at the bottom, looking up at the hut, and planning our skin out.
The Ironbridge trail, that narrow twisting and winding path we’d followed in made for a very difficult ski out. On tired legs and with full packs, the 3000 foot singletrack descent was a true challenge for me, and made planning every turn a critical decision. The last mile down Fulford road was a relief, and I pitied anyone who made a journey to those huts on snowshoes – walking up would be bad enough, let alone walking back down!