This story originally published in the December 2017 issue of POWDER. For deep travel stories that go to the heart of skiing, subscribe today.
Mike Smith had finally had enough. For the last time, a pine marten had scurried atop his bed, prompting Smith to give chase, beer in hand, shouting expletives. Echoes of a guitar from the living room halted as a crowd gathered. The marten's beady eyes gazed back at us from his hiding place--now wedged between Smith's bunk and the log wall of the Eiseman Hut.
A storm was fading outside as the sun began poking through the clouds and cast citrus hues along the skyline. The Eiseman, a 10th Mountain Division Hut within Colorado's remote Gore Range, was full with 16 skiers pursuing end-of-April turns. Our five-man battalion--including Jeff Cricco, Matt Luczkow, Andy Wenberg, Dave Christie, and me--had just wrapped up skiing for the day. It was our second evening of the four-day trip and we had only scratched the surface. That day we skinned less than a mile from the hut's front door to an unnamed 11,770-foot peak. The soft, quick hits on north-facing powder kept us busy as the gray sky toyed with our emotions, hiding the bigger peaks that lured us to this outpost during a winter that wouldn't stop snowing.
But the marten was clearly over it, and hungry. Seeking warmth and food, it had made steady appearances to rummage through groceries and garbage--tunneling from the chest-high snow banks on the deck and sneaking underneath the wood storage door. Now it had decided to take up residence.
When the marten finally emerged from its bunk hideaway, Smith and I stormed after it--hounding the critter toward the storage room. Ever determined, it flattened its body like a pancake, burrowed under the door, and popped out of the snow.
The Eiseman Hut is a handsome log structure that sits about seven miles north of Vail, the resort founded in 1962 by Pete Seibert, a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. It is one of 13 huts built to commemorate the World War II battalion that trained along the spine of the Colorado Rockies. Fritz Benedict, a veteran of the 10th who fancied the Haute Route while stationed in Europe, established the project in the early 1980s to create a similar system in the U.S.
Ranging in size to accommodate 10 to 16 skiers, the huts resemble rustic, off-the-grid homes. They are affordable (around $30 a night per person) and some can be combined to create a loop.
On our way to the Eiseman, Christie, whose father had fought for the 10th and who has visited all of the huts, trudged along the skin track, lamenting the weight of his leather bota bag full of red wine. Sixty-six years old, tall, and wiry, he kept a steady pace on his lightweight AT setup, despite several stops to apply skin wax to keep snow from glomming to the bottom of his skis.
A member of the 10th Mountain Division Descendent Board--a group that curates photos and stories of the original battalion--Christie's connection to the hut system and the 10th runs deep. Originally from New Jersey, he hardly knew his father, Neil, who passed during WWII. "I was at the Uncle Bud Hut [outside of Leadville] when my wife, who was reading about the 10th and its members, first came across a photo of him," he says.
Following this discovery, Christie soon learned that his father was in F Company and part of the 85th Regiment stationed in Italy's Apennine Mountains--center stage for the U.S. assault on the Germans. While the 10th was the last division to enter the war, its casualty rate was among the highest (suffering close to 1,000 casualties and 4,154 wounded), and were integral in overtaking the Germans throughout the mountains running along the spine of Italy, surprising them by scaling technical climbs to secure what was dubbed Riva Ridge.
As we ascended toward the Eiseman, the rugged peaks of the Gore Range briefly came into view past the never-ending approach of rolling hills. With less than two miles left, Christie was ready to ditch his wine, but I eventually convinced him otherwise. My pack of heavy food needed a tableside accompaniment.
It didn't take long for our crew to drain the wine over a dinner of pasta and aged cheddar that first night. Shuffling through the door to the outhouse, I noticed the late winter storm was spinning back up as the final hut attendees arrived at 9:30 p.m. In anticipation of this trip, I expected chalky alpine turns or a corn cycle. Yet here we were, nearly in May, heading to sleep as two feet of fresh blanketed the Gore Range.
The next morning, we followed our previous skin track for a mile and arrived at another unnamed peak. The tree stashes coupled with short, steep pitches were striking distance from the Eiseman's front door. I peered over the side of a gullied feature that fed off the ridge into an apron as I negotiated where I was going to place my ski cut. The notorious Colorado snowpack, characterized by deep persistent weak layers, was less of an issue due to the year's several warm storms. While the total snowfall was a bit below the average of Vail's 360 inches per year, the season ramped up with big storms that had higher snow-to-water equivalent. This translated into wetter storms that pounded in from the Pacific, stacking things up without a cold, dry spell.
The snow was silky smooth after cutting a zipper wind crust on the left side, and my skis sailed through the powder to the bottom of the apron before I turned to watch our crew follow suit. Atop the next lap, I eyed a slot for Christie, who was beyond ecstatic. He had a calm and steadfast mountain demeanor as he approached the rolling convexities. With Cricco waiting below, Christie pushed off, speaking encouragements to himself, and I watched him slash one of his steeper powder turns.
"That was the best day of skiing I've ever had," said Christie afterward. He was seated on his bunk while taking off his boots, exhausted but gleaming from our several laps of midwinter powder. "Look at how lucky we are to be here and healthy, and to be able to have the freedom to do this."
On our penultimate night at Eiseman, the final wave of the storm began sifting out of the mountains. The sky was speckled with stars and the glow of the moon reflected upon the snowy landscape. Diamond dust crystals swirling amid a cobalt blue sky soon replaced the nighttime shimmer, with cold temps and a stiff wind that felt like February. We set our sights toward the higher peaks.
The winds ramped up while we made the skin track toward 12,390-foot Goat Peak. With jacket hoods pulled up and heads pinned down, we crested the summit and cut across a steep and snowy scree field that cascaded down the face. The summit views showcased the Gore Range in all her majesty: serrated ridges with couloirs and steep faces. Enclosed within the Eagles Nest Wilderness, the Gore Range is hard to access, even stationed at the Eiseman Hut. Many of the sub-14,000-foot peaks are rarely skied. The options are infinite for zealous backcountry skiers.
Luczkow and Cricco set up a couple shots off the summit while Wenberg and I lined up a diagonal ramp. Dancing with our shadows down the chute, we sent long reeling powder sprays in our wake. We endured the escalating gale-force winds for another lap before they wreaked havoc upon the snow.
The hut was much quieter that night, with only one other group. The Dead played from someone's iPhone, and we finished off a mishmash of remaining food and beer. The chilly bunkroom nipped at my nose while I cozied up in my sleeping bag, hearing piercing squeals of the pine marten declaring his victorious reentry back into the hut.
Book the Eiseman Hut, or any of the 10th Mountain Huts, on the website Huts.org. Some fill up a year in advance, so plan early.
Getting to the Eiseman is hard no matter how you approach it. Via Spraddle Creek, it's seven miles and can be a bit tricky to navigate. The approach from Red Sandstone Creek is about 10 miles, yet more straightforward.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center has your forecast: Avalanche.state.co.us. Bring all your standard safety gear (beacon, shovel, probe), as well as a map, compass, GPS, and spare USB phone charger/battery.
There are metal buckets at the hut to boil snow for water. Please don't use the ash bucket.
Packing for a hut trip is a fine balance of weight and reward. The Eiseman bunkrooms have pads, so a light sleeping bag is sufficient and allows space in your pack for food and booze.