Untracked powder, no lift lines, added exercise, endless exploration, an increased element of risk; just to name a few reasons why 1 in 5 skiers and snowboarders in Colorado opted for the backcountry last year. The Sawatch Range, running parallel to the Arkansas River Valley, is seeing an increase backcountry enthusiasts as well. The area offers the perfect blend of snowfall, quality terrain, guide services and hut accessibility.
Monarch Pass, and adjacent to Monarch Ski Area, receives some of the highest totals and best quality of snow in the state. Monarch’s “side country” has plenty of easy-to-access terrain relatively close to the road, which makes it ideal for staying out of bounds. Other mountain passes in the area make backcountry touring easily attainable; places like Fremont Pass north of Leadville, Cottonwood Pass west of Buena Vista, and Independence Pass west of Twin Lakes. Winter backcountry travel does come with inherent risks.
Twenty-seven Americans die in avalanches every year, and Colorado is the deadliest state with 62 avalanche deaths in the last year. The first way to stay avalanche aware is checking snow conditions from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Another option is taking an Avalanche Training Course with The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).
To make the backcountry safer, more accessible, and hassle free, you can hire a local guide. Guides will manage logistics, help with gear, advise on avalanche conditions and, most importantly, take you to the best snow. Two companies in the Ark Valley can provide the most knowledgeable service for the area: Buena Vista Mountain Adventures and Sawatch Mountain Guides (Leadville). Paragon Guides and Apex Mountain School out of Vail, offer day trips in the northern end of the range.
Chaffee County area guide companies offer single and multi-day through backcountry huts and yurts. The best place to book yurt trips in the Leadville area is through Sawatch Mountain Guides. For 10th Mountain Division Association Huts, check with Paragon Guides. Huts allow you to stay closer to deep snow, while maintaining a few basic comforts.
10th Mountain Huts (300)
There are 32 10th Mountain Division Huts ranging from Friends Hut east of Crested Butte to Broome Hut south of Winter Park. The average route is 6-7 miles with 1500-2500 feet elevation gain. The huts are wood stove heated with an outhouse for facilities. They do not have electricity and are usually shared with a large number of other guests. Some huts include a wood-burning oven. One hut in particular, Janet’s Cabin, is equipped with a wood-fired sauna.
The US Forest Service warns that users should have intermediate backcountry skiing skills, proper equipment, route finding, avalanche awareness and first aid. Guests can book a hut at olb.huts.org, where you can choose your hut or huts, the number of people and dates.
The first huts in Colorado were built in the 1940s, according to the 10th Mountain Division. They connected the Maroon Bells- Snowmass Wilderness for sheepherders and Forest Service guards. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association was a non-profit formed in the early 1980s to build and manage the huts. The organization was named after the 10th Mountain Division of the Army because five huts were made possible through donations of World War II veterans’ families. The original 10th Mountain Division trained 11,000 soldiers at Camp Hale who later fought in Italy in 1945.
Throughout the ‘80s, 10th Mountain built 12 huts with the goal to connect them by short, intermediate ski trails. The Association grew to become the booking and maintenance for over 30 huts. You can find a complete history, including details on each hut at huts.org.