Winter Greetings from Huts For Vets

Margy’s Hut under the snow, back.

Visiting Margy’s Hut on a Snowy Winter Ski Tour

Words and Photos by Paul Andersen, Executive Director, Huts For Vets

If you remember your first view of Margy’s Hut as a great relief to your sore and tired hiking muscles and oxygen-deprived brain, consider the relief you would feel in the dead of winter.

Hiking up to Margy’s on skis adds weight far beyond the load you might have carried on a warm summer day. In addition to a rain jacket are heavy gloves or mittens, a thick stocking cap, down parka, snow pants, boots, goggles, face protection, ski poles, avalanche shovel, probe pole and a search beacon. Then there is the added weight of skis and climbing skins, long underwear, extra socks – and the list goes on.

Margy’s Hut under the snow, front.

Oh, and don’t forget food, sleeping bag, and the usual necessities like water, lunch, snacks, etc. In winter, there is no shuttle to the hut, so everything goes on your back.

The effort is fresh in my mind because I skied to Margy’s Hut the first weekend in February with my son, Tait, and the slog was longer than I had remembered. We went up the winter route of Johnson Creek, which is shorter and more direct than the summer route up Woody and Spruce Creeks that we follow with our summer trips.

The trail sign at Sawmill Park is almost buried

Johnson Creek takes off the main road beyond the Woody Creek trailhead and switchbacks up steep hairpin zig-zags. The day Tait and I went up was one of the first sunny days in weeks, so it felt good to strip down to bare skin and sweat out those steep grades in the heat of a warming sun.

The climb took about four hours, and by the time we reached the clearing where Margy’s stands the sun was low and the temps were plummeting. Pushing our skis along a well-beaten track through the final stands of spruce and fir, there was Margy’s, all but buried in snow up to the tops of the windows. We skied from level snow right onto the deck, the stairs completely buried.

Tait ascending an unnamed pass with the peaks of the Elk Range behind.

I got a fire going in the kitchen cook stove to take off the chill that had settled on the old log cabin, and soon the crackling of dry wood produced a whiff of pine and a radiating heat that felt good to back up against. Hot water on the range was poured into mugs for steaming gulps of hot chocolate while, beyond the front windows, the sun set on the Williams Range with a subtle orange hue.

Tait and I shared the hut that night with three young skiers from Steamboat Springs – two beautiful sisters and a boyfriend – who returned at dusk for a ski tour to the top of Mt. Yeckel. While they spent the evening rolling dice on the Monopoly board, Tait and I were early to bed in preparation for a long ski tour the next day into the headwaters of the Hunter Creek drainage.

In the quiet of the morning, Tait and I enjoyed a 4-egg omelet with grated cheese, grilled fruit bread, crispy turkey bacon and strong, black coffee. We packed our gear and were off as the sun slanted across the valley and glanced off the windows of the hut. The sky was deep blue and clear. The temperature was 10 degrees.

The ski down to Sawmill Park was like a luge run through the thick timber, requiring a series of quick telemark turns to avoid kissing the rough bark of a spruce tree. The trail sign at Sawmill Park was buried almost to the top. A quick probe of the snowpack showed five feet of snow on level ground. We felt like we were levitating over the ground as we skied another mile down the Spruce Creek trail.

Tait making telemark turns in “hippie pow” on the gentle slopes high at the headwaters of Hunter Creek.

Tait had a route mapped out in his head that we followed across the creek and up a series of small, connecting meadows. The sun glinted like a million diamond chips in the bright sun, and the depth of the blue sky formed a stark contrast to the blinding white of the snow.

Skinning up a sunny meadow above Spruce Creek.

Up and up we went, Tait breaking trail for his grateful father. The snowpack had a solid base that made trail breaking reasonable through six inches of eiderdown. We eventually summited the 12,200-foot ridge that can be seen from the deck of Margy’s across the deep valley from which we had climbed. 

We stripped off our climbing skins at the top of the ridge on this calm and beautiful day, and we swooped down with gentle turns on a gentle slope over perfect snow to find a makeshift winter camp to be dug in the deep snow at 11,600 feet. We would spend the night six feet under in a snow cave dug with our avalanche shovels.

Admittedly, the 10-hour night in our snowy berth was long, but we were snug in our down sleeping bags like a pair of hibernating bears. And in the dark of night, when the hot tea we drank before bed made the urge to climb out undeniable, we were greeting by a night sky smeared with glistening stars and planets that seemed to mirror the glittering snow crystals of the day before.

With a warm breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee in our stomachs, we packed up and skied a beautiful, undulating, low-angle slope down to the valley floor, then tracked through woods, across meadows and over boulderfields – all covered deep in snow. Sometimes we skied right down the creek bed over great hummocks of snow and the creek murmuring faintly below.

Deep snow and soft textures.

When we finally reached the familiar junction of Woody and Spruce Creeks, the trail sign was barely visible. We skied across a snow bridge instead of crossing on the usual log upon which stood three feet of snow. The lower trail to Lenado was narrow and fast and required quick moves to flash through tunnels of overhanging brush roofed over with snow.

The log bridge crossing Spruce Creek was piled high with snow, so we crossed on a snow bridge.

Back at the car, the promise of cold beer was thwarted with frozen cans that spewed beer slush that still went down thirsty throats with relish. A more substantial repast was enjoyed at the Woody Creek Tavern, with a toast to Margy’s Hut and to the beauty of deep winter in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness of our beloved Elk Range.

HFV on the The Eagle Nation Podcast

Given the philosophical nature of discussions during Huts For Vets programs, Exec. Dir. Paul Andersen was invited for an interview on this podcast. Huts For Vets is grateful to JJ Pinter and Team RWB for making this happen. We appreciate the sharing of ideas as a step toward greater understanding of the world, each other, and ourselves.

Year-End Update for 2018

‘Huts For Vets’ Builds Tipi Base Camp and Targets National Veterans Groups

By Paul Andersen, Executive Director, Huts For Vets

Huts For Vets is now a landmark in the Roaring Fork Valley on a spectacular site with three large tipis overlooking the Elk Range. This prime piece of rural ranch property is a long term loan by a generous local ranching family that has been a HFV supporter from the day we offered our first programs to veterans in 2013.

Base Camp allows us to stage our trips into the high mountains and introduce our participants to the peace and quiet of nature immediately upon arrival. Base Camp is off-the-grid, without cell phone service, which is a double blessing for simplifying life and removing buffers to the wildness surrounding us in a place where elk, deer, bears, eagles, coyotes and an occasional mountain lion could appear at any time.

In this our sixth year of running successful programs, having served over 180 veterans, Huts For Vets invited leadership cohorts from two national veteran organizations to bring their teams to the 10th Mountain Hut system in summer 2018.

This outreach coincided with the publication of a Huts For Vets manual, written by Paul Andersen and designed by HFV board member and veteran Erik Villasenor. The manual tells our story and shows what we do, how we do it, and why we continue running trips into the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness near Aspen.

The HFV manual invites veterans’ organizations to replicate our approach elsewhere and to cultivate leaders for HFV programs in Colorado where they may return as peer mentors, trip guides, and co-moderators in the philosophical discussions that set HFV apart from any other veterans’ program we’ve seen.

In order to scale up our nature- and text-based approach, a logical step is showcasing our programs to national organizations with large memberships. Taking these leadership teams into the wilderness and introducing them to the 10th Mountain Huts both increases our referral base and provides a new level of credibility to our proven methodology.

HFV has had a strong relationship with Team Red, White and Blue for several years. This athletically-oriented veterans’ program has been referring its members to HFV, thanks to Team RWB regional leader Mike Greenwood of Colorado Springs. Mike is a Tenth Mountain Division veteran who attended one of our first programs in 2013. Over the past two years, HFV has brought in well over a dozen Team RWB members from across the country.

Our programs began this year in June 2018 with a custom program designed for a leadership team from the Pat Tillman Center, which works hand-in-hand with Arizona State University (ASU) by counseling its veteran student population towards graduation. A quick bond was established with this outstanding group, which is now in close collaboration with HFV, leading to possibly running a HFV trip in Arizona in spring 2019. HFV has invited a second cohort from Tillman/ASU to Aspen next summer with two alumni co-leaders from the 2018 trip.

Team Rubicon, a national veteran-founded organization of first responders that answers calls for disaster relief, recruited a leadership cohort from Rubicon’s eight-state western region. Many Rubicon members face post-traumatic stress, not only from their military service, but from their roles as first responders, so the HFV approach was right on target.

Rubicon joined us in August with terrific discussions and another close collaboration that will lead to inviting another Rubicon cohort to a HFV trip in 2019. Both the Tillman/ASU and Rubicon cohorts included men and women, veterans and civilians, creating a well-rounded, diverse, and engaging dynamic in the wilderness and at Margy’s Hut at 11,300 feet.

Also in 2018, HFV ran two regular men’s and women’s programs and received accolades from all participants, underscoring the values of our program. This is thanks to the excellent HFV teamwork of Brian Porter, Erin Wilkinson, Justin Lincoln, Tait Andersen, Jake Sakson, Wendy Elkin, Krysia Carter-Giez, and board members Col. Dick Merritt, Dan Glidden, Don Stuber and Erik Villasenor – all of whom attended programs this year.

In 2019, Huts For Vets plans to expand our institutional outreach by inviting leaders from Vet Voice. This connection comes from a long time collaboration with Vet Voice spokesman Garett Reppenhagen, a HFV alumnus from 2015. Vet Voice has a mission for civic leadership and has become a voice of conservation advocacy, which will resonate with the wilderness immersion that marks HFV as a nature-based healing experience.

HFV is grateful to our many supporters, both financial and in-kind, and for the veterans and active duty participants who sign up for an experience that can reveal benefits for the rest of their lives.

Huts For Vets serves veterans and active duty military personnel who have experienced trauma as a result of their service. We cover all expenses, including transportation from around the country. Interested veterans, active duty military and veteran organizations should apply to Hut For Vets by visiting our website and filling out the easy application: www.hutsforvets.org. Or, call Exec. Dir. Paul Andersen for details about our programs and outreach – 970 927 4018.