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.

HFV Suggested Reading

What we’ve discovered in our six years of leading men and women veterans and active duty service members into the wilderness is that most participants are philosophers and deep thinkers. We believe this is because military service has exposed many to deep reflections of life, death, and the meaning of existence. The level of conversation is refreshing in a modern age where most people barely look up from their screens to acknowledge those around them.

In an effort to continue the greater discussions had on our trips, we have come up with a list of suggested readings from HFV staff and board members. We encourage participants to be lifelong learners and readers of literature. That’s what makes the HFV experience unique to other outdoor programs by providing a place of comfort and natural beauty for discussions of literature and philosophy that give context and meaning to the wilderness experience.

This perspective shift accentuates the healing salve of nature and wilderness, and it helps participants cope with and ultimately heal from the wounds of war. We plan to add to this list as time goes on and invite participants and website visitors to submit any suggestions in the comments below. Happy trails and great reading!

Nonfiction

  • “Desert Solitaire,” by Ed Abbey
  • “The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books” by John Muir
  • “Walking it Off” by Doug Peacock
  • “Grizzly Years” by Doug Peacock
  • “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger
  •  “Evil Hours,” by David J. Morris
  • “War and the Soul,” by Edward Tick
  • “Warrior’s Return,” by Edward Tick
  • “Vets for Vets,” by Jerry Alpern
  • “The Evil Hours: A Biography of PTSD,” by David J. Morris
  • “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by Bessel Van Der Kolk
  • “Home of the Brave,” by Donna Bryson
  • “What it’s like to go to War,” by Karl Marlantes
  • “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl

Fiction

  • “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Ed Abbey
  • “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers
  • “Redeployment,” by Phil Klay

Online Articles

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.

Lonely War

By Brian Porter, Huts For Vets, Director of Operations | Song performed by Mack Bailey

I have used writing as a form of therapy for years now. Mostly it revolves around my experiences with war and I hope to learn from what I do write to better myself. Two years ago, I finally visited a friend I had served with in the Marine Corps. We had remained in touch for 20 + years but had not seen one another in that time. After our visit, I thought about how long it had been since we had seen each other, how great it was to spend time with someone that would, and has, put their life in danger so that you could live your life. I started thinking about just before we went to battle, the promises we made to one another, “If I don’t make it, please live your life for me.” I had made that promise, now, I sometimes find it hard to keep.

When I started writing about my thoughts and feelings, one line kept popping into my head as a melody, “It’s been so long Brother.” I started with that base and kept adding to it for about a year with no real expectations other than writing my thoughts down and knowing it would be a “song” about my feelings, which would help me heal. It wasn’t until a monthly board meeting that a request from Paul Andersen, Founder of Huts for Vets, was voiced for a song that we could play at the Aspen Chapel which would benefit Huts for Vets. I volunteered, quickly regretted it, but was determined to go through with it anyway. Mack Bailey, music therapist and phenomenal musician, then came over to my house to help put the song into what you hear here!

My only hope is that this song touches someone, helps them heal, and gives them the fortitude to “keep the promise.”

Bringing Philosophy to Veterans in the Colorado Wilderness

Lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and rain drummed on the roof of Margy’s Hut in August 2016 as Aspen Institute senior moderator Pete Thigpen led a dozen US men and women combat veterans through a discussion of “The Melian Dialogue,” by Thucydides.

Thigpen, a Marine Corps veteran from the 1960s, opened with a tutorial on how to lead a seminar. The seminar approach is used by Huts For Vets to introduce veterans to philosophical discussions conducted amid towering mountain peaks and plunging timbered valleys in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness.

In summer 2016, during its fourth year, HFV for the first time invited alumni veterans to a training program preparatory to their guiding fellow veterans into the wilds and into the world of ideas. HFV plans to expand its programs to other huts and other locations, under the leadership of veterans.

In our discussions, the moral and ethical challenges of military service are appreciated by post-9/11 veterans who directly paid the price of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere. More than one veteran at the seminar table has described how those wars have colored their lives, often years after their homecomings.

Watch the Discussion Here

Moderator Training – The “Melian Dialogue” from Huts For Vets on Vimeo.

As Huts For Vets ramps up for five men’s and women’s programs in summer 2017, we celebrate having taken over 130 veterans into the Colorado wilderness to walk serene nature trails and plumb the philosophical depths many veterans have already pondered by facing the big questions: life, death, and the meaning of existence.

Primed by a syllabus of preassigned readings, veterans in HFV programs come to appreciate the merits of intellectual rigors as a complement to the physical rigors of hiking to Mt. Yeckel at 11,700 feet. Together, these physical and intellectual challenges provide a perspective shift that many veterans identify as the most positive, holistic healing experience they have ever undertaken.

Huts For Vets owes its existence to the 10th Mountain Hut System of Aspen and to the many funders and supporters who allow us to pay all costs for the veterans we serve.

Explore the 10th Mountain Hut System Here.

Where War Lives

Dick Durrance was raised in Aspen, worked for decades as a professional photographer, and is reopening his photo files on images he shot as a military photographer during the War in Vietnam. The three images here represent the close intensity with which Durrance chronicled the war and the soldier who fought in it. His book, “Where War Lives,” is a testament to his art and reveals the real deal as he saw it on many fronts during the war. Durrance’s slide show from this period is riveting, and he is open to taking it on the road to veterans groups, schools, communities and to anyone who can appreciate the impact his images contain. To reach him, email dick@dickdurrance.com or connect through Huts For Vets.

WWL.Boots-WEB

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WWL.LZStud.16x9.mtns-WEB

Photos by: Dick Durrance, “Where War Lives”

How a Veteran Survives Survival

How a Veteran Survives Survival
By Paul Andersen, Founder and Exec. Dir. Huts For Vets
(from his Aspen Times newspaper column Monday August 29, 2016)

Most US soldiers today don’t die as casualties during war; they die afterwards, as veterans, from despair, helplessness and alienation.

Navigating their way back into the civilian world is a perilous journey. The mythical Odysseus described this well in his ten-year journey home from the killing fields of Troy.

Sebastian Junger writes: “The American military now has the highest PTSD rate in its history… American combat deaths have dropped steadily while trauma and disability claims have continued to rise… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did.”

Junger knows what he’s talking about given his own recovery from covering a war zone in Afghanistan, where he came under fire. “The inevitable counter attack started with an hour-long rocket barrage. All we could do was curl up in our trenches and hope. I felt deranged for days afterwards, as if I’d lived through the end of the world.”

You’re a Grand Old Flag

You’re a grand old flag
By Paul Andersen, Founder and Exec. Dir. Huts For Vets
(From his Aspen Times newspaper column Monday September 12, 2016)

The American flag was presented to me last week by a team of combat veterans. I had never looked at the symbol of our nation the way I did then.

The presentation was made during the final Huts For Vets trip of our busiest summer yet, where we took over 50 veterans into the wilderness for healing opportunities at the 10th Mountain Huts of Aspen.

“Huts For Vets has truly changed my life and is making me a better father, husband and leader in my community,” said Mike Greenwood, an Iraq War veteran of the Tenth Mountain Division, who handed me the neatly folded flag.