Another winter has come and gone, and now Spring is in Colorado. Which means Winter will be back a couple more times before the snow all melts.
We’ve organized a team of friends from San Francisco, Denver, and Colorado high country for a backcountry excursion to one of Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts. The Benedict huts, our dwelling for two nights tucked into the wilderness outside of Aspen, are almost 6 miles from the trailhead, with an elevation gain of over 2000 ft. : a formidable trek, even for the experienced. And experience in wilderness trekking is one thing, but altitude is a game-changer. We will be well over 8000 ft. long before we reach the huts, so preparation for such an undertaking requires as much attention to mental, physical and physiological condition as much as clothing, gear and rations.
Weather & Conditions
This has everything to do with the weather, so it’s important to be on top of tracking all the resources available to you. At the top of my list in this region is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. They provide up-to-date reports for high-risk areas around the state according to a comprehensive and easy-to-understand rating system. When considering this information, I always remember that our trek will take us through several types of terrain, and thus, several types of conditions: in and out of trees, varying steepness and exposure (to sun, wind, precipitation, etc.), all kinds of microclimates and environments (wetlands, scree fields).
As far as incoming weather patterns are concerned, one of the most popular and reliable forecasts endorsed by people who play outside in Colorado is Open Snow. Founding meteorologist Joel Gratz updates local forecasts regularly, and provides information on what to expect with the outdoor adventurers in mind.
For our upcoming hut trip, it looks like the storm we’re expecting will be warmer and milder than recent systems, with most of it heading toward the northern mountain region. That being said, however, I’m keeping in mind that any projected weather system can be just a few degrees colder, a few inches wetter, and a few miles closer and change conditions dramatically. So let’s talk about how we can anticipate this with …
Gear & Clothing
In any season in Colorado, there are essential comforts I always pack to get me to and from any hut that requires a hike, and to keep me happy while I’m enjoying the site. Dead of Winter, Height of Summer alike, the sun and glare is liable to be more intense than anything you’ve ever experienced at sea-level, while at the same time, the temperature and lack of humidity can cool your body significantly, night or day. Depending on how strenuous the commute is or how active you intend to be even after arriving at your destination, you may be constantly shedding, then adding, then shedding, then adding layers, so keep it all very accessible.
For this particular trek, I’ll be in snow gear. Basically anything I’d wear snowboarding: snow pants, outer shell on top, hat, gloves. I want it to be warm and waterproof on the outside. Underneath this shell, I want layers that I can strip down to as soon as I start moving and sweating with a 40 -60 lb. pack on. Unless the storm turns out to be much more intense (in which case, I’ll keep the outer layers on), I expect my skin to be steaming, so I won’t want to be in much more than warm compression tights, a t-shirt, and a light pullover. Your outer shell is for blizzards and water-proofing, so whatever you are stripping down to should be significantly lighter. Also, sunglasses or goggles. The glare from snow is significant. I bring both, because goggles get way too hot while I’m trekking uphill.
Here’s the tricky part: What are you going to wear on your feet? This is where the weather forecast comes in. This time of year, after such a snowy winter, I’m expecting most of the trail to be covered in snow, and the storm moving in is likely to bring more. I will be scoping out the trail pre-storm, which will give me a much better idea of what to expect, but I’m preparing to have snowshoes or a split-board and skins strapped to my snowboard boots. Of course, skis with skins are another alternative. There is a very slim chance most of the snow on the trail will be melted down, in which case I would probably opt for waterproof boots instead, which I would expect to get pretty muddy.
Whether it’s on the commute or while you explore terrain around the hut during your stay, there are some essentials you can pack for the worst-case scenario. I’ve gone into more detail in a previous blog, but standards that I will be keeping on me are a shovel, probe and beacon. But these tools are only a small part of avalanche preparedness. More important than the endless supply of technology you can invest in is knowing what conditions and natural phenomena to be aware of during your trek, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is a great place to start familiarizing yourself with these.
There is only one limiting factor to this list, but it is considerable: how much you can carry. For six miles. Uphill. In snow.
Most of the huts in the 10th Mountain Division hut system are equipped with soft mattresses, small pillows, and blankets. The kitchens are stocked with utensils and dishes, there is toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and dish soap, as well as ample supplies of wood for burning in the wood stoves. So most of your weight will be food and drinks.
I always pack a sleeping bag and extra pillow, because the guaranteed warmth and comfort are worth it when you’ve spent your day being intensely active outdoors. And keep in mind you’ll want warm, dry layers to change into that you haven’t been hiking and sweating in all day. What do you want to be wearing when you’re lounging around the cabin reading, cooking, eating, playing cards, etc.? For me, this looks like socks, long underwear, a pullover and slippers that I can crush into my pack. And then what are you going to throw on when you have to go back outside into the dark cold of night to use the outhouse? Your Colorado uniform: a hoodie.
There won’t be running water, so you can’t expect to shower. When you’re in the wilderness for a long time and need to be discerning about how much weight you carry that isn’t food and water, bathing is of low priority. But for a short trip like this, I don’t mind bringing some form of wet wipes; they’re light-weight and take up very little space. Toothbrush and toothpaste should be obvious, though.
Medication & Acclimation
From climbing Mt. Fuji to Colorado’s 14er’s, I’ve noticed a lot of people bringing pressurized cans of oxygen. High altitude research has taught me just how temporary and unnecessary this trend is. Often, the most effective remedy for altitude sickness is 5 – 10 minutes on oxygen. I’m pretty sure you’ll blow through a whole can of gas-station aerosol oxygen before it does you any lasting good.
Avoid this by giving yourself time to acclimate before you get to extreme elevation. Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, Colorado, specialists in high altitude research, always recommend keeping track of blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter, and this is something small, inexpensive and very portable. Our team will be spending at least 24 hours at altitude before we embark on the trek to the hut. This way, members from lower elevations will have access to an oxygen concentrator to facilitate acclimation.
Physician and high altitude expert Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos recommends packing the following mediations for hut trips: Acetazolamide, Benadryl, Ibuprofen, an EpiPen, Acetaminophen, and topical antibiotic oinment. Of course, be aware of any allergies to medication in your party. It is also helpful to be aware of what symptoms you may expect to experience, should you start having trouble acclimating, including dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, and fatigue.
Food & Water
This is where most of the weight you pack in will be. Again, no running water at the hut, so expect to boil all the water you need for drinking if you run out of what you bring. There are lots of compact water purification systems you can easily pack as well. For our six mile trek to the cabin, I will have a Camel Bak and a couple Nalgene-sized thermoses full of water tucked into my pack.
You don’t want to have to cook everything you bring, so snacks you can easily access and eat are essential, especially for the trail. For this particular hike, I expect to burn more calories more quickly than any other average day, so I want lots of nutrients per gram: pistachios, energy bars, jerky … And don’t underestimate the power of sugar and caffeine, this is precisely the kind of work your body acts quickly to convert these nutrients to energy for. And yes, I mean chocolate. (Fruit also contain a lot of valuable sugar, I’m told.)
While we’re at the cabin, we’ll have access to a propane stove, so we’ll be able to cook some hearty meals. Bacon, fruit, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese are all easy breakfast foods to pack. If you are fortunate enough to be on a hut trip with Dr. Chris herself, you will have pancakes at least once. It’s also easy enough to bring fixings for the most epic sandwich you’ve ever had: guacamole, sprouts, turkey, ham, greens, tomatoes, bread; and remember, it’s a good chance to justify all the calories you get from mayonnaise and mustard.
And speaking of calories and sugar, I feel like whiskey and beer were invented to accompany the warmth of a fire in a remote, mountain cabin. The good news is that you are sure to be carrying less out than you did in. The bad news is that hangovers are exacerbated by high altitude, so pay more attention to your consumption than you would at any lower elevation, and be sure to have plenty of drinkable water at hand.
Am I Ready?
Hut trips in Colorado are mentally and physically challenging, even in the best conditions. The more time you give yourself, the better. Know before you go and don’t go alone. And don’t be intimidated. I’ve successfully guided friends from sea-level who don’t consider themselves athletic to destinations well above the tree line without incident.
Always be checking in with your body, your team, and your environment.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.