Section House in December: Moose Country

Section House sits at 11,481′ (3499 m), on Boreas Pass, just south of Breckenridge, Colorado. It isn’t the highest hut in the Summit Huts system, but its unique location and history is what makes it one of the most challenging.

Many of the huts in the Summit and 10th Mountain Division systems sit on a hillside, below tree line, which provides a significant amount of weather mitigation. Section House is right at the tree line, on the pass, which means any wind and weather will likely be funneled right into you. And because you are in one of the highest counties in the United States, weather is highly variable.

I’ve done this hut in a blizzard before, arriving to find the padlock on the front door was frozen shut. That may have been the most I’d ever despaired in my life up until then.

Even in great weather, however, the temperature alone is a liability. When we set out from the trailhead this time, it was sunny and relatively balmy for December, in the 30’s (Fahrenheit). But the temperature in the shade can be several degrees lower, and as the sun sets below the Ten Mile Range, the temperature starts to drop by the tens of degrees really quickly.

The Stats

Distance: a little over 6 miles; GPS and some maps may differ by tenths of a mile. If you tell your friends 6, they may resent you.

Timing: the same hike has taken me a couple hours with no weight on my back besides water, on well-packed snow. This time, it took over an hour a mile, including frequent breaks, thanks to all the weight I was carrying and pulling. Additionally, we constantly had to redistribute weight among sleds and backpacks to relieve shoulders and keep sleds from tipping over. If you decide to pull a sled, keep the weight low and as evenly distributed as possible. The other very limiting factor was the last half of the trail was covered in at least a couple feet of unpacked, fresh powder. Our lead was breaking trail in snowshoes.

While the grade going back down to the trailhead isn’t steep enough to keep momentum without skating, it is significantly easier and faster, and took us half the time even after waiting for moose to safely cross our path.

Elevation gain: about 1100′.

Capacity: 12 people.

Packing

I’ve pulled a sled both times I’ve done this hut. I don’t regret it, but it is challenging at best in calm weather. Unless you are going for more than a couple nights, I’d recommend packing everything into a backpack.

Because the elevation gain is so gradual, the challenge with weight is the distance. Pack your weight so it will still be comfortable on your shoulders after three miles. The advantage of pulling a sled was having less weight on my shoulders, but after several miles, even minimal weight can dig into your muscles.

The only source of water around this hut is the snow you melt, which is why it isn’t open in the Summer season. Water purifying filters are the quickest way to refill all your containers at the hut, but you will want plenty of water for the hike in alone. Running out of water on the trail is dangerous. An added risk: when the sun went down on us after the first three hours in, the water in our CamelBak nozzles started freezing if we weren’t regularly sipping on them.

Bring a sleeping bag. Most huts I’ve been to have blankets and pillows on the mattresses, but this one does not. This is also one of the oldest and coldest cabins; built in 1882, it takes hours to heat up by wood stove, especially if no one has been in it recently.

Moose

Now forget all the advice I just gave you and center your whole packing strategy around how you plan to evade a charging moose.

This region is moose country: high, high meadows filled with willowy wetlands. They don’t care how cold it is. In the dead of night, one of us opened the front door to use the outhouse and a young bull was standing right in front. On the trail back, two different parties ran into a moose and her calf right on the trail. They are not in the way. You are on their trail.

But seriously, pack to be prepared for your comfort and sustenance on the trail and at the hut. The only thing you can do about the moose is give them a lot of space while avoiding any confrontational, jerky movements that may suggest any predatory intent. If moose perceive a threat, they are liable to charge, male or female. If they charge, drop everything weighing you down and pray-run (praying while running).

When we ran into the moose on the trail, we stayed over 50 meters away and just waited while the moose wandered further off our path. As soon as they were about 50 meters off our path, we proceeded with caution. But we waited for over 30 minutes, and would have waited longer if we needed to.

Skis vs. Skins vs. Snowshoes

This was the most highly contested logistical conversation among our party. In the end, four of us were on cross country skis (without skins), one was on skis with skins, one was on a split-board with skins, and one was on snowshoes.

This really depends on the conditions. Two weeks prior, three of us hiked the trail in boots, on well-packed snow after days of warm, dry weather. Days before we left for the trip, however, a series of storms blew several feet of snow in, which changed everything. Boots alone were definitely not an option.

Most people, who aren’t hiking to the hut, will stop and turn around at the halfway mark where historical Baker’s Tank stands. This means the trail up until that point will reliably be pretty packed down. Because of the recent snow, however, no one could be sure what conditions would be like for the second half of the trail.

Freshly-broken trail through fresh snow past the midway point to Section House.

Sure enough, Baker’s Tank to the hut was unbroken trail through deep, soft snow. Our lead, on snowshoes, was cursing all the way to the hut as he carved the path for the rest of us. But in deep snow, snowshoes are sometimes the most comfortable option for an ascent, especially if you are inexperienced on skis and skins.

The advantage to skinning up on a split-board or downhill skis is the width of the blades. They are wider than cross country skis, which makes balancing the extra weight more comfortable and stable.

On a packed track, cross country skis were relatively comfortable, if narrow. The boots are more similar to normal footwear, so are more flexible and comfortable than ski or snowboard boots. Price was also a determining factor: renting skis or a split-board can cost upwards of $45 per day at most rental shops. We found cross country skis for $10 per day at Wild Ernest Sports, above Silverthorne, and they worked well. One thing about cross country ski boots, however, is that they aren’t as well-insulated as downhill ski or snowboard boots. Trekking through deep snow in them requires much better waterproofing and insulation than we were prepared with.

Jupiter rising in the dusk on the way up to Section House.

As for skins, although the trail grade is very gradual, there is enough of a grade at times that you will be thankful for the traction that skins provide. So unless you’re on cross country blades, you’ll want some skins.

Altitude & Acclimatization

One advantage of carrying all the weight we did was that it forced us to make a slower ascent and take frequent breaks. These are two things you can do to minimize the affects of the altitude on any ascent. In our party, all but one of us have lived at an altitude over 7,000′ for at least one year. Most of us have lived over 9,000′ for several years. But this was the first hut trip over 10,000′ for three of us, one of whom flew in two days before from sea level.

Fortunately, no one in the group experienced any severe symptoms of acute mountain illness, and I credit that to our meticulous supervision of each person’s blood oxygen saturation as well as our slow ascent. The first night we were at the hut, the lowest oxygen saturation we saw was 85%, but most were between 85 and 90%, which, at over 11,000′ is not surprising. If some slow, deep breaths hadn’t brought oxygen levels up, I would have been more concerned.

Hitting kickers behind Section House.

As seems to be tradition on our expeditions, we arrived well after dark. But these days, sunset is at 4:30 pm. Luckily, the weather was calm, and the trail is quite obvious. Our biggest concern after dark was the tremendous drop in temperature. With no cloud cover and a recent cold front, it was well below freezing, and the only thing that kept us from freezing was the constant movement, which kept us progressing forward.

Ken’s Hut, next to Section House.

By the time we had all made it to the hut and built up a fire warm enough to kick our boots off, our socks were steaming in spite of how cold our extremities were. It took well into the night to heat up the hut, and we all spent the first night sleeping around the wood stove. Yes, it took seven hours for the last of us to make it to the front door of Section House, but the spring trip to the Benedict Huts outside of Aspen was still loads more difficult — and we didn’t even pull any sleds! The next day was windless, sunny, clear, and warmer outside than it was inside, which allowed us to get back out on our skis and snowboards to enjoy the backcountry without weight on our backs.

robert-ebert-santos

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.

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