ASPEN – The European Alps are renowned for their famed Haute Route (High Route), a mountaineering rite through sublime vistas and pricey mountain refuges.
Colorado now has its own Haute Route, showcasing a uniquely American setting of wilderness and rustic huts. This Haute Route happens to be in Aspen’s backyard, traversing the Elk Range to Crested Butte.
Five skiers from Aspen and five from Crested Butte christened the “Colorado Haute Route” in mid-March, taking the huts in sequence, from north to south. Our cohort, mostly board members of the Braun and Friends’ huts, spent five days connecting four huts through a mostly trackless landscape, all of it above 11,000 feet.
While the Grand Traverse adventure ski race has made this connection obvious, a multi-day trek through these mountains offered a daily reminder that mountains may separate communities, but they link to deeper, shared values. Touring the Colorado Haute Route created new appreciation for the connectivity of huts and communities.
Back Door to Barnard
Ten of us set off by skinning up Little Annie Road on a picture perfect spring day. Birds were singing, and our outlook could not have been brighter given five days of skiing that would take us over three passes above 12,000 ft.
Earlier that week, Hawk Greenway, hut master of the Braun Hut system, had delivered supplies to the huts by snowmobile, with help from Cooper Means. This wasn’t exactly a clean approach for us non-motorized purists, but it allowed for certain luxuries in the Haute Route tradition of Europe.
Topping Richmond Ridge, Greenway, who also serves on the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board, led us down the backside to a historic wagon road. This trail contours through dark timber and open meadows where Aspen’s earliest lumbermen felled trees and sawed planks in the 1880s.
Given skier complaints about snowmobile impacts on the ridge, Greenway, blazed this backcountry route as a non-motorized alternative. The hut, built in 1967 in honor of Marsh Barnard, felt far more removed with only our ski tracks cutting through the White River National Forest on “Hawk’s Route.”
At dusk, Braun Huts board chairman Craig Ward glided up on track skis to spend the night and stage a session of “Bananagrams,” a scrabble-like word game. Ward praised the idea of the Colorado Haute Route, especially since the Braun Huts provide the vital links to an outstanding high mountain traverse.
Eight Feet of Snow
The next morning, Cooper Means and Morgan Boyles, who were training for the Grand Traverse, pushed off early for a training run to Taylor Pass. Ward left for commitments in town. Unhurried, the rest of us sipped coffee while the sun blazed on the face of McArthur Mountain.
At mid-morning we set off toward the Goodwin Greene Hut where three Crested Butteicians planned to join us that afternoon from Express Creek. High cirrus clouds painted horsetails across the blue sky, and the Elk Range stood radiant against the blue horizon.
Dropping into Difficult Creek near Gold Hill, we enjoyed a dozen sweet turns through four inches of fluff, then skinned up through the dark timber to the buried hut. The Goodwin Greene was built in the 1970s in memory of mountaineers Peter Goodwin and Carl Greene, and was renovated in 2001.
Getting to the door required sliding down a steep ramp of snow. Once inside we noticed that half the windows were buried, emitting only a dull greenish glow.
“There’s a bit of snow on the roof,” prodded Greenway, referring to eight feet of snowpack that nearly covered the stovepipe. We clambered onto the eaves and, with our avalanche shovels, began calving off huge chunks.
Hours later, voices called from above as our Crested Butte friends skied down from the ridge, linking beautiful turns. They helped us clear the roof, allowing all of us to set out for a late afternoon tour.
Gusts picked up snow on the corniced ridge above the hut, and Castle Peak and Mt. Hayden were plumed in the advance of a fast moving storm. Greenway’s savory elk stew fueled us that night for the planned crossing of Taylor Pass the next day.
Whiteout to Opa’s Hut
The storm arrived at first light with wind and driving snow. The weather made the warmth of the crackling wood stove and the smell of sizzling bacon all the more appealing as we contemplated crossing the ridge above Taylor at 12,400 ft.
Bundled like Eskimos we climbed into the void toward the windswept ridge. Greenway fell in step behind Cooper and Morgan, who wanted to break trail as part of their training, which the rest of us were happy to oblige. We felt our way, as if skiing by Braille, through the whiteout, thanks to Greenway’s internal compass.
Finally, locator poles with blue triangles – hut markers – emerged from the haze and locked us onto the route. We dropped over the ridge and contoured above a broken cornice that had tumbled down in huge blocks like an ancient ruin. Suddenly the clouds opened, and sun poured across Taylor basin.
We broke trail beneath a long, cantilevered cornice, crossed a windswept meadow, and meandered around glacially carved undulations to Opa’s Taylor Hut. Built in 2012, Opa’s is the newest hut in the Braun system, a tight, clean, bright, warm hut that honors the hut system founder, Alfred Braun, whose nickname – Opa – means “grandfather.”
As Colorado’s first ski hut system, the Braun Huts got its start with the Tagert Hut, a mining era cabin in Pearl Basin above Ashcroft. In the 1950s, John Holden, an educator who started Colorado Rocky Mountain School, acquired the Tagert with the idea of founding a hut network.
With help from Ashcroft legend Stuart Mace and German immigrant Alfred Braun, the hut system grew. Fred Braun ran the huts with imperious notoriety until his death in 1988. Greenway now supervises the seven huts in the system.
Over Star and Pearl
Bright stars and a crescent moon greeted us at first light. The storm had cleared and the hut windows framed the purpling horizon over the Collegiate Range to the east.
Crossing Star Pass in the severe clear of post-storm made for an outstanding tour, albeit through serious avalanche terrain. Crossing slide zones, one-at-a-time, beacons strapped to our chests, we contoured Star Basin with awe, both for the outstanding mountain scenes surrounding us and for the inherent risks all skiers must accept on their own.
Star Pass was blocked by a cornice, so we crested the ridge to the north and stood gazing at a sea of snow-covered mountains. One at a time, we skied a pitch of windblown crust down to the Friends’ Hut. Soon a fire was heating up the stove, and mugs of tea were handed around.
Built in 1984, this memorial hut pays tribute to ten friends killed in a freak, head-on plane crash over nearby East Maroon Pass in June 1980. The hut commemorates a shared love for mountains and the special friendships they inspire. A brass plaque bolted to the log wall reads: “Built in loving memory by their friends.”
A packed hut is a warm hut, and the Friends’ hut was warm that night with a crackling fire. Stories were told that rekindled the memories of friends, past and present, some of them verging on legends and myths that small mountain huts have a way of perpetuating.
The next morning the Aspen contingent bid our Crested Butte friends farewell, then set out for Pearl Pass, at 12,705 feet. An hour later we stood on the divide of the Elk Range, looking back over our route and ahead to hot showers and fresh food at home.
We wrote our signatures in the snowy bowls leading to the Green-Wilson and Tagert Huts, the ephemeral graffiti of skiers. Below the huts we rocketed down the luge run of the Pearl Pass Road to Ashcroft, where the pavement ends and adventure begins.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism’s Land Desk collaborated on this story with the Aspen Times Weekly, which published the story on Thursday, April 3, 2014.