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High Altitude Adventure: Hut-to-Hut

“Have you known the Great White Silence?


Frosty, Steve and Al at the top of Homestake Peak, 13,209 feet. Continental Divide in the background. Photography by Frosty Wooldridge

Not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
Eternal truths that shame our soothing lives?
Have you broken trail on snowshoes?
Mushed your huskies up the river?
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces?
Mingled with the mongrel races?
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And through grim as hell the worst is, can you
Round it off with curses?
Then harken to the Wild—it’s wanting you!” Robert Service, Spell of the Yukon

Steven, Al and I stood at the trailhead of the snow-filled route leading five miles into the Rocky Mountains that led to the 10th Mountain Hut. At 11,200 feet, the cabin of our destination meant a steady uphill climb on our mountaineering skis and Al in his snowshoes. We hoisted our 45-pound packs onto our shoulders for the obligatory “glory” picture before stepping into our skis.

Goal: make the cabin before sunset.

On the second day, summit 13,209 foot Homestake Peak near the Mount Holy Cross mountain range. Since we found ourselves in the first week of February, Mother Nature could throw minus 30-degree temperatures and minus 40-degree wind-chill temps with 40 miles per hour winds at the top like two years ago. Nonetheless, we summited. Stayed at the top for 60 seconds and skied down before we froze to death.

“You boys ready for this adventure?” asked Al.

“Well, I would feel better if you carried my pack,” said Steven.

“Actually, I was thinking of a snowmobile for me,” I said.

“Both you boys got too much city in you,” scoffed Al. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

“Okay trail boss,” said Steven.

Actually, Steven proved to be our physical leader. Al provided spiritual leadership. I provided encouragement like a cheerleader with no skirt. There’s something about being at the front end of a great adventure. You don’t know what will happen. You possess no idea of the challenges you might face. Like Robert Service’s poem, “Are you ready for the danger? Listen to the Wild—it’s calling you. Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betides us; Let us journey to a lonely land I know. There’s a whisper on the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us, and the Wild is calling, calling…let us go.”

The wild continues calling 21st century mountain men. All of us possess a yearning in our guts that demands we shed the modern world for a journey into the same wilderness of the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” with Robert Redford. Sometimes I can’t explain it, so I just throw on the pack, slip into the skis and go.

“Head ‘em up,” said Al.

On our bodies, thin layers of winter underclothes. Wool sweaters, vests and Gore-Tex jackets. Hats with ear guards, goggles for blizzards and leg gaiters to protect from snow getting into our boots. Face masks for cold and mittens to protect our fingers. Our packs held four days of food, avalanche shovels, sleeping bags, emergency heat blankets for snow camping, water purifier, first aid kits, cook stove and pans, cameras, cord and other items for survival if needed. One thing about winter adventure: you cannot mess around with Mother Nature. She’ll kill you in a heartbeat. Just in Colorado to February 9, 2016, 10 men died in avalanches.

I slid through a small avalanche up at Peter Esten Hut 20 years ago that frightened me out of my wits. I never want to repeat it.

We locked in our skis and headed up the trail through pine trees and brush. Snow reached over four feet deep. Soon, we crossed over a frozen lake. From there, the packed trail led upward, curling around and over endless ridges and into valleys.

The sun cascaded through the pines and aspens to give the aspirin-white forest floor the same look as a Holstein black and white cow. Every kind of shape bounced off the snow we crossed. The trail wound up and down with an increasing incline as we climbed from 9,000 feet to 9,500 feet and on to 10,000.

We continued a steady rhythm with our skis floating over the crystal carpet under us. Al munched and crunched on his snowshoes.

The first thing I noticed about a mile into the journey: heavy pack. It pressed on my hips. It pulled on my shoulders. I felt it on my knees. The woods—pine scent—quiet—peaceful. Occasional calls carried out of the woods of a Gray jay waiting for us to stop for a food break. Sometimes, squirrels chattered like machine guns in the trees. I felt a certain “chill” rising up from the forest floor from the packed snow.

“Break,” yelled Al.

We stopped at an intersection of the Colorado Trail, which runs 642 miles from Denver to Durango, Colorado. We hiked some of it last summer. Different animal in the winter. I have no doubt some guys and gals have XC’d skied it in winter.

Two ladies from Wisconsin and Iowa came down an adjoining trail on snowshoes. We talked about several subjects, and health and wellness. Nice to see gutsy ladies in shape and enjoying the winter wilderness. They were old high school friends still getting together throughout their lives.

We ate apples and fruit strips while swigging water from our bottles.

It’s quite a feeling when you unbuckle your pack and dump it on the ground. Feels like instantly shedding 45 pounds in a second. But 15 minutes later, you gain 45 pounds back onto your body.

We skied up and down a blanket of white, fluffy, high altitude snow. The nice aspect of it: the snow remains eternally white until spring.

While skiing along in this wondrous wilderness—a sense of meshing with the universe pervades my soul. I am not flying along at 60 miles per hour behind steel, plastic and glass. I’m not listening to the radio or TV. Instead, I hear the breeze wafting through the trees. The “swish, swish, swish” of my skis creates a rhythm distinctly mine. My arms move forward and backward with the planting of my poles. I feel my lungs and my breath. At times, when I power myself up steeper grades, I feel my heart pounding. On such an adventure, I feel alive, aware and moving with the rhythms of life.

We skied through deep woods and open fields.

The terrain grew more dramatic as we drew deeper into the inner sanctum of the Rocky Mountains. Raw living makes me responsible for my life each moment.

Whether we romanticize the mountain men of America via movies or read about the exploits of Jim Bridge and Lewis and Clark—it’s a cool feeling to hoist a backpack onto your shoulders for a journey into the wildness.

All the famous literary names drew from their travels in the wilderness: Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Robert Service, Jack London, Wallace Stegner, John Muir and John McPhee. Nature dramatically or spiritually inspired their literary styles.

Stegner said, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams, and push our paved roads through the last o the silence.”

After five hours, we crested a hill to see a dramatic ridge of mountain peaks up ahead and the subtle outline of the 10th Mountain Cabin. It stood among tall pines blanketed by deep snows at seven feet.

We skied up to the deck, released our bindings and stacked our skis. We walked into the cabin to meet people from Florida, United Kingdom, Michigan and more. Far from an old rustic cabin, it featured banks of windows with bunks on the second floor where you could go to sleep watching the starlight twinkle in the night sky. A big black iron stove in the middle provided plenty of heat. A kitchen with gas stoves provided plenty of cooking area with pots and pants. A wood-fired oven encouraged the baking of pies and breads. One group cooked up pizzas.

A group of six men, all in their 60s, skied to the huts since 1982. Each shared his stories of the original huts.

At 5:00 p.m., the sun sank over the mountains to our west. A brilliant pink sky lit up over the Continental Divide. The white snows reflected the pink glow. Strangely elegant!

We cooked up our dinners of rice and beans along with bagels. We served hot chocolate and tea. Everyone sat around the fire telling stories of their lives.

That night around 2:00 a.m., I needed to hit the outhouse. Have you ever sat on an outhouse toilet seat at minus 10 degrees? Talk about a rude surprise for your butt! Instant wakeup. Let’s you know you’re alive! “Yow!” I muttered. After a few minutes, I walked out into the night to look up at a fairy-tale starlit sky. The 88 constellations depict 42 animals, 29 inanimate objects and 17 humans or mythological characters. Orion, Cancer, Aquarius, Taurus, Big Dipper, North Star and dozens of other constellations magically sparkled out of the ink-black of space. Boy, oh boy, on a clear moon-less night, the sky offers so many mysteries.

In the morning, we woke up to sunshine creeping over the horizon while it created shadows from the trees and rocks. Soon, it hit Homestake Peak at 13,209 feet behind us to the west. It quickly raced up the ramparts of the mountain to light it up like a gleaming white crystal ball. I watched it from my front row window seat.

We ate oatmeal, apples, bagels along with tea for breakfast.

At 8:00, we climbed into our cold weather gear. By that time, we operated in a world of white, garnished by an azure sky—-with drippings of dark green pines.

We XC’d out of the cabin yard on a path heading toward Homestake Peak. We followed a narrow canyon through dense pines. After 15 minutes, the trail broke, so we punched our way across windswept tundra. After climbing 500 feet, we leveled off to see Homestake Peak directly in front of us. The rolling mountain scape saw less and less pines as we exceeded 11,800 feet near tree line.

What constitutes “tree line”? Answer: that’s the point where the tree sap freezes when temperatures drop below minus 40 degrees for extended periods of time. Once the sap freezes, the trees die. Aspens die easier as deciduous trees so they stop growing at 10,000 feet whereas conifers with pine needles withstand up to 12,500 feet at this latitude. The closer to Alaska, the lower the tree line because the temperatures become more extreme. It’s something like 2,000 feet on the Arctic Circle.

We followed some ski tracks tripping across a plateau that led us to a severe drop into a valley with a climb out the other side.

“What do you think about heading up that couloir over there?” said Steven.

“Yeah, let’s drop into that valley and head over to that far side of the pines,” Al said.

“Let me get a couple of shots of you guys,” I said, pulling my camera up to my eyes.

“Let’s get moving,” said Steven.

We dove into the valley only to slog our way to the bottom of the ridge at the south end of Homestake Peak.

“Okay guys,” said Steven. “Let’s get ready to bust our butts to the top.”

“Let’s git ‘er done,” said Al.

We girded ourselves for a two hour gut busting ski up that monster peak with freezing winds. One thing about tackling a massive mountain—you must be prepared with strenuous and disciplined physical training. In the wilderness, as in life, preparation equates to 9/10ths of success. When you prepare, you succeed. If you loaf into a life project of any kind, you pay a price of disappointment and frustration.

While mountain-climbing posters and movies look dramatic and exciting, each of us prepared for the mental, emotional and physical demands that summiting a mountain requires. As we skied upward, we stopped every 100 feet to take a breather because the oxygen content at high altitude diminishes with vertical ascent. After 60 seconds at each stop, we resumed our journey toward the summit.

Something happens while ascending a mountain.

When you start at the bottom, you “see” all the other peaks from the lower levels. With each 100 feet of vertical gain, you begin to see the “faces” of mountains on a more equal and personal level. They change their personalities while you come eyeball-to-eyeball with them.

Further up the mountain, you become equal all together. You see the canyons and rock faces with a new altitude point of view. One hour into the climb, we reached the half-way point. We took a break on some rocks.

“This is a bear of a climb,” said Steven.

“Yeah, but the view can’t be beat,” said Al. “Look at the Continental Divide…I mean, it’s fantastic…and look at those 1,000 foot canyon faces with the erosion channels loaded with snowpack. What a monumental amount of beauty. We’re getting closer to see the entire Rocky Mountains in one full swoop.”

“Anybody for some trail mix?” I said.

After our break, we slogged our way upward past 12,500 feet. The wind kicked up, but the sky grew bluer with altitude gain. Finally, at 1:00 p.m., we reached the top at 13,209 feet.

“Wow!” said Steven. “What a 360 degree view for 100 miles! We can see almost all the 14ers from this spot. Look over there—Maroon Bells, Capital Reef, Mount Holy Cross, La Blanca, Windom, Sunlight, Eolus and more. All the 13ers and 14ers are covered in white. It’s a frozen world of ice crystals and mountain peaks. This is amazing.”

“I’m speechless,” said Al. “This takes my breath away.”

“Heck of a winter adventure,” I said. “Let’s get some pictures while we’re on top of the world.”

We snapped pictures of all the mountain chains. We grabbed great shots of the Continental Divide slicing across the sky north to south on its dramatic journey toward Mexico.

Twenty minutes later, a gnarly 40 miles per hour wind raged against us on the peak.

“Time to move off this mountain,” said Al.

We grabbed our skis and snowshoes for the trek down the steep face of the mountain.

Because of the windswept snows, no way to tele-ski down the hard pack. We hiked all the way until it grew softer. We slapped on the skis. We headed downward with many switchbacks to check our speed.

We headed around the bottom corner of the mountain until the sheltered side of the rocks. From there, we watched the sun settling down until it lit up snow-devils swirling from the cornices. At one point, we watched the winds bearing down on the edge of the mountain couloirs to create a view imitating Niagara Falls with water running over the edge at high speed. But in this case, wind-driven snows cascaded over the cornices to create magical running water made up of ice-crystals.

“Let’s get some shots,” said Steven.

Since all three of us enjoyed photography, we snapped picture after picture as the snows swirled above us.

“Can’t get enough of this,” I said. “Click, click, click.”

After taking our fill of pictures, we skied onto one of the Lost Lakes near the cabin. It measured over one mile in length. Off to the west, brilliant blue ice falls stood frozen in time. We skied under them on soft snows. Amazingly, once we gained the lake, our poles punched through to the ice to reveal only eight inches of snow depth.

“This is amazing to only see eight inches of snow depth when there’s over seven feet of snow depth on the land,” Steven said.

“Yeah, I can’t figure out why it’s so thin when the land is loaded with snow taller than me,” I said. “Wish I was a weather person to figure that one out.”

“We’d have to ask a meteorologist,” said Al.

We skied one mile across the lake until we reached the other side. Really cool making tracks across the lake! Our trail through the wilderness! Our moment to live the dream! Our journey as mountain men!

We looked back at the great peak we just climbed.

It’s a feeling of satisfaction at having climbed to the top of such a monster of rock in the middle of winter.

“Once you climb them; the mountains gain a soul like yours,
They shape your heart as they carve their memories into you.
In the light of day, their winds blow their spirit into your soul,
Amid the eternal blue skies, that mountain becomes your friend.
Of great dignity, enormous beyond imagination and fierce of will,
You share your passion, love and heart with freedom born of resolve. Let the winds blow their energy into you and the mountains their joy.” FHW

My two friends felt the same way I did. We just conquered a mountain, but in reality, it burned its energy into our beings. That frozen lake we crossed; we didn’t want it to stop. But like all adventures, a moment comes when it ends. Nonetheless, we tapped into our experience with feelings, words and pictures.

We arrived back at the cabin with fresh energy of an amazing mountain man experience.

Around the fire that night, we talked of conquest. Everyone eagerly wanted to hear about our summit experience. We dined on pasta-primavera dinners along with hot tea, bagels and trail mix. At the end, the six men shared a slice of their mountain pizza pie.

As we talked, Ryland, a man who guides people into the mountains shared his story: “Yes, I love these mountains. My job is ‘poverty with a view.’” His partner, Rochelle, helped people learn to ski, hike, camp and survive in the mountains. A United Kingdom couple, Eddie and Lizzie, loved the immensity of Rocky Mountains. Jim and Liz, a Florida couple, talked about their scuba diving experiences in the Caribbean and Hawaii. The cool thing about hut-to-hut adventures: everybody’s got a story and every story creates a unique tapestry for all to enjoy.

Again, that evening, the sky turned orange at sunset. We snapped pictures. Another encore, we slept under windows with a starlit sky. Again, I froze my butt off in the outhouse, but never complained because one glimpse at my starlit ceiling told me I was a lucky mountain man.

In the morning, we ate hearty breakfasts. We saluted all our new friends, knowing we would never see them again, but we met them and shared with them a unique experience for a moment in the Rocky Mountains on a hut-to-hut ski adventure.

We stepped into our skis. We hoisted our packs onto our backs. We headed into the eternal snows of winter, downward into the wilderness.

Steven said, “I’ll never forget this…I’m coming back…man what a grand adventure.”

Al said, “You got that right….”

“The trails of the world be countless, and most of the trails be tried; You tread on the heels of the many, till you come where the ways divide; And one lies safe in the sunlight, and the other is dreary and wane, yet you look aslant at the Lone Trail, and the Lone Trail lures you on. And somewhere you’re sick of the highway, with its noise and its easy needs, and you seek the risk of the by-ways, and you reckon not where it leads. And sometimes it leads to an Arctic trail and the snows where your torn feet freeze, and you whittle away the useless clay, and crawl on your hands and knees. Bid good-bye to your sweetheart, bid good-bye to your friends; The Lone Trail, the Lone Trail follows to the end. Tarry not, and fear not, chosen of the true; Lover of the Lone Trail, the Lone Trial waits for you.” Robert Service, Spell of the Yukon.


Read more posts by Frosty Wooldridge here. Frosty is a blogger for JenningsWire Online Magazine.

The online feature magazine, JenningsWire.com, is created by National PR Firm, Annie Jennings PR that specializes in providing book promotion services to self-published and traditionally published authors. Annie Jennings PR books authors, speakers and experts on major high impact radio talk interview shows, on local, regionally syndicated and national TV shows and on influential online media outlets and in prestigious print magazines and newspapers across the country.