We weren’t sure if the wood burning stovetop would be too hot to serve as a griddle for our pancakes. Alex improvised by adding a stick of butter to the flapjack mix and poured away. Eating hot pancakes and fried bacon for breakfast in a Colorado Yurt is good living.
I think more people would venture into Colorado’s winter backcountry if they knew they could eat well, stay warm and rest. Don’t let winter intimidate you. You don’t need to be a polar explorer, wilderness survivalist or Jack London fan to survive a winter overnight trip.
Two nights ago, our seven-man crew skinned up the jeep roads and single track trails to our backcountry shelter, The Hidden Treasure Yurts. Staged in the last flat vestige below the upper slopes of New York Mountain, our small band of merry adventurers came to carve turns in the virgin Colorado powder.
As we scuffed and slid along under the weight of our packs, a convoy of giggling grade-schoolers zoomed past us on snowmobiles and sleds. The youngsters were headed to the neighboring Polar Star Inn. Their hot chocolate mustache smiles were all the proof I needed to convince me that winter backcountry travel is accessible to everyone.
Winter backcountry shelter from grit to luxury scale
Here’s how I’d describe the range of your choices when it comes to choosing backcountry winter shelter.
- Jack London Yukon award: Sleep in a snow cave
- Gritty: Tent camp
- Yurt: Roughing it in a heated teepee with bunk beds.
- 10th Mountain Hut luxury: Let your friends believe you’re tough, but you know you spent the weekend napping and reading magazines by a warm fire.
Getting Started: Choosing your Shelter
Yurts and Huts are terms used to describe mountain shelters all around the world. Not all Huts and Yurts are created equal. Backcountry shelters vary widely between just barely out of the elements to full-blown luxury accommodations. I slept a few grateful nights in a “Hut” at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier that reminded me of a nuclear fallout shelter. Here are a couple tips to help you find a mountain shelter for your next big winter outing.
In Colorado, Huts are considered permanent structures, often times they are gigantic log homes, outfit with electricity, wood burning stoves, nice beds, full kitchens and indoor toilets. If you love luxury reserve one of the thirty-four 10th Mountain Division Huts. Many of them sleep fifteen to twenty people and are as nice as anything you’d find at the base of Peak 10 in Breckenridge.
A Yurt is like a giant teepee supported by an exoskeleton-like wood frame, and are wrapped in an exterior protective layer of canvas or plastic. Like Huts, Yurts are also heated with a wood-burning stove. During the winter, Yurts are often located at more difficult to reach locations that can significantly change the skills and equipment required.
How to stick to the green runs
Before you reserve a Hut or Yurt, make sure you understand the terrain and distance requirements. If this were your first winter backcountry outing, I’d stay away from approaches longer than three miles. Find a Yurt or Hut that is easily accessible from a well-traveled snow covered jeep road vs. a backcountry singletrack trail. My first Hut trip was at the 10th Mountain Hut Shrine Mountain Inn located just 2.7 miles from Vail Pass off I-70.
Choosing Your Mode of Travel
You can easily adapt your mode of winter backcountry transportation to accommodate your team or family.
- Hiking: everyone can do it, but not easily in two-feet of powder.
- Snowshoeing is just like walking and easy to rent.
- Skiing or Splitboarding: More difficult to just pick it up without some practice and preparation. If you stick to moderate terrain, almost anything will get you there.
- Easiest physical option is to rent a Snowmobile.
Get Out and Go
The backcountry of Colorado is eager to give you a new flavor of adventure. If a group of school kids can get out there, so can you.
My cohorts from the Treasure Hut are a burly bunch. They’ve skied on Alaska’s Denali, regularly skin up Breckenridge peaks before dawn before they drive to work, run 100 mile ultra races and instruct Texans on ski vacations at Vail mountain.
These guys have chased adventure in winter for decades. We loved the solitude of New York Mountain, but we did wonder, “Where is everybody? Don’t they know what’s out here?”
Everybody starts at the beginning. I hope you will give winter backcountry travel a try.
Special thanks to Justin Lukasavige for being a good friend, but also bringing his camera and capturing this epic winter adventure. You can find Justin’s work at Backcountry Treks.