The second most important piece of equipment to take on a winter hut trip, right behind a backpacker's headlamp to illuminate the way to the outhouse, may be a set of industrial earplugs. Anyone who has ever skied up to timberline to spend a weekend or longer at one of the 28 huts maintained by the Tenth Mountain Division Hut System needs no explanation.
For the uninitiated, there was a symphony going on in the Peter Estin Hut during the night of Jan. 18. There were the sounds of oboes, bassoons, percussion instruments and a smattering of cross-cut saws, all created by slumbering humans snoring the night away.
Snoring should not serve as a deterrent for anyone contemplating a hut trip. Few first-timers will ever forget the sublime snow, the aching shoulders, the pounding lungs, the startlingly beautiful scenery and the novelty of melting drinking water on a wood-burning stove.
Make no mistake, setting out for a hut trip amounts to serious backcountry skiing. But older children, middle-aged skiers who are reasonably fit and adults who are technically senior citizens but have a youthful outlook on life all can accomplish a hut trip.
The typical route to a hut is 6 to 7 miles long and climbs at least 1,500 feet -- beginning at a trailhead above 8,000 feet. The hut association urges each group to include among its members someone with leadership skills and first-aid skills. It will be a good thing if someone on the team is skilled at using map and compass to find a route. Avalanche awareness also is important.
The Peter Estin Hut, accessed through the town of Eagle, west of Vail, is an example of the best the Tenth Mountain Division has to offer. It combines views of Betty Bear Hut with the skiing of McNamara Hut.
Not everyone who visits a backcountry hut is intent on making powder turns. Some arrive by snowshoe, and others are content to tour on sturdy cross-country skis.
For those who want to crank a few hundred tele turns, Peter Estin is situated just below Charles Peak. There, the south-facing flank of the mountain offers an open slope whose gradient is well below the most dangerous angle for avalanche danger. That doesn't mean an avalanche cannot happen, nor does it mean that precautions should not be taken.
On the weekend of Jan. 17 and 18, Charles Peak had been heavily skied, yet offered numerous untracked lines covered with 5 inches of well-aged powder.
There was just one catch. The Peter Estin Hut is at 11,200 feet elevation, and the summit of "Mount Chuck" is at 12,050, necessitating a morning climb of 850 feet.
Skiing is just a part of the hut experience. The biggest attraction for many is the camaraderie of preparing meals on a combination of propane burners and a wood-burning cook stove. There are chores to be done and, in most groups, there is no shortage of volunteers. Someone has to split firewood to fill the kindling box, and others take turns making trips outdoors with large stainless steel buckets to fetch clean snow for drinking water. You may find yourself competing with hut mates for the privilege of swinging a wood-splitting maul.
When the sun goes down, the hut goes dark and it's time to parcel out the precious electricity generated by the solar panel outside the hut.
There are a million questions to be answered about one's first hut trip and most of the answers can be found at www.huts.org. The second thing to do after visiting the Web site is to put the word out on the street that you're available to fill cancellations in a group that already has reserved a hut. At $26 a night, it's an experience you can't afford to miss.
'Big orange skis'
A decade ago, no one could have imagined a telemark ski as wide as the Voile Carbon Surf, let alone taking it on a backcountry hut trip. That being said, as soon as I spotted the bright orange skis in Peter Van de Carr's Backdoor Sports, I knew I had to give them a try. They looked like they could be heavy, but with dimensions more like water skis than snow skis, they had to float in powder. Then I hefted them, and even in the 188 cm length, they were surprisingly light.
I found out the Carbon Surfs won the 2004 Powder magazine award for powder skis.
How wide are they? At 188 cm long, the tip measures 120mm, the waist is a not-so-svelte 88 mm and the tail is 113 mm.
The skis, mounted with big fat climbing skins, did fine on the way in to the Peter Estin Hut, especially on straight, steep climbs. However, I had a little difficulty on the 27 steep switchbacks along the route. It was difficult to roll my knees into the hill sufficiently to make the edges bite in the packed snow along the trail.
The skis floated, as anticipated, in the two-week-old powder on Charles Peak. After a few hundred feet, I picked up on the fact that they wanted to bank quick turns in the fall line.
The Carbon Surfs were so easy to turn that I found myself giggling out loud. But I had trouble keeping up with my group any time we skied along a trail with an angled traverse -- again, I had difficulty edging the skis.
The Carbon Surf would not be at home on lift-served ski runs. For that use, Voile, a Utah company, recommends the Mountain Surf.
There is no doubt that the Carbon Surf is a specialty ski. They would be ideal for short trips to Rabbit Ears Pass and Hahn's Peak on days when the snow is deep. Best of all, you don't have to buy 'em to try 'em. Just go see Pete and ask to see those big orange skis.