Wednesday, January 27, 2016

McNamara Hut

McNamara hut is part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. It sits at 10,360', is nestled in a small opening between surrounding pine trees & is 5 miles in from the nearest point of "civilization". It is an amazing place in the middle of no where, as I imagine all of the huts in this system are. 

A few years ago I can recall reading an article on the 10th Mountian Division Hut System and thinking "wow how cool is that." At that time I probably didn't  know what skins or touring bindings were, or what 30 liters meant in relation to a backpack. I also didn't have the slightest idea that going to one of those huts was a realty for me. Actually, just prior to our vacation to Aspen I still didn't think going to one of these huts was a reality. As I mentioned in a previous post I began doing some research and realizing that this was actually something that was doable for us!

A lot of our prep work started at home and we packed all our necessary supplies from back east (packs, sleeping bag, some food supplies) We did some final preparations the day before and had everything packed and ready to go by morning of. 

In My Pack:   (weighing in at 18 pounds)
Down Jacket
Heavy wool socks
Ski Socks
Long sleeve tech shirt
Ski Gloves
Sleeping Bag 
First Aid Kit
Rain cover for pack
3 L of water; 2 in Nalgene bottle and 1 in Platypus clipped to the outside of my pack
Wine glass
Dehydrated meal
Instant oatmeal
Cliffbars (3)
Honeystingers (2)
Simple face wipes
*Alex carried most of these core items in his pack as well, but carried the map, compass, cheese and sausage and some BarkThins for dessert (these were such a good find,  the dark chocolate coconut with almonds was delish and hit the spot for the sugar craving after dinner)

Shell (for the first mile, then strapped it to the outside of my pack)
Lightweight base-layer (see my 5 on Friday post!)
Light gloves
Insulated ski pants
Compression Smart Wool Socks
Tape on my heels (Breathable medical tape works great for us as a preventative measure. When we did our 1st skin in Aspen we both noticed some "hot spots" and had no issues for the trek up to the hut)
Ski Boots
Skis with touring bindings and skins

*The reason that I took the time to write the above out is when I am preparing for trips like this I am often uncertain of what to pack & what to wear! From my packed items I used just about everything. I had some leftover Honeystingers and cliff bars but that is to be expected. The thick wool socks, while bulky, were nice to put on at the hut at the end of the day. I always get nervous with my insulated ski pants while skinning, I never felt overheated with the vents open. *

Now, we were all set and ready to go! To start our journey we got dropped off at the upper parking lot or the "skier drop off" on the Hunter Creek Trail. This shortens the journey by about a mile. It can be difficult to navigate to, but we felt it would be worth it. With excitement and just in awe of the beauty and our surroundings we started off on the trail. We crossed the 10th Mountain Division Bridge, just as the directions said that we would. On the other side none of the trails has been broken yet, so we stopped to figure out which way to go. Between reading the directions  from the 10th mtn. website (they are pretty detailed) pulling out the compass and looking at the map, nothing was adding up. It actually took us little while, a few arguments & some choice words to realize that we had just backtracked and the directions, of course, start from the trail head, not the upper parking lot. Once everything made sense again, and we were back to where we got dropped off ( a 1/2 a mile later) we began the directions from there, and with a few spot checks as we got going, we were now headed off in the right direction. It took me a good 10 minutes to recover from being angry that we had gone the wrong way, but finally I could get back to the feeling of amazement. The feeling of adventure, the feeling of absolute serenity and being surrounded by such beauty and extreme peacefulness. This. was. amazing.

We had perfect weather for our hike in. Clearing skies that eventually turned to blue. The sun illuminated every snow flake that had fallen on the ground and made it sparkle. We continued up the first section of the trail, a winding wide cut road that lead us to the first clearing or meadow, the Lenado Gulch. 

 After passing through Lenado Gulch you come to another much larger clearing with some hills, Van Horn Park. We could see that some had skied down here not too long ago.
We has been trailing a gentleman from the start and we could see him about 100 yards ahead of us when we entered the park. In the photo above it looks as though the trail goes up hill, but it actually winds left. At this point we took out the map, read the directions, and I actually used the compass in the iphone that gives latitude and longitude as well. Using the coordinates we were able to pinpoint our location on the map and know that we were headed in the right direction. A good peace of mind. The trail was broken before us, but I could see in this area how it would be tricky to know where to go if you were breaking the trail. As we continued through the park we met some skiers coming down from the hut. They had told us that they got a foot of snow up there last night and the skiing at Bald Knob was great. One of their team was also hauling a sled down, which left us with a really nice packed trail the rest of the way. When we got to the top of Van Horn park we took a break for lunch. Turkey, avocado, spinach, hummus wraps which I made that morning. 
The snow was so deep on the side of the trail you would sink in up to your knees. We packed down an area and sat on our skis. The sun was directly facing us it felt so warm and relaxing. It was hard to get motivated to move again, but knowing we had a little less than 2 miles remaining we were eager to get to our destination. We entered back into the woods for the remainder of the trip. Again, feeling so stunned with the amazing beauty of everything around us. 

About a mile after lunch I started to feel really fatigued. Every step now felt like a chore, my pack was uncomfortable and I just wasn't feeling great. I thought my lunch would have carried me through a little further than that! But with some water and energy chews I started feeling better. 

Our trek up using Fit Bit Surge and uploaded to Strava
Now, with the anticipation of being less than a mile away I began getting really excited, every step was no longer a chore but now enjoyable again. Around every bend I wondered if I would see the hut or smell the wood burning stove. The anticipation and excitement really kept me going. And then, finally! You really can't see the hut until you are there. We saw a clearing, and when we got to the edge of the clearing to the left was the hut. In was the most picture perfect setting you could imagine.

Sitting on the deck with the gentleman who we had trailed the whole way up, Pat. Funny enough he was from Newburyport. He had started a fire and gotten some water melting. We were the second ones to arrive.

Exploring the hut was fun. You walk into a large first floor with two large dining tables on the right, a wood stove and seating area on the left. Straight in, the kitchen with a bedroom off o the left, and a back door to the woodshed and outhouse. Upstairs is a large sleeping area with a small bedroom as well which we were lucky to get!

Around the hut is a great area for back country skiing called Bald Knob. An open field with trees scattered through out that is a mile skin to the top from the hut. From the research that I did before hand I thought that we would actually be looking at the field you ski in from the deck, but you look at the tree covered face of the mountain.

Looking at the map, we were also confused because it looked like you would have to leave the hut, hike a mile up, ski down then hike back up to come back down the other side to get back to the hut. Nothing that I read prior stated this was the case. After some debate, we figured the only way to know was to find out for ourselves. We were SO tired, but we couldn't come all this way and actually not ski! We headed out and having known that the people in the hut  the night before us had skied it, followed their tracks. Again, I could see how this would be a tricky area to navigate if you were breaking trail.

 I made it .75 miles, just to the top of the field before the trail dips back into the trees to the peak of Bald Knob. I was so tired, it was getting dark and I just wanted to SKI. After skinning up we now knew that it was just a run down and it would take us right back to the hut. We snapped a few pictures and enjoyed some fresh powder.

 We got back to the hut just at dark & two others had arrived on snowshoe, we would be the only ones at the hut for the night. Alex and I relaxed by the wood stove, drank lots of wine, ate lots of cheese, had a meal of chili (just add hot water!) and were in bed by 8:30pm. 

 In the morning we took our time getting up, did some chores around the hut, read some books that are kept at the hut and had a breakfast of instant oatmeal and instant coffee (I love my coffee and love it strong, and Starbucks Via actually hits the spot)

It was so hard to leave this beautiful place, I would have loved to stay all day and for another night, but Alex actually had to catch a flight to Boston that afternoon. It took us about an hour and a half to get back down. We had beautiful weather yet again. 

When we got back to the bottom we called high mountain Taxi to pick us up when we got there and it was no problem. No doubt this hut trip was a highlight of our vacation in Aspen, and maybe one of my favorite adventures to date. 

5 Takeaways form this trip:
1. If you are looking for a first time hut trip, McNamara hut is perfect
2. Pre taping heels (or any blister prone area) can be a savior
3. Don't be afraid to take up a little space in your pack with some indulgences (wine or a wine glass), they can make all the difference in your stay
4. Know how to read a map and use a compass
5. Study your route, take notes, be as prepared as you can!

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed. I am looking forward to another hut trip this weekend, but this time on the east coast!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

There's an Aspen for Everyone

When you think of Aspen what's the first thing that comes to mind? Luxury? Fur? Powder? Wealth? Great skiing? I think everyone may have a different first impression having been or even having not been before. But there's an Aspen for everyone. If you want the Luxury vacation, it's there. If you want the powder stashes, they're there. Visiting Aspen for the second time, I have fallen even more in love with this town.
Yes, you see the perfectly done up women with their Louis Vuitton and carry on pup on the last leg of the flight with you. Yes, when you walk downtown you see every name brand designer store. But for my time in Aspen, I never felt the wealthy/rich/luxury vibe. I'm sure a lot of this has to do with my staying with my friends who live there, but even if you're going on a vacation not knowing someone who lives there, if that vibe is not for you, you don't have to feel it.

From Town looking up to Ajax
Aspen is comprised of 4 mountains to ski. Ajax is located right in the heart of Aspen with the gondola at the base of town center. Highlands and Buttermilk are a short drive away, Snowmass a little father. Aspen has great public transportation with free buses to all the mountains. This is often better than a car as you have to pay for parking (unless you have 4 people in the car, then it's free!)


Day 1: Ajax

I arrived on Thursday night and spent Friday skiing Ajax. I spent the morning skiing warm up cruisers from top to bottom. I forgot how long a run can be out west compared to our East Coast skiing! Last year, I don't remember feeling effects of altitude, but this year I was feeling it. I made sure to drink plenty of water the night before and even through out the day, but at the end of the day I had a dull lingering headache. Is that what being a year older can do to you?! It was snowing through out the day which was beautiful, but made for no views at the top which are spectacular to see.

From last years trip.Views from the top of Ajax. Highland Bowl in perfect sight.
Aimee (my best friend who lives there) was able to join me with some of her co-workers for some lunchtime runs. This is another reason why I love Aspen. The culture is amazing. [In some instances] it is acceptable to come in late if it's a powder day & going out for lunch time runs (skiing or actually running) is OK. When I have gone for lunch runs before I am taking the back stairwell and being as inconspicuous as possible. Not because I'm doing something wrong or against the rules but because no one does it, it's not the norm.
Anyways, I finished out the afternoon with some more leisurely runs (after a few hard ones with the locals during lunch).

After finishing out the ski day around 3:30 I eventually picked Alex up at the airport. He had some trouble flying into Aspen and just before landing had to be re-routed back to Denver. I was nervous he wouldn't make it in that night, but it all worked out. We had made a reservation for the four of us at Prospect  to celebrate Aimee and Mikes Engagement as well as Aimee's 30th! Prospect is located in Hotel Jerome. If you're vacationing in Aspen, checking out Hotel Jerome is a must. It's home to J-Bar and The Living Room. Both awesome spots for a cocktail.

Day 2: Aspen Highlands & Highland Bowl

We woke up to a reported 4" of new snow in town and 7" in Highland Bowl. "Powder Panic" set in and we got on the road and headed off to Highlands. Having skied highland bowl last year, I knew what to expect. But this year the altitude was affecting me so much more. While they were still bombing in the bowl we took a "warm up" run. Un-groomed bumps with fresh snow on a steep trail. My legs were screaming and my heart pounding. Midway through this run I remember thinking that I might not ski the bowl today. I had done it last year, so I would be OK with not doing it this year (In hindsight, no, I wouldn't have!).

After riding up the lift for our second run the ropes were dropped for the bowl, off Mike and Aimee went, and off I followed. They have a cat that takes you up the first part of the hike (about a 1/4 mile) or you can choose to begin your hike right from the start. As we waited in line for the cat many dropped out of line and begin to hike as it was taking a long time. As Aimee and Mike debated to begin hiking from the bottom, I persuaded us to stay in line (thanks guys for sticking with me!). I took several breaks on the climb up. In fact, I actually took almost as much time resting as I did hiking. Resting is perfectly fine, but take care to step off the main trail and don't stop to rest if there is no where for you to do so. There are some spots that are only wide enough for one person to pass at a time. It took me 44 min to hike to the top, 27 of those were active moving minutes. It is a 1/2 mile climb to the peak from where the cat drops you off and a gain of 663 ft. there are options to ski down before hitting the peak if you wish.

 Weather was in our favor this day which was a blessing, we got above the clouds and wind was minimal. I wouldn't want to hike this in high winds.

Mike throws his skis over his shoulder and carries them up, some use a simple ski strap to carry them up (I think you can but them in the ski patrol hut just before you head in to start the hike) I am most comfortable using my ski carry on my pack.  

After I got to the peak, I totally forgot about the discomfort, the shortness of breath, the screaming muscles & how hard it felt for me to actually get my self up there. It's all worth it in the end.  

A few minutes after being at the peak, Aimee and Mikes friends came up. Another awesome thing about Aspen is you run into your friends everywhere!

We were rewarded with a run down of fresh powder (it felt more like a foot had fallen!) We skied down G4, off to skiers right where there are some trees. The steepness of this run feels comparable to some of the steepest glades you might find back east.

 After some more runs and a stop at a lookout to see Maroon Bells and Capitol Peak, we headed down to  Highlands Alehouse to watch the Pats win. 

Our day didn't end there. After a few hours of relaxing we slapped our skins on our skis, packed our packs with wine, cheese, hot chocolate, peppermint schnaps, warm layers and headed out to skin up Ajax to watch fireworks that were going on as part of Winterskol. 

Watching the fireworks from such a unique vantage point was amazing. They were being set off  a trail over from where we stood. It's also beautiful to see the town of Aspen all lit up at night. The skin up was hard work and tiring, but a good jumping off point for knowing what we were getting ourselves into for Monday's adventure. 


Day 3: Aspen Snowmass

After a long and exhausting day 2 we all felt the need to sleep in a little bit, after a lazy morning of getting going we were all surprised when we saw how much snow had fallen the night before. It looked like another 6 inches. Again, powder panic setting in. We finally made it onto the slopes and immediately went up to Burnt Mountain. It's a short hike up off the lift and usually offers incredible views which were lacking today do to the continued snowfall, which was totally fine. When Alex and I skied here last year the mountain hadn't gotten any new snow but we still found some small powder stashes around, so we were excited to go back!

After a run there Mike took us over to Hanging Valley. Another area that is a short hike in. More powder awaited.

Snowmass has it's own village to it which is fun to walk around in. Shops, restaurants, etc. They have some great Apres spots with outdoor fire pits where Aimee and I found ourselves sipping (guzzling?) margaritas while we waited for the guys to come pick us up.  Perfect ending to a jam packed weekend!

Day 4 & 5

Our Trip to McNamara Hut! This gets its own post which is coming soon. But, we made it there and back in one piece. It was absolutely amazing.

Some of my takeaways & favorites from Aspen

Do: Ski Highland Bowl
Do: Hike to where you can ski in bounds for fresh snow
Do Not: Ski out of bounds
Do Not: Leave your skins at home even if you don't plan on touring. A skin up Ajax at night is worth it for the view of the town at night, and that one last run down with no one else on the mountain.
Do: Plan a hut trip if you have the time. Saves you money on a day of lodging and skiing on the mountain!
Do: Have a cocktail at Jbar
Do: Eat at White House. Small inside, small menu, but delicious. They don't take reservations but not a problem. Put your name on the list, go have a beer at Aspen Brewing Company (another to do on the list anyways) and they'll text you when your table is ready.
Do Not: Be afraid to take the public transit system.
Do Not: feel the need to check out the wine cabin @ Snowmass. Believe me, it's not what it sounds like.
Do Not: push anyone off the chairlift