Lost in the backcountry

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Seven locals on Dec. 17 set out in separate parties to the new Opas Taylor Hut. They were the first group to visit the new cabin, which was completed this past fall. The hut is located just south of Taylor Pass about 7 miles outside of Ashcroft in an area known for its avalanche danger.
 
Two people on snowmobiles and a skier made their way over Taylor Pass, but spent hours trying to find the route to the new hut. As the sun set, the three finally decided to turn around when they realized they wouldn’t be able to find the hut before dark. When the party got back to the trailhead and saw their friends’ cars, they figured the group had made it to the hut so they didn’t call for help.
 
Meanwhile, a group of skiers and snowboarders had descended from the summit of Taylor Pass and had been looking for the hut for a couple of hours using a handheld GPS. By the time they realized they weren’t going to find it they were too exhausted to make it back up the steep pitch before dark, said Brad Veltman, who was in the group.
 
“By the time you hike down the bowl, getting back up isn’t an option,” Veltman said. “We were so tired and so dehydrated, there was just no way we were going to be able to get out.”
 
Another issue was the number of avalanches they were triggering in the area.
 
“We were breaking off avalanches after the sun set,” Veltman said. “We thought, ‘OK we have to hunker down or we’re going to kill ourselves.’”
 
The group built a fire and Veltman tried calling 911, but he couldn’t get reception. Another member of the party had an avalanche beacon, but it wasn’t capable of sending an emergency signal to local authorities.
 
The party spent a cold night outside and were able to make their way back to the trailhead the next day. Veltman considers himself lucky that he survived the event, he said.
 
When he got into town, Veltman called the 10th Mountain Division to complain about the lack of markers and signs to the hut. Because it is new, no one knows how to get there and there are no discussions online about the best and safest path to the hut, he said. A trail to the hut essentially doesn’t exist and there are no signs at the top of Taylor Pass indicating which direction the hut is located. It’s only a matter of time before someone dies trying to find it, he argued.
 
Veltman’s call was passed around to multiple people at the 10th Mountain Division, and one employee agreed that the hut was hard to find and expressed concerns about its safety, Veltman said. Others were less sympathetic.
 
“The other guys said that it was pretty much our fault and that they could have found [the hut] with a paper map and a compass,” Veltman said.
 
Veltman said he suspects the organization isn’t marking the trail because of liability issues. If they mark the trail and somebody ends up dying from an avalanche, the organization doesn’t want to get sued, Veltman said.

A diamond marks the spot


There are two philosophies about posting signs on the hut system’s trails. Some people believe that the trails should have minimal markers because they run through wilderness areas. Others believe that every trail should be marked clearly in favor of safety, said Hugh Zuker, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA), a nonprofit that operates as an arm of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office for backcountry rescues and recoveries.
 
 The 10th Mountain Division’s website has a brief warning to people that routes to the Opas Taylor Hut are not marked or maintained and it is located in an area with high risks of avalanche.
 
“The route into Opas Hut in particular presents serious route finding and terrain challenges and should only be attempted by experienced backcountry travelers,” the website says. Zuker admitted that MRA was concerned about the new hut’s location and the lack of knowledge about how to get to it safely.
 
There are 33 huts across four systems that are funded by a range of nonprofits and private owners. The 10th Mountain Division, a nonprofit founded by renowned architect Fritz Benedict in 1981, owns the largest system with 20 different cabins all on U.S. Forest Service land. After seeing it work in Europe, Benedict came up with the idea of a system of huts between Edwards and Aspen that would offer shelter, beds and cooking essentials to backcountry travelers.
 
The 10th Mountain Division tries not to mark the trails too much because the organization wants to encourage people to be self-sufficient and be able to navigate their way to a cabin, said Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Division.
 
Generally, the organization marks trails within the 10th Mountain Division hut system with light blue diamonds. The Opas Hut is in the Alfred A. Braun Hut System though, and as a policy the organization doesn’t mark trails due to the high level of avalanche danger surrounding the cabins.
 
“People using the Braun huts can’t go out thinking they’ll connect the dots,” Dodge said.
 
Trails aren’t marked because there is not a single path to the Braun huts that can be considered the best or safest route, said Hawk Greenway, manager of the Alfred A. Braun Hut System. The ideal path changes depending on the weather and snow conditions, he said.
 
“If we go making statements on the safety of one route over another we could lead people into trouble,” Greenway said. But if a group gets lost they argue that there should be signs indicating the right way to go, he said.
 
“We’re sort of between a rock and hard spot,” Greenway said.
 
The December incident prompted discussions at the board level on how to address trail markings, Greenway said. Ultimately, board members decided that it is not the responsibility of the organization to mark the trails to make it easier to find a hut.
 
“The bottom line is that [the cabin] is 12,000 feet in the middle of the Rockies, in the middle of winter time,” Greenway said. “It’s no place for amateurs. You have to know your stuff. You have to be conservative in your choices.”

Luck favors the prepared


 Contributed photo
A blue diamond marks a trail to the McNamara Hut. Whether trails to huts should be clearly marked is a point of contention between different users. Some believe signage should be scarce because trails run through wilderness areas, while others think more should be put up to prevent people from getting lost.

As far as Dodge is concerned, Veltman’s party was a perfect example of a group that was not prepared for the backcountry. They made all of the classic mistakes like splitting up, starting the hike late in the day, not having a way to communicate between parties and relying on snowmobiles to transport essential equipment that would be useful for sleeping outdoors. Additionally, they didn’t have the navigational or backcountry skills needed to get to the hut, he said.
 
“Quite honestly, they were lucky they got out of there without any serious mishap,” Dodge said.
 
Someone who is prepared for a hut trip has proper topological maps, a compass, a way to determine elevation and a handheld GPS device that he or she knows how to use. Anyone going on a hut trip should also know how to survive outdoors over night in the event that they don’t find the hut, Dodge said. That means being able to make a fire if necessary and build a snow cave.
 
“You need to have a plan B because it does happen,” Dodge said, adding that it can happen to anyone and it’s not just beginners, who get lost.
 
The December incident was enlightening to hut officials about the low caliber of preparedness of some people traveling within the system, Dodge said, adding that he gets upset thinking about it.
 
The hut system information is very clear that there are no marked routes on the way to the Braun cabins, Dodge said. The group misrepresented their backcountry skills to 10th Mountain representatives when they made the reservation, he added.
 
“I’ve got no patience for that,” Dodge said.

Risky behavior


Last year, one out of four people traveling to a hut didn’t check the avalanche forecast before heading out, based on a survey of about 1,000 users performed by Boulder-based RRC Associates. Dodge said he would prefer if that percentage were higher, he said.
 
“My takeaway is that a good number [of people] are prepared,” Dodge said. “But not enough for our liking.”
 
The risk involved in traveling to a hut can range depending on a variety of factors including weather conditions, hiking distance, avalanche danger and which cabin people are traveling to, Dodge said. Some huts are relatively close to towns and roads, and have well marked trails, so if a party can’t find their hut they can head back to the trailhead with relative ease. Other huts, like the seven included in the Alfred A Braun Hut System, are in remote areas with high avalanche danger. If a party takes a wrong turn or there is severe weather conditions, travelers will likely end up spending the night outside, he said.
 
Another group of five locals were making their way from Barnard to the Opas Hut this past Tuesday when a large avalanche was triggered near Taylor Pass. No one was caught in the slide, but the incident was enough to convince the hikers to bail on Opas Hut and head home via the Express Creek drainage. After encountering more signs of avalanches, the group decided to build a snow cave and spend the night outside. As temperatures dropped and the wind picked up, a member of the group finally made a call for help with a personal locator beacon. Using five snowmobiles, MRA shuttled the party back to Barnard Hut, where they spent the night. Barnard is part of the Alfred B. Braun system.
 
Both Dodge and Greenway agreed that the group made the right decision because they were prepared and conservative in their choices.

Hut trip use increases


As more people use the hut system, the 10th Mountain Division is trying to make sure users are informed on the importance of being prepared for backcountry travel through new online efforts.
 
This year, the nonprofit estimates 54,000 people will spend the night in a hut, which is 1,000 more than last year. A single cabin can average between 700 and 2,500 people per year, depending on its size.
 
Since the 10th Mountain Division began accepting applications for 2014’s lottery on March 1, the nonprofit has received 1,327 forms. That is the second highest number of applications the organization has ever received, Dodge said. The most applications was 1,350, which happened a few years ago, he said.
 
The jump in the number of applications could be due to the fact that the nonprofit began accepting applications online. Prior to this year, the nonprofit required lottery hopefuls to fax in their forms.
 
“We were kind of stuck in the dark ages in terms of the lottery,” Dodge said.
 
The move is a part of a broader effort that the 10th Mountain Division is taking to update its online resources. For example, in the fall, people will be able to reserve huts online or by calling on the phone. Currently, reservations are made strictly via telephone.
 
The nonprofit also plans to reach out through social media to better inform people on hut-use ethics and how to prepare for a trip.
 
This year, the 10th Mountain Division also observed that more people are opting to travel to multiple huts on a single trip instead of just staying in one cabin for multiple nights, according to Dodge. He suspects that is due to the improvement in touring equipment, which is light and comfortable enough for long hikes but durable for backcountry skiing.
 
Based on last year’s survey, the average size of a party going to a hut is about eight people and most groups spend two nights in a hut. About 59 percent of users opt to use backcountry ski setups to get to the huts. The rest snowshoe or use another method of travel. Only 2 percent of users drive snowmobiles to get to huts.
 
The survey also indicates that a single backcountry traveler going on a hut trip spends about $200 within 50 miles of the trailhead. The money is spent on items like hiking equipment, gas, groceries, hut rental and at restaurants and bars.
 
During the winter, 96 percent of the survey’s respondents said their expectations were either met or surpassed when they used the hut system. Summer users showed an even higher level of satisfaction with about 99 percent of respondents saying that they were satisfied with the experience.
 
“That’s the kind of feedback we like to hear,” Dodge said.


dorothy@aspendailynews.com