VAIL, Colo. — Would we make it before dark? My heart pounded as I scanned the dim woods ahead. Snow whispered as my skis slid forward. Being lost in Colorado's Sawatch wilderness on a frigid January night was a grim prospect.
The snowdrifts and twists of deep forest were all beginning to look the same. Somewhere ahead lay the Polar Star Inn, a warm mountain cabin with wood stoves and cozy bunks.
Security. If you could find it.
Brian, group leader of our six-person team, churned through fresh powder ahead. We were skiing the 10th Mountain Hut & Trail System. Patterned after the European "Haute Route" in the Swiss and French Alps, the 21 huts are linked by 300 miles of trails in the wilderness between Leadville, Vail and Aspen. Each hut is about six miles from the next, at altitudes between 10,300 and 11,700 feet.
However, we were beginning to realize that skiing seven miles of snow-obscured trail was not the same as a summer walk in the woods. It was, in fact, hard work.
The sun sank toward a distant western ridge, radiating shafts of red and gold through the dying storm. Crystals winked blue, red and yellow as they drifted down past our rosy faces. Shadows lengthened. Had we read the map correctly, or were we on the wrong mountain?
Ahead, the West Lake Creek Trail crested the slope, emerging from the shadowy, frosted pines into a scintillating, smooth white glade. Our packs, laden with winter clothing, food and sleeping bags, creaked with each gliding step.
Finally, up ahead came the distant shout, "Polar Star Inn!" Grins of relief swept through our tired group. Astonishment quickly followed. This was a cabin? Golden logs swept upward in a two-story mountain home, complete with decks and picture windows .
As we crunched through the entry, a delicious wave of warmth left from the previous night's fires swept over our frozen faces. Behind us, the last snowy breaths of the storm whispered across the decks, and the sun showered the indigo sky with liquid crimson.
There are as many concepts of heaven as there are people. My idea is peeling off cold, stiff socks by the hot glow of a pine fire. Our friend Jay burst through the door carrying a stack of wood from the woodpile. Stuffing kindling into the cast-iron stove, he soon had a blaze popping and roaring.
We circled around in red-cheeked worship. "There are ice crystals all over the toilet seat," he said with a grin. "Or, at least there were ." Jay was the rugged type.
Since visitors are required to do a few chores at each hut, I dug several pails of snow out of a nearby drift and set them on the stove to melt. The huts, we discovered, were built with an ecologically sensitive approach.
No dogs are allowed because melted snow is used for drinking water. Wood piles are stocked by volunteers during summer months, so winter skiers don't have to scrounge for firewood. Skier impact on the surrounding forests is minimal.
Brian took aim at dinner and lit the propane cooking Communal dinners are heartwarming occasions. As companions and strangers saute veggies and swap tales of the day's thrills, friendships form quickly. And more than one wilderness love affair has blossomed by a crackling wood stove.
The well-insulated cabin soon reached a toasty 75 degrees. Polar Star Inn has bunk space for about 16 in the upstairs loft, and space is guaranteed when reservations are made. We traded back massages on one of the coveted, downstairs bunks by the wood stove. Mattresses are provided, but you must bring your own sleeping bag.
Exploring, we found the ultimate in decadence and wilderness luxury: a wood-fired sauna. We set a blaze in its small stove as the next storm broke outside.
"It's 200 degrees in here!" yelled a muffled voice over the crackling roar of the wood stove. The sauna door slammed wide and sweaty bodies flashed out into the howling, sub-zero blizzard. "It's three below zero outside!" yelled one woman. "Welcome to the 200-degree club!" I lost my footing and post-holed into chest deep snow. Brrr.
In 1980, Fritz Benedict, an architect who was one of the designers of Vail and Aspen, and then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara brought Benedict's dream of the American Haute Tour to fruition with the creation of Margy's Hut (named after McNamara's wife Margaret) and McNamara Hut.
They named the trail association after the U.S. Army's famous 10th Mountain Division, whose skiers and climbers trained at nearby Camp Hale. Those rugged men became veterans of fierce World War II battles in the Italian Dolomites in 1945.
Like other ski hut networks in the United States, this one links trails with overnight lodgings.
More than 10,000 skiers schussed the twisting trails to the remote huts last winter. But since skiers must make reservations, and since each hut is limited to about 16 people per night, the cabins rarely seem crowded. Popular weekends such as President's Day fill early, while midweek tours are often available on short notice year-round.
We awoke the next morning to a crystalline blue sky and the long shadows of a golden sunrise. The aroma of coffee and cinnamon pancakes pulled the sleepy skiers from their bunks. Strangers but a day before, we traded good-morning hugs as we gazed out over the frozen splendor.
Today would bring more challenges: a long descent past Fulford Cave, then a rigorous climb up the notoriously steep Iron Edge Trail. Somewhere past the whispering aspens, high in a grove of fir trees in the Sawatch Range, lay Estin Hut, our next refuge.
John F. Kennedy would certainly have understood our exaltation that dawn. As he said: "We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard."