ASPEN - The number of cabins in the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association has grown drastically over the 31 years since the system was started. The number of skiers venturing into the backcountry to enjoy the huts continues to soar. And ski equipment has been revolutionized, letting adventure junkies cover longer distances and nab more vertical feet.
Yet for all the changes, it's the same basic qualities that make the experience so enduring and endearing.
A little more than 52,000 winter nights were recorded at the 33 huts in the 10th Mountain system last season even though the snow in the area was only 50 percent of average. Skiers and snowshoers still yearned to venture out to share time together in a cozy hut in isolated backcountry splendor.
Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, said the experience is special because it's unique. There just aren't that many huts out there in the U.S. In this social media-crazed time, the solitude is priceless.
"You're not plugged in. You're sort of focused on the people you're with. You're skiing with your thoughts," Dodge said.
Fritz Benedict, a famed Aspen architect and businessman, dreamed of a hut system influenced by the Haute Route between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland. He wanted to honor the infantrymen who served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.
Huts near Vail include the Eiseman Hut north of Vail, the Polar Star Inn and Peter Estin Hut south of Eagle and Edwards, the Shrine Mountain Inn near Vail Pass and the Fowler Hilliard Hut between Vail Pass and Camp Hale.
This winter, the Opa's Taylor Hut will join the system. That stunning hut, south of Taylor Pass, high above Ashcroft in the Castle Creek Valley southwest of Aspen, honors the late Fred Braun, another early promoter of the system surrounding Aspen.
The 34th hut will be added to the system when the Broome Hut opens in January on the west side of Berthoud Pass. The hut association owns and operates 14 of the huts. The other 20 are cabins that are owned by other organizations but are marketed by and reserved through 10th Mountain.
As always, weekends in January, February and March are prime time. Occupancy for those months hovers around 80 percent, with weekdays often available. A lottery is held for due-paying members of the association on March 1 of the prior winter. About 89 percent of participants get a trip.
About 86 percent of hut users are from Colorado and 14 percent are from out of state, Dodge said. Among those from Colorado, 80 percent are from the Front Range while the remaining 20 percent are from the mountain communities closest to the huts in the central mountains.
The majority of the huts also are open during summer months and experience 40 to 45 percent occupancy July through September.
The winter costs range from $25 to $36 per person.
Dodge said one of the primary changes in the system over three decades is winter use patterns. It used to be skiers would journey from hut to hut, staying a night, then moving on. Now, more and more people, young and old, stay at one cabin for a few nights. Younger skiers, in particular, will build features in the snow to keep themselves entertained for a day of backcountry skiing near the hut.
"People are building a big kicker at the hut and spending more time there," Dodge said, referring to a ramp-like feature that allows skiers to catch air.
Throughout the decades, skiers have remained mostly respectful of one another when two or more groups visit the same hut. There's an ethic that remains integral to the backcountry ski hut culture, Dodge said.
Not all huts are suited for skiers of all abilities. The new Opa Hut, for example, is tucked into a granite hillside. It won't be easy to find and will require careful route-finding because of rugged, avalanche-prone terrain. "You've got to bring your 'A' game," Dodge said. "You really have to know what you're doing."
The huts are connected by a network of more than 300 miles of trails. Many of the trails have intermittent "comfort markers" but skiers are mostly on their own. They carry in their gear and must take care to follow the routes and the cabins.
"It's a heck of a business because we put the onus of use of the huts on the individuals," Dodge said. Most the users wouldn't want it any other way.
For information on the huts and their availability, visit www.huts.org.