I'd heard skiers bragging about pushing their boundaries on hut-to-hut trips--cross-country skiing with stops at huts that dot the backcountry. So on my last trip to Aspen, when I saw a plaque downtown touting local hut expeditions, I knew I had to go. Back home in Philadelphia, I called Tim, a ski instructor I'd met (okay, dated) 6 years ago. By a bizarre coincidence, Tim and a pal had just bought Aspen Alpine Guides, one of the longest-running hut-to-hut tour operators in the area. He agreed to take me on a 3-day trip through the 10th Mountain Division huts in White River National Forest. My only question: Would it be weird hanging out in an isolated cabin with an ex?
WH Long Weekend
Thursday: Into the wild
Guzzling my AM coffee, I wait in the lobby of the glitzy St. Regis Resort, at the base of Aspen Mountain. (A free shuttle from Aspen's airport got me into town last night.) In walks Tim--still the same strapping outdoorsman I remember. We hug, and he can tell I'm anxious. Worried that I'm not fit enough to climb the mountain before sunset, I'm eager to get this show on the road.
It's a curvy 8-mile drive to our remote starting point in Woody Creek. After parking at the trailhead, we collect our backpacks from the bed of Tim's pickup. Attached to mine are rented alpine touring skis, which have a free-lifting heel for ascending that latches down for descending. I'm a downhill skier, but I don't know shite about alpine touring. And don't even get me started on the shovel strapped to my pack in case of an avalanche. Good thing I trust Tim to dig me out of a bad situation.
As we hike along Johnson Creek, the air is warm despite the light snowfall. When we reach ground with enough snow cover--it was unusually patchy even at 8,640 feet--we outfit the bottoms of our skis with gluey synthetic skins that will keep us from sliding backward on our climb. Then we start the 6.4-mile, 2,660-foot trek up to Margy's Hut, near the base of Mount Yeckel.
As I chug uphill, the snow feels more crunchy than soft. Tim says that makes the climb easier. Tell that to my yelping glutes, which have been working nonstop for an hour. The trail gets steeper as we ascend, and the altitude shortens my breath. Then, suddenly, my skis hit a bump and I face-plant. As Tim helps me to my feet, I can feel my cheeks flush with embarrassment.
By early afternoon, I swear my quads are burning holes through my polypropylene pants. Just then, two skiers--the first we've seen all day--come shooting down the slope. "You're close to the top!" the woman shouts. Thank God. At 3:30 p.m., nearly 7 hours after we left, we approach a two-story cabin. Tim collects snow to melt for drinking water, while I rush inside to change into something warm. We're alone in the barebones hut, and Tim's already got the wood-burning stove going. Upstairs, I find a large room with several sleeping platforms (Tim had stashed our gear here earlier) and a private room with a bed; I immediately call dibs on that.
Friday: Queen of the mountain
When avalanche conditions nix today's plan to trek to the next hut, we decide to do some laps on Mount Yeckel instead. I'm secretly relieved. After spending all yesterday getting here, I'd like to enjoy it.
Skis on, we peer up: It's only about 300 feet to the top, but after yesterday, every hill looks like K2 to me. Up here, sweat is the only lift ticket to downhill shredding. We start the climb. At the top, I rip off the skins like I'm giving my skis a Brazilian, and we snake down then schlep up our private slope about 10 times.
That evening, while Tim cooks steaks, I take out the hut's logbook and find the entry from yesterday's skiers: Romantic stay. Got engaged. That's why they were smiling! After dinner, Tim and I reminisce about our brief affair and agree that we're better as ski buds.
Saturday: Schuss and shop
Despite icy conditions, down is infinitely easier than up: We descend in less than 3 hours. I bomb along the narrow trail until we reach the slope where I face-planted on Thursday. Suddenly, I slide backward and land ass-first in a creek. Tim laughs, and I take in sweeping views of the Elk Mountains. After 20 more minutes of downhill action, we're back in civilization.
Tim and I say a warm goodbye back at the St. Regis, and then I hit downtown to scope out the hot bargain scene: Susie's Limited and Replay Sports, just blocks from each other. Both are stocked with second-hand designer duds (think Dior and Dolce) and gear cast off by Aspen's elite.
Sunday: Sweet valley and a tuneup
Feeling stiff, I hobble to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority stop at Rubey Park (a block from my hotel) and ride 30 minutes to Basalt, a Victorian town 18 miles away. Six years ago it was one of the few places people working in Aspen (Tim included) could afford to live. Now its condos sell for upwards of $500,000--but thankfully the town has none of Aspen's million-dollar attitudes or long lift lines. After exploring the new shops on Midland Avenue, I break for lunch at the Spanish-Italian Tempranillo Restaurant.
Back in Aspen with time to kill before my flight out, I pop into the Aspen Back Institute, at the St. Regis, for the Signature Treatment, a combo of stretching and massage by a physical therapist. Then I take a quick dip in the Confluence pool at the hotel's RemÃƒÂ©de Spa. Under its soothing waterfall, I wonder how the trip would have gone with a boyfriend. He'd be ripe from 2 days without a shower, but would have kept me a lot warmer than any flannel blanket.
St. Regis Resort stregis.com/aspen Peak season rates from $625 per night Tip Schedule a complimentary airport pickup.
St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums stmoritzlodge.com This hostel costs only $54 per night. Tip Line your bed or sleeping bag with Cocoon Flannel TravelSheets for comfort and an extra 12 degrees of warmth. ($30, cocoonusa.com)
Eat & Drink
39 Degrees, Sky Hotel theskyhotel.com/sky-Ã‚Âdining Tip Say you're a guest and grab a gratis glass of wine from 5 to 6 p.m. daily.
Tempranillo Restaurant, Basalt tempranillorestaurant.com
Order This the Pastrami Picanate
Aspen Alpine Guides aspenalpine.com Hut trips from $894 for 3 days/2 nights for three people, including guide, food, permits, and round-trip transportation to the trail (hut fees, $28 per person daily) Tip Rent gear at Aspen's Ute Mountaineer (utemountaineer.com).
Aspen Back Institute, St. Regis Resort aspenback.com Tip Best time for a no-wait appointment: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Replay Sports 970-925-2483 Tip Snag a high-end ski suit for about $150.
RemÃƒÂ©de Spa, St. Regis Resort remede.com/spa Rates from $85 for a 30-minute massage Tip Adjust to the altitude by inhaling extra O, free at the oxygen bar with any treatment.
Roaring Fork Transportation Authority rfta.com $6 roundtrip to Basalt Tip To beat traffic, head out at 9 a.m. and return at 3 p.m.
Susie's Limited 970-920-2376 Tip Find big brands like Gucci for $250 or less.