During World War II, a group of soldiers called the 10th Mountain Division trained at altitude and camped in huts above 11,000 feet. 15,000 soldiers lived at Camp Hale just 20 minutes from the Vail Colorado in the 1940’s. The allies were having little luck attacking the Germans frontally so they were training to attack them by way of the mountains.
The training camp is now gone but the huts remain for adventure seekers to enjoy. Luckily they’ve been updated and refurbished and offer climbers a remote retreat far from civilization high in the Rockies.
With a little pre-planning, the reservations are not impossible to get. Luckily my friend Katie is a master planner, she reserved Walters cabin for us 6 months prior.
We were 4 women, Katie and her sister Amy, her friend Betsy and moi. All hovering on either side of 60 years old, I was the only newbie to winter back country climbing but they were determined to turn me into a “hut slut.”
One good night in the hut with the girls would complete my initiation.
I was psyched to tackle the challenge despite my fear of fainting at altitude, dehydration, and freezing to death under a blanket of snow like in the 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller chanting the theme song…Leonard Cohen’s Sister’s of Mercy.
“Felice, you’re going to love this…we are going to hike way up into the mountains and looks like we may have the hut to ourselves.”
“Will there be running water?”
“We can boil the snow.”
“Great sounds good except there’s been no fresh snow in Vail in a month.”
“Not a problem, there’s always fresh snow at high altitude in March.”
Blind faith, friendship, and a personal challenge of no whining kept me from peppering my enthusiastic friend with a zillion transparently fear based questions. Katie loves her hut trips and goes with her sister a few times each winter. I was lucky to be invited and didn’t want to be a drag, a nag, or a burden. I was with the pros…our other friend raised her family at “altitude,” a resident of Vail most of her adult life. Another fearless mountaineer.
So with this group of veteran climbers that live comfortably like hawks at 8,000 feet, I needed to take it breath by breath. I knew I was definitely strong and physically fit enough to do this climb. However, my inner dragon was breathing fire through my brain and I needed to douse the flames.
The girls helped me get outfitted up for the trek. What I didn’t own I borrowed which was almost everything.All I had were ski clothes and hiking boots. Katie’s sister Amy lent me the essentials — sleeping bag, backpack and headlamp. Snowshoes were provided by Katie.
I got a “bye” on cooking. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were the 3 meals that needed organizing and they divvied those up … so I was responsible for appetizers, snacks and alcohol. Upon googling, it turned out our cabin had running water so we needed only carry enough to get us up and in.
Although the trip in was only supposed to take 2 hours… I had never ever carried more than a laptop and dog food in my every day pack… this one would be at least 30 pounds.
“Katie, can you take a look at the clothes I’m bringing…I think I may have too much?” My bag was overflowing.
“Four pairs of underwear? Really! Do you realize explorers in Antarctica wore the same pair of long underwear for 4 months?”
“Hmmmm….gross,.. really…smelly, probably not stinky free….”
“However, you may want 2 of everything… it could be really wet” Katie suggested. “There’s a winter weather watch…or advisory…not really sure what the difference is but they’re predicting a storm.”
Colorado weather is totally unpredictable and news of this alert/advisory sent a double espresso jolt through my veins.
“The storm could dump 6 to 12 inches but we should be fine if we reach our cabin by noon.”
“And not to worry, I’m sure we will have plenty of food just in case we have to stay an extra night.”
Tinnitus rang through my inner ear… my skull was racked with an annoying buzzing noise…”Is that the sound of fear?”
My brain was on overdrive, “Whiteouts, Outside Magazine stories of lost back country hikers, Sandy Pittman’s near death experience from Into Thin Air…I had clearly read too many explorer tales.
I continued my packing with this new information.
“If it fits…I will haul it,” was my new mantra.
“I folded up the Sunday New York Times cross word puzzle, a pencil with eraser, and double checked that my Kindle was fully charged.”
I told Katie I would be ready in a second, I just needed to review my stuff again –for the 3rd time. I squeezed an extra pair of socks and and additional layer of long underwear in and barely managed to close it.
I backed up to the bed, managed a deep squat, slipped my arms through the straps and belted the waist band on tightly. I promised myself that I would not whine about its weight but I almost toppled over as I straightened. Breathlessly I climbed the stairs out of the house and met Katie at the car.
Without fanfare – I threw it in the trunk and climbed in next to her.
We drove in silence up to the Vail pass where we would meet the others. I was working on my heart rate practicing my yoga breaths in anticipation of the hike…I was hoping she couldn’t feel my anxiety.
As we approached the parking area Katie smiled, “I’m thinking it could be really fun to see a bear.”
“Huh? It’s winter, there’s a storm coming…aren’t they sleeping?”
“Well actually this is the time they come out. It would be cool, I just read an article in the New York Times about Torpor and hibernation. Bears are still pretty groggy after a winter’s sleep and they really wouldn’t be dangerous because of this “Torpor”
“Don’t believe everything you read,” I nervously joked.
To be continued…