Backcountry Skiing Hut Trips: An Interview with Alex Burton
Editor's Note: Alex Burton is both friend and co-worker and was telling us stories from a backcountry ski trip he took last year through the mountains of Colorado. He was in the midst of prepping for another trip this year when we knew we had to grab him and hear some more about this story. So we've transcribed a conversation we had about skiing, the beauty of the snowy mountains, a torn ACL, and how learning to slow down may be one of the best lessons out there.
And Sons: Thanks for sitting down with us today to talk about not only the basics of backcountry exploration on skis, but also the trip you took last year and the one you’ve got coming up. To start, though, tell us where backcountry skiing entered your story.
Alex Burton: Last year was actually what I would consider the first significant backcountry trip I’ve done. I’ve been skiing my whole life, at least it seems like it. I was five years old when I went skiing for the first time. My dad had been stationed in Germany, and he learned in the Alps and places like Garmisch; he fell in love with skiing, so when they transferred him to Denver, Colorado, he lived from one great skiing spot to another. By the time I came along, my dad was taking me up to Vail and putting me on skis.
I don’t even remember those days, but that’s kind of the beauty of it—I was young enough that I don’t remember learning to ski. Skiing was just always something I could do.
AS: That sounds amazing. We would kill for confidence like that in just about anything.
AB: Yeah, it was beautiful. It became this love that I never struggled with in memory. It was like learning to walk, you just know how. So I was really grateful for that, and being part of a family that loved to ski, it kept us together doing something we loved. My mom wasn’t a skier, so it was just me, my dad, and my older brother going out early in the morning to the mountains. I remember at six, eight, 10, 12, I never had a problem getting out of bed when we were going skiing. Try to wake me up any other time and it’d be a different story, but for skiing I was always ready to go.
AS: So where did the backcountry stuff start for you?
AB: When I was in my 20s, I went out on a photo shoot with a friend and ended up tearing my ACL. I was married, with our first son on the way, and up to that point I had thought that I might work in skiing as a vocation in some way. What made it worse was that I had a misdiagnosis; my doctors thought it was just a really bad sprain, so I took some time off and then went out again and ended up landing on my bad knee again. I did this three times on what was initially a partial tear before someone diagnosed me correctly.
It actually took two years from the first accident before I got in to a surgeon, and when he came out he said my ligament was so thin it looked like dental floss. If you know anything about knees, they don’t heal quickly. So I took about three years off from the sport I loved. Then we had another kid, and I lost it. We couldn’t afford to buy passes, we were in the throes of little kids, and I let skiing go. There was a bit of resignation there, too, if I’m honest.
Interestingly enough, it was my kids who reintroduced skiing to our lives. My eldest was in 5th grade, and some of the resorts in Colorado had this deal where you could take your kid up to three times to each of the different participating resorts. Because of our lifestyle, we couldn’t get the kids into skiing any earlier, but I had always wanted to share what I love so much, and so we bought the passes. Which meant I needed to go out and buy a pair of skis.
I had never gotten into backcountry skis before. In the past, I had always been with the folks, hitching rides up the pass and skiing back down without the right equipment, not always knowing what we were doing. I felt very unmentored. But it was a desire, so as I went to get equipment to go with my kids, I figured I’d grab some backcountry equipment. That way if I had the opportunity, I could seamlessly get into it.
Initially, that gear was just used at resorts, but going with my kids rekindled my love of skiing. What I didn’t want to do was go out and try to learn on my own, so I started looking into the sport, and these hut trips caught my eye.
AS: Hut trips?
AB: Yeah, I’ve always loved backpacking in the winter, since fewer people are out. But I don’t really love freezing to death. So there are these huts all across the mountains of Colorado that the 10th Mountain Division helped set up after World War II, and you can plan a trip into the mountains and stay in these huts along the way. You don’t have to carry a tent, and you get inside and stay warm at night. It seemed really appealing.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a guy who is into hut trips. He’s one of those—what do you call it?—ultra endurance athletes. He runs the Leadville 100—not the bike race, the running race. He’s been doing these hut trips, so I asked him if he would take me out sometime. He’s a good man and someone I really look up to, and he was stoked to take me out.
AS: So he was your foot in the door to that world. It’s amazing to get a mentor, let alone one you admire in more ways than one.
AB: Totally. We found a hut called the Polar Star Inn, up on the side of New York Mountain, which is kind of right in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
AS: We take it “Inn” in this case is used rather loosely.
AB: Yeah, probably gives the wrong impression. But, if you’ve slept in the snow and had to make your water by boiling snow in a pan, the Polar Star Inn is pretty swanky. All you need is a sleeping bag, your food, a pillowcase, maybe a bottle of disinfectant, and you’re nearly good to go. You’re bunking with a bunch of strangers, but it’s worth it for a warm night.
When you’re planning a trip like this, you need to think about your goal. Some folks want to jump from hut to hut, making their way through the mountains; others are after getting some good skiing in, and picking one hut as a base is a great way to do that. That’s what we were after—we wanted to get a full day of skiing in, and so we were doing laps and climbing the mountain to ski. We did two nights at the Polar Star and skied in the middle.
It was about 5.8 miles from the trailhead to the hut and about 2,000 feet of climbing, all on skis. The hut sits at about 11,000 feet above sea level, so it took us about four hours skiing in. We stopped on the way to take a break for lunch, but it was pretty enjoyable. When we rolled in to the hut, we were easily the oldest people by a decade or more. I don’t consider myself an old dude, but we were the old dudes. There was this moment though, when everyone was swapping notes on the trek in, when these 20-something guys were talking about how they did the climb up in six hours and another group did it in five and a half…safe to saw we blew their perceptions a bit when they heard we did it in four.
AS: Love it. Take that!
AB: Yeah, it was pretty funny. Here’s what I will say, though: it’s becoming increasingly rare to be in places where there are few people and you are actually in isolated wilderness environments, and it was amazing to be in a space like this. Not the hut itself, but what the opportunity offered. There aren’t t a lot of people willing to get outside in the middle of winter to brave some of the freezing conditions and the uncertain weather situations, so when you have to skin in for 5.8 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing, there ain’t gonna be many people there.
It’s a beautiful experience. There’s something about snow in trees and on the ground that muffles the sound, and so everything’s very quiet and very still. The animals aren’t out. You just hear the crunching of your skins against the ground and your movement through the trees. I love it.
AS: This strikes us as a different goal than typical downhill skiing.
AB: Totally—it slows everything down. You start to realize more and more as you age that there’s a benefit to slowing things down, and so you begin to notice more and see more. What I’ve found is an increasing desire to slow down my experiences, so I love that aspect of it, particularly the skinning as you climb back up the mountain.
The ski isn’t that different from a typical downhill ski. The main difference is you’re looking for a lighter and wider ski; you need skis that can handle the powder of the backcountry. The big difference is in the binding. There is Telemark skiing, which allows your heel to be free as you walk and as you descend, and it has its own form of downhill skiing. The other is randonee, which has a binding that frees the heel for climbing and locks it in for downhill to have a more traditional form.
Other than that, the only difference from normal skiing is your skins, which are something you use on the bottom of your skis to keep from sliding back down the hill. These skins usually have synthetic hairs, but sometimes it’s actually animal hair on the bottom of the skin, and the hairs all run in one direction. So if you think about it lying down, the hairs allow the ski to slide smoothly forward, then catch and push against the snow in the opposite direction and create friction for your ski to climb uphill.
There’s the joy of having earned your turns. You didn’t jump on a lift and just get there. When things come easy, we take them for granted, right, and it’s true in many areas of life, but particularly in skiing. If you take the lift to the top and ski down, you might not be as present to the experience of skiing down the mountain and how cool that is if you had walked it yourself. It’s a wild experience, after all: you’re flying down a mountain on frozen water with two boards strapped to your feet. It’s the coolest thing in the world, and when you’ve skinned for four and a half hours to get there and you’ve only got 10 minutes down, you’re gonna appreciate those minutes a whole lot more. The joy is heightened when you’ve earned those turns.
AS: You’re making us want to go do it right now.
AB: I was very intentional with who I chose to ask to teach me. It ties into my relationship with God, because I want to be a student and a son, and in my relationship with God I am constantly looking to see how God is training me as a son and as a student. I think one of the biggest ways God does that is through other people. So being in the woods with Dave was as much about asking him questions about being a father and learning from him as it was about him teaching me about backcountry skiing.
This is probably true for anything I do, whether it’s cycling or backcountry skiing, but the biggest motivator for these huts trips is that I wouldn’t do it if it was just me. As much as I love doing these turns and being out there in the wilderness, it wouldn’t be enjoyable if I was by myself. The biggest factor for me is the relational piece, and for me, that core desire God’s placed in us for relationship and the way we bear his image in that, the way we see the Trinity in relationship not in isolation—that’s what attracts me to adventure.