Skiing in the tracks of heroes

The 10th Mountain Division backcountry ski hut system was started in 1980, based on the famed World War II ski-mountaineer troops who trained in the Colorado mountains for action in the Appennine Mountains of Italy.

The most famous engagement was the siege of Mount Belvedere's Riva Ridge, in which 978 U.S. troops were killed. Former Sen. Bob Dole is the most famous survivor of the 10th Mountain actions, in which he lost the use of his right arm.

Chip's old Stanford pal Darien organizes trips to the huts every year. You must enter a lottery a year in advance for the most popular huts. In 2006, she drew Uncle Bud's Hut, a six-mile ski in from a trailhead near Leadville, for two nights.

Chip and I flew to Denver and rented a car for the drive to Leadville. The town boasts on the fence of the high school fields, "We ô Leadville - great living @ 10,200" feet elevation. The 19th-century mining city reminds me of Gold Rush communities in California with Victorians and brick buildings.

Darien and five friends drove up from the Albuquerque, N.M., area. Chip and I checked into our hotel then skied a 12-mile, warm-up loop out the front door.

Next morning, we set off in very cold temps and clear skies. The elevation gain over the six miles through the San Isabel National Forest was only 1,200 feet, but with 30 pounds and on my first skiing backpack trip, I felt the elevation.

We skirted around the edge of Turquoise Lake, then halfway up, we had to put on our climbing skins as the earnest ascent began to the hut's 11,400 feet. The cabin overlooked a meadow at the base of beautiful Galena Mountain, at just under 13,000 feet.

We had been expecting ski huts like the Sierra Club operates near Donner Summit: very basic and rather dank, with mattresses on the floor and a smoky Franklin stove for heating and cooking. But the 10th Mountain huts are comparatively luxurious. Uncle Bud's has gorgeous honey-colored pine inside and out, huge windows, bunks to sleep 16 with thick foam mattresses and pillows, an indoor water pump, solar electric lights, a propane cook stove, pots and utensils - and a very nice outhouse reached by a covered walkway.

Chip and I had brought a small amount of backpacking-weight food and minimal gear. Darien had said she and the others would provide dinners, if we did our own breakfast and lunch.

Imagine our shock when, over the course of the weekend, they pulled out a cornucopia they'd packed in: liters of Coke, huge Foster's beers, wine, a dozen eggs, a box of pancake mix, sausage and bacon, a pound of See's candy, homemade spaghetti sauce and pozole, a cherry pie with canned whipped cream, homemade brownies and a pound of pork.

I told Chip, "Someone is gonna have an espresso machine," and I was right.

The first night, the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the place filled up with other skiers, most bound for huts farther along the trail. But we were alone the second night, when Chip and I even scored a private room.

We had the same weather pattern for three days: cold and clear mornings until about 12:30, then clouds, wind and light snow until morning. This was my first time skiing in the Rockies. I am used to the Sierra's heavy, wet snowfalls, but here, it snowed for 15 hours but left just an inch of accumulation of bone-dry flakes.

In the mornings, we went out and fooled around on the hills and practiced telemarking. Afternoons and nights, we holed up by the air-tight woodstove, chatting, swapping outdoors adventure stories, drinking tea and chocolate laced with peppermint schnapps, reading, and playing cards. Life without TV or music was wonderful.

Stir crazy one afternoon, Rachel, Brian and Dave decided to build a snow cave near the deck. They labored for hours to build a substantial structure big enough for all of us to sit on its benches before a small fire.

Chip and I had plans to spend the night at a friend's in Denver before catching a plane, so we headed out early the last day while the others left in the afternoon. I had a much easier time going down, minus my food weight. And after a half hour of exertion, we didn't notice the extreme, bright-sun cold, even going downhill.

• Pat Devereux is the copy desk chief of the Nevada Appeal. Contact her at pdevereux@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1224.

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