Build it, and folks will come

  • Early September snow fills the Eiseman Hut

    Peter McBride

We came and went like the storms that passed over our heads, living at 11,300 feet in the Gore Range above Vail, Colo., where we raced against "old man winter" to build a log hut for the Tenth Mountain Division. Four of us lived in a tepee for five months while we labored, working too hard to enjoy our spectacular surroundings.

Building the newest addition to the popular Colorado hut system - called the Eiseman Hut after major donor Ben Eiseman - became more like chateau construction, and winter behaved more like an aggressive pup. By the time we finished, the hut for cross-country skiers and hikers had ballooned in cost to $280,000-plus and enclosed 2,200 square feet.

We started in early July, working 10- to 15-hour days. After the logging truck broke down, we pressed our pickups into the job of hauling logs the last two miles to the site. Then a change in the ceiling design added more work and some $30,000 to the project.

A mid-September two-foot snowfall signaled urgency; meals began revolving around eating fat to keep warm, and a good breakfast became bacon and bagels deep-fried in bacon grease. We began wearing the same clothes day after day, too chilled to change. The continuous cold felt as if it was seeping into our bones and lightning storms at night shook the frozen ground. Rolled into balls, we were too cold to move.

Then, toward the end of October, we were blessed by days of Indian summer - and the help of the staff of the Tenth Mountain Division. They pulled together some 40 volunteers from the Aspen area who for four weeks did everything from backfilling the hut's foundation by hand to cooking us real food - even turkey dinner with all the fixings.

Our morale jumped, and by mid-November we'd completed the hut's exterior just as heavy snows arrived. Now we worked inside on tongue-and-groove paneling and the vaulted ceiling, free of the mountain's four feet of snow. Only the six-hour commute by snowmobile for supplies reminded us of the toughest days.

As we finished, we joked about the "Vail Hilton" and whether it would offer a real backcountry experience. Building it while living in a tepee seemed to represent wilderness more than a mountain chateau ever could. But I don't think its size and its grandeur will mar the "hut experience." It is still a long, hard ski up, the wind is fierce and the snow is as deep or deeper than at other huts.

I'm looking forward to visiting it without my tool belt.

Peter McBride works as a freelance writer/photographer.

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