IntroductionThis is the story of a three day trip taken with my 11 year old daughter Shaylee, my 13 year old son Kessler, and me during Presidents Day Weekend 2016. Unfortunately, Presidents Day weekend fell on Valentines Day this year. Since my wife didn't want to go to Skinner Hut, and to avoid guilt, I made sure to take her out twice before and after the weekend. It would be just the kids and I making the trip.
During that three day weekend we traversed over the Continental Divide in winter while using the 10th Mountain Backcountry Hut system.
The route to Betty Bear Hut is routine, though very steep at the end and Skinner is the most remote mountain hut in Colorado. It is considered to be difficult to reach via any direction and is especially treacherous during bad weather.
The weather forecast had only predicted 1-3 inches of snowfall, and since we were strong snowshoers, it was expected to be a challenging and fun trip. We did however get more than we bargained for and ended up in a severe blizzard with little to no visibility. Here is our story.
February 13Today was the first day of our three day adventure to Betty Bear Hut, Hagerman Pass and Skinner Hut. Kessler, Shaylee, and I got a much later start than planned (almost noon), so we had to hurry. The first 4.75 miles to the hut was pretty gentle, but the last 2.25 miles was much steeper. It is one of the steepest sections of route to any backcountry hut.
The weather started out clear and warm, but with approaching clouds, we made the hut in 4 hours 20 minutes, which was enough to get up before dark.
February 14This morning we had a decision to make. Hagerman Pass is said to be very treacherous in bad weather and we would have to cross it in order to reach Skinner Hut. We discussed this in the morning. Shaylee wanted to go back, Kessler, was neutral, and since the weather didn't look terrible, I thought we should push on. The weather forecast had only predicted 1-3 inches of snowfall.
We started towards the pass in the morning. The route isn't marked very well, so it takes navigation skills. It began to snow maybe 2/3 of the way up to the pass. The visibility was still OK, so we pushed on, reaching the pass in a full-fledged snowstorm. We decided to forgo climbing Divide Peak, which was the original plan, but we did climb one small summit in the vicinity of the pass. We made our way to Skinner Hut, while pulling out the map several times.
Five other people were in the hut when we got there, and they had snowshoed up from the east the day before. Apparently seven others didn't make it to the hut.
February 15A severe blizzard lasted all night. I felt guilty for taking the kids there is such bad conditions, but the weather forecast had said that it was supposed to clear up today. I woke up at 4 AM because I was worried about having to recross the pass. We could go down the east side of the mountain, but that would put us a very long way from our vehicle.
Finally, and after much pondering, we decided to try the route up and over the pass. The kids and I started along the route and found that any signs of the previously broken trail were invisible. We continued through the maelstrom and blizzard. Visibility was extremely poor up to timberline. At timberline, visibility disappeared completely and the wind was screaming.
I contemplated turning back, but a look at the map said that we weren't too far from the pass. We decided to push on. Visibility dropped to nothing and we couldn't see the ground beneath our feet. The kids really got blown around and it was hard for me to stay standing as well. Shaylee screamed (she had to scream because the wind was so loud) "Dad, can you see anything?!". I said: "no, but the wind is being funneled through the pass. If we keep climbing directly into the wind, we will reach the pass". It was a real struggle and the wind screamed back in protest, doing its best to blow us down.
After much struggle, we reached the pass. We didn't rest at all, but immediately continued west, feeling our way through the storm. We were able to locate a marker pole and were greatly relieved. It took some time, but we were able to locate the next pole and the next until visibility improved not far below the pass. Although it was still snowing, visibility improved greatly as we lost elevation.
All traced of previous tracks had been obliterated by the storm, so Kessler set out breaking trail. We could see the bare spot that we had to head to and we could just barely made out a distant trail cut on the mountainside. We headed for that. Although it was challenging, trail breaking wasn't too bad since the snow was firm below the one and a half feet of powder. We moved quickly and on track until we were about a half a mile or so from Beatty Bear Hut. We met two skiers at that location and we were relived that we would have another trail to follow, made by the skier. After a brief chat, we headed towards the hut, meeting a few more people as we got near it.
It had taken us 3.5 hours to travel to 4.5 miles from Skinner Hut to Beatty Bear Hut, which is an excellent time considering the circumstances. We were exhausted, so we took a quick lunch break. By this point in time, everyone had had enough and we made the last 6.9 miles in a very quick 2.5 hours, which is very fast considering that we were on snowshoes. It snowed on and off and the way back, but it didn't slow us down much.
We made it down to the vehicle and were happy with what we accomplished. It was another good adventure.