Friday, January 7, 2011

Colorado Hut-to-Hut, Neff Mountain

Touring gear, polka dot skins, and neck high snow pack
We were invited by friends on a backcountry hut trip for New Years.  The hut, or yurt in this case, was just north of Chama and Cumbres Pass in southern Colorado.  For years I'd wanted to check out the 10th Mountain Division Huts in Colorado, but I was unaware of a hut system in New Mexico.  Aside from the area where we spent New Years which is more or less the Chama area, the same outfit - the Southwest Nordic Center - has a system laid out in Taos and apparently Red River has built a few out their way as well.  So there you go.

The crew in queue, Tyson in rear guard
Strapped with six-packs of roman candles. And my Rossignols.
Was there anything not to be psyched about on a trip like this?  We drove up in a snowstorm that slowed us down a lot. We found the parking pullout just north of the pass, but initially had some route-finding problems because the snow was stacked so high on the road sides.  Foreshadowing perhaps.  Finally on the correct trail, we had figured an hour and a half for the 2.75mi hike in.  What we hadn't figured on was mechanicals with some of the gear, having to break trail through thigh deep powder in some places, and that our approach would stretch into darkness, semi white-out conditions, and below zero temperatures (-13F in Chama that evening).  There was a delicate period just near the end of what turned out to be a 3.5hr hike where the trip unnervingly began to exhibit all the hallmarks of an epic.  An epic in outdoors parlance meaning 'really bad evening'.

As night falls on our blind winter approach, smiles still abound
Our crew had a lot going for it though: We had at least three hand held GPS systems with the coordinates of our hut, we had hand and footwarmer packets bought impulsively at SDC Mountain Works earlier that morning (a brilliant stroke of luck), and we had a strong team with at least three Search and Rescue volunteers, a couple marathoners (what up!), an upstate New Yorker, and a mauy thai boxer/kettle bell enthusiast.  At the time that conditions began looking a bit grim, our trail breakers belatedly made the decision to dump the 40lb packs and b-line this thing to the hut.  The strategy cut a lot of time, and the GPS handhelds lead us right to the front door of our yurt.  In the end, the trip did unfold into an epic, except the epic included champagne, hot chocolate and brandy, home cooked meals with elk sausage and bacon, an Espanola-roadside-stand fireworks artillery show, and powder so freaking deep that Justin and John were launching half-gainers off the wood pile.

Justin firing up some fine New Year eats

Amy and John with dinner, champagne hoard, and warmth.
Note the ice on the bottles, they were frozen.
New Years!  John sets the night afire.

Shooting stars
There was much telling of tall stories, including the one that had just occurred, and much drinking of spirits.  The stars came out and it was lovely.  We made our own stars with roman candles and sparklers.  The next morning was even lovelier.

Casa Mt. Neff
Bluebird, boards, and miles of white stuff 

Winter above the Chama Valley
Leah touring the bright new trails
Tyson during our snow shear test
We trekked around camp, but found the snow to be unstable for any downhilling.  In fact we saw that it was unstable for sitting on hill tops.

I actually saw this guy slide.  Most likely wind-loaded.
I got out on my cross-skis later, backtracking the trail we'd come up the night before.  Took me less than 15min to backtrack what had taken us 75min to get through with packs and post-holing.  Better views the second time as well.

The second night was grand but we'd run through all our fireworks.  Food, brandy, and the telling of stories were still in abundance.  We packed it out on Sun. morning to greet the new year back home in Santa Fe. 
Yours truly bustin' trail
Christina and snow-bowed pine stands
I ought to mention our stop for lunch in Chama at the High Country Saloon.  Fun place, decent food, and a bar stocked with just about every local microbrew available.  On tap were Marble, SF Pale Ale, Alien Amber, Ska Blonde, and bottles of Monk's Ale visible in the cooler.

If you haven't made a trip to Chama lately, or planned a hut-to-hut trip you ought to, because it is awesome as hell.  Be safe, know your route, and get to where you're going in the daylight.

  Related Post:
   - New Years 2011-12: Bull of the Woods Yurt - Taos, NM

View Neff Mountain Trail - FR 116 in a larger map

Related Posts:
  - Year End Notes - Beers of the Northwest
  - The 38th Parallel, When in Doubt, Go Higher
  - Ski Crested Butte - Opening Weekend

Related Links:
  - The Southwest Nordic Center - Cumbres/Taos Yurts

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