March 17, 2001
The snow fell softly and swiftly over the little hut, tucking it in a fluffy blanket of white. Lights glowed brightly from within, illuminating friendly laughter and animated conversation. Tom came in from the cold, blue diamond marker in hand, announcing that tomorrow would be a powder day. We all cheered loudly!
Sleepiness quickly came upon our group, as the 6.3-mile ski in to Margy’s Hut took its toll on us city folk. Starting at the little town of Lenado northeast of Aspen, the trail follows a road used by skiers and snowmobilers in the winter. At a bend in the road, the ski trail heads up, literally up, often requiring skins to avoid tuckering yourself out before you get started.
Winding next to, then crossing Silver Creek, the trail continues to climb, curving along an aspen slope above Johnson Creek. For about 2.7 miles from the road, the trail climbs and wiggles and climbs some more. The four switchbacks seem like eight, but the views behind us make the effort worthwhile. Cloaked in snow, Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells raise their regal heads above surrounding summits. About the time your body rebels against any more uphill, the trail joins an old road, nearly flat. Although somewhat exposed, this intersection is a great place to take a break, drink some water, refuel the body if not the spirit, and take off the skins. If the weather is horrid, ski farther until you reach protective trees. Undulating through spruce-fir forest, the trail gradually climbs about 300 feet. Of course, just when you think the hut’s around the next bend, the trail gods devise one more test, a little (grunt!) uphill, but then it’s easy gliding along an open meadow, ducking through a patch of trees for a final short downhill slide to the hut.
Built in 1982, Margy’s Hut is one of the first two huts constructed by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, and friends donated funds for this hut and the McNamara Hut in memory of his wife, Margaret (Margy). Sitting at 11,300 feet near the west ridge of Mt. Yeckel, the hut’s front porch provides fantastic views of the Williams, Sawatch and Elk Mountains. The Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness is a stone’s throw to the east. The hut sleeps 16 people, with one “honeymoon” suite and open dorm upstairs plus a downstairs bunk room. The interior is rustic yet elegant.
Between one big picture window and the woodburning stove used to melt snow for water, people snooze or read on comfy padded benches. Picnic-type tables occupy the other side of the room by the second picture window. Games, books and magazines fill shelves in case of bad weather or if unthinkable boredom hits. A drying rack separates the eating/card playing area from the kitchen. Ah, the kitchen – the place where gourmet meals are prepped and cooked, limited only by imagination and what exotic ingredients one is willing to carry. Pots, pans, dishes, plates, utensils, mugs and cups are provided. Several propane burners help speed meals to hungry tummies while the classic woodburning cookstove gently cooks food or keeps it warm. Brownies baked in the oven melt in your mouth. And don’t forget the snow ice cream (recipe below) for a brownie delight treat!
Recently added, electric lights eliminate the night’s blackness, courtesy of the sun and photovoltaic cells. Outhouses don’t usually make headlines, but Margy’s sports the traditional crescent moon on its door. Don’t wait until the last minute, because it sits across the porch and down a wooden walkway. A blue diamond, used for marking trails, hangs inside by the hut’s front door, to be taken by the next outhouse user to indicate “I’m busy” status.
The area around Margy’s Hut offers great skiing, whether you fancy open or gladed slopes of various angles for telemarking or prefer cruising around enjoying the scenery. The slope in front of the hut is a great place to start your turns. If the snow’s deep enough, you can literally ski off the front porch! After getting settled into our spaces, some hearty souls ventured out to try the front slope. It’s a great little downhill run – open until near the bottom – or you can explore some tree skiing off to the right. The slope is long enough to practice those tele turns, yet short enough to not totally wear yourself out after the ski in to Margy’s.
Next morning dawned bright and clear, the smell of coffee and bacon wafting through the floor to the dorm upstairs. Staying at Margy’s at least two nights leaves an entire day for sampling the beautiful north- and northwest-facing snow bowl of Mt. Yeckel. One friend lovingly speaks of the “flanks of Mt. Yeckel” as if a voluptuous woman. A short ski north of the hut, the wonderful bowl offers many choices. Open slopes of about 25 to 33 degrees drop off for an excellent downhill run, tapering off to a nice runout. If the snow gods are good to you, you’ll be floating in thigh-high powder. But watch out for depth hoar – the tricky snow condition where an unstable weak layer of snow just beneath fresh powder creates havoc.
Still another hazard of the backcountry – snowsnakes, those mythical serpents that trip up skiers – can transform an elegant series of turns into a royal face plant, much to the delight of those danged serpents. A little farther east the summit of Mt. Yeckel rises to 11,765 feet. The ski up is well worth any extra effort for the 360-degree views, not to mention the great glade skiing off the northwest slope through widely spaced trees. Spending a day telemarking and exploring the bowl’s pristine hillsides has delighted our group for many years. As with any backcountry ski situation, be mindful of snow, weather and current avalanche conditions.
For those who enjoy touring more than turning, the ski to the top of Mt. Yeckel is a must. On the way to Mt. Yeckel’s bowl lies a large open meadow along Rocky Fork Creek where ghosts of burned trees rise eerily from the unbroken blanket of white. Beyond that you can ski northwest up Porphyry Mountain at 11,556 feet. The entire bowl area overlooks the Fryingpan River Valley and beyond to the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Two other routes lead to Margy’s in addition to the one from Lenado. Starting at the Norrie trailhead in the Fryingpan River Valley, the trail climbs about 3,000 feet in 7.6 miles, traveling through the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. You can also start 1.4 miles farther down at the Diamond J Guest Ranch, a wonderful place to spend the night before skiing in to Margy’s. No guiding blue diamond markers are posted in the wilderness area, so good navigation skills are a must on this route as the trail can be tricky to find in spots. The other route leads from McNamara Hut through a section of wilderness (no blue diamonds) and up Spruce Creek to Sawmill Park. Use this route if you’re skiing hut-to-hut – it’s 8.2 miles of down then up. Good orientation skills are a also a must for this trail.
The remote location of Margy’s coupled with fantastic nearby skiing make this hut a special treat. Cozy and warm, overlooking the Aspen area and 14,000-foot peaks beyond, Margy’s calls you back time and time again. Just watch out for those snowsnakes!
Story and photos by Maryann Gaug
Snow Ice Cream Recipe
1-2 cups of white Karo syrup
2 4 oz. cans of evaporated milk
1-2 cups of white granulated sugar
pinch of nutmeg
few drops of vanilla
Mix and stir over a low heat until dissolved but not necessarily to boiling
Add a little powder snow and stir. Keep adding and mixing powder snow slowly until the ice cream is the right consistency – but don’t rush to add too much.
(From the kitchen of Tom Glenn)