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From the top of Colorado's 11,888-foot [3,624-meter] Shrine Mountain, World War II veteran Hugh Evans can look in any direction and tell a story. Beyond that ridge to the south is Camp Hale, the U.S. Army base where, starting in 1942, 10th Mountain Division troops learned to ski and climb and shoot. To the southwest is Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the sites of the D-Series, a grueling six-week training exercise in which the 15,000-man division split into two teams and skied all over this pristine wilderness, running mock battles, marching constantly, sleeping in the snow.
But Evans doesn't love these mountains because they tested his mettle. He loves them for their simple beauty. If you ask him about the deprivations of the D-Series, he'll tell you. But at the summit of Shrine, he'd rather say nothing and look out across the downy meadows, dark pines, and jagged peaks of the Rockies.
The roar of snowmobiles is bottled up valleys away. The ski-resort bustle is tethered to Vail, several ridges to the north, and Aspen, sprawling along Roaring Fork River to the south. Up here, it's just snow-white, tree-green solitude.
In the surrounding wilderness are 12 cabins owned by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, as well as four privately operated shelters. Linked by 300 miles [480 kilometers] of trail, these retreats compose the 10th Mountain system, one of the West's oldest and best-known hut networks.
Guiding services in Aspen and Vail organize 10th Mountain trips of four, five, and six days that are suitable for intermediate and advanced skiers. The grand master outing is the weeklong Benedict 100 tour between the two resort towns.
Evans, a 77-year-old retired mining engineer, is part of a group that I joined for a three-day tour in Vail's backyardone of the easiest options. Instead of skiing hut to hut, we're turning the Shrine Mountain Inn into a base camp for day trips.
Just a two-and-a-half-hour ski from the trailhead at Vail Pass, off I-70, the two-story log cabin comes with solar electricity, a woodstove, indoor plumbing, a wood-fired sauna, and 16 bunks. Most shelters in the system are more rustic, with outhouses and snowmelt for water.
After a few more minutes on the summit, we remove synthetic climbing skins from the bottoms of our skis and watch as trip leader Dan Ostrowski, from Vail-based Paragon Guides, takes off over a cornice and lands in a beautiful telemark turn. Evans goes next, avoiding the cornice.
"We were taught to minimize exertion," he tells me later. "I practice defensive skiing." But the vet can move.
As Ostrowski tears down the mountain with impressive sprays of snow, Evans follows right behind in his 1940s-issue beige parka, looking like a waiter holding an invisible tray between his pole-gripping hands.
We all fall in: a law student, a photographer, a midwife, a writer, a chemical engineer, a quiltmaker. Guide Melanie Dennis brings up the rear. Some people snowplow; others are getting the hang of the telemark turn. I'm an experienced resort skier, but I'm a telemark rookie.
After a few tutorials, I manage to navigate a dense glade, then traverse uphill to take on a more challenging north face, although first-timer face plants remain part of the fun.
In the evenings, we all pitch in, chopping firewood, preparing dinner, setting the table by firelight. After we've finished eating and the cleanup is done, Evans cracks open a flask of Irish whiskey, and soon he's got us all singing songs about ski wax and the division's crazy Norwegian instructors: "A 90-pound [40-kilogram] rucksack, a pound of grub or two, and he'll schuss the mountains like his daddy used to do!"
After the war, about 2,000 men from the division became ski instructors. Others established some 60 resorts, including Aspen and Vail, and launched the recreational ski industry in the United States. And, in the heart of Colorado, where they learned the art of winter war, they blazed trails, built shelters, and set up the 10th Mountain backcountry system. Says Evans, "It's how skiing was meant to be."
For the next two days, we practice tele turns, climb another peak, ski more bowls. I careen through a forest so fast that I fly past the hut and have to skin up a mile and a half [2.4 kilometers].
On the third day, as Evans gears up for an early departure, someone asks if we'll find him in the mountains again. "I'm going to keep skiing until I'm 80," he replies. "Then we'll see."
As we approach the trailhead later that day, the hum of traffic reminds us of what Evans said he escapes by heading into the backcountry. Then it strikes me: Despite the proximity of Aspen and Vail, in three days we haven't encountered another soul.
Click locations for ski guides.
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