By R. Scott Rappold
We take ski lifts for granted.
That thought appeared out of nowhere as I floundered in shoulder-deep snow, trying desperately to find the bottom so I could click back into my alpine touring bindings. The sun was perilously low, the alpenglow on the Mosquito Mountains shining like a warning light. Though our destination was just an uphill football field away, no goal ever seemed farther.
But at 12,000 feet in winter, to quit would be to die, so on we pushed, pausing every few steps to gasp for wind in the too-thin air. And then we were there, stripping off sweat-soaked layers and warming numb toes around the fire, which the quicker members of our group were good enough to light.
A yurt is a warm hole in the middle of winter, rustic and cozy, a form of cold-weather camping used on the Asian steppe for millennia. In Colorado, theyre primarily used by skiers and snowshoers, a way to spend a couple days relaxing in a silent winter wonderland or hitting some untracked ski lines.
And unlike the famed 10th Mountain Division huts so popular you need to enter a lottery nearly a year in advance yurts can usually be booked weeks or even days in advance.
But there are a few things you need to know first.
You learn a lot about snow at this altitude. Like the huge amount of dry Colorado powder one must melt to make drinking water. And the fact one sinks like a stone in untouched shoulder-high powder. And the fact skiing uphill is a LOT tougher than skiing downhill.
But the view . Oh the view. Thats why were here at the Leadville Backcountry Yurts, two identical yurts on a treeless, windswept ridge requiring a 5-mile hike or ski.
Essentially large one-room tents on wooden platforms, yurts typically sleep around six people, with a wood-burning stove for heat and a gas stove for cooking. Unlike most Colorado backcountry huts, you rent an entire yurt so you wont be bunking with strangers. And unlike summer backpacking, you dont need to carry your tent or kitchen. That leaves more room in the pack for beer.
After visiting yurts around the state, the Leadville yurts are one of my favorites for the views. The decks offer close-up views of the 13,000 and 14,000 peaks of the Mosquito range, and a short hike up the ridge above affords a panoramic view of the Sawatch Mountains and the upper Arkansas River valley. Colorados two highest mountains, mounts Elbert and Massive, dominate the vista.
You can spend the days snowshoeing or skiing the treeless bowls around the yurts, getting a cardio workout on cross-country skis or just enjoying whatever beverages you hauled up while soaking in the views. And when its time to go home, odds are the route is all or mostly downhill. Put your climbing skins away and cruise effortlessly down the trail and youll realize why skiing was a form of mountain transportation long before someone thought to build a chairlift.
Here are some of Colorados winter yurts available for rent.
Hinsdale Haute Route
Colorados highest yurt system has two very different yurt experiences in the mountains south of Lake City. For those seeking an easy trip, the Jon Wilson Yurt is only 1.25 miles, still far enough to afford lovely mountain views without a huge energy investment. For those seeking more adventure, the Colorado Trail Friends Yurt requires a 5 mile ski but the views are worth it.
More information: hinsdalehauteroute.org
Wolf Creek Backcountry
The route to this yurt begins at the Wolf Creek ski area, known for getting the most snow in Colorado. As one can imagine, the backcountry skiing above the yurt is superb, and getting there requires just a 3-mile ski on mostly groomed Nordic trails and graded forest roads.
More information: wolfcreekbackcountrycom.
Never Summer Nordic
Summer does in fact eventually come to this part of northern Colorado, but winter is long and drawn out, so its a great spot for a snowy excursion. Located in the State Forest State Park, there are nine yurts on well-marked trails, making for an ideal yurt-to-yurt trip.
More information: neversummernordic.com.
Southwest Nordic Center
This Taos-based yurt system offers four rentals in the San Juan Mountains just west of the San Luis Valley. The routes are moderate and each offers a pristine pine forest experience. The most popular is the Neff Mountain Yurt, which is less than 3 miles to reach yet offers a wide range of bowl and tree skiing above the yurt. These mountains are so remote they were the last home of the grizzly bear in Colorado. Visit and youll have them to yourself.
More information: southwestnordiccenter.com
Hidden Treasure Yurts
Not for the beginner skier, reaching these yurts in Eagle County requires a grueling 6.2-mile ski with 2,140 feet of elevation gain. But 12,000-foot New York Mountain has all the backcountry skiing to make it worth it for the hardy.
More information: backcountry-colorado-yurt.com.