By Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan
When you’re a newly minted Coloradan, there’s nothing so exhilarating as your first Rocky Mountain winter. Back in the Midwest, the bitterly cold, gray-skied stretch between November and March is just something to be gotten through. But in Colorado, to your great surprise, people are actually excited about winter, for one simple reason: the snow.
It took me most of my first winter to understand, I admit. But last year, as I followed a set of parallel ski tracks through a pine-fir maze in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, I got it. My friends back home were shopping for bikinis and praying for warm weather—but I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a spring afternoon than bundled against the chill at 10,000 feet, gripping my poles and wishing for another few months of winter.
Time was running out—but I had managed to squeeze my first hut trip in before the big melt hit the mountains. It was my friend Patrick’s 30th birthday, after all, and what better celebration spot could there be than the Brainard Lake Cabin? In the parking lot I quickly shoved my sleeping bag, dinner ingredients, and some surprise birth¬day brownies into my daypack, pulled my hat over my ears, and set off via the quickest route.
I’d skied the CMC South Trail a half-dozen times that year: a gentle 2.6-mile roll¬er coaster of a path that follows the snowed-over summer road up a slight grade before diving into the woods. The late-season flakes were stickier than normal, but luckily my waxless skis had little trouble swishing along the double tracks left behind by an¬other winter lover—maybe my friend Jenn, a new Nordic fan who had just splurged on a sweet set of backcountry metal-edgers. I settled into an easy rhythm, connecting the blue-blazed trees as I skirted whitewashed meadows and glimpsed the jagged Indian Peaks rising ahead.
The rest of my group was prob¬ably already kicking back around the fireplace, wine glasses in hand. But I was more than happy to be alone for a few more moments in the utterly silent forest. Earlier this winter, I had skied this trail in the biting wind, cinching my hood tightly around my face and swinging my arms to force blood back into my numb fingers; I had skied it in a flurry of snowflakes, squinting to find the tracks in a suddenly monochromatic landscape. But to¬day, all was perfect and still.
Finally, the trail reached the edge of the woods and led me across a wide, open valley. Frozen Brainard Lake was just up ahead. I stayed to the left, kick-and-gliding back onto the road, then cut into a small stand of evergreens. A pitched roof peeked through the boughs: the cabin. I stepped out of my skis and plunged them into the deep drifts outside the door, then clip-clopped into a toasty, cozy refuge.
Half of my group was already there, lounging on the couch and armchairs wearing fleeces and fuzzy slippers. Another very friendly family gathered around a big wooden table across from the kitchen—the Brainard Cabin cheerfully hosts multiple groups at once—where they were cooking an entire Thanksgiving-style spread on the wood stove.
The birthday boy and a few more friends arrived soon after, shaking the snow from their pants and draping mittens over the fire to dry. Soon after, Patrick and I got to work in the kitchen, chopping onions and stirring hominy into a big pot for the night’s meal of southwestern chicken wraps. They weren’t quite oven-baked turkey and stuffing, but after a long day of skiing (and with a generous glass of pinot noir), they hit the spot. Add brownies with birthday candles and a swig or two from Patrick’s flask of schnapps, and it was a thoroughly satisfying evening.
The blazing fire began to quiet as I sank into a chair and kicked my feet up, heavy-lidded eyes fighting to stay open as the conversation hummed around me. But it was no use: I was wiped out. Tomorrow we would rise early and venture out to fill our buckets with spring water for coffee, then feast on spicy breakfast burritos. We’d pull on our long underwear bottoms, zip up our soft shells, and strike out to Long Lake. I would challenge myself with the steepest slopes I’d ever tried, herringboning up and snowplowing down through thick pillows of powder, cheeks flushed with exhilaration.
But that was tomorrow. Tonight, the crackling fire was oh-so-soothing and my belly was pleasantly full. My sleeping bag was waiting for me up in the loft, and I knew I’d have time for just one thought before drifting off: Does winter really have to end?
OUT YOU GO
Brainard Lake Cabin
Trailhead Red Rock Lake Trail¬head, Brainard Lake Recreation Area (25 miles west of Boulder)
Amenities Sleeping pads, wood stove for heat/cooking, fireplace, kitchenware, outhouse, lights
Capacity 12 (more can be squeezed in upon request)
Elevation 10,400 feet
Reservations Email firstname.lastname@example.org; at least one group member must undergo training in dayhosting and cabin maintenance
More info cmcboulder.org/cabins.html
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 Issue (1001) of Trail and Timberline.