It started as travel. Then it became sport. Now it's possible to experience skiing as pure travel again -- on special shoes gliding over a white landscape from here to there.
know about the early days from cave paintings of Norwegian skiing hunters and from an actual 4,000-year-old ski dug up out of a peat bog near Hoting, Sweden. Skis made it possible for ancient, snowbound Northerners to gather food and firewood, to trade village to village and simply to visit from house to house.
In the mid-1800s, emigrating Scandinavians brought their long, wooden "snow shoes" and their elegant telemark turn with them to the New World, to the wintry climes of the Upper Midwest and to the gold camps in the mountains of the Rockies and California. In some communities doctors made house calls on skis. Children used them to slide to school. In Colorado, Father John Dyer skied through storm and sun to bring the word of God to isolated mining camps. In California, a Norwegian by the name of John A. "Snowshoe" Thompson carried the mail over the Sierras on skis. For a decade in the 1850s and '60s (until the railroad finally crossed the mountains), Thompson was the sole winter land link betweenSee SKI CROSS, 0X, Col. 0SKI CROSS, from 1Northern California and the rest of the nation.
The evolution of uphill transportation -- ski trains, rope tows, T-bars and finally the chair lift -- as well as the revolution in leisure time, and the linking by road of virtually every rural community, changed skiing from a necessity into elegant play. Alpine skiing is married to fashion and high technology. Skiers in the latest colors swish down machine-groomed snow carpets and ride back up in high-speed, detachable quad chairs. Since the middle of this century, alpine, or downhill, skiing has almost eclipsed the original notion of skiing as a way to cross country.
But cross country skiing didn't die altogether, of course, and is now enjoying a renaissance, so much so that winter trail systems are popping up everywhere there is reliable snow. You can ski inn to inn in New Hampshire, from town to town in Washington's Methow Valley and hut to hut along the Appalachian Trail.
One of the best of the new trails is the 10th Mountain Hut and Trail System in the heart of Colorado. Aspen architect Fritz Benedict conceived the idea of a wilderness route connecting Aspen with Vail, 40 miles to the north as the crow flies. Now, a decade after organizing the non-profit 10th Mountain Trail Association (TMTA), Mr. Benedict can count more than 250 miles of trail in a rough circle around the Holy Cross Wilderness and at least 14 back-country huts and inns where ski travelers may spend the night on soft bunks in wood stove-heated comfort.
The entire project is a memorial to the men of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, much-decorated alpine troops who trained at Camp Hale, northeast of Aspen, from 1942 to 1944. A number of the soldiers fell in love with the mountains and returned after the war to form the nucleus of Colorado's fledgling ski industry. Mr. Benedict was among them, as was Vail founder Pete Siebert and Aspen Ski Co. pioneer Friedl Pfeifer.
But beyond honoring the veterans, Mr. Benedict had in mind the re-creation of a timeless, classless ski experience. The huts, he says, "are helping to preserve the kind of simple enjoyment of the mountains that prevailed before our super resorts became so fashionable."
I joined a group in early April for a four-day sortie onto the trail. The system is set up so that each hut is a day's ski from the next. In addition, every hut is accessible in one day from a plowed trail head. So trips into the loop can be of any length -- from a single overnight, in and out to any one of the huts, to a marathon linking of all the huts, a mini-expedition that could take up to two weeks.
We left Aspen under overcast skies and started climbing the U-shaped valley of Hunter Creek. We quickly fell in line and rhythm behind guide Buck Elliot.
Buck set what seemed like an easy pace, slow but dogged in light of the 2,000 vertical feet we would gain to the first hut. We were eight. Franny and Jean, friends from back East, both in their 60s with grown children, set themselves stoically to the task. Franny once taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray's in New York; Jean is a curator at a Boston-area museum. Both were veterans of groomed track skiing in New England, but neither had ventured onto mountains this big. Then there was Jamie, 62, a retired New Hampshire electrical engineer and science teacher, who moved with a proud, stiff grace befitting his athleticism and his age. There was Jamie's daughter, Deb, 22, with her friend Mark, both confirmed alpine skiers out to see about this cross country business and to explore their new friendship. There were Buck and Rick, the trail guides, at home, doing what they love most.