Planning a Sustainable Hut Trip with Christy Mahon
Aspen local Christy Mahon is a woman of many talents. She’s a board member of 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, the Development Director of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, a ski mountaineer, ultramarathoner, and mentor to Elsie Weiss, one of the youngest women to ski a 14er. Mahon was nominated for the Sportswomen of Colorado award and National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year award for, along with her husband Ted Mahon and professional skier Chris Davenport, skiing the 100 tallest mountains in Colorado. She’s also the first woman to climb and ski all of Colorado’s 14ers.
But the 46-year-old possesses another lesser known talent: planning and executing successful hut trips. The Colorado native has spent 23 years in the Roaring Fork Valley and enjoyed three hut trips a year since her first in 1999. Mahon has learned a lot from those 50 hut trips, including how to make them more sustainable.
How do you think about and approach hut trips today versus hut trips a decade ago?
I value these opportunities even more than I did a decade or two ago, maybe because life feels busier than ever before. We go on hut trips to escape from life's everyday routine and immerse ourselves in the deep wilderness and what seems like a simpler time. The only things on the schedule during the days and nights at these cozy cabins are playing in the powder (or woods), cooking delicious food with friends and family, playing games, and spending quality, uninterrupted time with each other. We need this time together, away from distractions like phones, emails, and other technology.
However, it is also a time to think about the responsibility each one of us has towards the environment. The huts were created around a commitment to the land and setting an example for environmental stewardship. We also need to do this to ensure that we can continue traveling to the huts on snow and enjoying the backcountry without wildfires. Making sure that your hut trip is as eco-friendly as possible is an effective way to remind us how we can be more sustainable in all aspects of our lives.
Do you pick huts close to home?
Yes, definitely. We use the term "FTH," which means "From the House." When it's possible, it’s a fun challenge to self-propel yourself to a 10th Mountain Hut by hiking, skinning, or biking from your door. It's a great adventure, but it's not the norm. But picking the hut nearest to your home is easy and a great way to reduce gas and drive time. It also means more time at the hut and less time on the road. Picking huts in your area, like Vail, Leadville, the Roaring Fork Valley, is a great way to explore your National Forest and become familiar with your local terrain and ecology. Those based in metro areas are farther, but can do things like carpool to decrease the number of cars on the road and at the trailhead.
What do you keep in mind when meal planning and doing food prep and food packing?
We try to do a lot of pre-prep when it comes to hut meals. It's a good idea to assign certain meals and food and drink to specific people to help cut down on food waste and people bringing too much of the same thing. Choosing meals prepped at home will save on trash and waste, and pre-cooking food can save on propane use at the hut. Chopping vegetables at home means less compost and usually less plastic packaging to bring out. Thinking about these things is a great way to practice low-impact and efficient hut-tripping, plus it works towards sustainability. Bacon, for instance, is really messy and creates a lot of grease, which makes more cleaning, more water use, more wood use, and creates more wear and tear on the huts.
Do you have any gear that makes your hut trips more sustainable?
Most everything we bring has rechargeable batteries, including speakers, holiday lights, and headlamps. You want to make sure that you have the lightest footprint possible. Try to keep your plastic to a minimum. Plastic is a huge pollution problem, and it doesn't feel right to be deep in the woods with a lot of it. It's hard to do, but it's good to challenge yourself to go plastic-free when at the grocery store and packing for the hut. Ditch the single-use water bottles, plastic sandwich bags, and zippered storage bags (they're terrible for the environment and hard to recycle). Investing in a few cloth or reusable silicone bags that can be cleaned in the dishwasher and used again is a great way to start. Thinking ahead and bringing one bag for trash, one for recycling, and a compost bag is a way to ensure that you can sort things quickly. Then, all you have to do when you get home is throw it into the correct compost or recycling bin.
What do you keep in mind when starting a fire in the fireplace and keeping it going? Do you use less wood than you used to and why is that important?
Burning less wood at the hut and practicing good stove maintenance is the number 1 way to make your hut trip more sustainable. The 10th Mountain Hut Association has been doing some research to understand our most significant carbon footprint and working on ways to be more sustainable. It turns out the emissions from wood-burning stoves is the largest contributor to the overall emissions for the association. So, one of the most impactful things we can do is work together to help reduce the amount of wood we burn while using the huts. With the stove, it might seem counterintuitive to close the door once you get the fire started, but keeping the stove doors open burns more wood and doesn't create as much heat as if you keep the stove doors closed. Think about measuring your wood consumption and using as little as possible for heating and melting snow. The stoves are mighty little heaters, and you'll be surprised just how little is needed to keep the hut toasty for the night. You can pull back on your wood consumption if you find it so hot that you feel the need to open the windows. Connecting the value of mountain landscapes to the impact of carbon produced from burning wood is a way to practice good stewardship.
What do you make sure you do before you leave the hut?
The best thing you can do is leave the hut in better condition than you found it. Turning off the propane, solar system, and lights is one of the first things to do. If you are using less wood at the huts, your fire should already be burning out by the time you are leaving. Washing dishes, countertops, and stoves is basic hut maintenance. Pack out all of the food you brought. Don't assume the next group will use or want what you leave behind. Splitting firewood to replace the small about of wood you burned and shoveling out the decks is another hut chore to do before heading out, as well as making a logbook entry. Locking all doors and windows to make sure any critters don't get inside is also important
Any other tips?
Respect your surroundings. Our huts systems are places for experiencing, exploring, and understanding our moral responsibility to nature. They are places to practice and teach low-impact outdoor skills. Designating a person in the group who can share and organize eco-friendly tips and actions is a great start. The more prep you can do at home, and the more organized you are, the fewer dishes you use, the less snow you need to melt, which means the less wood you use. Practicing sustainability and thinking about our impact on the environment is something you can take home with you. Lastly, you can make sure you are engaged in the political system and voting for policies that will help preserve and protect our natural communities for generations to come.