Not All Who Wander Are Lost

A weekend of backcountry skiing at the Lost Wonder Hut in Colorado’s Sawatch Range.

Views looking west from the Lost Wonder Hut.

During a recent weekend of backcountry skiing trip, this famous quote by J.R. Tolkien seemed to ring true: “Not all who wander are lost.”

It was the second weekend of February, and a few friends and I, six in total, headed to the aptly named “Lost Wander Hut,” nut near Salida, Colorado.

While I have heard good things about the Lost Wonder Hut, this was my first foray. The Sawatch Range often boasts a good snowpack, and after a slow start, things filled in decently, about 89-94% of normal in February.

Also, roughly eight inches of fresh snow fell the day before we arrived, a fitting welcome.

Some initial wandering

After a modest 3-mile skin into the hut, we dropped our packs at the Lost Wonder Hut then headed out to explore. We headed west, or slightly southwest, to the lower angled slopes well below the ridge.

Photo by Matt Hepp

True to any backcountry outing, it took some exploring and wandering to find the best skiing.

We quickly found some good snow, a big win for the first day of trip. Coming here was already worth it.

Origin of the quote

More about the quote, “not all who wander are lost,” Tolkien penned this famous quote in his iconic book, “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

A little context, the wizard Gandalf, recites the poem, “All That Glitters In Gold,” which sheds light on the true identity of Strider, the wandering ranger:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Explanation of the poem

As typical of most Tolkien writing, the story pointed to more than just Middle Earth lore, but a Christ metaphor.

Gandalf points to Strider as not just an aimless wanderer, but Aragorn, the rightful heir of the Kingdom of Gondor.

In other words, Strider wandered with purpose.

While kingdoms and the fight for Middle Earth were not foremost on my mind while skiing at Lost Wonder Hut, I did wonder about the origins of the name.

Origin of the hut’s name

The hut is named after a mining claim that the property sits on, Lost Wonder Load, according to the hut website. The origins of the hut date back to the early 1900s when there was still active mining in the valley and a functioning sawmill.

Lost Wonder Hut changed hands a few times, and eventually became what it is today: a hut that you can rent out for up to 14 people and even bring your pooch—one of the few huts in Colorado that allows dogs, because of the nearby natural spring water source.

You can find out more about the hut here.

The name of the hut itself, Lost Wonder Hut, almost seems like an invitation. Looking at the surrounding views of stately mountain peaks, including 13,745-foot Mount Aetna, and the narrow valley that winds north—it’s easy to feel the pull to wander and explore: up the valley, in the treed foothills, or even atop one of the sharp ridgelines.

Maybe the tagline for the area should be, “never stop wandering,” (borrowing from the North Face a little) though the wintertime avalanche threats can quickly squelch this passion with some pragmatic realism.

Aaron is all smiles with the Mighty Mount Aetna, aka “don’t ski me until May,” in the background. Photo by Matt Hepp.

Wandering with limits

At the time of our trip, the danger was considerable, which is no time to tarry in avalanche terrain.

In fact, we heard that another party had recently set off a slide on the back side of the ridge—in some pretty steep terrain. The avalanche buried one of the guys, but his partner was able to rescue him.

We were already planning on being cautious, but this certainly underscored the importance. Still, looking at a map from Onyx, there was plenty of sub-30-degree terrain to explore.

On the second day, we opted to head north/northwest, and search for more conservative options, though the terrain looked a bit tricky to navigate. After wandering through trees and over a frozen and sometimes-not-so-frozen-creek, we skirted some short, steep slopes and ascended some benign drainages.

After an hour or so of wandering, we finally found something skiable, though the pain was not really worth the gain, including a long runout in 20 degree trees. So, we crossed the valley to check out some glades under Mount Aetna.

In the shadow of Aetna

The soaring Aetna, just as stately as any 14er, sports a famous line called the Grand Couloir which include at least 3,000 vertical feet of prime chute skiing. It looked tasty, but this time of year is virtually off limits. People ski it in the late spring, but even then it requires an abundance of caution.

We poked through some scraggy trees, being careful not to cross anything connected to Aetna’s run out, and eventually traversed some terrain to a mediocre glade. I can’t say the payout justified the price, but still I wouldn’t say the time was wasted.

Photo by Travis Willcox.

The rewards of wandering

Shuffling your skis in fresh powder as you saunter about, the snow feels more energizing than depleting. Just the act of exploration was a reward in itself. We didn’t get lost, but matching map to mountain can sometimes prove a little tricky. Wandering implies that you won’t have it all figured out…you may just have to get out there and see for yourself. Not all who wander are lost.

After lunch back at the hut, we returned to our powder stash from the first day and chewed up most of the primo real estate.

Photo by Wayne Blom.

More fresh wandering

That night, another 6 inches fell, covering most of our tracks. So, the next morning, we again hit the initial spot, though this time skiing a ridge slightly further south. It yielded some good turns, although including a few rocks for me. I guess there is no better way to break in some new skis. As they say in the Midwest, “the rocks come with the farm.” In other words, backcountry skiing is unpredictable, including sections of shallow snowpack.

All told, it was an excellent outing with a great crew—one I’d gladly do some more backcountry wandering with.

For more of my hut trip posts, see:

Goodwin Greene Hut

Margy’s Hut

Nokhu Hut

If you haven’t seen my outdoor devotional, check out Called to the Wild.