Vacationing in Vail during the high season usually carries a hefty price tag. Hotels average $500 per night and a day of private ski school costs $450--and that doesn't include the requisite Giorgio Armani ski suit, Prada mittens or Gucci snowboard bag. But Thomas Gay, executive chef at the luxurious Lodge at Vail resort, has found a way to escape all that. He straps on his snowshoes, gathers his wife and a few friends and heads for one of the area's backcountry log-cabin-style huts. And he's not exactly roughing it: his favorite hut has a wood-powered sauna, a potbellied stove and a simple but fully functional kitchen.
Gay came to Vail in 1992 after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and went to work at the Lodge's acclaimed Wildflower restaurant. He was an avid downhill skier, but soon took up a new sport: snowshoeing. "It was a good way to avoid lift lines and 'designer skiers.' And showshoeing is a lot like hiking, which I love," he explains. His former boss at the Lodge, chef Jim Cohen, takes credit for turning him on to the sport: "Tom's idea of downhill skiing is jumping off cliffs. I forbid him to go downhill, because I couldn't afford to have him break his neck before service." Gay found that snowshoeing was a good, and inexpensive, way to socialize with his friends. "You can talk while you go, if you're not completely out of breath. And the huts are like luxury camping. I have no desire to set up a tent and sleep in the snow," he says.
The cozy multiroom huts vary in style, but they all come equipped with solar-powered lighting and beds (full, single and bunk), as well as stoves and kitchen supplies. Guests collect water for drinking and cooking from snow or streams, depending on the season. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association manages many of the huts around Vail and throughout the state of Colorado. (The group was founded almost 20 years ago by a World War II veteran who had been trained in the area before going off to fight in Europe; several other soldiers who had been trained with him went on to help launch the Colorado ski industry.) The huts, which are growing increasingly popular each year, are connected by more than 300 miles of trails; visitors use the trails for snowshoeing or backcountry skiing in the winter, and for backpacking and mountain biking in the summer.
Gay has worked out a strategy for preparing meals in the huts: "Everything has to be easily transportable and not too heavy." He brings along a silky red pepper dip to serve with breadsticks and thick-cut potato chips before dinner. ("I carry the dip in a container in my backpack. The accompaniments don't weigh much.") At the hut, he bakes a rustic spinach-olive-feta pizza in the wood-burning oven and cooks lamb chops on a propane grill on the outdoor deck, which provides spectacular views of the Rockies. He serves the lamb with a smooth red wine pan sauce and two sides: green and yellow wax beans topped with crisp pancetta and brown butter gnocchi tossed with sweet squash.
After digging into dessert, an oatmeal crumb-topped apple crisp studded with dried cherries, Gay, his wife, Lori, and their friends might finish their wine over a game of cribbage (a card game that uses a peg board for keeping score). Bedtime is early, and it's a far cry from Vail's more extravagant nightlife scene, where revelers dressed in après-ski couture drink martinis late into the evening. Gay doesn't mind at all: "If you've been snowshoeing all day, you won't be partying all night."
The wine suggestions are from John Vitale, sommelier at the Wildflower restaurant at The Lodge at Vail.