Friday, July 10, 2009

McNamara legacy lives on in Aspen backcountry


ASPEN, Colo.—Robert McNamara, secretary of defense from 1961 to 1969, will forever be remembered as the architect of a war gone terribly wrong. But McNamara, who died Monday at the age of 93, should also be remembered for his abiding passion for the mountains.

That passion, acquired as a youngster growing up in California's Bay Area and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, was more fully revealed in the 1980s with his part in the creation of the 10th Mountain Division huts between Aspen and Vail.

McNamara provided significant funding for the first hut, McNamara, and for the second hut, Margy's. The latter hut was named after his first wife, Margaret, who had died of cancer in 1981.

With the Spartan but adequate comforts of those two huts, backcountry skiers could traverse the first segment of the trip to Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division soldiers had trained during World War II. Within a decade, in 1992, it was possible to ski between Vail and Aspen on well-marked trails without spending the night out.

The hut association takes reservations for 31 huts in the area from Crested Butte to Breckenridge. Of those huts, it owns 13, connected by 350 miles of well-marked trails.

Elizabeth Boyles, the first director for the hut association, says that both Robert and Margaret McNamara had polio when they were young. The affliction limited the weight-bearing ability of Margaret. Although she had died before the huts were built, said Boyles, Robert was motivated by the desire to help others enjoy the backcountry without the encumbrance of heavy gear.

Ben Eiseman, a Denver surgeon and one of McNamara's many outdoors raconteurs, persuaded McNamara to provide the crucial seed money for the huts. But neither had expected a leery forest supervisor.

The forest supervisor had had seen many junky cabins during his most recent posting in Alaska. He feared more of the same. McNamara was persistent.

"Look, I'll make you a deal," he said. "If after a year you don't like them, I'll pay to take them out. And second, we'll work toward establishing an endowment to pay for them."

"That's what got them started," said Peter Looram, a former director of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. "He was a very persuasive person."

Lack of use has never been a problem, even if creature comforts are modest. None have indoor plumbing, and water is created by melting snow. The earliest huts had no lights, though all now have photovoltaic collectors.

"He really felt strongly about the hut system," Boyles said. "He felt the huts opened up the opportunity to enjoy the wilderness to others who might not otherwise be able to do so. He just felt that time spent in the mountains was so important to the human soul."

McNamara, a Harvard Business School whiz kid, had studied statistical techniques to achieve efficiency, a discipline he methodically applied to bombing runs during World War II. After the war, he helped turn around Ford Motor Co., becoming president shortly before he was tapped as secretary of defense by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

In his 1995 memoir, McNamara admitted that fear of spreading communism, called the domino theory, had been a faulty reason for U.S. involvement in what was essentially a civil war in Vietnam. More than 58,000 Americans died in the war. His own misguided optimism had been replaced with skepticism before he resigned in 1968 to become president of the World Bank.

McNamara had been a frequent Aspen visitor even before he and Margaret purchased the first home built in Snowmass Village after the Snowmass ski area opened in 1968.

Even in his later years, he remained vigorous, skiing to the backcountry huts, and even in his late 70s skiing up 13,200-foot Homestake Peak above the 10th Mountain Division Hut.

"The mountains just really invigorated him," Boyles said. "He was known for putting in 18-hour days, even when he was on vacation."

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