Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake.
Ah, the beautiful but deadly Maroon Bells. This is a Snowmass report, but Snowmass was actually a secondary objective on this hike. I had never even viewed the Maroon Bells before this trip, and I felt the need to get to know them intimately if I ever intend to muster the courage to summit them. For me, the Four Pass Loop was an enjoyable way to scout the surrounding area and strike up a conversation with the Bells (literally . . . I know I am not the only person on this site who talks to the mountains!). The ability to summit Snowmass on the way was an added pleasure. Nevertheless, even without the addition of a 14er summit, the Four Pass Loop is phenomenal. The views on this hike rivaled anything I've seen in Yellowstone or elsewhere. It is definitely worth putting on your bucket list; I'm hoping to do it again in the autumn (and I learned a lot from this trip to make it even more enjoyable).
The first thing I learned: if you are camping overnight in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, you do not need to limit yourself to arriving during the 4 hour per day "road open to passenger vehicles" windows of Maroon Creek Road. I should have taken the time to research this, as this information is readily available on this site and about a thousand others. I guess I was too busy researching the actual hiking route and not the driving route. It certainly would have given me more hiking time on the first day had I known this. As it was, I didn't start hiking until 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 22nd (arriving during the 5 p.m.-7 p.m. passenger vehicle window). Setting out from the Maroon Lake trailhead at that time of day is as surreal as summiting Pikes Peak on a busy summer afternoon. There were throngs of non-hikers congregating around Maroon Lake who had either bused or drove up to take photos of the Bells. I was an instant celebrity to them given the helmet and ice axe lashed to my gigantic backpack . . . although they were pretty disappointed when they found out that I was not attempting a summit of the Maroon Bells themselves. Most of them hadn't heard of the Four Pass Loop or Snowmass Mountain, and neither sounded nearly as interesting to them as the "Deadly Bells."
The crowds didn't venture very far past Maroon Lake, and I only bumped into a handful of hikers on the way up to Crater Lake. I then proceeded up toward the Buckskin Pass and was alone for the rest of the evening. The advantage of starting so late was witnessing the full moon rise over Pyramid Peak. It was probably the brightest moon I've ever seen, narrowly beating out the full moon over Little Bear I witnessed this April. When I crested Buckskin Pass at around 9 p.m., even Snowmass and Capitol were aglow in the distance. I continued along the trail a bit farther and spent the night near Snowmass Creek.
Full moon rising over Pyramid Peak.
Pyramid in the moonlight from Buckskin Pass.
A moonlit Snowmass Mountain from Buckskin Pass.
The next morning I continued to Snowmass Lake, taking some photos of the backside of the Bells on the way. I got a later start on Snowmass Mountain than I would normally have wanted, but the weather was bluebird all day so it thankfully didn't cost me a summit. I arrived at Snowmass Lake around 8:30 and set foot on the actual snowmass at around 10:30. I made pretty good time on the snow, but that progress came to a grinding halt once I attained the ridge and switched to rock. There doesn't seem to be a stable rock on that entire mountain. Every foot and hand I placed down was upon something that jostled or creaked, so my motions became very, very deliberate. Plus, the weather was fine, so I didn't feel the need to rush. I didn't make the summit until 1:30--pretty disappointing time. Still, the views of the Bells, Pyramid, and Capitol made it hard to be too discouraged by my performance. On the descent, I decided to drop down from the ridge onto steep snow nearer to the summit to bypass going back across that loose rock and also have the possibility of a longer glissade. I ended up being able to enjoy 3 long glissades that dropped me down nearly 1,300 feet--a lot of fun. I spent the evening on the south side of Snowmass Lake about 500 ft. above it.
The Snowmass at dawn.
A closer view.
Backside of the Bells.
Heading up the snowmass.
On the ridge crest, looking at Hagerman Peak.
From roughly the same spot, looking at the remaining route toward the Snowmass summit.
A view of Pyramid and the Bells.
Near the summit, looking southwest toward Geneva Lake.
Snowmass Lake (and a view of Buckskin Pass).
Capitol and K2.
Opting for a descent on snow closer to the summit (less loose rock, more glissade!).
The next morning I made good time up and over Trail Rider Pass and was rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Fravert Basin and much of the remainder of the Four Pass Loop. I took a detour from the standard Four Pass Loop to swing by Geneva Lake and take some photos of Snowmass from the other side, which I highly recommend. The waterfalls flowing down from Geneva Lake were exquisite. I spent the rest of the day hiking along the North Fork of the Crystal River up the Fravert Basin. The scenery was perfect, but high stream crossings were a nuisance. Most of these could only be crossed by wading knee-deep, and by the end of the day every single one of the four pairs of socks that I had brought along were soaked. I crossed over Frigid Air Pass at about 7 p.m. in the evening, by which time my camera was out of battery from the volumes of photos I had been taking. I wish I would have been able to take some photos from Frigid Air Pass--it is a spectularly stunning vista.
Just over Trail Rider Pass--a view into the North Fravert Basin with Belleview Mountain in the distance (far left).
An epic view of a good portion of the route up Fravert Basin with Frigid Air and West Maroon Passes visible.
Snowmass Mountain from Geneva Lake.
Waterfall coming down from Geneva Lake.
Enjoying the shade of some aspens.
Yet another view of the Bells.
I spent that evening in a miserable, treeless, rocky bivvy at about 11,600 feet on the side of Belleview Mountain. Some words of advice: be sure to plan your own hike along the Four Pass Loop so that you can avoid camping in the treeless No Man's Land between Frigid Air Pass and West Maroon Pass! Despite the fact that I had at least 4 rocks in my back, I must admit that I slept incredibly well that night after a full day of hiking.
Early the next morning I crossed over West Maroon Pass, the fourth and final, and trekked along the West Maroon Creek back to Crater Lake. Along the way I admired the beautiful rock ledges of the Bells and wondered if I would ever be able to surmount them.
My entire trip was roughly 31 miles with about 12,000 feet of vertical gain. I am already dreaming of doing it again.
My route (click on image for larger view).