| Six Days, Four Passes, Two Peaks
For several years now, my wife Carol and I have been eyeing the 28-mile four-pass loop around the Maroon Bells. It always sounded like an awesome backpack, often appearing in magazine articles about the world's best hikes and such. I also still had two of the four 14ers on the loop left on my list, so it seemed like the loop would be a good way to do those. However, since I'm short on attention span and planning skills (i.e. impulsive), we generally stuck to shorter trips, like one or two days maximum. There was also some kind of other obstacle, like meetings or bad weather forecasts or something, that kept us from pulling the trigger.
In late August, however, a window opened up in which everything suddenly came together. No commitments, terrific weather forecast -- no more excuses, time to go! We got our stuff together in about a day, and headed out from the Springs on the afternoon of September 1st for Aspen.
We arrived at the overnight use lot about 6 pm. We'd come all prepared with some fencing and stakes to protect our car from the porcupines, but discovered that the lot was paved. Oops. Oh, well, we'll just take our chances like all the other cars there.
We hiked the 3.5 miles up to the area of the turnoff for Maroon Peak, and snagged a (legally dubious) camping spot just as the light was fading. It seems that every campsite that's visible from the trail in the Maroon Lake area is posted. I don't quite get this; when a campsite has been hammered down to bare dirt by decades of use, is it really better to force campers onto virgin ground? Whatever, it's Aspen, blah....
Rising at dawn, we quickly packed up our stuff before the "Restoration Site" police arrived and hit the trail. Maroon Peak is beautiful from a distance, but up close it turns out to be a huge pile of loose choss, at least on the standard route.
Carol gets checked out by the locals
The climb up went well; there were even a few fun spots on the traverse along the back side of the ridge toward the summit.
Scrambling below the summit
But overall, it was just loose, loose, loose.
Going down the back-side junk
Coming back down, we suffered quite a few spills on the loose dirt/rock mix, and were both scraped and bruised at the end of the day.
and the front-side junk
But now we never have to do it again (and certainly won't descend this route again). We moved our camp up the creek a mile or so to a reasonably legal-looking site, and collapsed into exhaustion. Wow, I got a new 14er this year! September rocks!
The next two days were pure backpacking with no climbing. On this day, we rose late and hiked toward West Maroon Pass first. On the way, we met a stream of day-hikers who were coming over from Crested Butte for the Aspen Jazz Festival, which (as one of them explained) wasn't in Aspen (actually Snowmass) and didn't have any jazz. The pass itself is rugged and scenic.
West Maroon view
Then after a long gentle descent and traverse through some high, beautiful alpine meadows, Frigid Air Pass.
Up Frigid Air Pass. Quite warm, actually...
We descended into gorgeous Fravert Basin in the afternoon, and found a great campsite in the upper basin. A lone coyote serenaded us to sleep.
Camp in upper Fravert
The next morning we again got a casual start for our next leg over Trail Rider Pass. We descended a thousand feet or so first, down to the gorgeous lower basin.
Along the way, we passed through the big area of blown-over trees that happened last winter sometime. The trail had been completely cleared, due to some crew's hard work (probably cutting hundreds of trees). Thanks, guys!
At the low point, we waded across the Crystal River (ankle-deep), then started the long, tedious ascent to the pass. This part was psychological torture, as we couldn't see where we were going to cross over for what seemed like hours. Finally, the pass came into view.
Finally, Trail Rider Pass is visible
By this time, we were almost out of water, but found a nice running spring right where the trail started seriously upward, and tanked up. Cresting the pass, we got our first look at gorgeous Snowmass Lake
First look at Snowmass Lake
and, eventually, tomorrow's climbing goal.
Snowmass Lake and the peaks behind it
We camped in the trees a few hundred feet from the lake, which turned out to be a good choice. The holiday weekend meant that the area around the lake was like a small village, with people camped on every spot within sight of the water. Meanwhile, up in the woods, we had some nice isolation, although we could hear the carousing down below that lasted until dark. Oh, well, have fun, kids, us old folks will go to sleep instead.
Off at the crack of dawn (amid partly cloudy skies and worrisome noisy winds up high), we rounded the willows by the lake and started up the route. I was a bit worried that it would be loose junk all the way up (since the snow was all but gone), but this turned out to be a delightfully solid route most of the way. After the initial dirt-and-talus headwall,
Initial route up from the lake
we crossed a long, fun boulder field, following a line of cairns up toward a notch to the left of the summit.
Snowmass boulder field. Aiming for the second notch left of the summit.
While we were climbing in shorts and t-shirts, a few pairs came down from the notch bundled up with multiple jackets, gloves, etc. Hmmm, that's odd. We found out why when the stepped into the notch - the wind kicked up to about 30 mph or so on the other side. Oh, well, we had extra layers and gloves too, so we put them on and stepped through.
The traverse on the other side was fairly simple, with only one loose dirt section, and we were on the summit fairly quickly. The views were awesome, and we had the summit to ourselves (on Labor Day weekend, no less!), but the wind was fierce and we didn't really want to hang around long. While we were preparing to leave, a lone climber from Manitou came up from the S-ridge route. He told us this was his final 14er, so we cheered for him a bit, took summit pictures for each other, then all three of us got the heck out of there. Shortest finisher celebration ever, I'd guess.
The hero shot. We didn't climb the boulder.
The descent was easy and laid-back, featuring a lunch break with a jaw-dropping view.
Best restaurant in the greater Aspen area
All went well, until we got to the dirt section a few hundred feet above the lake. At this point I crossed the gully a bit early (unlike Carol), slipped and got caught in a little rockslide, skinning my legs up some more. Oh, well, it happens. But then about 100 feet lower, I went to take a picture of a nice waterfall, and discovered my camera was gone. Oh, the horror! Five days of the most beautiful scenery on earth, two new 14ers, and I've just lost all 250 pictures of it! I knew it had to have happened in the rockslide, so I backtracked up into the horrid mess of looseness (that I'd just been happy to escape with a little bleeding) and started gingerly looking around. Meanwhile, Carol (the smart one of the family) went back up the solid side of the gully to check out the last place where we'd taken a break, just in case. 20 minutes of fruitless and dejected searching followed, but I finally spotted a little glint of unnaturalness between two rocks. My camera! Hurray, the trip is saved! It was a little beat up and dirty, but still worked once I cleaned the grit out of the iris. What a rush! I should lose gear more often, since it's such fun finding it. I had to take a picture of the waterfall after this.
The rest of the descent went easily, except that Carol asked me every two minutes if I still had the camera. I imagined the conversation we'd have if I fell again:
"Do you still have the camera?"
"Yes, but I've broken my leg!"
The final day was fairly easy. The hike over Buckskin Pass went smoothly,
Crossing Buckskin Pass, North Maroon in the background
and after a few hours we were back into la-la land, among the hordes of Crater Lakers who still smell good and are wearing clean shirts. It was a relief to be back to civilization (especially after inspecting the car and finding no porky damage), but also a little sad. This was the backcountry trip of a lifetime. Highly recommended. Bring two cameras.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):