Peak(s):  Maroon Peak  -  14,156 feet
Snowmass Mountain  -  14,092 feet
Date Posted:  09/08/2010
Date Climbed:   09/02/2010
Author:  Jim Davies
 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.

Day 1 - From Maroon Lake to the Bent Tree

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....

Day 2 - Maroon Peak

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!

Day 3 - Over Two Passes to Fravert Basin

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

Day 4 - On to Snowmass Lake

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.
Fravert waterfall

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.

Day 5 - Snowmass Mountain

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.
Backside scrambling

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.
My saviour!

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!"
"Thank goodness!"

Day 6 - Over Buckskin Pass

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):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Comments or Questions

Now thats
09/09/2010 01:38
how you do the 4-pass loop. I should've figured this in to my agenda when I did it unemployed. What a week! (no love for Precarious Pk, Thunder Pyramid or Belleview Mtn?)

Doctor No

Very nice work, Jim!
09/09/2010 01:59
Looks like a great adventure - good thing the camera survived, because you got some great shots. I love the shot of the Snowmass boulder field.


I love this backpack trip !
09/09/2010 02:00
Did this trip last year and truly loved every minute of it. Your campsite in the Fravert Basin looks to be the same spot I had the bear encounter a few feet from my tent (he wasn't in the least intimidated by humans....). Come to find out, there's a bear den nearby....


Glad you found your camera...
09/09/2010 02:54
or this TR would have been quite bland!
Now that I've finished the 14ers....this backpack trip could just be the thing to do next.
Loved your report. Thanks for sharing it.


what day on snowmass?
09/09/2010 03:43
think i may have talked to you, were you filling up a gatorade with water by the stream crossing on the edge of snowmass lake around 4pm on Sunday?


Awesome mountain adventure!
09/09/2010 04:30
Jim and Carol: You two lean, mean climbing machines make this mammoth undertaking look easy! This is a tremendous accomplishment that required guts, determination, and vision. Thanks for inspiring us and showing us what's possible. Hats off to you two mountain gazelles.

Jim Davies

Well, one of us is lean...
09/09/2010 13:53
mtgirl: We did see some bear scat nearby, and I found a clump of hair in the bushes that looked bear-ish. Didn't DOW remove a problem bear from this area?

fleetmack: Yes, that was us! There were a lot of people around at the time, fishing, swimming, etc.; which one were you? Sunday was our SM climbing day.


should have known i'd see a 14ers member!
09/09/2010 14:06
I was with my girlfriend, you guys were going down snowmass that day as we were going up and we spoke and then we saw you again just as we were about to cross the stream by the waterfall.... we were the ones who did snowmass sunday as a day trip... you can see what we look like by my snomass TR i posted the other day. Had no idea you were at the tail end of such a monsterous trip! nice work!


09/12/2010 22:49
So I saw you two while you were just getting started. Hope those two guys made it across the traverse from Maroon. They had more motivation to give it a try than I did. Congrats on what looks like a beautiful trip. And not one but TWO new peaks! wow. Now you need to go climb Bross a few times to get back into balance.


I want to do this!
11/24/2010 14:02
Loved this report! I hope I can convince my wife to do it with me!


How'd I miss this!?!??!
11/30/2010 17:28
What a wonderful report, Jim! Great to see the wife (and love the imaginary "lost camera" conversation!) Really nice summit photo of you two (bet the relatives would enjoy a copy of that ). Hope your scrapes are healed up and you are no worse for the wear. Thanks so much for posting. Happy trails!


I won't forget...
02/05/2011 00:22
when you posted the pic of the flowers in your last report and said "what can I say, I'm a nice guy." This report brought me just as many laughs. I liked the levity. I considered the 4-pass adventure for this summer but time just got away. I see I really missed out.


06/02/2011 14:57
Thanks for the cool report. It is neat to see pictures from an area not much reported on

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