On Sunday, we headed to Aspen to begin our backpacking trip. Along the way, we stopped briefly at Independence Pass. We also stopped for a short warm-up hike at the Grottos. It took awhile to find the right trail (whatever you do, don't even look at the map on the signboard!), but we had fun exploring the ice caves (which didn't have any ice) and passageways through the rocks. Myron and Dorcas hiked upstream to a waterfall on the Roaring Fork. Eventually, we drove through Aspen and on to the trailhead. We paid the $10 entrance fee after discovering that the formerly free bus service was now $5 per person. Parking passes are for a maximum of 5 days, but somehow we were able to talk the ranger into extending it a day.
We hit the trail at the crack of noon, and passed 3 separate sets of bathrooms (my kind of trailhead!) on the way to Maroon Lake. We stopped there to take the traditional post card photograph. We hiked on, dodging tourists as we struggled up the rocky trail to Crater Lake. For some reason, many of them didn't seem to comprehend the basic rule of yielding to hikers going uphill with heavy packs. Christy and I both took out one tourist each, but I got more points because my victim was somewhat younger and more capable of getting out of the way. I win!
Along the way, Christy saw a mule deer, and we all spotted a marmot posing on a rock in front of an aspen grove. Later, we saw another giant hare. We stopped for lunch at Crater Lake, where we were happy to drop our packs for awhile. We had brought entirely too much food, and our packs were immense.
We spent the next hour over-eating and trying to give away granola bars. Despite our efforts, our packs didn't feel any lighter as we started up the valley of West Maroon Creek. We passed below the Maroon Bells, and enjoyed the view of a high cascade dropping down toward Crater Lake. Fortunately the crowds dropped off, and we passed only a couple of groups of serious hikers. One couple had actually hiked from Aspen to Crested Butte for a wedding. They seemed to be enjoying their return hike. After another mile or so, we rock hopped West Maroon Creek and climbed up through a thick stand of spruce / fir. We found a nice campsite in the woods high above the creek. We spent a pleasant evening here, once again attempting to eat everything in our packs. We also enjoyed a wide variety of wildlife. Our campsite was visited by a mule deer and two more giant hares. I also had a pika laugh at me during a futile attempt to hang a bear bag. "Ha ha ha, I'm going to get your gorp". We got the last laugh though - all he managed to chew on was our toothpaste.
Racing the Storm
We awoke early Monday to the sound of dogs barking. This seemed odd, since we were 4 miles from the trailhead, and nobody else was camped in the area. We began to suspect that the yips and howls were actually coyotes. We investigated, but the sounds were coming from the far side of the canyon.
We couldn't see anything amid the brush, but we'd like to believe that they were coyotes at play. We started hiking at 8:00 AM. We had 2 passes to cross that day, and I was concerned about getting over them before the typical afternoon thunderstorms hit. We hadn't seen a storm in a week, but clouds were already starting to form early that morning.
Monday was our toughest day, and it started with a long gradual climb to West Maroon Pass. Our packs were still very heavy, and it took over 2 hours to reach the first pass. The views were impressive, with Pyramid Peak behind us, and the beautiful Crystal River Valley ahead. We rested here for quite awhile - perhaps too long.
We descended towards the valley on steep switchbacks. Soon we were contouring along the mountainside through an outrageous display of wildflowers. We had been seeing some impressive flowers for a week, but they didn't even begin to compare with this. There was literally an entire hillside covered with more species of flowers than I could count. We really took our time here, simply enjoying walking through such a beautiful place.
We eventually arrived at a small pond. We spent a few moments looking for animal tracks in the mud. We were excited to see large cat prints. They were big enough that they could have been from a mountain lion, but it was probably just a bobcat.
The last stretch of trail up to our second pass was exceptionally steep. Who needs switchbacks? We reached Frigid Air Pass around noon. We were looking forward to spending the afternoon at Whirlpool Falls (joke credit to Myron). Actually, I had told everyone that it was named Frigid Air Pass because there was a refrigerator full of beer there. This was of course a lie. Bad trip leader!
The view from this pass was even better than West Maroon. Below us was the expansive valley of Fravert Basin, with the Maroon Bells and Snowmass Mountain towering above. The back side of the pass showed a beautiful snow covered mountain, which I think is Crystal Peak. We enjoyed lunch here, but clouds were quickly beginning to build. In a matter of minutes, a black wall had formed to the northwest. It was still pretty far away, but we packed up quickly.
We had finished the first few switchbacks when we heard the first thunder. Off in the distance, we saw lightning flash. After a brief pause to put on rain gear, we were hustling down the trail. We were off the pass, but still out in the open well above treeline.
Soon the rain began to fall. We hurried on, hoping to make it to treeline before the worst of the storm arrived. It seemed to take forever, but eventually we reached shelter. As soon as we did, the clouds parted and the sun came back out. Luckily for us, the worst part of the storm passed us to the north. The last couple of miles was a pleasant downhill walk through Fravert Basin. At one point, we had a nice view of a high cascading waterfall on the North Fork of the Crystal River. Just beyond the falls, I stopped to investigate a potential campsite. When I reached it, I startled two beavers, which were suprisingly fast as the headed back to the water.
We hiked on, until we reached a nice camping area near the mouth of Hasley Basin. We were back in the woods, but right at the edge of the meadow, and not too far from the stream. Although we had seen numerous backpackers, somehow we had the entire area to ourselves. Shortly after arriving a second brief shower ended, but left behind a lovely rainbow that arched across the valley.
We slept in a little on Tuesday for a change. After an elaborate breakfast featuring sausage and instant hashbrowns, Myron and Christy went off to fish. Dorcas was more than happy to have some quiet time that didn't involve moving a large pack. I decided to go for a walk.
From camp, I hiked into Hasley Basin. The trail started with a series of switchbacks through a deep forest. After about 20 minutes, I broke out of the woods into a meadow. The stream meandered through the field, and Hasley Pass loomed ahead. I hiked up through the meadow, startling 2 mule deer as I went. As they ran away, they hopped like kangaroos. I think I could see that every day and still be amused by the sight.
Ocassionally the trail wandered back into the woods, but for the most part it was out in the open. The views in all directions were outstanding. Looking back, I had a spectacular view of Snowmass Mountain. I continued to climb gradually, finally passing beyond treeline for good. I had planned to turn back at noon, and didn't have any particular goal, but Hasley Pass was just ahead. I still had 30 minutes, and I was enjoying the hike without a full pack. I decided to go for it.
The trail got steeper and the air thinner, but it was a much easier climb than the previous 2 passes. There was a small snowfield near the top, and the views were stunning. I had a quick snack and returned the same way. By the time I returned to camp, I realized that I hadn't seen anybody all morning. During the trip, we had seen groups of backpackers on a regular basis. It was nice to have some true solitude for a day.
While I was gone, Myron had caught and released 5 brook trout. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading and watching Christy fish. We also did some much needed bathing and laundry.
After dinner that evening, I decided to go for another adventure. On Monday, we had heard a report of a large elk herd in the area. I had seen a few elk on previous trips, but never an entire herd. As evening approached, I left once again for Hasley Basin.
I returned to the morning's meadow, thinking it a likely spot. I didn't see any elk, but I did come across a doe and a fawn grazing. I also saw another giant hare along the way. From the meadow, I left the trail and climbed the hillside to the south. The hill was a combination of meadows and woods, but the trees were thin enough to pass through. However, it was a tough climb. The hill was very steep, and there was no path.
I didn't find any elk, but their sign was everywhere. Tracks, paths, and droppings were abundant. On 3 occasions I heard a loud snort off in the woods, but I never spotted it's source.
It was getting late, and I didn't want to return by the same route. Instead, I bushwacked east toward the trail in Fravert Basin. Unfortunately, I hadn't realized how high I had climbed. I soon found myself looking down on the high waterfall we had passed the day before. I was easily 1000' above the valley, and it was already nearing sunset. Ahead of me was a chute from a former rock and mud slide. I had no choice but to descend it.
I worked my way down slowly over the loose rocks. Then, I heard the clatter of tumbling rocks above me. I abandoned the gulley, but the rockslide passed by a safe distance away. I continued to climb down slowly, praying that I'd get down before dark. Luckily, my girlfriend had reminded me to carry a flashlight.
I was making slow but steady progress when I hit a particularly steep section. It looked impassable, and I was faced with the possibility of having to backtrack in the dark. Luckily, I found a way over to another chute, and was able to descend it.
I reached the trail just at dusk. It had been a bit of a scare, but I came out unscathed. I hiked the last 15 minutes back to camp, and arrived just as a light rain began to fall. I didn't have any trouble sleeping that night.
Back In The Saddle
We broke camp early Wednesday morning and headed for Trail Rider Pass. After a free day, it was tough to put the packs back on. After 2 days of good eating though, at least they were a little lighter.
We started the day's hike with a wet fording of the North Fork of the Crystal River. The water there is cold at the best of times, and first thing in the morning isn't one of them. It was mind numbing, but luckily not too wide. By 8:30 we had our boots back on and we were heading down the valley.
We enjoyed a pleasant, virtually flat 1/2 mile or so along the river. In fact, it was probably the only significant flat stretch of the entire trip. It ended all too soon though, as we climbed out of the valley on steep switchbacks. The trail was tough, but the views down the Crystal River Valley made it more bearable.
After climbing for what seemed like days, we reached the trail to Snowmass Lake. We followed it through a re-routed section, and then descended a short ways to a lovely alpine pond. It was surrounded by boggy grass and wildflowers. I was especially glad to see it, since I was out of water. We stopped here to filter before resuming our climb.
Another 30 minutes of steep hiking brought us to Trail Rider Pass. From the crest, we had a beautiful view of Snowmass Lake far below. We had a pleasant lunch here, before hurrying down the far side. We were all looking forward to camping by the lake.
An hour later, we reached the unmarked side trail leading to the lake and campsites. I scouted ahead, hoping to find a nice private spot. What I found was a vast camping area. There were literally dozens of campsites. Luckily, many of them were empty, but there were several groups around. After 3 nights of camping alone, it looked like we would have to share.
We found two nice sites on the far side of the outlet stream. We settled on a bluff above the lake. We were surrounded by woods, and nobody else was within sight.
Christy and Myron tried fishing, but neither had any luck. There were some big fish out there, but they weren't biting. Christy and I also did some exploring. At the far end of the lake we found a small peninsula. Hidden behind it was a deep green pool. It was out of sight of the rest of the lake, and we decided to go swimming. Bathing suits were optional. I jumped in first, but didn't stick around long. By the time Christy got up the courage, I was getting out. You haven't been swimming until you've been in an alpine lake at 11,000'!
That evening, a big storm rolled in. We took cover in our tents, but the storm didn't blow through. It was still going strong when we fell asleep around 8:30.
We spent most of Wednesday afternoon debating what to do Thursday. We considered backpacking over to Willow Lake, taking a day off to relax, or climbing Snowmass Mountain. I was partial to laying around the lake, but Christy had other ideas. After we had summited Belford, she exclaimed that she wanted to do another. I had created a monster! Through Wednesday evening, she attempted to convince me that I wanted to climb Snowmass, too.
We awoke Thursday around 5AM without an alarm. "What do you want to do?", I asked. "I don't know. What do you think is up there?", she replied. "A bunch of rocks, a nice view, the usual." This went on for about 20 minutes. Finally, it came down to a simple question. What would we do all day if we didn't climb it? After all, you can only swim in Snowmass Lake for a few minutes at a time.
Before starting, we agreed that we'd turn back if we ever felt uncomfortable. Snowmass is listed as one of the harder of the 14ers (a "3" on a 1 to 4 scale) and we weren't sure if we were capable. An ice axe is suggested, and the final climb to the summit is frequently described as frightening.
By 6AM we had finished breakfast and were on the trail along the south side of the lake. The trail soon ended though, and we found ourselves climbing up a steep rockslide. It was tough, slow going, but we were making progress. Along the way, we met up with a group from Atlanta. It was only their second day out.
We climbed on, finding a primitive path that snaked between the boulders. Soon though, we reached a spot where a cairn marked a crossing of the gully we had been following. My route description suggested crossing here, so we followed the cairns onto a grassy slope. In doing so, we abandoned the primitive trail. This seemed questionable at the time, but the primitive trail got steeper. We could see the other climbers using their hands to pull themselves up the steepest parts. Meanwhile, on the grassy slope, we could zig zag around to lessen the grade.
Eventually we reached a bench and had our first view of the summit since leaving the lake. we worked our way up a gentle stretch to a huge boulder marked with a cairn. From here though, we couldn't see anything but rocks. Looking for a cairn was absurd - it was kind of like the world's hardest "where's waldo" puzzle.
My route description was vague, but it stated that we shouldn't attempt to climb to the summit directly. Instead, it suggested aiming for the ridgeline to the left of the summit, and following the ridge to the top. I consulted the topo, and saw a low gap in the ridge to our left. We headed for it, working our way up over more boulders.
We worked our way up slowly, but eventually reached a steep snowfield. There appeared to be footprints climbing the field, but we didn't have ice axes or crampons. The snow was glazed with ice, and there was a nice pile of boulders at the bottom. We decided not to chance it. Instead, we worked our way around the snow, loosing elevation as we did so. After a few minutes though, we were climbing again.
The boulder field got steeper, and we began to use our arms to climb up over the ledges. Many of the boulders were loose, and it was very unnerving when they began to roll underneath us. It was mentally exhausting, having to plan each step. After some time, we crossed the bowl above the snowfield and climbed higher. We were only 20' below the ridge, but the last stretch was nearly vertical.
From below, I thought I had seen a break in the ridge that we could get through. From closer up though, I could tell that it was nothing but rock climbing. The ridge itself wasn't appealing, either. It was a jagged razor edge of boulders all the way up to the summit. Even if we could reach the ridge, I didn't think we could follow it all the way to the top. To make matters worse, we had less than 30 minutes until our turnaround time. I knew then that we weren't going to make it.
Christy was disappointed and frustrated, but I was mostly concerned with getting down safely. We were exhausted, and I knew climbing down would be tougher than going up. We worked our way down to the top of the snow field, mostly sliding on our butts (and ripping our shorts in the process). From there, we slid down the snow field, going short distances from rock to rock. This worked quite well, and was even somewhat refreshing. Doing so turned out to be a major shortcut. Eventually though, the boulders ran out and it was back to boulder hopping.
We continued to descend, dropping from one boulder to the next. Since we had more momentum, there was even more danger of rocks sliding underneath us. We started a couple of minor rocks slides, but reached the bench without incident. From here, we could see the correct route to the summit. We had actually approached the ridge too far to the left. The correct route should have taken us immediately to the left of the summit. I cursed myself for not researching the route more thoroughly.
The hike across the bench and down the grassy slope was uneventful. However, black clouds were beginning to form, so we didn't linger. The final descent above the gully was slippery on the scree. I had just finished a speech about how it's easy to get careless and hurt yourself at the end of the hike. Only a few minutes later, I followed Christy through some shrubs and bashed me knee into an unseen rock. It hurt like hell, and I spent a several minutes howling. Luckily, I was still able to walk, but my leg was stiff. I went a few steps and promptly bashed my left shin, nearly falling off a boulder. Was I ready to quit? You bet. Luckily, we were within spitting distance of the lake. After a few minutes of rest to recover, I was ready to go. Somehow I made it the rest of the way down without killing myself. I soaked me knee in the stream, and hobbled the rest of the way back to camp.
At the end of the hike, we passed one of the guys from the Atlanta group. He had made it to the summit ridge, but stopped there. The last couple hundred yards followed an extremely narrow ridge with a lot of exposure. He didn't feel comfortable with it, so he was content to stop where he was. I'm almost glad I didn't get that far. I don't care much for heights, but it would've been tough to turn back that close to the top.
The rest of the day involved lounging around the lake and swallowing liquid pain killers (mainly in the form of hot cider and spiced rum). It had been quite an adventure, and we had learned a lot. I didn't regret the attempt (except for the part where I bashed me knee). As I pointed out to Christy, it's not a failure unless you don't make it back down. In the end, we were both content that we gave it our best shot.
Snow in July
It was overcast Friday morning, which was a change from the usual blue sky. Christy and I were both sore and beat up, but at least we were able to walk. Myron and Dorcas were both fighting colds. They headed out early, but we took time to enjoy a breakfast of freeze dried eggs and instant hashbrowns.
We hated to pack up and leave, but we were looking forward to eating something that didn't come out of a plastic bag. We hiked down the trail toward Snowmass Creek, passing through thick woods. The morning's hike was unusual, in that we were below treeline for several miles. We rock hopped Snowmass Creek in a pretty meadow, and began our climb to Buckskin Pass.
Christy began to get sick along the way. This only added to the challenge for her, but luckily Buckskin was the easiest of the 4 passes. It was pretty gradual the whole way up. Along the way we had some great views back towards Snowmass Lake and Snowmass Mountain.
During one break, we were swarmed by bugs. For the most part, they hadn't been too bad during the trip. There were mosquitos, but they were slow and stupid and generally easy to swat. The deet we brought along was quite effective in scaring them away. It didn't bother the flies at all though. They were everywhere on Friday, but only appeared when we stopped. They seemed to have trouble with a moving target.
We reached the pass in time for lunch. At the top, we actually encountered a ranger, which is a rare sight along the trail. We had decided to relax at the pass, but then the clouds began to build. It had been a cool day to begin with, and now the temperature began to drop. We had just begun to pack up when it began to snow! At least it appeared to be snow, or some weird combination of snow, ice, and hail. It came down hard - hard enough to blur our vision. As we hustled down the steep east side of the pass, we could see the snow falling on the maroon bells. Then, almost as soon as it started, it was over. The sun came out, and the snow seemed like some type of fatigue induced hallucination.
We enjoyed an uneventful hike down through Minnehana Gulch. We passed several nice looking campsites, and quickly arrived at Crater Lake. From there, it was less than 2 miles back to the car. We were on our way down the rocky trail when Christy turned her ankle. I wrapped it for her, and luckily she was still able to walk. I was afraid she wouldn't be able to carry her pack, but she managed.
We reached the trailhead by mid-afternoon. I was disappointed to see that the rental car was undamaged. First we headed for Aspen, where we decided to walk around and do a little shopping. I eventually found a parking spot (and got a ticket for my trouble). We got 2 single scoop ice cream cones and 2 cokes for the movie theatre-like price of $8, and picked up a couple of t-shirts. Aspen was a nice place, but it was a little too rich for me. It was also a big adjustment after a week in the wilderness.
We left Aspen, and enjoyed a thrilling drive up the one and a half lane road to Independence Pass. From there it was off to Leadville and a cheap hotel. We found one that was bearable for $50, and headed into town for pizza and beer.
On Saturday, we drove back to Boulder. We enjoyed the afternoon there with some friends before catching an early flight home on Sunday. It was a great trip, and I'm already thinking about where to go then next time we make it to Colorado.
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