Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trip report: Four-Pass Loop

The Four-Pass Loop near Aspen, CO is one of the most famous loop hikes in the US. In about 27 miles, it summits four 12,500' mountain passes and crosses through some of the prettiest wildflower meadows in the country. I had made a failed attempt to backpack the loop last year. I just assumed I'd do it "some day," till A. said she wanted to do it this year on her short summer break from school.


Most backpackers complete the route in 3 to 4 days. Trail runners do it in 1 day; a friend of ours had recently done just that. The record is 4.5 hours.

A. had been in school full-time and hadn't had much chance to get in shape, and my foot injury had actually worsened after the final injection treatments (and remains worse than before I started them, ugh), so we settled on doing about 5 miles a day, completing the loop (and an offshoot to Geneva Lake) in 5.5 days. We had rough campsite locations picked out.

After getting her food ready, A. was pre-regretting the amount of processed stuff...

We had reserved a campsite at the Silver Bar campground a few miles from the trailhead. We spent our first day there, enjoying the crazy colors and shapes of the stones in the nearby river. We'd reserved this campsite over 2 months ago, and when we booked, it was one of only two available (reservable) campsites remaining in the Maroon Bells area for that week.


We headed into Aspen for a "real meal" before subjecting ourselves to six days of processed food. We chose Hickory House, a barbecue place, which despite some hokey trappings (see giant souvenir cup below) turned out to be amazing. The portions were huge. Unfortunately we had no fridge to bring the leftovers back to and had to abandon them.


We got up very early the next morning to go catch sunrise at the famous Maroon Bells and get hiking. The couple next to us was doing the same. (Oddly, given how hard these campsites are to get, the other 2 sites at the small campground never had their tenants show up.) We had to park at the overflow lot down the road from Maroon Lake, and run up the road to make sure we caught the sunrise.

 Waiting for the sun in front of the "most-photographed mountains in America"... a mouse chewed off some of my hydration bladder bite valve while I was waiting


The sun had illuminated only half the height of the peaks before clouds arrived. We set off walking through intermittent rain, to Crater Lake and then up to the right to follow the loop counter-clockwise. While most people hike clockwise, A. wanted to tackle the toughest pass on the first day, and I wanted to save the river crossings and mud of the West Maroon valley for when we were closer to the car, minimizing the amount of time we'd have to spend muddy and cold.




I didn't think there would be too many wildflowers left by late August, but the meadows below Bucksin Pass and several other places were still stunning. The climb was hard, though. While last summer I'd been doing 18-mile days, this year my health was suffering and I really felt it under the 35-pound pack. Both of us were in bad shape when we made it to the top. I've been on top of Buckskin Pass several times now, though, and the view still doesn't disappoint.



We hiked about halfway down the slope and found a campsite next to a field of wild strawberries. I went for a walk in the rain and hail and took some photos. Here it looked like fall had already arrived. I heard an elk bugling in the distance.



Aside from the strawberries, we didn't have a very good time. A.'s leg was in almost too much pain to walk on, and she was distraught about possibly not being able to go any further. A cold rain fell on and off through the night, but in the morning the sun came out, and the leg was better.

We'd planned to take a rest day the next day, walking just a couple miles to Snowmass Lake. We lay down in the sun and took a nap halfway there, and then arrived at the pure blue waters around 2pm. I went to set up a campsite while A. relaxed in a hammock next to the shore. We had lemonade and played some cards.


Our new Smokey Bear playing cards



We got up the next morning in time to see the sunrise.



The path to Trail Rider Pass was really beautiful -- I had been here before too -- and we both had more energy.




I think I have some pictures of us on top of the pass, but I don't want to spam you all with pictures of us on top of passes. As we went down the other side I was heading into new territory for me. I had heard that this side of Trail Rider Pass was very steep -- if you were hiking clockwise, it would be the toughest pass -- and I felt that going down, and certainly saw it looking back behind me at the sheer wall of the ridge. But the greatest impression was given by the look of the hikers coming up to meet us: plodding, flushed, exhausted, smiles wiped from their faces.

Looking back toward Trail Rider Pass

Heading down from Trail Rider toward the small pond 

Not too far below the pass was a little flat section with a little pond, and past that, more steep descent. I met a group of hikers here who had run out of water. They thought they were going to have to go all the way up over the pass and down to Snowmass Lake before they could get another drink, which was thankfully wrong. But they also thought that the rise behind me was the pass; I felt bad informing them they probably had another 2 hard hours of hiking uphill.

A. and I split up for a little bit here so we could each have some alone time. I love hiking alone because I notice nature much more, and feel much more a sense of communion with it. As I headed toward Geneva Lake, the view up toward the Fravert Basin was breathtaking:


Tomorrow we would be descending to the bottom of that valley, then hiking all the way up it to Frigid Air Pass.

At Lake Geneva we spent way too long looking for the perfect campsite and not enough time relaxing and enjoying ourselves. It's not as beautiful as Snowmass Lake, but that's not too meaningful when everything around you looks like this:


More gin rummy...

Our hike the next morning took us through fields of dying wildflowers as high as our chests; I can just imagine what they would have looked like in their peak. Now, only a few flowers were left that weren't bedraggled in some way.


We climbed down, down, down, past a long cascade whose stream we finally crossed. I could tell it would have been up to our knees or higher in early summer. Eventually we started climbing up. The day was half over and we still had a long way to go.


Another stream crossing. Like the first one, this one was also possible to do by walking on the rocks, if you had good balance; otherwise, you'd be ankle-deep.


I was hot and cranky as we continued, climbing past another waterfall. Soon, not too far from the trail, we found a place to cool off.



By afternoon we still hadn't reached the upper basin. We wanted to get as close as we reasonably could to Frigid Air Pass, as we'd need enough time to do two passes the next day. The triple cascades on the north wall of the valley passed by to our left. The trees began to thin out, but all we were seeing was "illegal" campsites too close to the trail. And then we were out of the trees.


On the map it looked like there were probably some flat spots above us, but we didn't want to camp out in the open, exposed to whatever weather arrived in the night. So we went back down and took the last illegal campsite. Exploring, we found another little firepit below it, which was filled with several pounds of trash: a toothbrush in travel case, empty tuna packets, a full stick of deodorant, and giant tub of instant coffee, among other things. We packed into our trash bags what we could and took the larger items down the trail so they wouldn't attract bears to our site.

We did attract a squirrel, though; it ran through the trees above us pulling off immature pine cones and tossing them on the tent for a good hour. After it gave up, I lay in my hammock and read until it got too cold. It seemed like we were the only ones in the whole basin.





Fravert Basin was beautiful as we hiked the next morning. I would say it's one of the loveliest places I've been, except I've been to so many so lovely now in Colorado that it seems meaningless. I was dead, though, feeling just as sluggish and run-down as if I'd spent all summer on the couch rather than hiking at high altitude every weekend. I have been feeling like this too much lately.


And then we were at the pass.



There were some people at the top with horses and spotting scopes. A. went to go talk to them. They were part of a hunting party, radio-ing down to the people in the valley to tell them where the elk were. This seemed unfair to me, but A., who had conversed with them for a bit, said it seemed they were acting in a stewardly way.

The view down into the next valley was just as beautiful as we'd come to expect.



As we descended and walked along a contour toward the final pass, I kept thinking I heard lowing. I finally realized what it was: the rocks dotting the far hillside were actually a massive herd of sheep. They would disperse and reform around a little pond.

We had been warned about a lack of water between the last campsites and Frigid Air Pass -- or was it between the campsites and West Maroon Pass? In any case, everything was taking longer than we meant it to, as usual, and we were now getting slightly concerned about when we'd next be able to fill up. But halfway to the next pass, small streams started appearing. I don't know how much longer they could be expected to hold water; there was certainly very little snow left up above.

The day was very clear. I had gotten sunburnt earlier and kept my (black) long-sleeved shirt on. I was very tired again, hot and cranky. West Maroon Pass drew closer only very slowly. We are we such slow hikers?? Actually, A. is always ahead of me -- why am I such a slow hiker? Not just the hiking; why do I seem to have to stop so often to fix my gear, put on sunscreen, pee, fix my laces, put layers on, take layers off, fill up water, take photos, pee again... yet I know other people have to do these things too, and I'm still the slow one. It's not that I'm complaining, or think we should all be equal; I just literally do not understand how it took us all day to hike five miles.

The final ascent was a steep hike through red sandstone, a couple spires watching us from above.


There were tons of people here, though it was still many miles from the trailhead. I winced internally as loud groups passed us jabbering about their cousins in Connecticut or that mad sick header that Dave took. My foot was really starting to hurt. Not just the neuroma, but a nerve on the side of my big toe that I seem to reinjure every time I hike. (Between the foot and the thoracic outlet syndrome, I'm beginning to think my nerves are just especially fragile.) You can't tell in the pic, but I was a big grouch by the time I got to the top.



A look at how steep the descent will be

Also on top of the pass were a group of 20-somethings were talking very volubly and at length about this amazing story that one of the guys HAD to tell. I was exhausted and overheated and just wanted to enjoy my lunch, and the views, in peace. After ten solid minutes -- no joke -- of talking about how amazing the story was and how much you have to hear it, they began to descend just as the storyteller finally started, and soon were out of earshot. Not fair, really.

I ate my lunch crabbily and then we went down. There would be no more uphill to speak of. But away from the windy pass, I was baking again in the hot sun. And my knees began to burn with pain. Thankfully there were a lot of opportunities to stop and take photos...




Have you ever smelled lupine? It's incredible!

We crossed a couple more rivers without much trouble. The pain in my knees was the same as last year's pain, the pain that I had assumed had come from my literally running down the whole of a 4,000' descent with a 30-pound pack, something I hadn't exactly trained for. But now here I was in the same state after just a handful of slow, 5-mile days. Not exactly encouraging.

The sun just would not stop. And no matter how far we descended, treeline didn't seem any closer. There was no shade, which eventually became a kind of torture. A welcome stream allowed us to cool off a bit. By the time we finally reached something resembling a forest, the sun was near to setting. We found a campsite above the river and watched diffuse rainclouds come and go in the distance.


Our final day was uneventful. I limped along through quiet forest that soon became hot and full of both backpackers and day hikers. One highlight was seeing a monument plant in bloom. This plant, which can grow as tall as a person, flowers only once in its lifetime of 20 to 80 years, and then dies.


And then we were back at Crater Lake. I collapsed in the shade. A fly fisherman was angling out in the lake.


The last descent to the car made me very unhappy. We really were blessed with the weather after the first day, but the lack of general shade on the loop was tough. The stretch of trail between Crater Lake and Maroon Lake is all angular rocks and I was hot and my knees and foot hurt. I was not having fun in the way that backpacking last year -- or at any other time -- had been fun. My energy was gone and the endorphins were gone. Of course, a miserable day in the mountains is still better than a day at work.

We saw an early-turned aspen leaf.


...and arrived at our starting point, Maroon Lake.


I had some time to sit alone at the shore of the lake while A. went to use the facilities. It was good to sit down. The pack was too heavy. I'd spent all this money to try to go "ultralight"; but A. was a poor student using old and borrowed gear, and if we'd split the shared gear (tent, filter, stove, fuel) evenly, her pack would be ten pounds heavier than mine, which didn't seem fair. So I was carrying all of it. Plus, I thought we'd only be hiking for a few hours each day... last summer, I hiked at a very reasonable 1.5 miles per hour including breaks... so I'd need to bring things to entertain me, like a hammock and a book, that I wouldn't normally bring. Plus, going slowly meant carrying more food. I'd planned for 6 days, but in fact I packed too much and had about 2 days' worth left over at the end -- so, call it 8 days' worth of food on top of all that gear, to add up to 35 pounds at the start. If I were alone and healthy, I could have hiked the loop in 2 days, and carried only a 21-pound pack.

That book was darn heavy. I would never consider bringing a hardcover book backpacking, except it was so appropriate...


Though, I only managed to read a couple chapters on the trip.


It was a while yet before w made it to the car. We chose to take the trail from the lake back to the overflow lot, instead of the road we'd first jogged in on, and the trail turned out to be a whole lot more windy and hilly than the map indicated. And there were 2 snakes. But here we are back at the lot, dirty, sunburnt and happy:


Happy about RIBS! A. had been fantasizing about going back to Hickory House for miles, and we got there right before they closed, and it was good.

As a little bonus, before we left the Aspen area we stopped at the Grotto and looked around, and I got a couple more good pics.



And that was that.

We had a few more little adventures in the following weekends, so I'll be sure to post some pics from those. But we are taking a break, now. It's tough being away every weekend. The weather is turning cold and it's a good time to slow down, and maybe clean my room.