Sunday, October 18, 2015

Wildflower Summer

Surprise Lake Trail, 4th of July weekend 

A few final photos from this summer, which was extraordinary in a few ways. I've had various passions at different points in my life -- ice hockey, kayaking, and dancing for a start. I've always loved nature too, and have backpacked for 15 years, usually at the rate of one or two trips a year. But this was the year I found places in the mountains that made me crazy (possibly literally crazy), and I didn't want to stop going back. I made eight trips over three months.

 On the Surprise Lake Trail

I don't have an addictive personality when it comes to substances (unless you count sugar), but I definitely do when it comes to activities. I am fortunate enough to be one of those people who gets a serious "runner's high" of endorphins from the right level of exercise. Running itself is usually a little too strenuous and doesn't exactly feel like ecstasy, but pushing up a steep trail under a heavy load happens to be just right.

And I am in love with color. It's one of the things in life that makes me most reliably happy. By the end of our first trip of the year, to Surprise and Upper Cataract Lakes, I was staring at the wildflowers around me the way a 1-year-old stares at strangers. Bug-eyed, fixated and a little alarmed. I was beginning to feel the agitation of addiction: This is amazing, I need to do this again as soon as possible.

Red columbine at Gore Creek 

As soon as I got back I asked for the next Monday off and went alone that weekend to another section of the Gore Range. I felt drugged for much of the weekend -- high, happy and energetic. Climbing up to Red Buffalo Pass from the south, my body was so flooded with endorphins I wanted to never stop feeling this good.

Paintbrush flowers in the Gore Range 

Me at Red Buffalo Pass 

I absolutely love passes, by the way. There is something about climbing up one or two or three or four thousand feet over the course of a day (or more) until you finally approach that dip in the ridge before you where the trail zigzags up through a carpet of flowers to... nothing. Pure blue sky. Finally getting to the top to see what's over the other side! And then down into a new valley with new weather patterns and different flowers.

Climbing up I'll be breathing so hard my own breath will chap my lips, sucking in and out, but the weight on my back actually feels good--or my ability to haul it feels good--makes me feel like Hercules. My legs take step after step no matter how tired they are. The air is so sweet and clear and the views make my heart ache. The combination of effort and beauty does something to the brain and body. I'm always trying to maintain it, like you might with a buzz after a couple beers. And of course it always goes away, and there are some pretty miserable moments backpacking too.

River crossing in muddy boots 

But I like the bad stuff too, usually, or at least some aspects of it. I love the intensity and variety of bad weather, how tough I feel when the temperature drops below freezing, how competent I feel when I set up a tent in the rain. And it's amazing to see what your body will give you if you just keep asking.

The only things that I don't like in any way are the stretches of real boredom (for every gorgeous mountain pass, there's a long stretch of miles through featureless forest), the inability to share truly beautiful things with someone else when I'l hiking alone, having to be cold and alone at the same time, and the fear of bears and lions in the night. But even those things probably have their lessons.

Taken by Kris at North Tenmile Creek 

If there has been a lesson for me about the fear of bears, it's that I have some choice in the matter of whether to be afraid.

I am often afraid at home in my own bed, or anxious, worrying about whether I'll lose my job or what this new pain in my ear means. The problem with being afraid at home is that it's easy. What if I have to go to the doctor again? There's the cost, and then I'll miss work. What if I'm not saving enough money? In my warm bed, it's easy to toss and turn, or turn on the lights, go on Facebook, get a snack, text my friends. There are a lot of choices for handling anxiety and they all either involve indulging it or distracting myself from it.

I am almost always afraid once dark comes in the woods. I lie straight as a rod in my bag in the cold, listening to the noises and thinking of the bear encounter stories I heard most recently (which people are always disturbingly eager to tell me when I talk about backpacking). A couple times it's been so bad that it's effectively panic -- pounding heart, racing thoughts, and of course a complete inability to sleep.

The thing is, at that point there isn't too much I can do about bears. I've already made my campsite as odor-free as possible and stored my food properly. What else can I do? I can't turn on the lights or call a friend, and forget hiking out in the middle of the night. The nylon surrounding me is no protection at all. All that's left is to lie there in the dark and either worry or not worry about bears.

That's the only choice. And faced with that, I reach a point where I decide not to worry. Yes, I could be attacked by a bear. If a bear does attack me, I'll deal with it then. And I go to sleep.

After managing to turn off my worrying mind this way a few times in the woods, I find myself able to do it at home, too. And in terms of the worry itself, there is no difference between a lost job and a bloodthirsty bear. It's all a lot of wasted energy over something that hasn't happened and may never.

(And if I need a little extra help, I sing.)

 Red rocks of the Maroon Formation on the way to Trail Rider Pass

 Headed toward Buckskin Pass in the early morning

There was another way in which I saw myself grow this summer, which was in letting things go before I was ready. My whole life I've had a childlike insistence that the good moments last as long as possible, until every bit of enjoyment is wrung from them. In the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I took a side trip from my planned route to crest Trail Rider Pass. It was so beautiful, and the weather so far from threatening thunderstorms, that I sat there for two hours taking it in. It's hard for me to move on from wonder until I've had a proper amount of time to absorb it all--time for the immensity of the moment to fade and begin to wither into restlessness and complacency. Then I'll go.

Two days later, I crested Buckskin Pass under swirling clouds. It was even more stunning than Trail Rider Pass, one of the finest places I've seen in Colorado. It made my heart swell up with awe. How long did I linger? Two minutes.

Mountains hulking in the distance, from the trail up Buckskin Pass

 Carpet of wildflowers below the pass

It was painful to pull myself away from such an awe-inspiring place after only two minutes there. And it seems a damned shame. I may never see it again. But I knew what I wanted, which was to get down and then over the next pass before noon, because I know a lot of people who would be sad if I were killed by lightning in an afternoon thunderstorm.

I'm not sure I would have made this exact choice in the past. I think there's something entirely new to me and also a little wonderful about being able leave such amazement so swiftly and voluntarily, and so free of regret. I got to experience something I never had before. This was not a feeling of abundance, a feeling that there are infinite wonders and another will always come; I think that's asking a bit much! Rather, it was only a sweetness in moving on from something before it's worn itself out. To have a little taste, all of which was sweet, rather than a long meal whose tastes grow familiar by the end.

Color in Willow Lake basin 

This summer I would close my eyes at night and see wildflowers. It was like they were burned into my corneas. It was a mad year for flowers, thanks to the heavy spring rains.

To be up and hiking while the sun rises is a truly lovely thing, and in fact one of my very favorite things about backpacking is to be awake and present for every sunrise and sunset (whether the sun itself makes an appearance or not!).

Leaving Willow Lake 

Sunset rainbow at Meadow Creek 

I love backpacking so much that I don't understand how other people can't love it. I exhaust my friends, planning ambitious routes and becoming confused when they want to stop after five miles. It doesn't occur to me that it might not feel good to someone else to haul 35 pounds up 3,000 feet, or that it might be appealing to sleep in till 10 and miss the best part of the day. (Now that I'm thinking about it, from their perspective I probably seem crazy.)

Flowers in September, Never Summer Wilderness 

Seeing what's on the other side of the Continental Divide

I'm sure in coming years I'll find new things to be crazed and illogical over, like tai chi or salsa dancing. But for now, this is it.

I take so many photos partly because I love photography, but also because it's sad and lonely to see such beautiful things and not be able to share them with my friends. So these posts are one way of bringing people along with me. Thank you for coming!

Kris and the rising full moon, Mt. Evans Wilderness

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Three-Pass Loop (*with bonus material!)

Here's the trip report from my latest adventure, this time to the Aspen area to do the "Three-Pass Loop" that connects to the much more famous Four-Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. It's a wonderful place to enjoy the wilderness with hundreds of other people.

If you just want to look at the pictures, please click on one and you'll be presented with a slide show.

Getting the Electric Blue Beast ready for another trip, above... I realized recently I've had this thing for 22 years. I bought it when I was 15, at a place called Tent City in Rochester, New York, where we were passing through on the way back from a vacation in Niagara Falls. I made my father stop at Tent City. I loved the outdoors. I knew I wanted to backpack, though I wouldn't actually use the pack for its intended purpose for another six years or so. As I've become more and more active I've finally come to seriously consider replacing it, but it's hard to get rid of something you've had for 22 years that has never developed a tear, ripped seam, broken zipper or any other problem. And where would I find another in that color? (I'm kidding.)

I suppose I can still keep it after I get a newer, lighter pack. Same with my trusty old bulky sleeping bag. I can lend them to friends who want to get into backpacking. "Here, try hiking up a mountain with the heaviest equipment on the planet and tell me if you dig it."

Kris and another friend and I were supposed to go to Conundrum Hot Springs for four days, but both of them ended up having to cancel. I had gotten the whole week off, thinking after Conundrum I'd car camp and see some sights in the Aspen area, which I'd wanted to see more of since our first trip to Conundrum a couple years ago. Now I had the whole week off by myself, and I hate to waste vacation time...

I decided I wanted to do something to challenge myself, and picked a 23-mile loop on the Maroon-Snowmass, Willow Lake and East Snowmass trails. There were three passes, two of which would have to be done in one day. Part of the route would be shared with the vastly more famous Four-Pass Loop. My slightly shorter and much less exhausting loop is sometimes called the Three-Pass Loop (though from talking to folks on the trail, it didn't seem like anyone at all had heard of it, so I'm not sure it's really a thing).

Because I'd been sick for most of the summer so far and had done very poorly on my latest hikes... exhausted after a few hours of labor both of the past couple weekends... I decided to take five days to complete the loop. I also wanted the challenge of trying to plan food for five days; this would be the longest I'd been in the backcountry before, and I wasn't really sure how much I'd eat, given the number of miles I'd be doing, but I was curious. There's one way to find out! However much I brought, it would all have to fit in my (new, expensive) bear canister, since as of a couple weeks ago, bear canisters were now required for the entire Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Kris was game to join me for one night afield, so I made a pre-Aspen stop in Frisco and we went out on the North Tenmile Creek Trail. It's a two-hour walk to the end of the trail with hardly any elevation gain, though enough to tell my body was free of germs and full of pep again, finally... I felt lighter on my feet than I had in a couple months.

I had picked up these foam shoes to replace my old, heavy aqua socks. They're from Walgreens and are 4oz each. Kris was disgusted with them. Not sexy, apparently. I dunno... especially with the two pairs of socks hiked halfway up my calves... well, it doesn't matter. They're already disfigured, as I had them too close to the fire that night.

That night was, by the way, the first time I have been getting ready for bed in the woods and, idly shining my headlamp about, saw it reflected back at me in a brightly glowing red spot. That moved. Predictably, I freaked out. (It was a rabbit.) Not a valiant start... I still had five more nights in the backcountry ahead of me.

As we parted the next morning I was re-packing my pack for the five-day adventure. We weighed it with Kris's fish scale; 38 pounds. I left my hammock in the trunk. It's only a pound, but I was already worrying about making it over those passes.

I got to the trailhead in Aspen about 3pm, filled out a free permit and started hiking. The Maroon-Snowmass trail is very nice, with only a few steep sections. Mostly it's a gradual uphill climb through giant tracts of aspen, with occasional grand views. It was August 9 and the mushrooms were starting to appear.

I did not carve my name in that tree.

Just before I stopped for the night, I passed a guy on the trail. He was headed down and he had nothing but a small water bottle. No pack, no jacket, no headlamp. It would be dark in an hour. He rushed past me with an unhappy face. And I wonder what happened to him.

I camped about six miles in, by a meadow with a beaver hut. There was a firepit where I stopped, though the area had been picked clean of firewood. I considered pulling some off the beaver's house. Is that okay? What if the beaver doesn't live there anymore, is it okay then?

It can be hard for me to get to sleep at night in the woods, especially the first night. People have asked me, "Aren't you scared to be up there by yourself, alone?" and the short answer is "yes." I had, after all, freaked out at the sight of a rabbit the night before. It is scary to be alone in the woods at night -- especially when you've been seeing lots of signs about bears in the area.

And lest you all think I'm just insanely brave and hardy, I want to make it clear that I don't backpack alone because I prefer to. I (almost) always would prefer to go with friends. But for me, if my friends can't come, going alone is preferable to not going at all. And it does come with certain advantages -- I adore the peace and quiet of being by myself, the sense of connection with nature, and the ability to be perfectly independent, hitting the trail as early as I want and doing exactly what I want to do.

But this was my fifth summer in Colorado and the first in which I've backpacked here alone. I've gone alone in New Hampshire, the badlands of South Dakota, the Painted Desert of Arizona and many other places, but Colorado, with its elevated terrain and abundance of large predators, was just too intimidating. Until this year, when I finally fell in love. It took five years for me to stop comparing the Rockies to the lush savageness of New Hampshire's White Mountains and see them in their own right, and find the green and blooming places that exist once you get away from the arid Front Range. And then I couldn't stop. I don't endure the fear and the weather and the aloneness because I'm brave, but because I love wilderness and beauty with all my heart and will put up with a lot in order to be there. It's not about bravery but pure stupid love.

Regardless of whether I really want to be alone, I'm interested in the psychology behind the questions I get asked, and the fears of the people who ask them. Usually, people who don't want to camp alone (or at all) are either "animal people" or "people people" -- that is, they're afraid primarily of either wild animals or criminal-minded humans, rarely both equally. Which chills your blood more, and what does that say about you?

I'm also interested in those who respond that they're afraid to camp alone, "...but I think I should get over it, work up to it, maybe start with just  one night." I have three friends who have said this to me this summer. My response to that is, Why? Why does it seem like something you "should" do or be able to do? Why does anyone need to camp alone? And I want a real answer, because I want both to protect my friends from silly expectations they've picked up from me or elsewere and to know if, just possibly, there is a bit of that fierce need for intimacy with the outdoors that's inside me inside them too.

[Ironically, in the middle of writing this I went out to dinner with my cousin, who also said she thought she ought to try camping alone, even though she gets scared at night camping in a group. So I asked her why she thought she should do it. She said, "I just hate the idea that it's fear that's keeping me from doing anything." Well all right folks, have at it!]

Back to my first night alone on Maroon-Snowmass. In the backcountry, I admit, I am an "animal person." In the dark, everything sounds like a bear. Like the couple who came crashing in to set up camp at 10 at night, waking me up.

But in the morning, everything is harmless again, beautiful and exciting. As I pulled out of camp and the guy shushed his dog, who was growling at me, I had to wonder why he was sleeping outside the tent and the dog was inside.

After crossing the creek at a giant logjam that took five minutes to navigate, I was soon at Snowmass Lake, and the sudden sight of Hagerman Peak rising above the lake was stunning, one of the finest moments of the trip. Snowmass Mountain itself, by the way, is the rounded bump to the right of center in the photo; it looks smaller and lower but it is the 14er, the highest peak in the immediate area. It's just further away.

I set up camp by the lake. There are about 100 campsites there, and for once I'm only slightly exaggerating. But I don't think anyone ever needs to be concerned about getting a spot at that lake. After my tent was up I decided I still had energy so I hiked up to Trail Rider Pass, one of the four passes in the Four-Pass Loop. This is a nice little hike from the lake.

There was a crowd up at the pass, and more backpackers kept summiting from either direction, all of them doing the Four-Pass Loop. A helicopter was also circling; I learned later there was a rescue of an injured climber 60' below the summit of Snowmass.

This woman was out on a day hike with her three Pomeranians, one of which was riding in her fanny pack.

Me and a look over the other side of the pass.

The woman who was closest in this picture was part of a large group that included several older ladies. I was eagerly discussing lightweight gear with one of them; she had a Zpack she said weighed about a pound. But it was the woman in the picture who said, "I'm almost 68, and still doin' it."

I stayed up there a couple hours talking to people and snapping pictures, until I was the only one left. Then I got bored and came down.

At one point on the way down I heard a shrill noise and looked up to see this fellow surveying the area. No, it's not a bear. I wish... kind of. It was just a marmot.

When I got down the sun was doing funny things on the surface of the lake.

The next day I would take a rest day, just to make sure I had enough energy to climb two passes before noon the day following. I woke to see Hagerman Peak wrapped in fog. When it started to rain I did a rare thing and actually went back to bed, napping and reading and writing for hours. Later I came out and wandered around looking at campsites and the other side of the lake.

I found this pattern on a log that had fallen across the trail. It illustrates my journey... or something.

There was a tiny pond formed by a pile of alluvium that cut a stretch of water off from the rest of the lake.

Hagerman's peak again, with active clouds forming and rising from it like steam from a volcano:

I was almost done with the book I'd brought, Never Let Me Go. The cover said that it was the novel of the decade, according to the Times, but I thought it was pretty terrible. The book had gotten damp a couple days before and hadn't dried, and it was heavy and I didn't want to carry it over the passes and I was personally offended by it, so I decided to burn it. I only had 35 pages left and so I ripped those out and took the rest of the book down to the campfire sites 1/4 mile below the lake, knelt by a vacant fire ring and tried to light it on fire.

It wouldn't light. I'd always imagined that a book would just flash into flame the moment you set a lighter to it, but I ended up having to tear out individual pages and light them (and re-light them) one by one to get the thing to burn. It took a long time and smelled terrible. Just like you imagine a bad book (even one that was made into a movie with Keira Knightley) would smell.

That night I lay in my cold tent in the dark, as the wilderness turned spooky again. Tomorrow morning I was supposed to be heading off toward a section of trail with a lot fewer people, and my thoughts in that muddled period before sleep turned to breaking ankles in stream crossings, being mauled by bears, and not being found until next weekend. I told myself it was up to me -- I could always just stay at the lake, surrounded by noisy 20-somethings always readying for the next pass -- and went to sleep.

But the morning was beautiful and then I was eager for adventure again, and I packed as quickly as I could. I had to do it fast because I wanted to hit the trail by seven, the better to make sure I'd get over both passes by noon, hopefully avoiding afternoon lightning. But the alarm on my phone hadn't gone off. It hadn't gone off yesterday either. Yesterday, I'd turned it on in confusion after I woke up, and it asked me to enter the time. So I did. And set the alarm again that night. This morning, I turned it on in confusion after I woke up, and it asked me to enter the time. All right, so my phone can't cope with lack of cell service at all.

The light was just touching the peaks in front of me.

It had been raining in the night, and mud coated the lowest four inches of the tent. I tried to wash a little off but then realized if I used any more water I'd have to filter more for the day's climb, so I stopped, and simply wrestled the filthy tent into my pack as it was. There's something horrible about hurriedly stuffing sopping wet, mud-coated items into a previously clean and dry pack, even when you know they'll get a chance to dry out a little later, provided the sun stays out. When I finished, my hands and arms were completely coated in cold mud. I couldn't see my skin. This was the least fun moment of the trip for me. I can think of other circumstances in which I'd enjoy being covered in mud, but at the time it was really distasteful and depressing. I wiped myself on a tree, looked at my campsite and made a mental note not to camp again on a surface of pure, fine dirt; humus and pine needles would never splash up and coat the tent in the same way.

After passing through a couple meadows on the way to Buckskin Pass, I began to climb. I'd heard the Four-Pass hikers talking about how, coming from the west, Buckskin was the easiest pass of the lot. And yet I was dying by the time I was halfway up. I was keeping pace between a long line of older hikers who, whenever they stopped for a break, motioned to me to overtake them, but I refused. I wanted to ask, "What makes you think I'm in better shape than you?" Eventually they pulled away from me as I plodded more and more slowly upward. What's more, I repeatedly kept having to stop to pee, as my body had decided to find and jettison whatever extra weight it could.

But as I finally came above treeline, the views were amazing. Though you can't get a sense of it through the picture below, while climbing I had the feeling that, back to the west, Snowmass was rising as well, as more and more of it appeared above the intervening ridgeline. The mountain seemed only to grow as I got higher and more distant from it. It was eerie.

When I was halfway up, a pack of coyotes struck up in the distance. I've never heard coyotes during the day like that. The flowers were pretty amazing, too.

Finally I crested the pass. It's odd how I don't look tired at all... that definitely wasn't the case.

Though Buckskin Pass was one of the most beautiful places I've been this summer, I only stayed about two minutes, because storms were forming to the south and I really wanted to try to get over Willow Pass too before any lightning was unleashed. I had a look down the (extremely steep) other side. On the right is Pyramid Peak, another 14er.

I had to descend about 700' to the junction with the Willow Trail, then climb another 700' just as steeply, one eye on the clouds.

I really don't want to be struck by lightning, ever. If there is such a thing as a non-bucket list, that's on it. If I didn't ascend Willow Pass, I'd have to go down; either back down the side of Buckskin I just came up, where I saw some flat areas to camp near treeline, or down toward Crater Lake. Either way I'd have to re-climb a whole bunch of vertical feet tomorrow. That provided a powerful motivation to risk lightning, which I was aware of; the psychology of how people get caught in adverse conditions is as interesting as the physics of it. And I felt guilty for listening to that lazy part of me, but of course I was going to try to get over the second pass despite the clouds.

I told myself that if the sky got worse while I was climbing, I'd turn around, not sure I'd actually have the sense to do so once I had the pass in sight. Thankfully, it cleared up. As I reached the junction and climbed, I came up into a tiny alpine bowl surrounded by red rock on three sides, with a stream trickling through and piles of flowers. It was the prettiest little place and I was the only human in it. I felt like I was the first person to see it, that it was all mine.

The lowest section of red wall in the picture, where there's a grey streak, is Willow Pass. That final part is quite steep, with aggressive switchbacks in loose gravel.

I had chapped lips at that point from being in a constant wind -- the wind of my breath going in and out in gasps for four hours as I worked the two passes. I tried to capture the difficulty and the views in this snippet of movie:


I like this picture of me not because I look like a big goofball, which I am, but because I look happy, which I was.

From the top of the pass I could see Willow Lake in its high alpine bowl. It was very close. But I took so many pictures of the flowers on my way down, it took two hours to get there.

My camera was refusing to focus again. It's shown a remarkable reluctance to focus the last few weeks -- much like its owner -- and all the yuck you can see on the lens in the video was probably the reason. The blurred shots made the Willow Lake bowl seem even more like a fairy tale location.

These shots are real; I mean that while I fiddled with the contrast on the photos when I got home, it was only to make it look more like real life... even then, the photos can't really compete with what it was actually like.

There were so many wildflowers in some patches it was like a continuous carpet. And I was the only person around. The entire place was dreamlike.

When I finally got down to the lake it was about 2pm and I was exhausted and very hungry. As it turns out, on the question of how much food I'd actually eat on a five-day trip with this much exertion, I'd undercalculated a little. I wasn't going to starve but I was starting to want more calories at each meal than I had put in the bear canister. At the lake I did let myself enjoy this treat I'd been saving:

And this... uh, treat... not quite as much fun...

The Forest Service wants us to use these "portable toilets" in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness as the area is so popular and they're afraid the camping locations are going to become landfills of human poop, basically. I have to say that while I don't think anyone really wants to carry their own poop around, it is a lot easier using these bags than trying to dig a suitable hole in rock-hard clay.

Not only did it not storm that afternoon, but the clouds faded completely until the sky was a pure bowl of blue and the sun baked me where I sat reading on a rock. When I finished my terrible book I wandered up the little pass behind Willow Lake and looked down on Maroon Lake and the tourist trails, wondering if anyone was looking up in my direction.

On the way back I saw these ancient mudcracks in the sandstone. These rocks are around 300 million years old, from before the time of the dinosaurs, and the tracks of early reptile-like creatures have been found in them. (The whole time I was hiking I was looking for tracks, but no luck.)

When my camera refused to focus for any photo other than that mudcrack one, I took it apart with tools I'd brought for the purpose and cleaned the ultraviolet filter. It's a foible of my camera -- when the lens extends, it sucks air into the camera, along with bits of dust and clothing fibers, and there's no proper gasket around the UV filter and lens to keep it out.

This deer was very curious about what I was doing.

Eventually a couple other backpackers showed up and set up camp far away from me. I never spoke to them. It still felt like I had the whole bowl to myself, and it was wild and lonely and beautiful and boring. In the night, I had to put my earplugs in to sleep because some animal kept making crazy noises. I woke in time for the sunrise.

I had one more pass to climb -- the 12,700' East Snowmass Pass, which would be the highest point on my trip. This was a bit of a slog up overly-steep, eroded switchbacks, but it did have one delight; at the top I saw a flower I hadn't seen all summer. There it was, growing only on the east side of that one pass.

Looking back toward Willow Lake, with Pyramid Peak and the East Maroon and Conundrum valleys in the distance:

And down into the new valley of East Snowmass Creek:

As I descended I saw a couple other new kinds of flowers I hadn't seen at all this summer, though they disappeared after I descended just a couple dozen feet. It's fascinating how they can be ubiquitous, like the showy daisy, or confined to just a single microclimate on one side of a pass at a particular altitude, in a particular soil.

I didn't take too many pictures on the way down the East Snowmass Trail. It was one of the worst trails I've ever hiked. It clearly wasn't designed or planned in any way; it was easy to imagine it followed the path of a lost and confused horse that had wandered away from a mining party early in the century. It went straight up and straight down hills without using switchbacks, It went straight up and straight down hills for no apparent reason when it could have simply gone around them, in fact. It was also massively overgrown for all but the final two miles, requiring me to push through bushes that towered over my head and snagged my clothing for much of the hike. There was a general lack of trees, which might have been fine if it hadn't been such a roastingly hot day. And over the course of eight miles the trail plunged 4,200', which my poor toes weren't too happy about by the end.

So I have a better understanding now of why nobody hikes the "Three-Pass Loop." This final section, which makes up nearly half the loop, just isn't very nice. But if you don't mind steepness, erosion, clutching bushes and lack of shade, you'll do all right. I will note that there was nowhere to camp along the trail -- the terrain was too steep in general -- except for a few possibly flattish areas up near the pass. And if you're that close to the pass, why not just camp by the lake?

I got to my car around 1:30 and headed straight for the Red Brick Rec Center in Aspen, where I took a very long shower. Let me describe this shower. The rec center was deserted except for a couple women with small children, and I had the bathroom, changing area and open shower space to myself. I took off my shoes and pressed my pale calloused soles into the thin carpet! The first showerhead I tried was a tepid trickle, but the second was piping hot. First I washed my backpacking shirt in it, then my body, and then performed a variety of grooming tasks that may or may not have required hot water. Then I just stood there for another 20 minutes in the water, enjoying being where I was. It was the best thing I did on the entire trip. Everyone should take up backpacking for the purpose of improving their showers.

This works with eating, too. I had toyed with the idea of having a fine meal in Aspen but on exiting the rec center I realized what I wanted was McDonald's. I've eaten at McDonald's maybe twice in the last eight years, but at that moment nothing else would do. There is actually a McDonald's in "downtown" Aspen, which required a time investment of about an hour to find parking and then about ten seconds to inhale my burger and fries. And actually it was insanely good.

I wasn't crazy about Aspen itself. I am not big on towns to begin with, and this one was filled with traffic, rich people in bad sunglasses, and tourists not paying attention to where they were going. I suppose you could say that about half of Colorado's mountain towns, but Aspen was even moreso. In fact I will go so far as to say I hated it.

There's also the fact that dispersed camping is very hard to come by in the area. The roads on which The Internet had said you could find dispersed camping, both of which were a half hour out of town, turned out to require a high-clearance vehicle (despite being marked otherwise on my map), and the pay campgrounds were all full -- except for one site at Difficult Campground that was open for the next two nights, after which it was reserved. I found this site after maybe three hours of looking for a place to camp.

The thing that I learned about Difficult Campground (which is its actual name) is that you can only pay for one night at a time, in case someone makes an internet reservation on your site. So I paid for one night. After that, due to some oversights on my part when packing, I had no more checks. Or cash. Or my debit card. So I had no idea where I was going to sleep on Friday.

There's also a Difficult Trail, I think you should know.

Fine, be that way.

I made camp at about 8pm, enjoyed a tiny bit of wine and about a billion stars in the warm weather for half an hour, wishing very much that I had someone to share it with. Then I crashed. Then I got up at 4am to get ready for photographing the Maroon Bells. So basically, I spent $23 in the form of my only check in order to pass out for less than eight hours before hitting the road again. I should have just pulled over on one of those dozens of roadside gravel patches that were, within an hour of Aspen, inevitably marked with a "No Camping" sign and seen if any cops showed up.

But none of it mattered, because there were the stars. That was the best show of stars I've seen in years, and when I woke at four o'clock it was even more brilliant. And just in the time it took me to get into my car I saw six shooting stars, tearing silently across all parts of the sky.

I got to the Bells too early. I'd read that you had to get there early to secure a spot along the lake, fighting off hordes of photographers who are skilled in the use of tripods as weapons. I mean, look at this picture. The Bells are, depending on which web page you're reading, the most frequently-photographed landscape in either Colorado, North America, or the entire world. And once you come to know their profile you will start to see them everywhere -- on calendars, in advertisements, on credit cards, and randomly alongside the word "mountains" in things that have nothing to do with Colorado or even North America. (Or mountains.)

Well, it was 5AM, an hour and a half before sunrise, and I was alone. So I ought to have slept in. But I saw the mountains and I liked them. They're beautiful. The sun rose and I kept taking pictures, though none was very good in comparison to the first 1,000 images of the Bells you'll see in a Google search.

And I hiked up to Crater Lake. I like this picture because it makes me look like an active person, even a runner, instead of someone who surfs the web for 50 hours a week and then takes off on harebrained backpacking trips she isn't in shape for.

When I returned to Maroon Lake there was a fellow set up to paint the Bells, and it was the quaintest thing I'd ever seen. But the landscape itself looks like a painting already, not quite real.

The above is the photo backdrop I'm going to photoshop myself into to make it look like I went interesting places in coming years.

After that I checked out the Grotto, also called the Ice Caves, which is a small but interesting little section of creek on the other side of Aspen where the water carved the rock into fluted walls and caverns. It was very cool and I wanted to explore more, but I was all alone, and didn't fancy the idea of crawling through submerged caverns by myself, especially with thunder rumbling in the distance.

That night I managed to find a dispersed camping spot on Brush Creek Road out by Snowmass Village -- on the other other side of Aspen -- so for all you travelers as miserly as me, I'd recommend that area for dispersed camping. (And for those reading the blog who may not know, dispersed camping is camping somewhere on National Forest or BLM land outside of a designated campground, usually along a roadside. It's allowed everywhere unless specified otherwise. A dispersed camping site may just be a tiny pulloff, or a well-developed flat site in the woods with a built-up fire ring and even a few logs to sit on.)

The next morning, still in love with the Elk Range, I went for another hike, this time up the East Maroon Creek Trail, since it looked fairly flat on the map and I was tired. There were loads of Aspen and also loads of mud. But the one good thing about mud is animal tracks. Like these ones:

Fresh bear tracks, facing the same direction I was going. I had been hiking really fast but slowed way down when I saw those, clapping my hands as I walked. This is the first time I've seen bear tracks on a trail. No bear, though. I DID want to see one... just from a ways away. (The only time I've seen a bear from the trail was at Conundrum, two years before and just one valley over, and it seemed terrified of us, running into the bushes as soon as we came into view.)

I finished hiking early that day because I wanted to start heading home. It's a long drive from Aspen, especially for my poor back which hates my car seats, and I wanted to break it up by doing another backcountry night in the Frisco area on the way home. I also wanted to look around Independence Pass, which I hadn't had a chance to do on the way out.

I can't give this picture much credit because I didn't hike to it; driving to a good viewpoint is way too easy:

But I didn't really get to look around Independence Pass this time either, because lightning was striking nearby peaks as I drove up, and a giant anvil-shaped cloud was forming over the pass. I did poke around for about a minute in the alpine terrain I love so much, but then decided that the fact that a hundred other people were doing it didn't mean it was a good idea, and got back in the car. Onward to Frisco and the Meadow Creek Trail.

I had seen this trail from Eccles Pass earlier in the summer and it looked beautiful, creeks and meadows and plots of healthy trees, so I strapped the hammock on and set off into the heat to while away my last hours of freedom reading and daydreaming 'neath the pines. But shortly after setting out through the barren beetle-kill forests at the start of the trail, I was being pelted with hail, no shelter in sight. It came on so fast my two bottom layers and pack got drenched before I could pull my raincoat and pack cover on. And so I didn't stop anywhere to put up any hammock. I just kept hiking and it kept raining, until I'd gone up 2,000' and was below Eccles Pass. And then the clouds opened up a little.

And everything was glory for about an hour. There was even a beaver, the first wild one I've ever seen up close, in the little pond before the pass. It kept swimming past me and smacking its tail on the water in warning:


It got cold and dark and began to rain again while I was eating my dehydrated eggs, and I crawled wet into the tent and lay listening to the noises in the dark, scared and alone and confused. Thinking, Why do I do this? This isn't fun. It's not a nice thing to be wet and cold in the wild dark, wondering if that last thing you heard was a bear. This is my sixth night in the backcountry this week. You know, the more I go, the more likely it is I'll be mauled by a wild animal or assaulted by another human being at some point, or sprain my ankle and starve or freeze to death before anyone finds me. Basically I am, statistically, inching toward death. Maybe I should take it easy.

Then I fell asleep and slept like a log, and woke and it wasn't raining. For about a minute. As I got up and started to pack it started raining again, and I would be shoving a wet (if less muddy) tent into my pack once more. But the clouds parted in the east and a massive, vivid rainbow spread itself over the Gore Range, the only time in my life I can recall seeing a rainbow at dawn. And I thought, Who am I kidding?