Maroon Bells Trip
July 23 - 27th, 2007
On July 22 I left Martin around 9AM to pick up Deniece at the Denver airport about 4PM. For those of you who don't know who Deniece is, she's a friend I met in Seattle through the fellow I shared a house with. Deniece grew up backpacking and her husband, a wonderful human being, simply doesn't like the outdoors. So he "loans" Deniece to me now for a week every summer.
For those of you who don't know who I am, I am a friend Deniece met through a mutual friend with whom she enjoys backpacking.
I stopped to pick up some last minute items, a novel, a stocking hat, and a map of the Maroon Bells. I drove to the holding area near the old toll booths and waited for her phone call. The waiting area is a parking lot, and the signs say stay in your car - some sort of homeland security thing. Lots of people got out and stretched, and switched sides of the parking lot as they realized they were sitting in the sun. This was about the most anxious, transitory feeling place I'd been in a while. Everyone was meeting someone and waiting for the cell phone call that said they were ready to be picked up.
After 20 minutes I picked her up and we drove west on I-70. We stopped at Silverthorne for a pizza dinner and fuel canisters. If you haven't visited the small towns on I-70 in a while you'll be surprised. Many of them have 50,000 people, all living in condos and trophy homes built in the last 25 years. It's kinda gross, coming from Martin, and owning a house in Laramie built in 1880.
We got back on the freeway heading west and were jabbering so much we missed the turn-off to Leadville and drove east another 60 miles to Hwy 82 and the road to Aspen. This is the kind of thing that makes or breaks a friendship. How does a person respond to blowing it, to deviating from a plan. I think one of the reasons Deniece and I continue to hike together is that neither of us got upset. Ok - option #2 is tor drive to Hwy 82 and head southwest. Mapquest said it took the same amount of time even though it was 40 miles longer. We drove the other way back, over one 12,000 and two 10,000' passes, twisting and turning in the rain after the trip, and it actually was a longer drive with the winnebagos lumbering along.
It turns out we were lucky to miss the turnoff as there was a mudslide 100 yards before the campground we'd reserved a space that night. The highway from I-70 to Aspen has a couple information signs, and the ones we saw said there was a mudslide at milepost 46, and the road was closed. That was 100 yards past our campground.
The campground was easy to find, as was our space. We put up our tents, me my car tent for three, Deniece her backpacking tent for one. The rain had stopped but the people next to us partied into the wee hours. It didn't stop me from sleeping, or Deniece, as she reported the next morning.
We got up the next morning and drove around Aspen looking for a place to eat breakfast, finding a bakery that served a good, hearty lox and crème cheese omelet. This was a much different world frome Martin, or even Santa Rosa. Aspen is very urban, and yet, surrounded with peaks rising three and four thousand feet straight up from the valley.
The following two images are google earth views of the loop.
We drove the five miles out of town up the West Maroon Creek Road to the entrance station where we spent $10 and got a parking pass good for five days. We drove up the beautiful river valley another five miles to the parking area where we had to ask a church group to move their 30 or so packs from the last parking space in the lot.
It took us a half hour to get our stuff organized, pressured just a bit, not wanting to get behind the church group. It looked like many of the kids had never hiked before - bungee cords hold sleeping bags onto metal framed packs.
We hiked along the parking lot to the foot of Maroon Lake and the "classic" photo op.
At the inlet side of the lake I got a nice shot of a fly fisherman casting. By this time the trail had begun to climb gently up towards Crater Lake. Views back to Maroon Lake were rather awesome.
After an hour or so of hiking we got to Crater Lake and were ready for a break.
The Maroon Bells loomed over Crater Lake and the view over Crater Lake up the West Maroon Creek valley was calling. . After a 20 minute hike we stopped and snapped some photos looking back over Crater Lake. We continued to hike up and up and up, gently thank you! We met a lot of people heading the same direction we were and began to worry just a bit about finding a decent place to pitch our tents for the night. We started leap frogging a couple of groups and as we got within a quarter mile of timberline, saw a trail leading off the into the woods. We'd dropped our packs at a potential camp spot, but in the fine Dave Shavel tradition, Deniece convinced me we should check out further up for a better spot. We found one and Deniece ran back and picked up her pack. When she got back I did the same and we had fun putting up our tents.
There were probably four or five decent campsites within 20 minutes of timberline. Perhaps the most view filled was in the last stand of trees about 100' up from the trail before the wide open basin and the climb up to West Maroon Pass.
The view just 10' from our tents was beautiful, and it changed as we fetched water and got used to being in the woods.
We cooked dinner, rice and veges and a can of real chicken after breaking out the bourbon. We each had a finger or so before dinner.
We made our way into our tents just before dark. Our tents were too far apart to talk so we had to content ourselves with listening to the rain drops fall on our tents.
We got up the next morning and packed.
The sun on the mountains was sublime.
The morning was cool only for a while. It only took 15 minutes or so to get to timberline and whole West Maroon Creek Basin to open up, and the pass to get closer and closer. Of course I am overweight and out of shape so Deniece, 15 years younger, more vigorous, and of course, far more attractive, would bound up these passes and kindly wait for me, greeting me with a smile as I huffed and puffed my way to the top. .
We got to the top of the pass and took a couple pictures of the vistas below us both to east and west.
The Maroon Bells had a different look from this angle, still 14,000' of majesty. It turns out that the 4 Pass Loop we were hiking is really a circumambulation of the Bells. We saw them from all 360 degrees.
This was the west side view from the pass. We dropped about 700', traversed to the north, and then climbed 700' up to Frigid Air Pass.
We took a break when the trail flattened out and dried our condensation damp sleeping bags and tents. The air was low in humidity despite it having rained all night. The valley below us was pretty spectacular. There were people who had spent the night in Aspen and were day hiking to Crested Butte where they had reservations in a nice hotel/condominium. They would then hike back the next day. Not a bad way to see beautiful country.
The trail to Frigid Air Pass looked really steep
The top of Frigid Air Pass offered indescribable views down into Fravert Basin.
The clouds were building and it was pretty obvious it was going to rain. About 5 minutes before entering the first stand of trees at 11,500' it began to rain lightly. Other hikers stopped to put on rain gear and pack covers. Deniece and hiked until we got to the trees. It was not much of a decision to stop for the day, even though it was only 2PM. The site was not perfectly level, which we figured was fine because then water wouldn't pool up under our tents if rained for any length of time.
The rain stopped and we tightened and taughtened our tent lines, made dinner, ate, and just as we finished, the rain came down earnestly. It was polite and we were ready. We crawled into our tents and lay there, talking back and forth, listening to the rain, reading, and nodding off into a warm, dreamy, safe kinda sleep.
About 5PM it began to rain a little harder. Its earnestness transformed into "Damn it's raining hard!!!" We both checked the ground around our tents and we seemed to be ok - no serious runoff.
In a matter of 30 seconds the really hard rain turned into the most intense hail storm either of us have ever been in. From being battered by rain we lay in our tents while hail and rain bombarded us. We were under attack, protected by only the thinnest of single-wall silnylon in my case. My tent has a mesh stripe that runs just above the bathtub floor. I could see out and and what I saw was white. I realized in just a couple minutes that I had to kick the ceiling of my tent every 30 seconds or so to rid it of a couple pounds of hail.
What became of serious concern, as we lay there, was the rivulets of water that coursed down the hillside underneath our tents. I had a half in deep, 12" wide stream coursing under the tent where my body wasn't lying on my blue foam pad. There was nothing we could do. It was raining/hailing so hard that water was FLYING UPWARDS it was hitting the ground so hard, and coming into our tents through the mesh surrounding our bath tub floors.
At one point I neglected to kick the hail off and one of the supports at the foot of my tent collapsed. I ended up holding up that side of tent with my foot for about 10 minutes until the hail and rain relented a bit. What a feeling. The hail was so loud Deniece and I could barely hear each other yelling and we were six feet apart. I lay there helpless to do anything but hold up the foot of the tent and kick off the hail. I was swabbing the water that came in from the bouncing rain with a couple handkerchiefs I'd wring out through the door of the tent, would lie back and relax for a moment, and then perform maintenance.
Finally, the hail relented and I left the tent to put back up the tent's support and see if I couldn't divert the rain away from the tents. When I got out the ground was covered with 3 INCHES OF HAIL. Three inches - no exaggeration. The foot of Deniece's tent had about a foot of hail surrounding it where it had slid off. I tried to hand shovel hail down the slope away from the tents, and dig little trenches to divert the water from the tents. My work didn't bear much fruit other than to have me get totally soaked and feel the first hint of hypothermia.
I crawled back into my tent and changed into my warm sleeping clothes and lay there while it continued to rain, albeit earnestly again, rather than assaultingly. I had yet to take my sleeping bag out of its black plastic garbage sack so it was totally dry. I decided I didn't need it to develop warmth, and didn't take it out until it actually stopped raining earnestly and retreated to intermittant showers.
The next morning I took a couple of photos that don't tell the story. Needless to say I didn't think of taking pictures while it was happening...
Needless to say coffee that morning was welcome, as was some sun. We dried our gear for a half or or so before leaving camp.
The hike down Fravert Basin was incredible. This trip was turning into one visual spectacular after another, beating anything Disney could put together hands down...
The trail pretty much went through waist high brush that was wet, and through stands of trees. There weren't many campsites, only two or three after the one we took. The views continued. We got to the top of a 150' cascade and took numerous pictures from its shoulder and then from below looking back up at it.
We took a break in the meadow a half mile below the falls.
After the break we continued on down the trail, crossing a creek and arriving at a packers camp in 100 yards or so. We lost the trail in the camp and wandered around for 10 minutes or so looking for it. We were getting a bit frustrated when one of the parties we had been leap frogging for the previous couple days arrived, two guys and a gal in their early 20s. Deniece noticed the woman was wearing makeup.
They had a guidebook and one of them read out loud. For some reason, the trail, which had every junction marked up until then, had an important junction unmarked. It turns out we missed two opportunities to strike to our right across the meadow and wade Fravert Creek. WE back tracked and found a smaller trail and a sign 100 yards from what we thought was the main trail. We were now on the North Cutoff Trail, which would take us up to Trail Rider Pass.
After crossing the creek we started heading almost straight up the ridge. We were going to climb from about 10,800' up to 12, 400'. The cutoff trail was really, really steep, and this 55 year old guy really, really worked hard. Deniece of course just breezed up the trail. The pictures back up Fravert Basin to the falls and above were awesome.
And then down, to the west toward the Geneva Lake trailhead
We climbed up to about 11,400' to a junction. One way went up to Trail Rider Pass, and the other to Geneva Lake. We decided to spend the night at Geneva Lake, leery of the weather. The trail left the tundra country and entered north facing forest as we gently traversed down and around the nose of a ridge. We came to a pristine little vale about 100 yards long and 100' wide - just grass surrounded with 50' conifers. I was ready to spend the night there, protected from big views, tired and wanting the little world of the forest. But no, it was not to be.
We hiked another couple hundred yards and came to a sign saying we could only camp in designated sites. The closest to us was a ways off the trail. We switchbacked down a steeper north facing ridge and just as we came to the open meadow, we cut cross-country towards where we thought the campsite was. We arrived at it - nothing special, and a good 100 yards up from the lake. It was protected fairly well.
Once we got the tents up and Deniece put on her camp and river crossing shoes, we retired to a slab of granite to sip some Makers Mark and eat some dinner. Note the Mountain House ad. The granite slab had big views of the basin above and behind the lake, and the lake itself.
We were almost giddy with joy that we were able to sit out and enjoy the slow move towards darkness. This was the only night on the trip where it didn't rain once we were in camp. We enjoyed it. We're not limiting our thinking for next summer's trip to the dry Sierra Nevada. Sadly though, the rain did start to move in. We laughed our way to our tents and settled in for another long night. With rain beating on the single wall tent I wasn't long for the world and fell asleep fairly soon.
The next morning the rain had played itself out and the sky was at least half blue as we headed back to the trail junction. Trail Rider Pass called.
We got to the top of the pass and enjoyed the beyond amazing vistas back the way we'd come.
The east side of the pass called.
Looking back up to Trail Rider Pass
We stopped for a food break, and so did a lot of other people that aren't in the picture.
Snowmass Lake got closer and closer.
We hiked down and down and down, finally passing the lake 200 vertical feet and a quarter mile away. By this time we were in thick forest and the white/gray clouds had turned increasingly gray. The traverse across the bottom of Snowmass Basin was very uninteresting, perhaps the least interesting part of the hike, or perhaps just different. The clouds were mounting and I was ready to set up camp, and it wasn't even noon. We had a couple testy moments where I tested the waters about stopping and Deniece made it clear she wasn't ready. We hiked on and finally came to Snowmass Creek. There was a use trail heading off to our right as soon as we entered the creek's meadows. We headed over to the campsite, kind of dirty and not very flat, but there was space for two tents.
Deniece wasn't ready to set up camp and get into the tent - it was just noon. We worked through that and set up camp just in time for the rain to start.
I was lying in my tent reading and Deniece was outside wandering around, staying out of her tent, when one of the Massachusetts people came up. He shared that the creek was swollen and looked really dangerous to cross. He thought we should look at it. He and his party were going to cross it and find a camp up on top of the ridge leading out of Snowmass Creek's meadow.
Deniece and I finally followed and found a very swollen creek. The log over the creek in the first picture was wet and looked really slippery. Just downstream of it was a cascade.
Upstream from the log 100' or so was a beaverdam and a pool below it. The water was just pouring over the dam.
The Massachuesetts people decided to cross in the pool below the beaver dam.
This is a picture from camp of the flooded meadow of Snowmass Creek.
It wasn't too much longer and the rain began in earnest. We decided not to cook dinner, but eat our snack food. Deniece practiced lines from her play while I stared at the tent and slowly drifted off to sleep.
We woke up the next morning, and it was cloudy, but only partly so.
Deniece was up and for the first time, needed to relieve herself first thing in the morning. She won't appreciate me saying so, or the shots of her heading off for the perfect spot to defecate.
We began to pack and had a visitor.
We broke camp and headed the three minutes over to the creek. I took my shoes off and strode across where the Massachusetts people had crossed. No problem. It was thigh high and moving gently. Deniece wore her flashy river crossing, camp shoes and we were good to go, heading up the ridge out of the basin towards Buckskin Pass. n the first picture it's at the very left edge.
Looking back down towards the meadow and camp.
This was our fifth day and our fourth pass. We hadn't climbed any passes our first and third days. On the second we'd climbed over West Maroon and Frigid Air Passes. Now we were climbing up towards Buckskin Pass.
Now we're at the top of the pass.
There's Trail Rider Pass off in the distance, just the left of Snowmass Mountain.
Now we look down to the east and the end of our trip on the Four Pass Loop.
We start down and in a matter of minutes gaze back up to the pass.
Down and down and down, about 3500' in all. Here's some pictures of Minnehaha Gulch and the brooding Maroon Bells just to our right and thousands of feet.
WE wound our way down and down, passing way above Crater Lake to a junction. We'd been passing day hikers for a couple hours, from the top of the pass actually, and now there were families in flip flops and sweating unnaturally. We traversed east and none of the trail looked familiar. We went up and down and were a bit confused, but were headed in the right direction. Finally we dropped down to Maroon Lake and the awed hoards. We got back to the car and gladfully divested our sore bodies of our backpacks.
A good trip. Wet, crowded, but oh so beautiful...
Mountain man back home...