Part One –Acclimatization:My wife Blynn and I and our friend Rick left Indianapolis on the evening of July 19th with plans to drive through the night and camp at Cedar Bluff State Park in KS on the following night. We made better time than expected and decided to drive straight through to Penrose –Southwest of CO Springs— where we planned to spend two days visiting Blynn’s aunt and uncle and to begin the process of acclimatizing. On July 2nd, we headed north through Phantom Canyon, stopping for Ice Cream in Cripple Creek. We camped at a nice walk-in sight in a National Forest campground at the far end of Turquoise Lake –west of Leadville. The afternoon storm hit as soon as we set up camp and we ended up cooking and eating dinner in a cold rain. The next morning we headed up the Hagerman Pass Road and hiked past the Busk Creek Divide (12,200’) to just above Native Lake. This proved to be a magnificent warm-up hike, with a nice mix of forest, subalpine meadows, cascades and views of the surrounding peaks. The trail was well maintained and not too steep. The wildflowers were nearing their peak and the walk through the tundra near the divide was gorgeous. We agreed that Native Lake would make a great overnight destination. After returning to Turquoise Lake, we broke camp and headed west over Independence Pass for two more nights of car camping at Difficult Creek above Aspen. We were warned by the campground managers that bears had been a problem. Considering the fact that the dumpsters were not really bear-proof and there was a lot of trash lying around, it was not surprising. We decided to avoid another dinner in the cold rain and grab a meal in Aspen –what a disaster. I spent a lot of time in Aspen during the summer as a kid in the late 60s early 70s and although I knew it had changed a lot, I was totally unprepared for what a monument to conspicuous consumption the village has become. The following day, we drove up CO 82 to the Linkins Lake Trailhead, hiked up to Lost Man Pass and climbed Geissler Mountain via its East Ridge. It was another great hike –above treeline almost the whole walk. The climb was a fairly easy class 2. We spiced things up a little on the way down descending north of the fall line. It was quite a bit more exposed and required some fun class 3 moves in a few places. The weather turned on the way down and we had to hike fast/run for the last mile to beat the lightning. All in all it was a great day and we felt pretty good about beginning the backcountry portion of the trip the next day.
Part Two –Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness:Originally we planned on hiking the Four Pass Loop –counterclockwise— but it became clear from the outset that my respiratory system had not recovered completely from a bout with pneumonia last November. To this point in the trip I had adjusted quite well to the altitude and carrying a day pack had been no problem. Even the previous day over 13,000’ I felt like I was hiking strong and not having any problems. Once I put on my full pack with six days’ worth of gear, however, it was instant torture. I carried a 50 lb pack at home during spring and early summer with no problems so it must have been a combination of the weight and the altitude. In any case, it became clear right away that we would need to adjust our itinerary. I’m glad Blynn and Rick were willing to be flexible, because if we had stuck to the original plan, I would have been miserable. In addition to the physical difficulties I was experiencing, we got a later start than we had planned –parking in the overflow lot and discovering that several packets of Gu had exploded in my pack –requiring painstaking clean-up at the trailhead. A hiker returning from the loop told us to expect the afternoon thunderstorms , with lots of lightning and hail, to begin by 2:30 PM at the latest and to last for several hours if not all night. It was nearly 1 PM by the time we reached Crater Lake so we decided to brave the crowds and stay at one of the designated sights above the lake. We fond a pretty sweet spot –site #5— well away from the hordes on the shore and got set up. As far as we could tell there was only one other group camped anywhere near the lake. At about 2:15 PM the rain started and shortly after we got in our tents, it began to hail. We had purchased an REI Quarter Dome for our longer trips this spring and this day was its inaugural outing –so we were more than a little apprehensive about how it would handle the weather. The hail started small and quickly grew to pinball size and occasionally larger. It continued for over two hours and when it finally stopped the ice was a couple of inches deep on the ground. The scene around the lake with the ice and fog was almost surreal. We had just enough time to soak it all in and fix dinner before the rain started again and continued through most of the night. The next day was clear and cool –with a good deal of the ice still on the ground despite the rain. A couple of snowshoe hares attempted to share our breakfast, but left disappointed.
We decided the best approach would be to forgo the loop and establish a base camp in Minnehaha Gulch, with the thought of some dayhikes around Buckskin and Willow Passes and an attempt on Buckskin BM. We hiked up the gulch to a spot a friend had told us about just below treeline. It was a literally perfect spot. It had a couple of level tent pads protected by the trees with small meadows on each side. The larger of the meadows sat at the base of the south face of UN 12,942 beside a nice stream with a small waterfall just to the east of the site. The first evening we watched several bighorn sheep and an elk high on the ridge above us. The weather repeated the same pattern of a 2 hour storm in the afternoon (minus the hail) followed by steady rain through the night. The following morning, we were moving slow and missed the planned alpine start for our attempt at Buckskin BM. We didn’t get started until nearly 9 AM, and although we were pretty close to the peak, we knew we might not have enough time. We hiked up into the tundra toward Buckskin pass and turned off at the Willow Pass trail junction. Our plan was to hike about 0.4 mile to just below the steep grade to Willow Pass and hike off trail and ascend to the saddle between UN 12,733 and the Buckskin summit and climb the peak’s south ridge. As we approached the saddle, however, we were greeted by a surprisingly steep and icy lingering snowfield. Blynn and Rick had no snow climbing experience and I had hoped to do some practicing with them on a more moderate slope before attempting anything this difficult. The only way around the snow was up a very unpleasant looking red sandstone scree slope. Furthermore we were approaching our agreed upon turnaround time, so we decided to head back toward camp and regroup. On our way back to the trail we found a fresh marmot skeleton and some mountain lion tracks. We also saw more bighorn sheep on the ridge above Willow Pass. We reviewed our maps and decided we might be able to climb Buckskin BM the next day in combination with a couple of lesser peaks. After a meal and several more hours of lightning and rain we went to sleep with plans to get an early start the next morning. We got up before 5 AM and were hiking before 7 AM. We made it to Buckskin Pass by 8 and since it was so early we had the pass to ourselves. It was quite chilly with the temperature in the lower 40s and a stiff breeze. The surrounding peaks were mostly in the clouds. Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak were completely obscured but we could see glimpses of Snowmass Lake. We started our mini-enchainment by heading south from the pass and hiking up to UN 12,462. On the way up we saw a mountain lion den, which we were surprised was so close to the heavily traveled pass. We walked back over the pass, traversing the ridge and began climbing up to UN 12733. While this climb was an easy walk-up, the views from the top were outstanding and the summit itself is a nice point that looks considerably more exposed than it actually is. As we descended from UN 12733, we continued north on the same ridge and began our second attempt on Buckskin BM. We made good progress along the ridge and the lower two thirds of the peak’s upper slopes. At this point, however, it became clear that our historically poor route finding skills still needed some work. Buckskin BM is supposed to be a fairly easy class 2 climb. As our turnaround time approached, we found ourselves climbing through a 50’ tall band of crumbly class 3 sandstone. The climbing was straightforward and did not present us with any difficulty but once through it, we found ourselves 10 minutes past our scheduled turnaround time with another 100’ class 3 pitch to the summit. According to what I had read, there was probably a way around the crumbling rock and/or with enough time, we could have climbed through it safely, but with our limited skill set, one helmet between us and time becoming an issue, good judgment dictated that we turn back. Nonetheless, it was a great day of climbing and we were all pretty stoked when we got back to Buckskin Pass. As we walked back along the ridge, we found a good sized snowfield that gave me an opportunity to review some ice axe techniques with Rick and Blynn. After meeting the huge crowds on their way to Snowmass Lake, we were grateful for the solitude that awaited us at our campsite. Despite the huge number of people that climb to Buckskin Pass and beyond every day during the summer, from 3 in the afternoon until mid-morning, it felt as if we had the entire wilderness area to ourselves. Shortly after getting back to camp, a cold wind-driven rain began to fall and it appeared that it might actually turn to snow. Instead, the rain stopped the sun came out and we had no more significant rain for the remainder of the trip. We decided to make the following day a “rest day” –taking several shorter hikes above treeline to get photos with the sun at different angles. Rick spent the afternoon exploring the boulder field and lower ridges on UN 12,942 much to the dismay of a large colony of picas. Our hike back to the car the next morning was gorgeous –with the Maroon Bells and the crags of the West Maroon Valley reflecting beautifully off of Crater Lake. I enjoyed this hike a great deal more with a lighter pack going downhill .