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The Way West
It all started with a question:
Wouldn’t it be sweet to go see Phish at Red Rocks for their reunion tour this summer?
After the crazy idealist ideas ended, we realized that tickets would be nearly impossible to get, not to mention expensive on a student’s budget. However, the seed was planted and it quickly snowballed into a get-to-Colorado-at-all-costs-and-dirtbag-it-like-pros-as-cheaply-as-possible adventure.
The Maroon Bells area was selected as target #1, mainly because of kane
’s beautiful pictures of the Elk Range and a lot of good things I had read online about the “Four Pass Loop.” Rocky Mountain National Park was also selected because of its reputation for spectacular scenery, though it ended up being a slight disappointment (not for lack of scenery though!).
First Taste of Thin Air
Upon arrival in Colorado after a marathon driving day taking us from Houghton, MI almost to Denver, CO we decided that our first big taste of Colorado would be that of Coors. We went on the famous “three free samples” tour first thing in the morning (first tour bus: 10 am) and were able to hit the road before 11:00, headed ultimately for Leadville.
Sunset over Mts. Massive and Elbert, from Leadville.
A genuine Colorado billy-goat on Mt. Evans.
En route to Leadville, we decided to take the slacker route to the top of Mt. Evans for an acclimation adventure. (Don’t judge! When you have only 1 week, you have to soak it in as fast as you can and acclimate as fast as possible…that hike would not have been possible from Summit Lake!) The drive to the top was beautiful, though we were both feeling woozy from altitude (and Killians?). After Mt. Evans, we headed to Leadville: the highest city in America! I was particularly psyched out of my mind to be in Leadville, but by the time we got there I was completely down and out from altitude. We ate lukewarm canned ravioli in a church parking lot, and then proceeded to drive out to the slopes of Mt. Massive on Halfmoon Rd. where we found a camping spot and my body decided it had had enough: bye-bye ravioli. I spent an agonizing evening above 10,000 feet, while my wife (bless her heart) took care of me and suffered no ill-effects from the altitude.
Into the Wilderness
Taken by a kindly tourist before we headed up into the unknown...
The next day dawned clear and crisp, and I felt like a new man. (Well, except for the strange taste of ravioli still haunting my mouth…) We packed up and continued on our drive to Aspen, stopping at Twin Lakes to take a quick dip and wash off. (Thank God for Dr. Bronners) After surviving Independence Pass (beautiful!) we made it to Aspen and prepared to head out into the wilderness! That evening, we drove out to the day-use area and got our stuff ready. As we headed out to the trail, the hordes were all heading back to their cars for the evening, dark clouds looming over the Bells. One particular group who looked like they were plucked off of Wall Street and dropped off without any idea where they were asked us “Where are you going with those packs on your back?” When we replied that we were heading out for a few days and were going to walk around the mountains over there, a very confused woman asked us in a bewildered tone “But what will you eat?!?” Laughing, we told them it was okay: we had food in our packs. We exchanged picture-takings and headed our separate ways.
A Spectacularly Soggy Day
Just was we got into the first aspen stand, the heavens opened and the rains came down with a vengeance. We made it to Crater Lake before it got really bad and had to set up our tent in a random clearing in the woods because it was too dark to find the sites before the rain worsened.
The soaked tent in the morning
We spent the night in a wet tent on a weird slope, listening to very very loud thunder. The next morning was much more pleasant, with the sun shining and birds chirping. We packed up quickly and hit the trail hard, knowing that we had to get through two passes that day.
The bells as we passed Crater Lake.
The hike up West Maroon valley went well, our bodies still adjusting a little bit to the elevation. The first pass, West Maroon, was one of the toughest, but when we arrived at the top we were rewarded with stellar views!
Looking back where we ascended from in West Maroon Pass.
However stellar the views were, though, rain was coming quickly yet again and we headed off the pass in a hurry so as to beat any heavy rain to the next pass. We descended and headed toward Frigid Air pass with haste, meeting a nice pair of French backpackers along the way who were in need of TP that we were more than happy to share.
Frigid Air Pass as seen from about halfway between the two passes.
We quickly ascended Frigid Air pass (thank God it didn’t lose too much elevation between the two!) and were alarmed to see that Rachael’s hair was beginning to stand up on end at the top. Needless to say, as a couple of mountain rookies we knew that was not good! We quickly got down from the pass (Note: We weren’t totally stupid. There was no lightning or thunder in the area at all, and if there was we wouldn’t have ascended the pass) and as we got back to treeline in the Crystal River valley heavy rain began to fall again. The rain kept us company over the next few miserable, muddy, wet miles until we found a group of makeshift campsites and decided to call it quits for the day. We estimated we had hiked almost 13 miles that day! We set up our tent and tried to get a fire going and lay our stuff out in the tent to attempt to dry. I had a nasty blister from wet feet (my boots were very waterproof, but I didn’t have waterproof pants and the water soaked from them into my socks…grr…) and pretty much most of our stuff was soaked. It could have been worse though! We were too awestruck from the scenery to care about how wet we were! We went to bed praying for sun the next day…
Trail Rider Pass
The gorgeously sunny morning we awoke to.
The next morning was bright and sunny! We packed our gear, completely unaware of the horrendous climb that awaited us that morning. Our destination this day was Trail Rider pass and Snowmass Lake. We headed out further down the river valley, speechless from the beauty surrounding us. When we started climbing, completely unable to see where it was we were going, we knew we were in for a long one. We climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed, all the while gauging our progress against the opposite valley wall. When we broke treeline, we thought we must be getting close, but glancing ahead and above told us differently. We kept going up and up and up, all the while taking more and more breaks and cursing silently (and not silently) to ourselves.
Atop Trail Rider Pass
When the pass finally came in sight, it was amazing! (And really far away!) We inched our way up and over it, and were rewarded with spectacular views both ways. We took a much-deserved break for lunch on top and then quickly descended to Snowmass Lake. Once at the lake, we relished in our decision to stop early today and spent the whole afternoon laying ourselves and our gear out in the sun to dry and get nice and warm. We were able to sit in our tent and just stare at the beautiful Snowmass Mountain. It was magical…
Nearing Trail Rider pass. Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Mountain as seen over Snowmass Lake. (Lots of Snowmass...)
We Are Mountain People
Our last day in the Elks dawned bright and early. We awoke for sunrise on Snowmass Lake (by suggestion of many many people on SP) and headed for Buckskin Pass by 6 am. The pass felt easy this time, and we were rewarded with another set of amazing views at the top. We descended quickly, having completed all Four Passes of the Loop, and made it to the parking lot by noon. While packing our gear away, and feeling pretty badass, a fellow came up to us and introduced himself as a primitive camper who lived in the woods nearby. He asked us what we had been up to, and told us he had been at the parking lot two days before when it had rained so much. He said that ours was one of only a handful of cars still in the lot after that rainy miserable day, and congratulated us on being tough and sticking it out. Then he found out we were from Michigan and was amazed. We thanked him for his kind words and wished him luck with his camping. He was a nice guy, and a compliment coming from the likes of him meant a lot to us
Buckskin Benchmark from Buckskin Pass Victorious!
The Second Soggy Saga
The next day we headed for Rocky Mountain National Park and the East Inlet area, supposed to be raw in beauty and few in visitors. We got our mandatory permits and bear canisters and headed out with the threat of rain. Hiking in, it sprinkled on and off and we were nervous about what might happen. We finally came to our campsite after a few hours, Solitaire site, and pitched camp barely in time for a HUGE thunderstorm and hail storm. We stuck it out in the tent, convinced that we had a more-than-0% chance of death in this storm. When it passed, however, we were treated to a beautiful sunset at Lake Verna before it clouded up yet again. It rained all night again, and was foggy/drizzling the next morning. At this point, we had had enough rain and so we decided to call it quits on our plan to ascend the nearby pass and headed back out to the car. We made a good choice, as it rained all that day and would have been miserable in a tent.
East Inlet Lake Verna at sunset
At this point, we decided that enough was enough: we had plenty of Colorado fun to share with others and so we started the long trek home. We made sure, however, to swing by Red Rocks Park on the way out, just to check out the festivities for the upcoming Phish concert. Turned out to be a total zoo, and we were hardly able to even drive anywhere, let alone hike around. We pointed the car East and didn’t stop until we made it back to cozy little Houghton.
Thanks to everyone in Colorado for sharing your beautiful state with some Midwesterners! Despite the fact that we came in so-called “monsoon season,” we had a great time and it was absolutely the most epic trip either of us has been on to date. Neither of us can wait to get back out there and explore some more!
**Please note that there are many more pictures available here
, and I plan on putting together a picture-TR for the Four Pass Loop soon...