Four Passes. Two Gals. One Day
Inching slowly, the line between light and dark crept down the face of North Maroon as we climbed steadily towards it. The brightness of the rising sun washed the color out of the red rock and cast long shadows across the meadows, even from the smallest flowers. It was the golden hour of morning, the time when the earth was born anew and we were lucky enough to be hiking through it. As Karlie said later, “The hours before 9 a.m. are free hiking hours”. She was right for these were the early miles, we were fresh and it felt as though we were transported upwards, treading lightly on the trail, floating toward the first of the four passes we would cross that day.
Earlier, as we had approached the trailhead at dawn, the Maroon Bells were burnished a burnt umber, steadily and almost imperceptibly turning to a glowing vermillion as we shouldered our packs. In the dark forest below our giddy excitement was tempered with a slight apprehension at the magnitude of the day ahead - 26 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain over four passes of over 12,000 feet. Having completed the Four Passes Loop as a three day backpacking trip a couple of years ago I have long harbored a desire to nail it in a day, a whirlwind tour of one of the most scenic places on the planet, the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, and a decent physical test. So when I received a message from my winter ski partner Scott, asking if I wanted to hike it in a day with his wife Karlie, my response was to the point, “YES!!!”.
So here we were a week later - one day, two gals and four passes....join us on our Grand Day Out....
The quitessential mountain scene of Colorado is our starting point - the Maroon Bells and Maroon Lake. Gracing many a postcard, so overexposed, but as always, too beautiful to resist taking a photo:
We decided to hike anti-clockwise and thus tackling the two largest climbs early in the day. The first, just shy of 3,000 feet was stiff, but with the companionship of Tosha and Hobbs, and using two of the three golden hours available to us, we quickly reached Bucksin Pass (12,462 feet).
Our second pass of the day lies to the left of Snowmass Peak and Mountain on the horizon at the edge of the picture. If you think it looks a long way off, you wouldn't be wrong. The camera never lies.
Snowmass Lake, again a mind bogglingly spectacular place. Hobbs has the right idea and goes for a soak before we say goodbye to him and Tosha.
Karlie romps up the 1,500 foot climb towards Trailrider Pass with Snowmass Lake below.
Karlie is in fact a beast for underneath all that prettiness lies a hiker of steel. Several years ago she completed the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking from Mexico to Canada in one summer and earning the title of a PCT Thru-hiker. This is a big deal and my knowledge of it contributed somewhat to my apprehension about the day - Would I be able to keep up? Would my legs turn to noodles in the company of this hiking machine?
On Trailrider Pass (12,420 ft) the columbines were off the hook carpeting the north side of the pass.
From the pass looking south into familiar territory for me - Lead King Basin with Treasure Mountain behind - the trail wending its way downwards again:
Making our way up the North Fork of the Crysal River, 7 miles to the next pass, behind the red rock on the right.
At the base of Kings Falls before switchbacking up around them and into Fravert Basin.
Fravert Basin, yet another place I am going to call one of the most beautiful I have every been. The trail switchbacks up to Frigidair Pass (12,420 feet) just to the left of the cloud, through a carpet of high alpine tundra and flowers. The recent rains have much improved the flowers in the high country. Just a few days seems to have made much of a difference providing a tour de fleurs for us. I wish I knew the names of them all but I don't. I can tell you they look real pretty though.
One of the local residents hanging on his front porch just below the pass. I'd say he has one of the best views in the land - that's the south west face of Maroon Peak.
On the final climb of the day:
The hiking machine is still going. And I am somehow keeping up! 20 miles down and 6 to go.
Although we were definitely starting to feel that we had not in fact been lounging around for the past 10 hours we were still quite spry and in excellent spirits. At our final and highest pass of the day, West Maroon (12,500 feet) we look forward to the downhill back to the trail head. Karlie spreads some ashes from her old hiking partner, Jake, who had joined her on many adventures past, his four paws having padded over this very spot in years past.
Despite building clouds, the rain held off, barr a couple of drops. The last 6 miles flew by as we picked up the pace and soon enough we were trotting around Crater Lake, dusty, sticky and dreaming of beer and nachos.
Four passes in one day - yep we are stoked.