Our attempt at the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
I was just winding down from a day of work when I got a text from Travis, a friend of mine based in Seattle.
"You have any days off," he wrote. "Looking for an adventure..."
"I have some hours. I could probably get some days." I wrote back.
We decided that we would backpack the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. That's 26.5 miles, with four passes, each well over 12 thousand feet. Our packs would weigh in around 50 pounds--mine slightly more with all the camera gear, and we would do it three days. I wasn't worried about the mileage, the altitude or the weight (actually, I was a little worried about the weight). I was worried about my knee. I have a bad knee. It's been know to just seize up, and that often leads to trouble, but this leads me to my new favorite mantra...
@#$% it. We'll do it live.
One of my favorite quotes, or lets say artifacts from media, is this video of Bill O'Reilly freaking out at his staff leading up to a broadcast. Someone obviously messed up and all Bill can do is scream over and over "Fuck it, we'll do it live." I'm not a fan of Bill O'Reilly, but I've got to say that I love that quote. Fuck it, we'll do it live. It's a way of saying, we'll figure it out as we move along.
And that's what we did.
I picked up Travis on a Saturday at Denver International Airport. If one defines an adventure by mishaps or things going wrong then what better place to start than DIA. From DIA we drove three hours to Aspen. We got into town around 8 pm and decided we needed to book a room for a decent nights sleep. So we did. When we got to the hotel we came to realize that the booking site booked us a week out. So we had no room on a Saturday night in Aspen, during peak vacation season. There were rooms in Aspen, but we didn't have 600 dollars to spend. So we drove to the trailhead, opened the back of the FJ, put out the sleeping bags and got about five hours of sleep.
The next day we were on the trail. The 50+ pound packs plus the elevation made this one of the more challenging days of hiking in recent memory. But it was well worth it.
We had a plan. On our first day we had to hike two passes. That's roughly 11 miles of hiking, about 3,500 feet elevation gain up to West Maroon Pass, about 1,000-foot descent, then another 1,000 feet over Frigid Air pass with a final 1,000-foot descent into the Fravert Basin where we would make camp. Each day after we would need to hike one pass, getting us back to the truck on the third day. The section of trail from Crater Lake to the West Maroon Pass is an incredible sight, with North Maroon Peak to your right and the Len Shoemaker Ridge to your left. Looking South up trail is a seemingly endless gradual climb up until the long switchbacks that take you up West Maroon Pass. The view is worth a sit in high, chilly winds.
After a steep descent, we made our way to the next pass, Frigid Air Pass. It was a shorter climb, but still challenging. The pictures don't do justice, but their were wildflowers everywhere. I suppose that August is a great time of year to attempt the Four Pass Loop. All the snow was melted and the wildflowers were happy. The land was green and the trail, while active, was not yet crowded. After crossing West Maroon Pass, the number of people you see on the trail drops off dramatically.
The view from Frigid Air pass is by far my favorite view. It gives you a clear point to observe the back of the Maroon Peak, the iconic peak that you see when you Google Maroon Bells, only this was the view of the back, the lesser seen side of Maroon Peak.
Now we have an adventure...
That evening we made it down to the Fravert Basin, a large bowl with no way out but up. We made camp, ate and immediately went down for a much-needed sleep. Just after the sun went down I awoke to Travis in writhing pain, screaming at the top of his lungs. I tore open the zipper to my tent and lunged out to see Travis on the ground holding his leg. It was a muscle spasm and very bad one at that. He couldn't walk, or even extend his leg. I could tell he was holding back the extent of his pain. I got him some water and ibuprofen. We didn't talk about "what ifs" or "how the hell are we going to get out of here." We both went back to our tents and that night I couldn't fall asleep without thinking we'd be stuck in this basin for at least a few days.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of Travis shuffling around camp. I got out of my tent to find him walking around (I use the term walking lightly). His inner thigh was badly bruised from the muscle spasm. It looked like someone had beat it with baseball bat, and the muscle was badly distended, as though it were trying to escape from the body. I've never seen anything like it.
"I can walk down hill," he said. "But uphill is a bitch."
The plan we made to hike the Four Pass Loop in three days had now changed. We pulled out the map and went over every option:
- We get back over Frigid Air Pass. Travis hikes out toward Crested Butte. I hike back to the truck and hopefully we're able to find each other ( we had no cell reception, let alone battery). Bad idea.
- We split up. Travis hikes back to the truck and I finish the loop. But it wasn't an good idea to split up. Especially going over passes. Nope.
- We both attempt to hike over Frigid Air and West Maroon Pass, camp out, then hike back to the truck the following morning. Possible.
Option 3 it is. I had trekking poles (thank God), so I gave them to Travis and he was able to painfully start the long trek back to frigid air pass. We took our time. We took every precaution we could and eventually we made it to the top of Frigid Air. That view is so spectacular that we didn't mind going back the way we came. Given the circumstances, it was the only decision. We spent some time on Frigid Air and got some more pictures.
Travis was feeling much better at this point, and so we ventured on. We made it to the bottom of Frigid Air, then across the lower basin, then the bottom of West Maroon. We started the trek up West Maroon, and by this point, Travis was almost back to his normal pace. Things were looking up. Eventually, we made it up and over West Maroon. Given the look of his leg, I still can't believe we made it back over those passes.
We found a nice spot to camp and leisurely spent the evening watching the mountains change color under the setting sun. That's when I got this picture. I spent most of my evening taking 30-second exposures of the landscape through an ND filter. I can't fathom a more zen state than long exposure photography. Without knowing it, a doe had found a spot to graze just 15 feet behind me. I turned my lens on her. It was a great shot to wrap up our adventure.
All-in-all, this was unforgettable hike. We didn't finish the loop, but we came out with a pretty good story, and some great pictures.