Thursday, October 27, 2016

Colorado Trip Report, Part 3 - Maroon Bells

...continuing the Colorado adventure!  If you missed them, see Part 1 and Part 2.  This is the final (long) installment.

In the morning (Tuesday) Katie dropped me off with GQ and Radiance, and we set about cramming every possible inch of cargo room in his Subaru Crosstrek with gear.  Then we were outta there...for about an hour - then Genevieve asked, “Jimmy, did you grab the food bags?”.  Shit.

An hour later, we left Denver once again, this time for keeps.  Next stop, Maroon Bells Wilderness.

We turned right before hitting Aspen, and headed south on Maroon Creek Road.  Interestingly, you can only drive on this road beyond the guard house between the hours of 8-5 if you have a campsite reserved.  The area has become so impacted and over traveled, the restrictions became necessary.  If you are coming in for a day hike (or to snap photos of Maroon Bells), you have to start super early!

We pulled into our small but awesome site at Silver Bell campground and threw up our shelters.  Then we headed to Aspen for provisions.  We enjoyed a hot meal cooked over open flame that night.  Genevieve’s friend Gerry arrived and we all swapped war stories as we watched the flames dance.

Wednesday morning dawned, but we all slept in a bit.  Then we decided to take a short walk for pics at Maroon Lake followed by lunch at Crater Lake.  It was a nice laid back day, and a rest day for me.  My legs needed it.  I toyed with the idea of bagging Maroon Peak, but chilling sounded better than a tricky solo summit.

We made another supply run to Aspen, after which Jimmy and Gerry shuttled the Subaru to the backpacker lot to make sure we didn’t have to spend all morning dealing with parking.  Then we all had steaks on the grill where I endeavored to use up the entire pound of butter I bought the day before.  We had to contend with a thunder and lightning storm, but it didn’t stop a roaring bonfire.

It rained most of the night.  So in the morning we struck a soggy camp, then Gerry gave us a ride to the Maroon Lake TH.  Time to start the main event!  We shouldered the soul-crushing weight of our five-day winter packs, and hit the trail.

We repeated part of the previous day’s hike, but branched off on the scenic lake trail to avoid covering the same ground.  We had to make use of a dilapidated trail and do a little bushwhacking to get back on the main track, but it was worth it.

We blew by the throngs of tourists surrounding the Maroon Lake area, eventually making it to Crater Lake for lunch.  Then the climbing began as we approached West Maroon Pass.  We passed a number of traditional (as in, heavy!) backpackers.  No day hikers seemed to be going beyond Crater Lake.

Walking on pine needles after days of rock walking was simply fantastic.  We stopped roughly where we had planned, about where the trail crossed the West Maroon Creek.  Making camp in one of the few areas that wasn't “closed for revegetation”.  A fire was made after scavenging driftwood from the creek, and we ate as much of our food as we could to reduce the size of our Ursaks.  I could just barely get mine closed with everything inside.

Friday came with temps falling below freezing overnight.  I realized I had made a rookie mistake, leaving my Sawyer Water Filter out.  Bah.  Luckily it seemed not to have frozen very much, if at all.  We pounded breakfast and broke camp, heading out into the chill morning air.

Now the climbing got real.  There were plenty of hikers (both backpackers and day hikers) on the trail.  We shed layers when we hit the sun line. After a slog that seemed like it would go on forever, we arrived at the West Fork Pass.  We couldn't tarry long, as Katie and Brian were waiting for us at the intersection below - and we were behind schedule.

Luckily they were still waiting for us - a few minutes shy of giving up.  We all set off together for Frigid Air Pass.  It was short but steep.  We had some lunch on top in the blasting winds, before beginning the steep descent.  Hayden was allowed to run free for a while, and she bounded through the valley brush consumed with joy.

Not long after that, Tessa (Brian's border collie) made a side adventure of her own - disappearing up the trail.  Some frantic minutes were spent searching, only for her to appear in front of me on the trail like nothing was amiss.

We enjoyed a long slow descent, and numerous stream crossings.  By chance they were all cross-able without getting our toes wet.

Brian, Katie and I took a side detour to check out a waterfall.  GQ and Radiance caught us up after talking to a chatty backpacker and his awesome dog.

A little more descending brought us to another waterfall - this one fed by Geneva lake.  We made a 1000 foot climb in one mile, to find the lake utterly deserted.  We had a cheery time around dinner - helped by the surprise brats Brian pulled out of his pack!

Eventually we all retired to bed under a huge bright moon - having modified the next days plans a bit.

We rolled from Geneva lake in leisurely fashion, Katie, Brian and I were intent on a summit of Snowmass peak.  Jimmy and Genevieve were bound for Snowmass lake.  Our trio (plus Tessa!) quickly climbed to the pond just below Trail Rider Pass where we had second breakfast.  Then we blasted out the pass, and assessed our options for approaching Snowmass.

We quickly decided that descending all the way to snow mass lake only to climb right back up through treacherous scree was nonsense.  So we devised a “short cut”.  This involved traversing directly over from the closest point of the trail we could find.

The ensuing traverse would prove to be epic, taking nearly two hours and a great deal of care.  A few sections in particular required some teamwork to overcome, and other parts leaned towards the technical.  We all made it, including Tessa - who without a doubt is the most gung-ho rock scrambling dog ever born.  I was in awe.

Eventually we made it to a cozy grassy field for lunch.  Little did we know that our lunch spot was literally sitting on the trail to the summit.  We incorrectly assumed another far off peak was the correct one - and set off with gusto.  Scrambling and climbing over more rocks ensued.  A short time later, we realized our error and reversed course.

About an hour later after leaving our lunch spot, we were back on the trail and once again climbing after ditching our full packs.

The grassy, muddy path quickly gave way to more rock scrambling.  We slogged our way up, and I was soon gasping for air as we crossed 12k.

Around 13.5k, we encounter a couple descending from the summit.  We gleaned some intel, which made us think it would be unwise for Tess to continue, eager as she was.  This was further driven home when it was discovered her feet were bleeding.  The beast of an animal refused to complain.

Katie, only 500 feet from the summit, graciously volunteered to descend with Tess.  Brian and I continued on.  The climb became more technical - with class 3 scrambles (though the loose scree made it seem worse).

We aimed for and reached a notch that gave access to the west side of the summit and an easier approach.  More hand over hand of semi-exposed climbing came next.  But at last we were at the top! A glorious panorama spread before us, including Snowmass Lake, and Geneva lake where we had begun the day.

We snapped some shots, but with daylight already fading we didn't tarry long.  We bombed down hill - carefully - and in just a fraction of the time needed to ascend we were back with Katie, Tess, and our packs.

Next we just had to descend a thousand feet or so of nasty scree that wouldn't end.  Our knees aches and legs became rubbery.  The days labors were taking their toll.

 Eventually, we reached the bottom. And were treated to a lovely an relaxing lake side stroll.

Actually it was more of an infuriating battle against a little used and overgrown trail.  As a bonus it was muddy and slick in places, with treacherous footing throughout.

We bulled our way through, running on reserves and just wanting to reach camp before we'd be forced to switch on our headlamps.  Looking behind us, it was difficult to imagine that we had just descended that horrible looking slope.

With the last of the sun abandoning us, we reached a rushing creek fed by the lake that transformed into cascading falls.  We got out our lamps to fill up on water, and then were greeted by GQ.  Hooray, we had made it!

All of us reunited at camp, and hastily threw up shelters before settling in for dinner and exchanging the stories of the day.  Then it was off to sleep - everyone was exhausted.

Sunday morning brought clear skies, and a great view of the previous days summit.  It still looked insanely impossible to climb.

We took our time breaking camp, enjoying a relaxing breakfast.  Tessa had scrounged a tennis ball from somewhere, and a game of fetch ensued.  Hayden was soon off leash and joining in.

Sadly, Kate and Brian had to leave us.  Not having Monday off they needed to bang out 14 miles and Buckskin Pass to get back to their car.

Jimmy, Genevieve, and I wandered though the myriad campsites and trails until we also arrived at the trail to Buckskin.  We knocked it out in a few hours, passing day hikers and backpackers on the way.  I chatted with a couple that was on their way to completing a four pass loop today.

GQ and Radiance caught me, and we all descended to the intersection below for lunch by a stream. Hayden went for a swim in the bog, followed by a digging rampage in an attempt to unearth some varmint.

After a short break, we started our climb to Willow pass, which proved to be steep and challenging.  Breathing heavily, we conquered the 800ish feet to the top, and found mountain goats hanging out on a neighboring summit.  I lost my second lens cap of the trip in my haste to get my telephoto lens out.

The view below to willow lake was awesome, and devoid of a single solitary soul besides our selves.

The trail gradually descended to the lake.  Halfway down we stopped in our tracks as we heard the unmistakable howl of a wolf.  We could lay eyes on him however, and the shape of the amphitheater we were in created big echos - he (or she) was probably a long way off.  That didn't stop Hayden from responding, however.

Eventually we wound our way down to the lakeside.  Finding hammock-able trees was a challenge, and required some creative Macqyvering to obtain a suitable hang.  I think I lasso'd no less then 6 trees to hold my weight.  Jimmy and Genevieve setup there Duomid nearby.

After that, Radiance decided to take her Therma-rest for a float in the lake!  Hayden went after her, but quickly decided it was far too cold and she came bursting out.  Genevieve didn't last much longer.

During dinner, Hayden spotted some mule dear coming up the valley, which set her into an anxiety frenzy that lasted for an hour.  Eventually the long day caught up to her and she curled into a ball, fast asleep.

After dinner we had a rare opportunity to grab some star shots.  Every other night the moon had been over-powering.  With the weather forecast looking good I decided to forego the tarp to better soak them in.

Once the moon was up, it was like daylight, and I had a clear view from my Hammock all the way down the valley towards Snowmass Village.  I slept restlessly, and then slept right through my 6am alarm.  I was awoken 30 minutes later by a wet tongue - Hayden had wandered over to see if I was alive.

I grabbed a couple of hasty sunrise shots, then slammed all my gear into my pack.  I choked down a couple of snacks for breakfast, and stripped down to my hiking clothes before walking to GQ’s and Radiance’s camp spot.  Soon we were slogging back up Willow Pass, to the tune of wolves howling again.

The temperature quickly soared once we hit the sun line, and we were all feeling the lack of o2 from sleeping at 12,000 feet.  This made for a hard climb, but soon enough we reached the pass. After that it was all downhill sailing.

Once we passed the intersection for Buckskin pass, we started encountering hikers in droves - mostly day hikers, but some backpackers.  All the backpackers looked to be carrying their entire houses with them.  Ultralight methods are not the norm in Colorado!  Most of the people we passed mistook our tiny backpacks for day packs.

Hayden took glee in prancing down the trail, occasionally shooting into the brush after a squirrel or bird, but returning after a minute to jump ahead.

Once we descended all the way to Crater Lake and then Maroon Lake, the real crowds took over.  We couldn’t believe the amount of people on the trail for a Monday morning.  We hustled all the way to the TH, stopping only for a brief shots, included a victory selfie at the Maroon Bells Wilderness sign.  After one last photo op of the Maroon Bells, we reached the car and headed for town.  Seeking showers and a burger, in that order.

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