Maroon Bells, July 2007

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This year Eric convinced us that if he had to fly anyway, he could fly anywhere and we might as well come meet him.  So we all flew to Colorado.

The Rockies are significantly larger than the Sierras, and the trails much steeper.  So I call this the Strenuous Trip.  Pretty much the entire route was above 10,000', at one point reaching 12,700'.  We covered 34 miles and about 11,000 vertical feet.  Our route was a slight variation on the Four Pass Loop, starting in Snowmass Village instead of at Maroon Lake and crossing five passes instead of four.

The Rockies are much wetter than the Sierras, as well.  This has its benefits in gushing streams, lush vegetation, and outrageous wildflowers, but also guarantees some tent time every afternoon.  Next time we'll bring a deck of cards.

New!  This year I've added a slide show.  The slide show has a lot more photos than are shown on this page.  Click on any photo to enter the show, or start at the beginning.  You can navigate the slide show using the left and right arrows on your keyboard, and hit the space bar to zoom the photos to their full size.

Day 0:  Fly and Drive

After flying to Denver and renting a car, we made a quick stop at REI for the one thing you can't bring on airplanes:  white gas.  Then it was West on I-70 for a few hours.  We stopped for a snack and bathrooms in Vail and had the misfortune of paying $7 for the Worlds Worst Burrito:  about the size of a sunglasses case and heated up in a microwave.  Our stomachs all regretted that one.

We finally arrived in Snowmass Village, had a very nice dinner at Il Poggio, repacked, and went to sleep.

Day 1:  Snowmass Village to Snowmass Lake

Our first day we were expecting to be hard.  It was 8 miles, 2600' up, full packs, and our first day at altitude.  And no mule!  But we took it slowly and steadily and reached the lake without too much difficultly.  We were three very proud, middle-aged men.

Starting at the Snowmass Falls Ranch trailhead, the hike proceeded gradually up a lovely, aspen-coated valley.  Gradually, the aspens gave way to pine, and we began to catch glimpses of the towering white and red peaks around us.  After crossing the World's Most Difficult Log Jam, the trail began to climb in earnest the last couple of miles to the lake.  

Snowmass Lake is a beautiful blue, nestled up against a white granite cliff below Snowmass Peak.  We swam and relaxed as per usual.  We'd heard that it rains every afternoon in the Rockies, and true to expectations the sky had begun to cloud over around noon.  A brief drizzle at 1:00 had brought out some rain gear, but the real downpour didn't start until 5:00, after we'd made camp.

Day 2:  Snowmass Lake to King Falls

We broke camp and started slowly up the 1500' to Trail Rider Pass.  The trail quickly broke out of the forest into a high alpine meadow.  This is where the views and the wildflowers really started to blow our minds.  I'd never seen wildflowers like this before.  Explosions of yellow, blue, red, pink, and white over a carpet of bright green.  And views of snow-streaked rock on all sides!

The pass itself provided excellent vistas down both sides.  The way we'd come, we could see back to Snowmass Lake and get glimpses of the back sides of the Bells.  Looking forward, the meadow tumbled away into a large valley backed by Treasure Mountain.

After a snack, we began to descend, which revealed fabulous views up the North Fork of the Crystal River into Fravert Basin.  This basin, where we were heading on Day 3, was a glorious carpet of three shades of green, striped with deep red rocks poking through.  We were very excited to get there!

Unfortunately, the trail grew very steep and crumbly after the turnoff to Geneva Lake, and it became very difficult and tiring to keep our footing.  Alex slipped at one point and bent his hiking pole.  I never thought we'd have a Death March that was downhill, but if this trip had a Death March, this was it.

Finally we reached the valley floor and began climbing easily towards King Falls.  Just before the falls we found a campsite in a small grove of pine overlooking the river.  We splashed briefly in the achingly cold river and settled in for the remainder of the day.  The infamous Kung Poo Chicken dinner was an unfortunate blotch on an otherwise lovely evening.  We fell asleep to the hiss of the waterfall.  

Day 3:  King Falls to Purity Basin

The first task of this day was the 500' climb around King Falls, which we dispatched with ease.  After that, the trail wound its way gradually up the Fravert Basin.  As we'd seen from Trail Rider Pass, the Basin was a glorious mix of green and red.  I described it as a cinnamon layer cake with lime frosting.

The view from the top of King Falls

After passing the tree line, the Basin opened up into a stunning alpine meadow with wildflowers by the millions as far as we could see.  We also gained a nice view up to Maroon Peak and Frigid Air Pass.
The final climb to the pass was steep but not too hard, and we had a lovely lunch on top.  The views from the pass were typically amazing, covering all of the Fravert Basin, Purity Basin, into Hasley Basin.  

We were hoping to camp in the Purity Basin that afternoon since a storm was approaching and we didn't want to tackle a second pass.  But some other hikers had told us there was really nothing there.  With grim resolve, we headed down into the Basin.  Well, one thing I've learned over the years is to never trust what other hikers say.  We easily found a very nice (if disused) spot off-trail, on a hill above a small creek.

Purity Basin was one of the most desolate places on the trip.  Almost entirely alpine meadow, surrounded by high peaks, it reminded Eric of Scotland.  I now must visit Scotland.

The predicted storm finally arrived after we'd made camp and it was a doozy.  Rain and hail pelted the tent and the temperature dropped 15 degrees at least.  We huddled inside until it stopped, then put on all of our warm clothes and had a quick dinner before dark.

Day 4:  Purity Basin to Crater Lake

The next morning we were greeted with a beautiful sky and the sun rising over Belleview Mountain.  We packed up and headed over West Maroon Pass.  The climb was uneventful and after a snack we headed down the other side to follow West Maroon Creek.

The trail wound along the creek between Maroon Peak and Pyramid Peak, slowly descending back into forest.  The rain came early this day, and we hiked the last few miles in a drizzle.  A gorgeous few miles it was, though!  Thick forest, tumbling creek, jagged peaks on both sides -- Alex was in heaven.

Finally we arrived at Crater Lake, perhaps the most misnamed lake in the Rockies.  Not so much a crater as a mud pit, the lake was a big disappointment and afforded no opportunity to swim.  In addition, being 1.6 miles from a major trailhead, it was crowded with campers and day hikers.  We found a nice, secluded spot, though, and settled in.  The rains came back in earnest, and all of our gear got wet and muddy.

Day 5:  Crater Lake to Willow Lake

This day we thought would be our Death March:  2500' up in about 2 miles (an average 25% grade), but it in fact wasn't too bad.  The hardest part was the crowds:  the route to Snowmass Lake from the Maroon Lake Trailhead is very popular on a Friday.  From the trail we could see masses of people grouped on Buckskin Pass.  Fortunately, we turned right and headed over Willow Pass instead -- and didn't see another human for 24 hours!

It was a gray day hiking up to Willow Pass, but it never rained on us.  Again we passed through zones of aspen and pine and into the alpine meadows.  We continued up into bare rock and crested the very steep, cold, and windy pass well before lunch.

The pass provided astonishing views down into the next basin, containing perfect, round, clear Willow Lake.  We hurried down the other side, set up camp, and spent the afternoon swimming, reading, and exploring under a clearing sky.  This was my favorite part of the trip.  The area around Willow Lake is gorgeous, full of lakes and small cascades, surrounded by red and white peaks and a tumbling green carpet of grass and flowers.  Plus, we had the entire basin to ourselves!

While we were there, a doe began circling our campsite, slowly approaching but clearly scared to do so.  Eventually she worked up the courage to come right into our camp, at which point she went straight for the bush we'd been peeing on and proceeded to eat it.  She must've been after the salt, but we thought it was pretty funny.  We "refreshed" the bush for her a few times that night, and by morning she'd completely denuded large sections of the foliage.

The only disappointment of the evening was that we were unable to start a fire.  Wet wood and a lack of oxygen were blamed.

Day 6:  Willow Lake to Snowmass Village

Our last pass was our highest:  recently named Chipotle Pass, at 12,700'.  The climb was not too bad, but on the way up my platypus sprung a leak, flooding the inside of my pack with two liters of water and forcing me to bum some off Eric and Alex.  On the way up, we began to see what looked like unusually large deer prints.  We couldn't figure them out until we crested the pass and spied a herd of elk on a nearby ridge.

While resting on the pass, a marmot approached cautiously and started eating the dirt on which we'd peed.  Then he went and fetched his mate and they both set to work.  Not much salt up there, I guess.

From the pass, we descended gradually along East Snowmass Creek, 4300' down to the trailhead.  The scenery was as stunning as ever.  We made it back around 4:00 and checked into the hotel again.  After a nice dinner at the Big Hoss Grill, dessert at Il Poggio, and a failed attempt at a sauna, we went to sleep.

Day 7:  Drive and Fly a lot of waiting in the airport.  We did not stop back in Vail to yell at the folks in Flying Burrito.

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