Snowmass Mountain (14,092') & the Four Pass Loopdistance hiked: 36.55 miles
elevation gained: 14,479 feet
Here it is at last, the final post of the blog. But it is a long one, and a long time coming. The following is a transcription of my journal from our week-long backpack trip in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Our original agenda:
Day 1: Summit Maroon Pass and establish camp between Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass (~8 miles; ~3,000 feet of elevation gain)
Day 2: cross Frigid Air Pass and camp in Fravert Basin (~4.5 miles; ~1,500 feet gain)
Day 3: hike to Geneva Lake via Trail Rider Pass cut-off trail. Camp Geneva Lake. (~4 miles; 1,200 feet gain)
Day 4: layover at Geneva Lake; side-hike to Little Gem and Siberia Lakes (~5 miles; ~1,500 feet of gain
Day 5: take Trail Rider Pass to Snowmass Lake. Meet Ed, Alex, and Miriam. (~5.5 miles; 1,800’ gain).
Day 6: climb Snowmass Mountain; remain at Snowmass Lake. (5 miles; 3,000 feet of gain)
Day 7: rest
Day 8: take Buckskin Pass back to Maroon Lake
(Official end of “Summer of Fourteeners”)
Day 1: Monday, August 9
Early afternoon: Well, the first march of the 8-day backpack is complete, but we didn’t get as far as we'd intended. We are also a day late, as a stormy forecast caused us to delay the trip one day.
Today we began at Maroon Lake Trailhead where we met crowds of curious day-hikers, many of whom asked about our destination and the weight of our packs. There were quite a number of other backpackers too, however, and we soon realized that our route (which I thought to be a product of my own imagination) was officially called the “Four Pass Loop”. As we began to understand the lingo of the loop, we came to tell anyone who asked that we were doing the “Four Pass Loop with variations”. This seemed most appropriate as the standard loop does not include Geneva Lake or (of course) a climb of Snowmass Mountain.
Ella with the Bells in the background (this is the before shot):
We intended to summit Maroon Pass today and camp somewhere in the East Fork of the Crystal basin on the other side, but a mounting storm forced us to set camp early. We will have to make up this ground tomorrow to stay on schedule.
Today's hike took us through one of Colorado’s most magical places. The Maroon Bells are quintessential Colorado. The gray and red-stained rock mixed with the green canopy of pines and aspens is an exhibition of color composition. Waterfalls cascade in thin webs between the rocks. Rounded marmots and tiny pika squeak and play among the boulders. I have yet to find a more impressive place in Colorado. It is no wonder it has become so popular.
On trail between Maroon and Crater Lakes (Bells center-left; Sleeping Sexton center-right):
We are camped at the base of Maroon Peak’s southwest ridge. The creek tumbles by in a small gorge below us. A serpentine waterfall rolls off so-called "Thunder Pyramid" to the south. The rain has stopped at last. Our lunch concoction of peanut butter on tortillas with a side of cheese, crackers, and mixed dried fruit was an enormous success. I am happy to be here and excited to have seven more days to explore this amazing place. It will be hard to leave when this is all over.
Later: An incredible demonstration of clouds and fog! When we awoke from a short nap, we found spectacular formations of clouds and fog circling the valley. I tried to take a few pictures but fear that there is no way to capture a display such as this. You have to see it for yourself to understand. We sat for an hour, completely satisfied by the show.
Fog over the Maroon Creek valley:
I am writing now from the hammock, watching blue sky starting to develop between the dark clouds. The National Weather Service predicted better weather ahead. I hope and dare to believe they are right. Across the creek, I've been watching a marmot watch me intently. What strange creatures humans must seem.
Me in the hammock with the journal:
A mushroom edging its way into the world:
Colorado's state flower (Columbine):
Close-up of a flower:
Day 2: Tuesday, August 10
Last night we were awoken by scuttling around our tent and an odd series of chirps and calls. The size and sound of it seemed consistent perhaps with a marmot. I wondered if it could be the marmot I'd been watching earlier. Marmots have a reputation for (though I can't attest without first-hand experience) dining on the handles of hiking poles, so we tried to chase it off by growling and clapping. The unidentified creature finally scurried off towards the creek, and its strange cries gradually faded. For the next hour, the forest seemed alive with mysterious footsteps and animal noise.
Looking up towards Maroon Pass on day two:
It is a beautiful morning with only a few cumulus clouds aloft in the sky. Should be a great day to make up some ground.
Later: A very successful day of hiking. We have nearly caught up on the ground lost from the early bivouac yesterday, and we saw some incredible sights.
The first part of our day took us to the summit of Maroon Pass, which was, as it turned out, a very popular place. It was not an easy climb with a week's worth of gear on our back, but the vistas of both the upper Maroon Creek basin and the East Fork of the Crystal basin were incredible. The Maroon side was dominated by impressive spires and red-hued towers. The Crystal basin was more gradually sloped, greener, and colored by a wardrobe of hip-high flowers. Quite a few people were milling about on top of the pass, most en-route from Aspen to Crested Butte or the opposite.
View of the East Fork of Clear Creek basin from Maroon Pass:
The two of us atop Maroon Pass:
The second part of our journey took us down to a major trail junction where day hikers doing the Aspen-Crested Butte route turned left and backpackers doing the Four Pass Loop (us) turned right. We sat here and ate a delicious lunch (I think we nailed our lunch menu) as people passed by headed in all possible directions.
Though I was a bit surprised by the sheer volume of two-legged humanity here in the wilderness, it was interesting to converse with the other hikers and discover where they had come from and where they were headed. Almost everyone we met was quite friendly. They were just out here for their own sort of adventure just like us. But I was a bit disappointed that even on a Tuesday there was no chance at solitude here in the "wilderness". I guess we all just have to accept the reality of over-population.
After lunch we began our ascent to Frigid Air Pass, leaving the day-hiking crowd behind for the time being. The climb, particularly near the top, was a bit steeper and more challenging than Maroon Pass, but the summit offered fantastic views of the Fravert Basin, a broad wonderland of lush undergrowth and wildflowers thicker than ever before. The seldom-photographed West Face of Maroon Peak towered above us.
The back side of Maroon Peak:
To the north we were awarded our first view of dramatic Snowmass Mountain, which loomed with particular brilliance with its gray rock in bold relief to the otherwise reddish sedimentary rock of practically everything else. Its South Face, combined with its satellite peaks Hagerman and Snowmass, was an impressive rampart of jagged cliffs. The summit looked very high.
Fravert Basin and Snowmass Mountain (left):
The last section of the day’s journey took us from the summit of Frigid Air Pass down into the Fravert Basin. At this point the long miles and heavy packs had made our feet and shoulders weary. We reached the meandering upper reaches of the North Fork of the Crystal River and descended amongst the flowers until reaching our second campsite here on a tree-lined knoll in the creek basin. We must be no more than half a mile above King Falls. Tomorrow will be a bit longer than expected but less strenuous than today.
Looking back up the Fravert Basin:
Later: We find ourselves more exhausted tonight than after many of our fourteener climbs this summer. I suppose we covered between eight and nine miles and gained three-thousand feet in elevation. With forty-five pounds of weight this is substantial.
Preparing for night at camp two:
This part of the basin is very quiet and peaceful. The only drawback is the particularly ravenous mosquitoes that have come out en masse (a pleasure which we have not had the joy of experience yet on this trip). Despite this nuisance, the evening is warm and brilliant with sunlight.
The Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness is a gem and a Colorado classic. If someone who'd never seen this state asked me what was its most beautiful spot, here would surely come to mind. The only thing missing is the sense of solitude one sometimes wants from a wilderness. Maybe in early fall before the first snows there are fewer people. Maybe then you could find it. Right now, however, we aren't within sight or sound of other campers, and I can pretend that we are alone.
Day 3: Wednesday, August 11
A chilly clear morning. Should shape into a fine day once the sun emerges from behind its mountain hideout. A light breeze keeps stiffness in the fingers and our jackets cinched tight.
Today we should reach Geneva Lake. It is not too many miles, so we feel no pressing need to hurry and break camp. After all the sights and wonders of the past two days, I am excited to see what today has in store.
Later: Another successful day: we have made it to Geneva Lake. Although our route was shorter than yesterday, it wasn’t without its difficulties. Just after beginning our hike this morning, we switchbacked down a steep hillside past King Falls (a stair-stepping, three-hundred foot veil of water framed by glorious maroon crags) and reached an unpleasant obstacle I would later think of as The Swamp.
Looking down a steep ridge at King Falls to an emerald pool:
Looking up at King Falls:
We’d heard rumor of The Swamp from counter-clockwise loopers, but I think we'd truly hoped that the problems it created for the others had been over-stated. We were wrong. A long labyrinth of downed lumber choked off the trail completely and the path of least resistance around it put us next to the creek. For the next half mile we slogged through sticky, slimy marshland. When we finally emerged at the far side of the marshes, the trouble wasn’t over. A surprise storm forced us to hide under the eaves of nearby pine trees.
But the storm did not last and soon the sky cleared to a flawless blue like we had hardly seen all summer. The weather was finally gone and hopefully for good! We hiked pleasantly along, making friends with other clockwise loopers. There were people, it seemed, from all across the country: Berkley, Michigan, Canada, Missouri, Colorado. The beautiful Bells stood tall on the south end of the valley, diminishing in size as we traveled but not in majesty.
At 10,100 feet we’d descended almost nine-hundred feet since leaving our campsite. This was, as a matter of fact, the lowest we would be until the last day of our trip. We'd reached the so-called "cut-off trail" and the start of the uphill portion of our day. Standing between us and our destination at Geneva Lake was a fourteen-hundred foot climb towards Trail Rider Pass up a steep, winding trail through thick willows and aspens.
The challenging climb up The Cut-off offered astounding views of the Fravert Basin and the Maroon Bells:
A closer look at the backside of the Maroon Bells:
At last we reached the top of this steep section and were rewarded with a magnificent vantage of the backside of Hagerman and Snowmass Peaks. We stopped for lunch alongside a group of men who were here backpacking from St. Louis. The eldest amongst them, a round-bellied fellow whom we’d seen struggling earlier today, fired up a cigarette. I was not surprised when he grumbled about the difficult climb.
After lunch we turned left and put our backs to the Loop for the first time and began descending towards Geneva Lake. It was here at the trail junction that we first noticed a new a dark storm that was approaching. Maybe the arrival of good weather that had been predicted had not quite arrived. During the last storm we had been able to take shelter for fifteen minutes and mostly escape getting wet. It didn't look like we were going to get off so easy this time. It was only just over a mile from here to Geneva Lake, but we hiked with a sense of urgency as the storm raced in behind us. As a result we couldn't properly enjoy this lush and quiet stretch of trail.
The quiet trail through the forest to Geneva Lake:
A colorful amantia muscaria mushroom in the forest around Geneva Lake:
After a few short switchbacks, we reached Geneva Lake and erected our tent. Not a moment too soon: the rain began to fall at almost the very instant the task was complete.
The rugged backside of Snowmass Mountain from Geneva Lake:
We sit now in the tent hiding from this relentless storm. It is surely one of the most serious we have experienced. Every time it seems like it might be weakening, the rain picks back up. Currently, it seems the rain is slowing down, but we'll have to wait to see if it is actually over.
The storm approaching on the evening of the third day:
Day 4: Thursday, August 12
Could the storm actually be over? I dare allow myself to hope.
The afternoon storms that arrived yesterday as we set-up camp at Geneva lasted about an hour and a half. Once they had passed the skies once again were clear and blue, and we enjoyed what turned out to be an idyllic evening of lounging in the hammocks and staring out over beautiful Geneva Lake. But as daylight began to fade, the first of the nighttime thunderstorms moved in.
It is difficult to describe last night and accurately reproduce the anxieties it produced in us. I did not sleep for even a few minutes. The apocalyptic thunderstorm that plagued the entire night came in relentless yet predictable waves. There were at least ten of these waves as the night played its course. First we would hear distant rumbles of thunder approaching like the footsteps of doom. Then the first spatters of rain. Soon after, both rain and lightning would grow to a frightening crescendo in which all we could do was lie quiet, sleeping bags pulled over our heads, hoping that the lightning’s menacing tendrils wouldn’t find us. After the horrible eye of the storm passed by, you could hear the lightning change pitch as it moved over the mountain, booming and echoing like so many bowling pins. The rain would taper off slowly before calming. But hardly would the rain stop, it seemed, before we'd start to hear the footsteps approaching all over again.
We laid in our tents scared and helpless as the storms ebbed and flowed in this way throughout the night. At the most frightening moments, when the frailness and helplessness of humanity and human life was most apparent, I did what any reasonable person would do when faced with the realization that not only was the apocalypse real but upon them: I prayed. Had I seen two of every species of animal begin to float past, I would have prayed even harder.
At some point it seemed as if the storms would never end. They did, in fact, seem to be getting worse. As I laid there feelingly increasingly claustrophobic from the storm, I realized that we were a two day hike and two high passes from our car. Should the storm persist it would be very difficult for us to retreat. We were supposed to meet Ed, Alex, and Miriam at Snowmass Lake. Was it possible we could miss this deadline?
After suffering for many hours in the dark confines of our tent, I finally dared to turn on my cellphone (I'd been trying hard to forget about technology) to check the time. It was 4:30. Daybreak was only an hour away. The blinding flashes of the lightning in juxtaposition against the cold dark of a moonless night were frightening to behold. Day, I hoped, would bring an end to this nightmare. But the storm had other plans, and day was ushered in by the worst and most sustained storm of all. It seemed a dark omen to begin day four huddled in terror as a storm of this fury ripped around us. We ate an anxious breakfast cowering together as a hail battered the tent walls.
This final storm was an unbelievable and oddly alluring spectacle. Lightning brightened the sky every few seconds and booms of thunder reverberated endlessly off the surrounding cliffs. Two or three inches of standing water had formed both around and underneath us. Our backpacks and boots were sitting in a pool of rainwater. The question we both began asking was how much more of this could we, and our gear, take? It seemed like the storm would never end.
It is noon now on day four, and things could be getting better. But like a child whose abusive father has promised better days ahead, I am skeptical. Bright bands of blue are fighting for control of the sky, but grim clouds are still all around. It seems like it could all start again at any moment. We decided to move our tent to a higher location. Discovering at 4 am that were were surrounded by a three-inch deep standing pool with intense lightning crackling all around was an experience we didn't want to repeat. Unfortunately our new location is not nearly as flat or comfortable. For now we can only hope that the apocalypse is over and that we will be able to cross Trail Rider Pass to Snowmass Lake tomorrow.
A fisherman braves a gloomy morning on day four:
Taking advantage of rare sunshine on day four:
Later: After a few hours break from the weather, it seems we can hear thunder approaching once again. It is 3:00 pm. The last nineteen hours have been like a strange, twisted dream from which there seems to be no waking. We can only hope that this newest storm swings to the south and away from us.
In-between weather cycles we were able to hike to an overlook and a set of waterfalls at the southwest end of the lake basin:
Day 5: Friday, August 13
We awoke to a beautiful, still morning and not a cloud in the known universe. The lake is calm enough that a perfect inverse of the surrounding cirque can be seen in the water. The end of the world, it seems, is not yet upon us after all.
Reflections on Geneva Lake on the morning of day five:
Pondering the heights of Hagerman Peak and Trail Rider Pass:
Today we should meet friends. Ed, Alex, and Miriam are supposed to join us at Snowmass Lake at some point this afternoon. Now that the weather has broken, we should have no problem getting there. The sun has not directly reached us and, as if often the case on the first clear day after a storm, it is colder than before. It is hard, in fact, to keep enough command over my fingers to drag this pen across the page. Even the ink is thick and stubborn. This is what they call mid-summer at 11,000'. But we should have the warmth of the direct sun soon, and it looks to be a marvelous day.
Later: We have arrived at Snowmass Lake. It is as magical and incredible as you could hope. Quiet, blue-green waters rest at the base of a dramatic cirque of pyramid-shaped peaks. From this angle, 13,600’ Snowmass Peak appears higher than 14,092’ Snowmass Mountain.
Today began with a peaceful and mellow return through “Mushroom Forest” back to the junction with the Cut-off Trail. Charmed by the serenity of the morning, it seemed like we reached this familiar juncture in no time at all. And here, after two days off, we rejoined the Loop.
Approaching Trail Rider Pass:
A series of long, broad switchbacks took us up the shoulder of Hagerman and Snowmass Peaks to Trail Rider Pass at 12,500’. From Trail Rider, we caught our first glimpse of one of the broadest, most majestic lakes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness: Snowmass Lake.
First view of Snowmass Lake (from Trail Rider Pass):
Looking back on the terrain west of Trail Rider Pass:
During our descent we got an aerial preview of the mountaineering route up Snowmass Mountain for tomorrow. The usually perennial snowfield from which Snowmass takes its name has completely melted. I suppose it has been a poor snow year. The first section of the route ascends a steep gully at the lake's west end. Once atop this feature, the trail climbs through broken granite slabs to a point just south of the two-pronged summit. This is the point which we will cross to the Geneva side of Snowmass’s north ridge, which we have previewed judiciously the previous two days from Geneva Lake.
First view of the east slopes of Snowmass Mountain (center) and our climbing route:
For now we sit awaiting the arrival of friends. I do hope that they still plan to make it and that they arrive soon, but much could have happened in the past week.
Day 6: Saturday, August 14
Summit day, and the last fourteener climb of our summer. We have been to the top of quite a few peaks this summer. It is strange to think that today is the last. The imminent end of our long-planned and awaited summer brings up memories of the very first day when we arrived in Frisco all geared up to climb Quandary. It seems like so long ago, it some ways. It seems like last week in others. Yet, if I could, I would do just about anything to return to that moment and have the chance to do it all over again just one more time....
Ed, Alex, and Miriam arrived last night around 6:30 pm. I had begun to believe that they wouldn't make it at all. It is a treat to be joined by friends and a good dynamic for the last few days of this trip.
This morning we awoke at 5:00 am, the usual hour for most of our climbs. After breakfast and other items of business typical of any camp-morning agenda, we began hour hike around Snowmass Lake, talking excitedly in anticipation of the climb ahead. After this pleasant warm-up, we reached the bottom of the gully we’d previewed yesterday and the start of the real climbing. After a short break to adjust our packs and get our fill of water, we began to climb up Snowmass Mountain's slippery east slope. Quickly, we discovered the tedious nature of this loose and tricky climb.
After the first thousand feet, the route eased up somewhat and entered a beautiful field of broken granite slabs. Occasional class 3 variations could be found to break-up the monotony of loose class 2 scrambling. Though there were relatively few people on this mountain compared to the crowds we'd seen on Front Range fourteeners, we soon made friends with a pair of middle-aged guys, one of whom was from our same hometown of Glenwood Springs. We ended up climbing much of the route alongside our new companions.
Looking back on Snowmass Lake at sunrise:
At 12,800’ the mountain slope tilted upward once again, and we entered what was, in many ways, the most dangerous portion of the climb. Here the route was steep and very loose and great care had to be made not to knock rocks down onto each other. We eyed other groups around us with suspicion, gauging if any among them were possible rock-kickers. In many ways you have to be even more proactive protecting yourself from others than you do from yourself. As a group we made an effort not to climb single file but to stagger ourselves so as to lessen the risk of rockfall.
Through the grassy/slabby shelves (12,500'):
The climbing crew (near to far: Miriam, Alex, and Ed):
In this late part of the summer season, the standard route we had scouted the previous day was not the most efficient route to the top. A more direct route was available. This variation, plagued by snow and ice most of the year, marched straight towards an organ-pipe looking formation immediately south of the summit tower to an unlikely notch in the mountain's defenses. Through this notch we could cross over the ridge to the mountain’s west face.
Approaching the top portion of the mountain:
The top slopes of Snowmass's east face:
The final pitch through the notch was a loose, dangerous, and mildly exposed class 3 climb and one of the route’s cruxes. Once we had surmounted this treacherous spot, we found ourselves looking down on the familiar heart shape of Geneva Lake. It was a special tour to visit both sides of this astonishing mountain. Each was very different in its character and attitude.
A closer look at the last climb to the notch:
The crux class 3 section of the notch:
Me standing at the top of the class 3 notch (13,800'):
Looking back at Hagerman Peak, the Maroon Bells, and Pyramid Peak from the southwest ridge of Snowmass Mountain:
Beyond the notch there was only two hundred feet of climbing left, but the exposure to the west grew increasingly intimidating. The last pitch held the route’s most difficult moves, but the solid rock made the climbing a joy. A variety of class 3 lines led to the summit block where a small pinnacle offered a priceless summit photo. It took some coaxing to get me atop this airy perch.
Snowmass Mountain's summit pitch:
Ella sitting on top of the tallest rock:
Looking down on our familiar campsite at Geneva Lake:
Me on top of the balance rock:
The hike down was long and bone rattling and after numerous ankle rolls we were back lakeside and hiking across more gentle terrain back to camp.
Capitol Peak as seen from Snowmass Mountain:
So ended the last climb of our summer. “Summer of Fourteeners” was one eight-mile pass from its official conclusion. It is a simultaneously sad and satisfying feeling to reach the end. I feel we have made the most of this summer. I will look back on it not with regret of time wasted but with pride of having lived every minute to its fullest.
Day 7: Sunday, August 15
Morning at Snowmass Lake:
Disaster! Our propane canister has prematurely coughed out the last of its fuel. I guess the long-cooking Minestrone we had been saving this entire trip for our post-Snowmass celebration meal consumed the last of our propane. As a result we are going to be forced to hike out today, one day early. It was a sad realization when we unexpectedly faced the last day of our summer. It was an adventure long-planned, eagerly awaited, and perfectly executed. And now today it comes to an end. So many conversations this past year have revolved around these four trips. How many times did one of us start a conversation with, "So I have an idea for the summer..." or "I am so excited for our summer". Yet, after yesterday’s successful ascent of Snowmass Mountain, and the departure of our friends earlier this morning, it seems fitting. This is a better climax.
So this will be the last journal entry made from the wild. There will be one more, I anticipate, from civilization once we have returned home. We still have one more beautiful hike ahead. Then, I suppose, I will offer my last ruminations about this long season in the high country. For now, I suppose I am sadly signing off.
More morning reflections:
Later: The hike out, the backpack, and the summer of fourteeners is now over. It is a day that is both sad and glorious. Looking back on our many adventures and the profound impact they have had on me, I feel proud.
Our hike out today was longer and more difficult than anticipated. Our bodies were torn down, burned out, and craving a day of rest. But as it turned out today was the longest hike of the backpack. Still, it was a beautiful route through lush fields and gentle streams over Buckskin Pass. From the top we found ourselves looking down on the valley from which we had begun. We had almost come full circle.
Looking back at Snowmass Mountain, Hagerman, Capitol Peak, and Snowmass Lake from Buckskin Pass:
Looking across at Pyramid from Buckskin Pass:
While descending into the Minnehaha Gulch the Sunday crowd grew steadily in number as we approached Crater Lake. Suddenly, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves standing back on Maroon Trail. The loop had closed at last. Here we were overwhelmed by a theme-park atmosphere. Large volumes of day hikers suddenly surrounded us, overwhelming our senses. Though we had seen quite a number of people during the week, we had become attuned to the pace of the wilderness. Such overwhelming crowds were difficult to comprehend. We hiked as quickly as we could to escape.
The side profile of North Maroon Peak:
Looking up the valley where the trip had begun a week before:
At last we reached the parking lot where my car came into view. I felt a strange dichotomy of emotion. There was some sense of relief in returning to the comforts of society: the bottomless meals, the protection of a roof, a soft bed off the ground. But there was also a sense that the travails of civilization had returned with them. We hadn’t heard the grumblings of machines and engines for seven days. We hadn't had to worry about jobs or money. It was an overwhelming, even dismal, scene. But it was also the end of a grand adventure. Not just of this past week but of the last two months. We were, perhaps, too tired to appreciate the significance of the moment.
The classic shot at the end of a classic week:
There is a strong appeal for me of nature, something akin to what Jack London called "the call of the wild." Though we are out now and not likely to come back soon, I already feel the draw to return. To climb to high peaks and peer across vast horizons. To smell the perfume of rich, damp soil. To witness palettes of flowers swaying in the wind and to hear the buzzing of their pollinators. To watch water spill through green fields and to listen to the gossip of its currents. I have found where I am most alive and this is what I want to do.
And every time we return to civilization from the high places of the world, we are always one summit wiser.