The Maroon Bells Loop
A 27 mile loop hike around the Maroon Bells. 7500 vertical feet. Four mountain passes, all over 12,000 feet. And bad weather in the forecast. Sounds perfect.
Chris, Khurrum, Bubba and I all leave Boulder around 12:00 on Friday and by 4:30 we are leaving the parking lot at the Maroon Bells wilderness area. The ranger warns us its going to be cold, but the forecast calls for one cold day (Saturday) and then some nice weather. We'll see.
We are planning to do a famous loop hike around the Maroon Bells, over 4 high passes (we are doing it clockwise: West Maroon Pass (WMP), Frigid Air Pass (FAP), Trailrider Pass (TRP) and Buckskin Pass (BSP). The first day is the hardest, where you go over two passes, so we have decided to hike in a little on Friday to Crater Lake for a headstart Saturday morning.
We hike for about 1 1/2 hours, and get past Crater Lake to a nice campsite about a mile past the lake and about 100 feet off the trail. Everyone's feeling strong 'cause it's the start of a three day trip, but we're all wondering what the weather's going to do. It gets cold that night pretty quickly and there's snow in the forecast, but when we crawl into our tents the sky is covered with stars.
Surprise! We wake up to cooold temps and a blanket of snow (only about an inch). Still, breaking camp is freezing work and we hurry to get hiking for our "hard" day. We plan to do WMP, FAP and end up camping in Frevert Basin. West Maroon Pass is steep. When you hike up the valley and finally figure out where you are going, it looks like a headwall. "Not much of a pass" I think to myself (and loudly tell others), "since about another 300 vertical feet would let you summit any of the surrounding ridge peaks." Still, the top of our first pass is cause for celebration - we hit it around 10am after about 3 hours of hiking.
"How's that cotton T-shirt working out, Phil?" Bubba asks smugly. Just cause I'm shivering and my t-shirt is soaked with sweat doesn't mean it isn't great backpacking garb. "Oh, great" I lie, and tie it to my pack to dry as I hike. Even though I have a synthetic shirt in my pack, I wear my cotton T proudly for the next 3 days. "Old school, baby" I tell them many times.
This valley is beautiful by the way. Many people hike it one-way from the Maroon Lake Wilderness area to Crested Butte as a dayhike. One the dayhikers tells us there is a beer festival in Crested Butte - decisions, decisions. We finally decide to keep with the plan and continue our loop.
After WMP, you head down towards Crested Butte, and then break off right towards Frigid Air Pass. This pass isn't too bad for the first half - in fact, we were all enjoying this part of the hike and congratulating ourselves on how well it was going. The steep part is probably the last 500 feet of hiking, and it is very. steep. By the time we top out on FAP, it's snowing, about 30 degrees, and the sky looks bad. We drop into Frevert basin hoping the weather forecast is right and this is the worst day.
As we hike about 2-3 miles down the basin to a campsite, the weather gets much warmer, although the clouds still hang around. Right towards the middle of the basin, we are enjoying a view of a waterfall when we see a large brown bear (his color's brown, he's a black bear) across the canyon. He is super-cool - standing on two legs, sniffing the air, then dropping down to four to eat some last few fall flowers before he hibernates. We watch him for awhile and then hike to our campsite. Believe me, we carefully bear-bag our food that night!
We wake to one of the nicest days I've ever seen. Although the morning is chilly (35) it warms quickly and probably hits 65-70 during the day. There is never even a hint of a cloud in the sky. My cotton T is loving it as we hike.
Today we are to hike out of Frevert Basin through Trailrider Pass. We heard that this is a tough pass, and although it is fairly hard, we all agree that WMP is the toughest on the trip. Trailrider involves a long, gradual climb to within 500 vertical feet or so, then a steep finish. At the top, you can see much of the basin you just left, and on the other side, you can see Snowmass Lake and Snowmass Peak. Beautiful. After chatting with a group headed the other way, we descend into the Snowmass valley. To make Monday a little easier, we hike past Snowmass lake and camp by Snowmass Creek.
This is supposed to be our "easy" day, and sure enough we are setting up camp by 3:00. We relax, enjoy the beautiful day, and encourage a troop of scouts passing by headed for Snowmass Lake. Although they are about 12 years old, their packs look heavier than ours. At least they have good knees.
The last day means hiking up to Buckskin Pass and down into Minnehaha Gulch and then to Crater Lake and out. We start off early, and hike in the cool morning up to the top of Buckskin Pass. The views back down to Snowmass Lake are spectacular. I'm including a picture here of the top of Buckskin Pass, but be advised it's 642kB. It's really cool - the willows were blooming, and their seeds filled the air. As the sun rose over the pass, it lit up the seeds like fireflies. Really cool.
After topping out on BSP, we all agree it's the easiest of the passes - no steep part, just a lot of walking uphill. The day is hot - 70 again, and my cotton T finishes strong, although also strong smelling. We turn the last, long downhill to our car into a race because in our hearts, we're done already. Five hours after we break camp, we trudge into the parking lot that holds our cars. Five more hours, 1 Wendy's Triple Burger (Biggie sized) combo and 8 construction sites later, we arrive back in Boulder. I'd do it all again for sure, just not tomorrow.
This hike is dedicated to Chris, who did it all coming straight from sea level; Bubba, who carried my chair from one camp to another, and Khurrum, who suggested the damn thing in the first place.
We must go around them!
Passing Crater Lake
Looking back at Crater Lake
The valley to West Maroon Pass
|Topping out on WMP||The far side of WMP||It's sooo pretty||Frevert Basin - Frigid Air Pass is up there somewhere||The bear! It's the dot in the center|
|Frevert Basin again||More Frevert Basin, that's me||Khurrum halfway up Trailrider Pass||Trailrider Pass - see the trail?||From the top of Trailrider Pass looking back at Frevert|
|Looking down the other side of TRP||Our Sunday campsite||642kB pic of sunrise with willow seeds||Pyramid Peak from the top of Buckskin Pass||Chris and Bubba coming down BSP|
|Done! Free the feet!|