By Glen Hilliard
Two friends and I recently completed a four-day, three-night backpacking trip through Aspen, Colorado on the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop. This trail is roughly 26 miles long; it starts at an altitude of about 9,500 feet with each of the four mountain passes reaching 12,500 feet; and it has some of the most amazing views that you will ever see in your life. If you’ve ever wanted do something like this, but were unsure whether you could do it, let me try to convince you.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about completing this trip. I’m 41 years old and had never been on an overnight backpacking trip. I do occasional 3-4 miles casual hikes with friends and family, but that’s it. I exercise regularly, but I’m not a gym rat. I like to run to stay fit, but normally it’s only 5K and never really over 10K. Overall, I consider myself to be of average fitness. Living in Pittsburgh at 1,300 feet the majority of my life, I really had no idea what to expect on these mountain passes.
I arrived in Denver, where my friends live, on a Wednesday. We planned on starting our hike on Friday so I had a couple of days to make some last minute backpacking purchases and to see what it’s like above 5,000 feet.
On Thursday morning I went out for a run. I was about 30 seconds off my normal pace, but overall I felt fine. The one thing I did notice was that even though my level of exertion was the same, I didn’t really sweat. That was definitely unusual.
That night, we drove to a little town outside of Aspen and stayed in a hotel so that we could get an early start Friday morning. When we get there, we’re at 9,000 feet and we’re quickly to sleep.
Day 1 – Moose
We arrived at the trailhead at exactly 8:00. Unfortunately, it’s raining slightly. We get our packs and ponchos on and we’re on the trail around 8:30. Less than 15 minutes into our hike, our trail becomes blocked by two moose. This is something you don’t see every day in Pennsylvania. One moose quickly walks away but the other is content to graze for about 10 minutes. When it finally decides to leave, it gives us a couple snorts and runs in our direction. I wasn’t charging at us, it just decided that was its best route to where it was going. Nevertheless, it got our hearts pumping.
Day 1 is intended to be a rather short 5-6 miles to our first campsite. We want to lie up before the first pass, so that we can tackle it first thing the next morning. The hike is a gradually climb all morning to about 11,000 feet. At around 1:00, it has stopped raining and we find a beautiful spot to set up camp at the base of a mountain range. Looking around at where I’m at, I’m already happy that I decided to do this trip.
I notice that I have a slight headache and I’m guessing it has something to do with the altitude and lack of food.
Day 2 – West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass
On paper, today is our most grueling day. We are going to climb two passes (West Maroon & Frigid Air). That being said, I’m really optimistic at this point. My headache is gone. I feel good carrying the weight on my back. I’m ready to go.
After packing up camp, we start out on another rainy morning. Not the hiking conditions I was hoping for, but the scenery more than makes up for it. After hiking a couple more miles, the rain has stopped and I finally get my first look at a mountain pass and see what kind of hiking lay ahead. It’s no joke.
I don’t know what I was thinking. By definition, a pass is the low point between two mountains, but I guess the reality just didn’t click in my mind. These are mountains. To get to the top of the pass, the trail moves through a series of switchbacks. It’s basically a zigzag up the mountain so you don’t have to climb straight up. Even with this approach, it’s exhausting. After climbing for more than an hour and a couple dozen breaks along the way to catch my breath, the top of the pass is in sight. Honestly, I’m thinking in my head, can I really do three more of these? This is kind of the point of no return. We could turn back after this and be back to the car by nightfall. But as we reach 12,500 feet my decision is made…I have got to see more.
From the top of the pass, we descend another set of switchbacks down and then hike a couple more miles to the base of Frigid Air Pass. It’s already been a long day. We’ve been hiking for over four hours and looking up, I know what’s in store. So, it’s another series of switchbacks and a dozen more stops in order to ascend to 12,500 feet again. Reaching the top of the pass, it’s more awe inspiring views. I can’t believe I’m 41 years old and just now really appreciating this.
As tired as we are, we still have to get off of this mountain to set up camp. So we start down the other side and we find cover in a grove just before it starts to rain again. But no worries, after a long day, it’s a quick water run to a stream, something to eat and straight to bed.
Day 3 – Snowmass Lake
Again, I have a lot of optimism this morning. Yesterday was the toughest day in our planned trip, we only have Trail Rider Pass to make it through today, and though it’s cold, it’s not supposed to rain.
Soon after we leave camp we pass a huge waterfall. After a couple photo ops, we get back on the trail. About 30 minutes later we come to a wide stream and it seems there’s no way to get across without getting wet. So we take off our boots and socks, roll up our pants and keep moving forward. The trail then turns uphill as the pass comes into sight. We’ll need to climb 2,000 feet today to get to the top of Trail Rider Pass. To make matters worse, the weather is turning. Why should today be any different? But it’s not rain, it’s sleet. So, the ponchos come out again and we start up the mountain. After 45 minutes of steep uphill climbing, the sun comes out and the rain gear is put away. I’m grateful because even though yesterday was supposed to be our toughest day, this pass is by far the steepest and it’s getting the best of me. After another 30 minutes, the sun becomes short-lived and it’s sleeting again. At this point, the top of the pass is in sight, but still I’m cursing this route and Mother Nature. As we reach 12,500 feet for the third time, she has me eating those words. The view over the other side of the mountain has us overlooking a pristine mountain lake surrounded by steep granite cliffs and towering evergreens. I can’t imagine that I will ever see a more beautiful view in my life.
After a bunch of pictures, it’s down the other side of the mountain to Snowmass Lake. As we get closer, the views get more and more amazing. That night we get to do a little fishing and thanks to one of my hiking partners there’s trout for dinner.
Day 4 – Buckskin Pass
It’s our final day, the skies are clear and the sun is out. Today we have one final pass, Buckskin. From camp, we hike uphill most of the morning until we get to the pass. Starting up the switchbacks is a little bitter sweet. We’re all craving a big juicy hamburger or some greasy pizza, but we know this will be our last panoramic shot from the top of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I’m not sure if it’s the food cravings or if it’s that we already have three passes under our belts, but this climb seems a lot easier. At the top, we take our last pictures of the spectacular views and start down the mountain.
From the top of Buckskin Pass it’s downhill the entire way to the trailhead parking lot. We’re all thankful for that after four long and tiring days of hiking. Soon, the scenery starts to look familiar and we realize we’re getting close to the trailhead. We start seeing more and more people coming in the opposite direction. We’re tired, dirty and I’m sure we don’t smell that great, but this trip has been so rewarding. As we weave through tourists out for a quick day hike, I feel like a real backpacker. At the trailhead, we stop and take one look back at everything we accomplished over the last few days. We take one last picture and we starting loading our gear into the car.
Looking back on the whole trip, I can’t believe I waited so long to do something like this. The physical exertion and sore feet were well worth the experience. So much so that I’m already thinking about where I can go next year…Montana, Canada, the Grand Canyon? There’s so much I’d love to see and now I have no worries whether I can do it. And neither should you. Stop wondering or worrying whether you can do it. Get some friends and plan your trip. If you haven’t done it, what are you waiting for?