Maroon Bells Four Passes Loop07/17/2009
At this past year’s shin-dig, Rob Cain (co-emcee, party host, co-director of Ashland’s Siskiyou Out and Back 50K (SOB), president of the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association, general awesome dude) presented Kyle with the illustrious “What the F—!?!?” award for his unprecedented run at the Hardrock 100 last summer. Apparently, according to Rob, this award is descriptive in its nature, of the only rational response that a performance like Kyle’s Hardrock should elicit from any knowledgeable observer.
Since that evening, I have expanded Rob’s use of WTF to help categorize other exemplary elements of my life. After this morning’s run, I can say with confidence that the Maroon Bells Four Passes Loop is an excursion worthy of the WTF tag-line.
At this point in my short life, it makes an even shorter list (in no particular order):
2) The Grand Tetons
4) The Koln Cathedral (a notable non-natural landscape item)
I made the trip over the pass to the Aspen area under cover of darkness yesterday evening. Driving Independence Pass at night is something I try to avoid, simply because the views are so outstanding it seems a crime to miss them. However, the subsequent view of the Milky Way might have made up for it.
As a result, when I rolled out of the back of the Roost this morning in the trailhead parking lot at 9500′, I was in for a treat. I have seen the Maroon Bells multiple times. I’ve even run a double crossing of 12,462′ Buckskin Pass before (the first of the four nearly 12,500′ passes of the day), but these prior experiences seemingly did nothing to prepare me for the view of the sun rising on the Bells this morning.
North and South Maroon Peak–both over 14,000′–stand sentinel over the valley. Their presence is regal, unflinching; their pyramidal faces exude a sense of complete security in their unquestioned authority, their immutable timelessness. Long after all the mechanized, frantic, desperate skitterings of those two-legged pests below has finally permanently ceased, these mountains will still be there. And they know it.
The Bells are the centerpiece of the valley, but all visible horizons are adorned with craggy, striated minarets from which fall streams of water. Entire mountainsides can be seen to be blanketed in flowers. Suffocating in flowers.
The run begins with a shortish jaunt up the valley over exceedingly rocky trail, from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake. At Crater Lake, the loop starts and the climbing begins in earnest. I punch up the 3000′ of vertical without effort nor concern. The sheer beauty unfolding before me is almost overwhelming, however. The top of Buckskin Pass is crested with a 15-20 foot high frozen cornice that the trail conveniently skirts. From the apex, the scenery somehow improves. The Bells have been traded for the still snow-covered Snowmass Peak and Mountain. Snowmass Mountain is another 14er.
The trail down from the pass is impeccable. It is expertly constructed and picks a perfect line down into the next valley. At the base of its granite reaches, however, are the silky cerulean waters of Snowmass Lake. The contrast with the white stone is stunning. As I stride through this section and start the 1700′ ascent to Trail Rider Pass, a thought occurs to me. I wish I could transplant my eyeballs into every human head, transmit my sight to the masses, identically relate the felt experience of moving effortlessly through this landscape. If that were possible, if people could see and feel and drink in this beauty, there is no way that strife could exist in the world, I think. War, money, material goods, their importance would cease to dominate the national, the global conversation.
Of course, this is not true. World War II was fought in the Alps. The San Juans of Colorado are some of the most mine-ridden mountains in the country. How has beauty ceased to inspire?
The summit of Trail Rider Pass proves to be a gateway to a different kind of landscape. Fravert Basin–the headwaters for the North Fork of the Crystal River–is pulsing with color. Emerald doesn’t begin to describe the shade of green above treeline. How can mountains be this lush? Fravert Basin is Ed Abbey Green. John Muir Green. Al Gore only wishes he could get people to believe he is this Green. Envy only has this palette in its dreams. Ireland is jealous. Contrasted with the blood-red stone cliffs and peaks rimming the basin, it looks like Christmas.
As I begin the 2200′ climb to Frigid Air Pass, the obligatory WTF moment occurs. I round a bend and there before me, in all its unexpected cascading glory is King’s Falls.
However, after three hours of running, my legs finally begin to feel the ache, a little. The accumulated fatigue catches up with me as the trail turns to a stream running from beneath a remnant snowdrift above me. Soon enough, though, I am over the top and plummeting to the traverse over to West Maroon Pass. Here, the crowds begin. On the final stretches of the final pass of the morning I scoot around more people than I’ve seen on the entirety of the preceding trail.
The descent down the West Maroon Creek valley stretches on a bit longer than I expect. At times the brush is so thick and deep that I can’t see my feet and I pray to not trip on a rock. I encounter hiker after hiker making their way up the valley. Many are burdened by impossibly large packs and I try not to be smug about the paucity of goods I carry: one 16 oz bottle, one 3 oz jacket never retrieved from where I tucked it into my wasteband this morning, the foil from four 1.1 oz GUs.
Finally, Maroon Lake is in sight, but my legs feel so good, and the morning is so flawless that I am almost saddened by the end of the run. Four hours, 46 minutes, and 55 seconds after leaving the trailhead, I am back. I jog a 15 minute cooldown and resist the urge to log still more time. I am satiated, though, and I need to save some of this feeling for next weekend’s race and return to the Pacific Northwest.