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Maroon Bells and the Leadville 100: August 2007

On Monday, August 13th, I flew to Salt Lake City to meet up with Davy Crockett, Brad Clements, and David Hansen for our annual “man trip” into the woods. As best we can remember, this is the 13th annual meeting of our group aptly named “A bunch of Mormons and a Jew”…..me being the jewish guy.

In years past we have visited many amazing places in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, California, and Arizona. This year we would hit Colorado for the first time and hike the Four Passes Loop trail near Aspen. The trail is in an area called the Maroon Bells and is a loop trail which circumnavigates the main feature of the area, Colorado’s 27th highest peak, Maroon Peak which stands at 14,156 feet.

Maroon Peak BW

Maroon Peak from Maroon Lake

One of our team members, who shall remain nameless (though his last name rhymes with ransome), had an inkling to try and bag the peak itself as he personally has not been to the top of a 14-er. The rest of the team was discussing the difficulty of summiting this peak due to the technical nature of the climb, non-ideal weather conditions, and short time frame due to our mandatory departure on Friday for other activies. We convinced “Mr. X” that attempting the summit on our first day might cause my sea-level lungs to rupture, so we decided to hike the loop in the counterclockwise direction saving the possible summit for the last day. David (whoops! 😉 agreed succumbed.

Warning sign

What exactly is “Qualified” anyway?

group shot before hike

…in case the rescuers need to know what colors we were wearing.

The hike began at beautiful Maroon Lake (9,580 feet) where Ansel Adams took his famous image of Maroon Peak and continued up past Crater Lake (10,000 feet). There were a lot of people out and about and the trail felt like a freeway at times. After Crater Lake the trail splits with an option to go towards West Maroon Pass (clockwise) or Buckskin Pass (counter clockwise). As we ascended towards Buckskin Pass (12,400 feet), the pedestrian traffic lessened as expected. For me, the climb was a bit slow as I was still adjusting to the altitude, but I took my time and concentrated on breathing in deep, slow breaths which helped. My friends kicked my butt and were at the top 30 minutes ahead of me, but that is pretty much par for the course with this group.

Around 1:15pm we reached the pass and ate some snacks/lunch before descending down to Snowmass Lake, our destination for the night. As we ate, we noticed that the weather was beginning to look a little threatening. When we felt a few drops of rain, we aborted food and started down. We have been caught on peaks in thunderstorms many times and once you have experienced one (or seven) you don’t really need that experience again.

Buckskin Pass Panorama

We descended a couple of thousand feet into a beautiful glacial valley. The weather continued to look bad and we heard thunder around us, but were not bothered by rain where we were, thankfully. After reaching the valley floor, the last section of the day was a 400 foot climb to Snowmass lake. I was tired and it felt like that little distance took forever. But eventully we all arrived at a very crowded Snowmass lake. After scouting around, we began to see that we would not be alone in the woods at this site which was a bummer. David wanted to continue on and over Trail Rider pass and into the next valley (another 1500 feet up and over). But the group decided that this would be too much given the weather, distance, and uncertain camp site options on the other side.

We set-up camp and Brad did some fishing. Within an hour, Brad caught not one, not two, but three 8″ to 12″ trout (rainbow and cut throat). As Brad prepared the fish, I cooked up some Jiffy Pop popcorn which was a backcountry experiment. It turned out OK but I don’t think I will bring it again as it made a mess when the oil dripped out of a hole in the foil below and all over David’s stove. But it was tasty!


We cooked Brad’s fish in tin foil with some water and Butter Buds. The fish did not turn out very well for some reason. The meat never got firm. I ate some of it anyway, but we need to get a better set-up for cooking fish in the back country should we ever catch another fish.


A deer visited the campsite and we basically walked up to him and took some pictures. I was about 6 feet away from him before he looked up at me and walked away. Must be a regular at the location. Looked well fed too 🙂

It started to rain so we played several rounds of Settlers of Catan in the tent. I won the first game, Brad won the second, and I colluded with Brad to take a victory away from David in the third game which was just mean on my part…oh well 🙂 The rain continued throughout the game and into the night so before bed we decided to get up early the next day to avoid the late day weather and see if we could make some progress on our mileage.

Snowmass with cloud

Cumulonimbus over Snowmass Lake

The next day we ascended from Snowmass Lake up and over Trail Rider pass at 12,400 feet. The hike up was much easier for me as I was fresh and starting to adjust to the elevation. We reached the pass just before 11am and stopped for some pictures and a bit of food before continuing on down into the valley. We had set our sites on getting to the next pass, Frigid Air, before the afternoon weather, although we were not sure about water and campsite options in that area.

SNOWmass lake from pass

Snowmass lake from Trail Rider Pass

Davy Crocket, Brad Clements, the Jewish guy, and David Hansen

As we descended, into the valley, I think this was one of the most beautiful places we have ever hiked. It was lush and green and had towering peaks in all directions. The pictures don’t do it justice but do give a sense of the awe.

Panorama Looking Down Trail Rider Pass

Down we went. When we got to the bottom of the valley we crossed a stream and began the gentle upward climb through a forest of pine and aspen towards our campsite goal, below Frigid Air pass. Our first steep part of the ascent was a 400 foot waterfall which Davy climbed first. It was a flowing fairly well from all the rain they had had over the last few days.

davy waterfall

Where’s Davy (hint: he is wearing red) ?
(click image to enlarge)

Then the trail continued up slowly to about 11,500 feet which was about a half mile from and 1000 feet lower than the pass. We re-grouped to discuss our options. Turns out there was not much water at 11,500 feet (yup, water flows downhill). Also turns out that the map only showed a very small pool of water on the other side of Frigid Air pass which was an option Mr. X was lobbying for. A passing hiker told us they did not see any water on the other side which swayed the quorum to not going over the pass. It was around 3pm and the weather did not look good either. Storms were all around us and we had been rained on a little already.

Davy appeared from up above and said that he had spotted a small spring up ahead around 11,700 feet. We followed him up a bit and found the water source which was just fine for our needs. We almost camped right next to it, but Davy explored up on the bench above and found a “better spot” with a big rock. We love rocks, so we ended up camping up a bit higher at nearly 11,800. This would easily be our highest (and most exposed) camp ever. In fact it is higher than most of the peaks we climb. Always good to set new personal records…. right?

11800 camp

High Camp 11,800ft with Maroon Peak in the background.

After a short rest, we set-up the tents and decided to go get some water and wash up as the sun was out and it was very warm. When we returned to the camp the weather was beginning to turn. So we did what anyone would do and played Catan. David won the last game after a masterful demonstration of brick hoarding.

storms at 11800

Storms Building

By 9pm it was dark and raining fairly hard. We cleaned up Catan and settled in for some shut eye. Then a flash of lightning hit and was so bright it lierally blinded everyone. I remember starting to count in my head after the flash but I only got to about a half second before the thunder errupted in a deafening blow. My whole body stiffened and I clenched my sleeping mattress as the echos rumbled over and over off the mountains for at least 10 seconds. The strike was obviously close and likely just up on the pass from us. I remember shouting over to Davy Crockett in his tent to see if he was still alive. He said he was “smoldering” which got a laugh from everyone.

We would endure 3+ hours of storms which seemed to sit right over top of us. The lightning was bright and the thunder was loud. There is something about being at 12,000 feet wtih a thunderstorm hovering at 15,000 feet combined with huge mountains to echo the sound that makes for some frightening moments. I don’t recommend it. We regularly questioned the logic of an exposed, above treeline, 11,800 foot campsite. My mind wondered how much contact our aluminum tent poles made with the ground around us. I don’t think we will do that type of campsite again especially with the weather as it was. Eventually the storms slowed down and we finally got to sleep around midnight.

The next day was crisp and clear. Davy found about an inch of rain in his cup. No drought up here! The temperature was around 37° according to my GPS’s diagnostic screen which I accidentaly discovered the day before (hold the enter key while powering up on a Garmin). We began to understand the signifigance of the name of the pass just ahead (Frigid Air). When the sun came up over Maroon Peak the temperature jumped to 50° in about 30 minutes. We shed clothing and put on the sun block before leaving for Frigid Air pass.

route to frigid air

Davy Crockett on the way up to Frigid Air Pass
(Campsite was by the small rocks to the right of center)

We reached the pass at 11am and enjoyed 50+ mile views in all directions. After a group shot or two, we headed on. We had to reach the next pass and also drop down 3000 feet and walk 8 miles back to the trailhead in order to leave the wilderness and drive to Leadville, Colorado for our next adventure. Oh, this also meant that we would not have time for the Maroon Peak summit which was fine by me. We had heard enough about the difficulty of the route from Rangers along the way, especially with the weather. Not to mention the guy who died last week on the mountain. Oh well, maybe next time 🙂

jew at 12,400

Jewish Guy (me) at 12,400 ft

I reached the last pass, West Maroon, around 12:30pm. Turns out it took me about 90 minutes to get there but only took Davy and David 30 minutes! I took a lot of flower pictures on the way over, but I also found out that Davy and David had essentially raced the whole way over and Davy won by about 4 paces. This would be a childish foreshadowing of the days to come in Leadville.

After a group photo, we began down at a very fast clip. I was practically running at times and we averaged almost 4 miles/hour (with packs on!). It was just time to get out and try and find a shower.

group west maroon pass

Group at West Maroon Pass

We hit the Aspen forests and eventually arrived back at the trailhead around 4pm. Maroon Bells turned out to be everything we had expected and so much more. Visit this place if you ever get a chance especially in the Fall when the Aspen leaves are changing (hint: Fall is in three weeks!)

Next up was a trip east over the continental divide to the mining town of Leadville, CO for a little run in the woods.

Aspen Trees and trail

Aspen along the trail

More pictures here.

Map of hike is here.

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