Road-tripping Colorado last September our entire journey centred around completing the Four Pass Loop trail. Situated close to Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I first learnt about the hike from an Instagram photo. The image of an impossibly steep mountain pass covered in wildflowers caught my imagination. Eager to find out more, I searched YouTube where after a few hours my excitement had been fuelled by the epic mountain scenery and numerous ‘awesome’ references. I knew the hike would be challenging – twenty-eight miles of rocky terrain, ascending four 12,000-foot passes, at an altitude we were not acclimatised to – but since our PCT hike ended the previous year I longed for adventure. After convincing a reluctant husband that sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad, we packed the camp set-up we vowed never to use again for 3 days in the wild.
Our hike finally began a day later than planned on 24th September. The delay was the result of a sudden snow-storm, which seemed to bring winter to the mountains overnight. Lucky us. The morning felt bitterly cold, but thankfully the white stuff had ceased falling and the skies were blue. As we drove towards the trailhead we came to a roadblock. A ranger leaned through the window and informed us the trailhead parking had just reached capacity. He instead directed us to the Highlands ski resort – 8 miles from the trailhead – where we paid quite a bit and joined the back of a rapidly growing bus queue.
The shuttle bus service didn’t start for over an hour. This meant by the time we reached Maroon Lake it was 9am. I can’t explain the frustration I felt which was centred around the fear of getting caught by an afternoon thunderstorm – a local phenomenon referred to repeatedly in my trail research. Whilst on fears I should probably mention another one topping my list. Bear activity in the Maroon Bells having grown to such an issue in recent years that in 2015 the U.S Forest Service implemented a special order stipulating backpackers carry their food in bear-resistant containers. Conrad’s backpack was 3 pounds heavier as a result, and my blood pressure undoubtedly higher. Still, minor setback aside, with a heady mix of excitement and nerves we began the trail towards Crater Lake.
Following a rough path through a bright yellow aspen forest, the hike got off to a good start. It was fairly busy with day-hikers, so we often stepped aside allowing them to pass, unhindered as they were compared to us and our heavy kit. After 1.6 miles we reached our first junction with Crater Lake nestled below. Here we turn right, branching off from the main fanfare, having made the decision to hike the loop anti-clockwise to tackle the largest climb first.
As we enter a darker spruce forest the trail gets icy. Along with the increased gradient, our energy is rapidly depleting so we revert to our old PCT motto: Slow and steady. We convince ourselves the altitude is entirely responsible for the fact we are both so breathless. I’m going to stick with that theory. trudging on, as we eventually step out from beneath tree cover into what looks like a deadend basin we come to a stop and laugh. Buckskin Pass. Sandwiched between 14,000-foot peaks, what lay ahead looked so sheer that it didn’t seem possible to WALK up over it.
With burning thighs we slowly wound our way up towards the pass. Now fully exposed to the sun, we found ourselves wading through narrow channels of rapidly melting ice water. My feet became completely soaked through – yes I should have worn waterproof boots – and with each switch-back I’d take a pause for breath then continue climbing before my legs could stiffen. It was hard work. I was sweating even though the wind-chill factor grew stronger the closer we drew to the top.
Finally, with the crisp breeze smacking against my cheeks we made it to the ridge and could turn back to appreciate perhaps the most spectacular mountain view I have ever seen. Conrad is convinced the powder-coated peaks are the very ones featured on the Coors beer bottles. I’m not sure if he’s making it up, but their jagged appearance towered over us, creating a striking panorama. The Colorado Rockies make the peaks we had visited in Oregon and Washington look tame by comparison.
From Crater Lake to Buckskin Pass the trail was a nice amount of busy with perhaps a few dozen hikers, but not many went over the pass. Winding down the tight switchbacks on the back-side of the pass it didn’t take long before we caught our first glimpse of Snowmass Lake perched in a distant basin. Squeaking marmots scurried across the scree. Our gradual descent delivered us into a wide valley of alpine meadows, where the snow gradually petted out. I couldn’t help but think it started to feel a bit eerie, when aside from one group that passed us going the opposite way near the top of the pass, we saw no one the entire afternoon.
After an impossibly slow trek of around 9 miles we finally called it a day. As camping around Snowmass Lake is restricted to designated sites and fires are banned, we decided to forfeit a water view and instead erect the tent half a mile east in one of the few locations where fires are permitted. It already felt very cold with the loss of the late afternoon sun, but that night the temperature plummeted. Our camp sat in a shady forest at around 10,500-feet, and felt completely isolated. The idea it was just us and the bears kept me vigilant as I paced around, unable to sit still for a second in the cold. I ruined a pair of fleece gloves attempting to keep warm way too close to the spitting fire, but in reality I was lucky my entire jacket didn’t go up in flames!
Still shivering, I watched the clock throughout the night. It was my worst nights sleep ever. In those long hours I was reminded just how much I hate the physical discomfort of camping on a lightweight blow-up air mattress. By dawn, Conrad and I lay awake in our sleeping bags with a predicament: do we unzip and venture into a morning so cold I feared hypothermia, or do we stay put and hope it might warm up? We wondered if temperatures even would increase that day. There was no phone signal so we couldn’t confirm. In the end, the hope offered by a hot mug of coffee was too much to ignore. But as I stood in the morning mist to fire up the stove – and realised we probably hadn’t taken the elevation into consideration when packing a small gas canister – my body temperature dropped so much that I was experiencing issues with my eyesight. Right then I felt not only very stupid, but honestly pretty scared.
It was at this point that we began the conversation we had been avoiding. We agonised over the decision at hand. It went against every bone in my body as I always say ‘never go back’ (usually because I have forgotten something I can’t be bothered to go back for), but we both finally agreed that turning around was the smart move. We were not properly equipped for our mission. Re-treading the same path to hike out a day early felt like the ultimate defeat. We walked in near silence, only pausing once to swallow a couple of Snickers. By the time we reached Buckskin Pass we began encountering other people, and two things struck me. Firstly, it seemed obvious that every other hiker was carrying much larger loads than us. They were obviously more suitably prepared for cold weather conditions. Yet, ironically, my second observation concerned how much warmer the day felt compared to the previous, and how much the snow had seemingly dispersed. Typical.
Key lesson learnt: Hiking at 12,000-feet in Colorado during Fall time requires adequate warmth supplies! A 4-season sleeping bag, or at least something better than our ultra-light set-up for a start.
From the top of the pass I knew the bulk to the days climbing effort was over, and after a relatively quick 4.8-mile descent we found ourselves back on the bus. Still, I couldn’t get over the fact that we had missed the achievement of conquering 3 of the 4 intended passes, and the stunning views that undoubtedly came with cresting each. I felt gutted. Perhaps our decision to turn around given the circumstances was a wise one, but having now regained the feeling in my toes I haven’t shed a sense of regret to this day. It’s humbling to realise how even after 950 miles of thru-hiking under our belts we’re still completely clueless when it comes to the great outdoors! I was so embarrassed by our failure that I insisted on sitting in the car whilst Conrad returned the bear canister to the supply shop 2 days early! We must go back and re-face the Four Passes. Maybe in the summertime though…