Monday, July 26, 2010

Aspen Four-Pass

Aspen Maroon Bells Four-Pass Loop
~28 miles, ~9k elevation gain
8 hours CCW (Buckskin, Trailrider, Frigid Air, West Maroon)

The Maroon Bells Four-Pass is a true Colorado/North American/World classic section of trail. It's often done as a 3 or 4-day backpacking loop. Of course, to the trail runner, it's an epic binge of trail and scenery crammed into one day.

I won't repeat all of the details on the route, which are well-documented elsewhere, so this will be about my specific experiences and thoughts.

I arrived Fri night around 10pm, drove up to the upper overnight parking lot to find it full, so headed back down a quarter mile to the West Maroon portal parking lot. Now, there's been very recent talk on of porcupines in the area that have been munching on car wires at night, so folks have either put up chicken wire around their vehicle, sprayed some sort of repellent, or risked having to drive back down Maroon Creek, Independence Pass, etc. with no brakes(!), if their car even started.

I had some chicken wire and "Critter Ridder" with me. I got impatient with the chicken wire, as it was all knotted and twisted up in a bundle that seemed like it would take 20 minutes to unravel, so I just sprayed Critter Ridder all under the car. The car wasn't bothered all night, though neither were any of the neighboring cars, as far as I could tell.

I woke up and relocated to the day parking lot. Got everything set, and headed out just before 6. It was definitely light enough to see, and though I had been up for over an hour, I should have started half an hour earlier. Oh, the forecast was 30% chance of storms, mostly afternoon -- which seemed like typical monsoon season weather -- but 50% chance in the Elk Range mountains. This could have gone either way and I debated making the drive, but glad I did, as they day dawned with just a few high clouds.

So at 5:52AM, headed up with the Bells in alpenglow:

I decided to do the loop counter-clockwise. TA Justin Mock did it this way recently, so I was better able to use that beta, and another climbing report mentioned this direction to get the steeper Buckskin Pass 'out of the way' earlier. More thoughts on this later. He also warned about avoiding the "Upper Scenic Loop" section which gets you off the main trail, so I was most careful with these directions.

I had been enjoyed a couple of pleasant fall hikes on the Crater Lake trail, so the familiarity was comforting. After the couple mile warmup, I entered new territory heading up to Buckskin Pass. Trees gave way to wildflowers and views:

The trail climbed through the trees, before popping out, where I saw a couple of guys in military camo taking a break with full packs, taking some photos. They said their packs were over 40lbs. We both respected each other for the way we were doing it!

Other than a few earlier gear adjustments/photo ops/map checks on flat spots, my goal was to run steady up at least the first pass. This was actually easier once the goal/finish line was in view.

I topped out here at about 1:25.
To my surprise, right before the top, I heard voices and saw runners on top of the mountain.

"Hi, runner!" called one of them, as the others were heading down. I asked where they were headed, and they said "Trailrider Pass" -- the next pass in the loop -- and pointed in the direction. "Me, too, but after a quick break, maybe I'll see you soon" They bounded down the hill in conversation as I grabbed some food and took in the views, proud of the first section now completed, and humbled by the next giant basin in front of me.

Now I took off down the hill, staying relaxed and sure-footed more than bombing it down. The tightness in my calves from climbing released instantly, and it was nice to flow down the hill. At the bottom, I ran into some of the first real hiker traffic of the day. After winding past them, I'd catch a brief glimpse of the forest nymphs ahead before losing them again, so it was a primal chase to catch up.

Eventually I did, and I began talking with the 3rd runner, who said I could pass any time. I wasn't in any hurry, I enjoyed the company knowing that it would be a long day. She introduced herself as Lauren Arnold, and said they were out for an out-and-back to Trail Rider, mostly due to time and that she was recovering from injury (though I can't imagine how strong she would be running uninjured!) That name sounded familiar but I couldn't place it -- in fact, I have a cousin-in-law with that last name, so having seen it in print before, it stuck inmy head. I tried to recall where I might have seen that name. Lauren demurred and mentioned that likely it was her sister, Ashley, who writes for Trail Runner magazine. Maybe that was it...

We talked about racing a bit, she's still recovering from a hard road marathon in Cincinnati. "Flying Pig?" I asked. "Yes!" I had heard of it/read about it before, apparently the she's just starting to recover from a tough effort there. But more on that later...

I did pass on a rockier section, and said hello to the other two. They waved me on again as they stopped briefly to regroup, though again I said I was in no particular hurry. Soon enough, though, they were right behind me, and we had a chance to chat. "Unless you're trying to get away from us!" By no means! This was Ashley Arnold and Elinor. Between them, they were one week recovered from the Silver Rush 50; one week out from White River 50; and getting ready for the Leadville 100. Heckuva recovery/training run for all that! We 3 had all done the CP50 earlier in the year, as it turns out.

I was enjoying both the conversation, and cruising on the trails, and it turns out we were picking up the pace from each other, which strung out their group a little bit. Eventually we reached the trail crossing for Snowmass Lake and stopped for a map check, chatting some more, as they regrouped and decided as a group to head down to the lake instead of the pass, which they were all OK with. "Hey, we're out here on an awesome run in the mountains!" one of them said. Couldn't agree more.

They gave me great advice and guidance on the rest of the loop, including being careful not to drop into Lead King Basin later, so I bid them farewell and headed up toward Trail Rider.

Now here's the amazing part of all this: one reason, perhaps, I remembered the name was that Ashley was the winning female in Collegiate Peaks this year. By being ahead, not only did she "chick" me (and I use this term in a lighthearted, if not empowering sense), but absolutely crushed me by almost 45 minutes! Wow! And Elinor wasn't too far behind me in a solid race as well...Elinor Fish, as it turns out, the editor of Trail Runner magazine. As for Lauren Arnold -- she won Flying Pig, in ~2:55! Small details, all of which I learned out of google curiosity.

Anyway, I truly enjoyed meeting and chatting with these very talented runners, and enjoying part of their local trails. I am continually impressed by humility and friendliness of the trail running community, and wish them the best in their upcoming races.

Back up the hill, and gorgeous Snowmass Lake came into view:

After taking in the views, I began chugging up Trail Rider, where I encountered a few friendly hikers and a refreshing patch of snow:

With the top in view, I slowly jogged and power-hiked my way up. Another short break, and I believe I started heading down around 3:09.

This drop was a bit more runnable, which was nice, but I needed to fill up the bottles. For this, I've been using a Steripen Adventurer. Knock on wood, I haven't gotten sick yet (used it last summer also).

Now I was dropped into Fravert Basin. Still coming down part was nice and runnable. I saw a few hikers coming up, which either said "Good job!" or asked how far/where I came from. Tried not to be a slut for praise, but it felt good, a nice stoke with some cheering out their in the backcountry.

Also played around with some video here.

After the drop was a long low section in the basin. I knew it would be a slog, as I had warning about downed trees by the river as well. I saw a couple trees on the side of the trail, and right at the 4-hour mark, I saw a couple runners coming at me, for the first time all day, doing the loop clockwise. One of them was Steven ??? from Boulder, I asked them about the downed trees. They said they weren't too bad, about a mile ahead, and that their was a bog and water and I'd get my feet wet. Also, he figured we were at the halfway point. "First one back buys beer!" he shouted as they left (Wait a minute....)

I saw 1 or 2 more running parties, and then got near the river. Sure enough, downed trees everywhere, as if a monster from "The Neverending Story" had his way. I kept an eye on the trail but dropped to the river shore. This didn't always help, though, as it was muddy, swampy, and some of the trees reached the shore. I waded through muck and then the river itself, getting nearly waist-deep. Finally, the trees broke up enough that I bushwhacked up from shore, and was happy to find the trail again.

I headed further into the basin -- it was thick and lush with growth and wildflowers. But, I couldn't see an obvious pass or weakness anywhere in the basin around me, and I hadn't seen hikers for awhile. I got paranoid that I missed the trail and was in the wrong area, so I did a paranoid map check. Seemed right...I kept going, and recognized a waterfall from various pictures. Good sign. Kept going through more jungle-like foliage, started getting hot and tired. Kept slogging along and eventually the Frigid Air pass came into view, again switchbacking up a rock wall. I hiked that whole thing, no running, and was glad to get on top.
Saw a couple guys there and took a quick snack break. I was well over 5 hours now, maybe 5.5? The low point was over, though, as the last pass had less drop and climbing, then the downhill homestretch.

Again felt refreshed by a downhill, and headed down as quick as my legs would let, but not pushing by any means. Ran into a larger backpacking group on the trail. "Howdy!" I called, one of them said "Hi" back. "Howdy" I called again, before two of the guys got the clue and actually stepped off the trail. They joked and said, "Crazy trailrunning bastard!" as I went through.

I passed an older guy who had no pack and looked like he was in great shape, but then I needed to make some water. He caught up in a running shuffle, and we chatted. He used to run this area in the 80's(!) and mentioned some different options/basins they connected -- and that the route was much less well-defined then. He took off, and after getting my water ready, I passed him again. Feeling good going slightly downhill, then all of the sudden my right leg cramped and seized right up, right along the inner thigh/hamstring. I slowed to a shuffle as my left leg cramped up as well. Wow, and ouch! Never had something happen that quickly from running (has happened after long ride). I did have some electrolyte pill samples, (most of my non-food food was goody bag samples I stuffed in my pack), took those and hiked, and the combination of quick rest/massage and that helped me keep going. Able to keep going the rest of the way without issue.

Saw my final pass, West Maroon, with a bunch of people on top that had done a day hike in the opposite direction. Happy to get up there and peer down. Didn't spend much time on top, good on water, made my way down for the last section.

Now tons of hikers coming up. I would say, "Hello" and most of them got the hint and yielded, which was nice, some of them said "Good job" and I don't know if they thought I was running an out-and-back to one pass or if they knew about the whole thing...that doesn't really matter, what does matter is the occasional non-yielder who doesn't move for some reason and has no idea what you've been through all day. But anyway, most people in this stretch were good. One woman said, with some admiration, "There's one of those runners you were talking about!" I called out, "I've been running since 6AM!" and they groaned in unison..."From that way!" (pointing backward) and they groaned even louder. That felt really good, and I actually had a big runner's high right after that -- the combination of the hard work being done, cruising easily downhill, and interacting with other people out enjoying the day.

Closer to Crater Lake, though, it got tougher with water crossings, more rockiness, repeated terrain, and plenty of gapers on the trail. One party of 3 was stopped right in the middle: a gentleman sitting down in the middle, who did apologize; and two women facing either direction, having a conversation (meaning one of them could see me coming down easily) -- I said "Hello" twice, and eventually "Excuse me" twice, but they were oblivious. This wasn't a case of wanting to run through, I barely had room to walk past. Kind of a bummer, and if you're reading this, I'm mostly preaching to the choir, but
There's never a good reason to stop right in the middle of the trail!

Now lots of parties to contend with, mostly friendly (but less so than the backcountry campers), more cotton and jeans, some of them looked like death from a 1.5 mile mostly flat excursion to the lake. Near the end, one guy called out, "4 Pass loop?" "Yup!" "One day?" "Yup! Thanks man!" Glad somebody was able to share my stoke on that part, as I was almost done.

Pulled in right at the 8 hour marking, total. I was thinking 7-9, so I guess that was in the middle, though yeah, a little faster woulda been nice. Brought too much gear (heavier food, 2 maps, extra shirt, thick rain jacket instead of ultralight one), could pare it down next time. Spent at least 40 mins on water purification, map checks, conversation, pictures, etc. But, since I didn't get caught in any storm, very happy with how the day went.

At the TH, grabbed a cold beer from my cooler. No sign of the Boulder crew yet, never ended up seeing them. Saw a guy with a Dead shirt filling a growler with water, started chatting: they were on their way from NY to California, road-tripping on the way, looking to move to Northern California. We chatted about beer, Colorado, and California -- some of my favorite subjects. I learned he hadn't been to the Fort, so I gave him a cold Skinny Dip as a parting gift.

Very pleased with the day, definitely an awesome trail!


  1. Awesome report and shots ... this one is on the list.

  2. Thanks GZ, and definitely good for the list, though this one's accessible all Summer and Fall for us, so I'd trade you for having R2R2R checked off the list instead!

    Have you done the Pawnee-Buchanan loop yet? I'd like to do a group fieldtrip for that one sometime...

  3. No. Sadly, my list is long and my check marks are short!

  4. Glad you got it in Mike. On porcupines, I'm pretty sure that I saw my first one in the wild in the middle of the road on the drive up there that AM.

  5. Great loop. I ran it last year in the counter-clockwise direction. I think I'd run it clockwise the next time. How 'bout you?

  6. I ran to Snowmass Lake last weekend, and kept thinking about your 3:00 time to Trailrider as I'm running (I studied various posts on the 4-pass loop before heading out). That's pretty quick.

    1. Thanks, as I recall it was perfect weather and perfect trail conditions, and it was also an "even-number" split that I remembered from somebody else's run. (Keeping in mind that Tony, et al., and now Sage were well below 5 *total*)...after that, I took some time with filtering water, more pictures, and the tree blowdown...definitely would like to go back.

      Let me know when you want to go next summer! Long days and great weather/trail conditions certainly help. I'm sure you'll get around it just fine!