At FastG8, we are fond of "getting after it" as a team in the great outdoors. Whether it be skiing, biking, kayaking, running, or good old-fashioned fun-hogging, we believe our team strength comes from having a good time together. We also recognize that our idea of a good time might be a little different than that of the general populace. That’s why when Tyler, our fearless leader, proposed a full on day of Type 2 Fun we quietly forgot our original plan of heading to Fruita for bike riding, sun-soaking, and enjoying the waning days of summer.
Actually, maybe we weren’t so quiet. After all, we had just received our first significant snowfall in the high country and the proposal was to complete the Four Pass Loop in a day. The Four Pass Loop is a popular backpacking route through the Maroon Bells Wilderness that covers 28 miles over four 12k+ passes and includes nearly 9,000 feet of climbing. While it is increasingly being tackled by trail-runners as a one day mission, the majority of people take three days and two overnights to complete the route. With the plan settled, and the date only two weeks out, we all figured our mountain lifestyles were more than enough preparation for a trip to the pain cave. The team that suffers together, stays together.
We showed up at the Maroon Bells parking lot around 10 PM and prepared for few hours of fitful sleep before our 4 AM alarm went off. After a couple of delicious beers, a neighbor’s tale of their harrowing moose encounter on the trail, recounting our run-in with a deer on the way in (a story that can only be told in person), and some last minute gear-checks, we tucked in for a few hours of fitful sleep.
*Knock* *Knock* *Knock*
Instead of waking to the soothing birdsong I set for our 3:30 morning alarm, our fourth co-worker jolted us awake a half hour early as he pulled into our campsite with his brights on. While he may have been smart to skip the trailhead beers and fitful sleep in favor of his warm bed, we had to greet him with a shower of empties for interrupting our beauty rest. Grumbling aside, after some frantic last-minute gear optimization and coffee making, we were off into the darkness of the early morning.
We conquered our first objective in the early morning darkness. As we ascended the final switchbacks up Buckskin Pass the sun crept out of hiding and revealed the snow-touched high country. We fueled up and started to make our way down towards the next valley.
The descent to Snowmass Lake was fairly uneventful. We quickly grew accustomed to slipping on the hard patches of snow and ice lingering in the shadows of the trees and figured out how to move forward steadily despite the slick footing. At the edge of the lake, we filled our water bottles, admired the glacier meeting the water across from us in the morning light, and fueled up for the next big climb. Emerging from the dense woods around the lake, we found a very snowy path up to Trail Rider Pass. We were thankful for firm snow, knowing that the sun would quickly turn our easy steps into a post-holing nightmare.
Morale was high atop Trailrider Pass. Views of the peaks and valleys surrounding us were stunning, and we reveled in our remote location. Laughs and lively conversation came easily to the group. We took off down the dry trail on the other side of the pass at a full run. The gradual, steady grade allowed for some of our best time of the day as we descended into the valley and along the North Fork of the Crystal River. We seemed to float through the golden fields and marveled at the beauty of cascading waterfalls along the trail. America the Beautiful, indeed.
Then we began our ascent to Frigid Air Pass. As we passed into the dark timber and up the steep switchbacking trail, fatigue began to set in. The trail to Frigid Air was a sloppy mess and the next few miles were some of our hardest-earned. With ankle deep mud in places and shoes that were quickly being weighed down by the black muck, our progress was frustratingly slow. We climbed higher, and the mud gave way to sun-warmed snow. The last few miles to the top devolved into slushy, wet, post-holing and we spread out considerably along the trail. When we finally topped out on the Pass, one by one, we lay on several dark, sun-warmed rocks and shared few words.
The descent from Frigid Air continued the theme of slippery mud and most of us shoe-skied down past frustrated hikers asking us where we had spent the night and, more importantly, how far it was from here. “Just over the next hill……..” we shouted as we slid by. Sometimes false optimism is a great motivator.
On the traverse over to the climb up our final pass, West Maroon, we found renewed energy and firm ground enabled us to resume running the trail. We climbed eagerly, ready to begin the home stretch of what was becoming a long day. We didn't waste time on the windy ridge, turning immediately onto a sharp downhill. The upper portion of the trail iced over and shaded, already. What time was it? We contemplated as a team how much it would suck to fall off this pass and let our imaginations run wild with scenarios for a few moments before gingerly continuing onward. A few miles down the treacherous descent gave way to what felt like the longest scree field we had ever encountered. Stay strong, legs, we collectively thought.
At this point our group was fairly quiet, focused on navigating the maelstrom of rock back to the car. At various points we fantasized about the beer sitting in the cooler at the trailhead, discussed how we probably wouldn’t be doing this again, and tried to enjoy the beauty of the setting sun on the Maroon Bells.
The final mile of the trail takes you through one of the most visited areas of the Roaring Fork Valley. We shuffled past sightseers, and sandal-wearing tourists parted to avoid our group of hollow-eyed and haggard trail warriors. Some couldn’t help but ask where we had been. By this point we could only manage grunts, mumbles and half-hearted pointing at the mountains behind us. Eventually, the rocky trail turned smooth, and then we reached the asphalt where we started so many hours ago.
We made it to our cars and finally got to hear the sound we'd been dreaming of - the cracking-open of cold beverages, the hiss of air as pressure released from each can. We sipped and quietly reflected on the day. Finally, Tyler spoke up, “Well, gentlemen, same time next year?” “Hell yeah!” we responded, and the first big smiles in about six hours spread across our dirty faces.