In 2018 I was fortunate enough to hike the Four Passes Loop in the Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado with my dad and two brothers. Fresh off the John Muir Trail, I was ready to take on the challenges that climbing four passes presents. Assaulted by bad weather and left almost abandoned until the fateful flip of a coin determined we trudge along (you can read about it here https://emiliebikesandhikes.com/2021/01/03/four-passes-loop-2018/). I remember this hike being one of the most gorgeous trails I’ve ever been on, so when Sheena, Craig, and Jordan suggested hiking it this summer, of course I jumped on the opportunity!
Since hiking it in 2018, a lot has changed logistically to get to the trail due to the spike in popularity (thanks COVID). But I won’t bore you with the details. The most important thing is that the hike still does not require permits to hike – so the most frustrating aspect of most hikes wasn’t a factor this time around, which made my frantic 2 week preparation for the hike easy!
Having experienced a bad case of altitude sickness on the JMT, I knew I needed to acclimate in order to safely and happily climb four passes all over 12,000 feet without wanting to jump off to alleviate the headache, nausea, and weakness altitude tends to bring. I was fortunate enough to be in Colorado the same time as Aaron, who I met 2 years ago in Florida and was such a help last year during the Southern Tier in Texas. After spending some time with his mom Ronie in Loveland, we headed into the mountains to spend time with his sister and her daughters in Alma, CO. Infamous for being the highest town in the US at 10,301′, I knew there was no better place to acclimate. And imagine my delight when I realized that I rode my bike past Audrey’s house just 6 years ago (to the day!) on the transam during the 100+ mile day death march through the Rockies. Memories flooded back as I witnessed 7 different TransAmers ride past the house, either relieved from conquering Hoosier Pass or pedaling slowly up it. I experienced no altitude symptoms as I enjoyed my time in Alma. I was able to run, walk MarnDog (coolest dog West of the Mississippi), hike, play in an extremely competitive matching game tournament, explore the surrounding towns, cheer on Juniper at baseball, and just in general have a great time with everyone. Audrey, Bella, and June were absolute delights to stay with and may have planted a seed to look into that area to move sometime in the future!
Alas, the tourist fun had to come to an end and it was time to meet up with Sheena and the guys in Avon. Aaron was kind enough to take us to the trailhead bright and early Friday morning to get an early start. Envious from the beauty of just the trailhead, Aaron wished he could join us. Maybe a third trip around the loop is in my future! With Sheena fresh off a 12 hour workshift and the guys coming in late from a concert at the Red Rocks, no one was ready to take on the first day with sufficient sleep, but the mountains were calling and this was not the time to complain about being sleepy!
Day 1: 11.5 miles 3462′ elevation gain
And so we were off! With a slight drizzle we hiked 1.5 miles to Crater Lake, the official start (for us) of the loop. After a few pictures, we split up.
Not wanting to slow down the boys, Sheena and I stayed back to take our time. With the amount of people on this popular trail, finding campsites can be challenging. We told the boys to secure a site and, “we’ll get there when we get there”. With two passes to get over the first day, we didn’t want to feel rushed.
We took our minds off the initial climb up Maroon Pass by catching up (wow, there was a lot to catch up on!). As we climbed, memories from my first trek around the loop came flooding back, including memories of bad weather. Which was exactly what was rolling in. Knowing powerful afternoon storms are common in the mountains and being atop a pass is not where you want to be, I grew slightly anxious at the gathering clouds. But we hustled up Maroon Pass, avoiding any sign of danger. I am certain my mom’s prayers for us helped keep the monsoon at bay. In 2018, the weather prevented a good look out from Maroon Pass. This was not the case this time around. This hike was worth it if only to see that view. What absolute beauty! A valley full of angry boisterous clouds on one side, rolling hills of brilliant green on the other. We spend some time taking in the beauty, but it was getting late and the clouds were getting darker. After all, we had another pass to get over!
We enjoyed the descent and eventual gradual climb to Frigid Air Pass. There was beauty everywhere we looked. I remember it being stunning four years ago – but not this stunning! Wildflowers were in full bloom, accenting the vibrant green with yellows, magentas, blues, and lavenders. It was dazzling and felt like walking through a field of dreams.
Those dreams quickly turned to nightmares, however, as we approached the last half mile of the pass. With vivid memories of it’s harsh grade and unforgiving steepness, I didn’t sugar coat it for Sheena – this was going to suck. But, always one to impress with her tenacity and determination, an already exhausted Sheena (who had COVID just 2 weeks ago) rose to the occasion and conquered the pass like a seasoned pro. The last 100′ of the pass was ungodly steep. Not even the Grand Canyon has grades like that! We weren’t the only ones struggling. There was a train of about 15 people behind us slowly ascending the slope with various degrees of obvious outward pain. I was thankful for these people, as lightning and thunder were present in the distance I felt more secure with my decision to ascend the pass in inclement weather. At least I wasn’t the only idiot, ha! After getting to the summit and celebrating with pictures, it started to rain and we scurried down off the pass quickly to below treeline.
Without service, we were left to blindly find Craig and Jordan. We would yell “Craig? Jordan!?” to any pair of tents we came across. I’m sure we startled more than one unsuspecting camper retreating into their tents to shield them from the rain. After a few unsuccessful “This has gotta be them!”s, we finally found them around 7pm. They were also rightfully exhausted. So much so, in fact, that they went straight to sleep after we arrived. We scarfed down dinner and sought shelter into our tents for some much needed rest. What a long, exhausting day. But I couldn’t be more proud or feel more accomplished. We did today what took me 2 days to complete 4 years ago! Two passes done, two to go!
Day 2: 8.16 miles, 2202′ elevation gain
Let me preface this with the disclaimer that my memory is extremely poor. If I don’t write it down, it will likely escape my brain. I wrote the 2018 blog post 2.5 years after the fact, based purely on memory. Then I forgot to read it before embarking on this journey. I do NOT have any memory of today’s pass being this brutal! I’ll get to that in a minute.
Today started slowly. After a long day yesterday, a long rest was necessary. I slept well enough – awoken throughout the night by gentle rain. I got out of my tent later than ever at 6:30am. The boys were experiencing altitude symptoms (which apparently they were suffering from all day yesterday as well). Fortunately, after eating and waking up, they started to feel better. We were on our way at 9:30am, a much later start than Sheena and I are used to. On our bike tours we were usually hitting the road by 7:30am! But with only one pass to conquer, 3 less miles, and my poor memory assuring Sheena today wouldn’t be tough, we weren’t concerned about the late start.
The first two miles were glorious. Mostly downhill, we stuck with the boys where in Sheena’s sleep deprived state, she told us all about the various wildflowers, including the infamous Italian Paintbrushes, or more commonly known as Indian Paintbrushes.
We all knew Trailrider Pass was going to be long and unpleasant, me especially, but apparently the trauma of the pass escaped my memory. Because this thing started aggressively and was relentless, like Frigid Air on steroids. 2.5 miles of steep climbs we took in stride. The boys went ahead as we trudged along slow and steady. Again, having the guys secure a campsite ahead of time decreased anxiety immensely about where we were staying the night. Tired from yesterday, it took a good while to get up the beast, including many mental health breaks. But together, Sheena and I did it. I tried distracting her with a brain teaser, which proved futile as she solved it in less than 2 minutes. Darn that brain of hers! As a further attempt of distraction, we calculated how much of a mechanical disadvantage Sheena is in compared to me. We calculated that my strides are a little shy of 30% longer than her’s just by the simple fact that I’m taller. Interesting, I’m sure the guy’s are at least 50% larger! No wonder they can charge ahead so quickly.
At the top we rested for a while, taking in the views of what looked like a tiny Snowmass Lake, our destination for the night.
We were excited for the descent, unsuspecting of what was to come. Going down proved itself just as treacherous as going up. From steep rocky trail to falling victim to a snow patch to transversing loose boulders that could lead to a dramatic end, getting down Trailrider Pass was no easy task.
But we did it! Eventually we found the boys around 7pm. They got there early and secured an awesome site near the lake. It was gorgeous, but like everything else, the mosquitoes took out a lot of the enjoyment! I caught the sunset, ate dinner, and am now ready for another early night turn in.
Day 3: 9 miles, 1726′ elevation gain
Once again I woke up at the most inconvenient time to have my bladder request an emptying. Seeing it was only 2am, I couldn’t possibly hold it until my alarm went off, so out into the dark I went. Upon arriving back to my tent, I looked toward the lake. The mountains that towered over the trees were bathed in the moonlight, their granite faces illuminated in such a way that almost beckoned me to take a closer look. When mountains call, I must go. So with a light on in my tent to guide me back and armed with a headlamp, I made my way to the lake. But not without trouble. There are a dozen trails to the lake, and after taking the wrong one and ending up almost walking right into another hiker’s tent, I abandoned my mission and retreated back to my tent. But alas, stubborn old me told myself that my parents didn’t raise a quitter and I set back out to the lake. Second times the charm and I arrived unscathed to an absolute magnificent sight. The lake was still and the mountains towered above like silent stone kings. The stars were glittering above, dotting the night sky with pinpoints of light adding to the brilliance of the display. The magnitude of what I was seeing and the silence surrounding me was both calming and alarming at the same time. Terrified isn’t the right word, the closest feeling I can relate this to is seeing the total eclipse during total inclusion. Almost a primal fear filled my veins, but I couldn’t stop watching. I tried to take a few pictures, but none could possibly do this experience justice. I sat for a few minutes to soak it all in before stumbling back to my tent.
Not soon after I was awakened to get ready for the last day on the trail. Sheena and I both agreed it was a good idea to get up and out early to get over the final pass before afternoon. Considering I couldn’t trust my memory, for all we knew the last pass will be just as treacherous as the last two. We were on our way by 6:45am.
Shielded from the sun by the mountains and cooled by a freezing creek crossing, we headed up the beginning of Buckskin pass swiftly and efficiently. There are a ton of dogs on the trail, which made my heart ache almost as much as my legs. I miss Addie and wish she could be out here with us, but after the trauma of last year’s Tahoe excursion, I will never put her through that again. When I took out my backpack to pack it, she just about cowered in fear – I could see the trauma in her poor little eye! Besides, while most of the dogs out here are extremely well behaved, more than a few unleashed dogs posed a few problems and Addie would not put up with that. She’s in good hands at home with my parents.
About half way up, our progress slowed only slightly as the sun appeared and heated the mountain. Fortunately, the last half of the pass proved to be more forgiving than all of the other passes. The grade lessened and Sheena and I arrived to the top together all smiles. The views atop Buckskin were stunning, arguably the best of the hike. Sweeping landscapes of all different colors and textures were a sight for sore eyes (and feet, and legs, and backs). We rewarded our aching bunions with a long break. About half an hour later we were ready to finish the hike. We looked down from where we came from and saw Craig making his way up the pass. Those boys are fast!
The way down was quick and soon the boys caught up to us. We all agreed that Buckskin was the easiest of the passes and voted the favorite. The boys got ahead and Sheena and I took our time back to Maroon lake. On our way I ran into Doug, a fellow Widener PT grad! The look of confusion on his face when I yelled his name matched the confusion in my brain of, “I know you… but how and why are you here?!” He is working as a travel PT and lucked out with a Colorado placement. Talk about a small world!
Soon we all met back up and took the shuttle and bus into Aspen, happy to take a mode of transportation other than our feet. We congratulated ourselves with shots (Sheena had to have Jameson, of course) and burgers. We were all exhausted and ready to shower and relax.
The Four Passes Loop is a difficult trek for experienced hikers, let alone beginners. But like riding a bike across the country for the first time, Sheena took on this challenge head on and earned the trail name “Trial by Fire”. I’m hopeful this experience didn’t traumatize her from backpacking and that I now have a new trail buddy. Cause like I told her already, if you can finish this trail, you can finish any trail.