Fresh off the John Muir Trail, I had a choice to make. Either go back to work or join my dad and brothers on a backpacking trip in Colorado. Was it even really a choice? I still had my trail legs and didn’t even have to unpack Big Booty Judy. Besides adopting Addie, this was the easiest decision of my life. I purchased a flight and soon found myself in Denver heading over to Estes Park to start the acclimation process.
My dad took it upon himself to fully research The Four Passes Loop. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to worry about logistics, camping spots, or mileage. I put my full faith in my dad’s apt ability to make sure everything is planned down to the very minute. And considering he’s the one who taught me everything I know, I trusted him implicitly! And it felt pretty great to just go along for the ride (or really the hike) without all the headaches that responsibility brings with it.
The Four Passes Loop is one of the most sought after loop trails in the United States. a 27 mile loop trail near Aspen CO, the trail takes a hiker over (you guessed it…) four passes around the Maroon Bells. Because I did zero planning or research, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. However, I wasn’t really too worried since I figured if I could handle the JMT, a 4 day low mileage hike should be a walk in the park. I didn’t look at a map or elevation profile. Looking back at it, maybe I should have. But it was also thrilling going in totally unaware of what challenges I might encounter.
The first day in Colorado we all hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park to acclimate. Even though I had just previously spent 3 weeks at altitude, I was worried that being home at sea level for 2 weeks knocked out that advantage. Having suffered so much from altitude sickness the first few days of the JMT, I wanted to avoid nonstop vomiting and praying for a less painful death at all costs. I was more than happy to spend some time at altitude taking in the scenery of RMNP. The first day we hiked out of Bear Lake Trailhead and headed up to Emerald Lake, an easy first day trek of just 4.1 miles.
The next day we upped the ante and tackled the Sky Pond trail, an 8.5 mile climb that was a lot more technical than I had anticipated. We had to climb up a 30′ water fall full of other eager hikers. The weather wasn’t exactly our friend once we reached the highest spot, with cold gusty winds that threatened to soak us with rain, but it was beautiful. And being close to 11k’, we all did very well and felt confident that we were ready to set out for the Four Passes Loop.
Realizing that the weather in CO can turn cold pretty quickly and all of us packed shorts, we stopped at REI to grab pants. I also remembered last minute that my air mattress failed the last few nights of the JMT. Not wanting to spend 3 restless nights being jabbed by rocks and sticks, I quickly picked up an ultralight mattress. I was slowly but surely on my way to becoming an ultralight hiker – ha!
And so it was time! Because it is such a popular spot and is threatened to be loved to death, the rangers have rightly attempted to control visitors by shutting down parking lots between 8am and 5pm. If you arrive between those times you’ll be turned away and forced to take an expensive shuttle into the park. We just made it and luckily for us we found a great parking spot in the overnight lot! We filled out permits (who knows how long a non-lottery permit system will last) and we set out, just as clouds were rolling in.
We spent some time at Crater Lake taking in the views, getting to see why it’s one of the most photographed places in Colorado. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the beauty. There were loads of day trip tourists, one of whom scored a scolding from my dad for flying a drone.
We pressed on as the clouds rolled in and the temperatures dropped. Soon it was quite cold and the wind was really picking up. I was worried that if it poured we’d all get hypothermia and die. Yes it was August, but once temperatures hit 60, if you don’t get dry and into a warm spot, you’re vulnerable to succumb to the effects of hypothermia. While a farfetched scenario, considering we all had pretty decent sleeping bags, I was still fearful. Or at least really unwilling to be uncomfortable for a night. I pushed that thought into the back of my mind and pressed on.
Along the way we met John and his dog, Sadie. Being a dog friendly trail, I was sad Addie had to sit this one out but I was happy to see another four legged creature loving life. We talked to John briefly and then proceeded to find a camp for the night a few miles down the trail. After much debate, we settled on a spot right when it started to rain. John caught up with us and set his tent in the same spot as ours. We set up our tents quickly and sought shelter. Soon the rain eased and we ate a quick dinner and got to know John better before it started right back up. The rain didn’t stop the whole night and we were stuck in our tents until the morning, something the JMT trained me well for.
The morning didn’t show much promise. The higher elevations was covered in snow and the rain didn’t stop down where we were. We were all cold and wet, miserably eating our breakfast trying our best to dodge raindrops. The first words of doubt started to bubble up in conversation. John and Sadie decided that the weather was not in their favor and the poor forecast forced their hand at heading back. They said they’ll try to attempt it in a few days in clearer weather, but going counter-clockwise. If they succeeded in waiting out the weather, we would likely see them again towards the end of our journey.
We packed up our wet tents and slogged forward. The rain did ease, but being cold and wet I was still worried about hypothermia. We soon spread apart, with Tom and Chris taking the lead and me sticking with dad. I could tell he had doubts about the safety of marching forward, as did I. My damp hands were already white and wrinkled and my toes were losing sensation (not super uncommon for me). The boys stopped and we caught up. Dad verbalized his concerns and we all held court, weighing the pros/cons of continuing the journey. Arguably the smartest of the Keane siblings, Tom whipped out his phone and opened a coin flip app. Brilliant. We decided our fate would be in the hands of Tom, literally, as we let the coin dictate our future. Lo and behold, the coin flip gods determined we were to continue on! Without debate, we did just that.
We had two passes to traverse this day, West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. With the surrounding mountains shrouded in clouds and fog encroaching in on us, I felt as if I was on a mission to cast the One Ring to Rule us all into the fiery depths of Mordor in attempt to save the world from falling into darkness. I enjoyed it and was happy with the decision of placing our future on the fickle whims of a coin.
West Maroon Pass was relatively easy, it’s approach reminded me a lot of the southern face of Pinchot Pass on the JMT. I got up it relatively easily and waited for everyone else to join, getting pretty cold and miserable in the process. Again, the weather did not give way for too much of a view, so we caught our breath and marched for Frigid Air Pass, only a few short miles away. We descended from West Maroon Pass and walked through a lush green valley.
We stopped at the lowest part of the valley for lunch/snacks. Completely oblivious and not dong my usual pat down to assure myself that I have all my things, we set forth. 10 minutes later we heard people yelling towards us. Being so far away, I could only make out the word “phone!”. I did the pat down I should have done half a mile back and realized my phone was amiss! In a panic, I dropped my pack and instinctively ran towards the group, running as though I was attempting to beat my best 800m time. All my photos from the JMT were on that phone that I had yet to upload. If I lost that phone, gone were those memories and I would have been totally devastated. That phone was like the holy grail to me. I realized how truly lucky I was that these folks found my dear device and thanked them immensely. We saw so few people on the trail that it was as close to a miracle as anything else that they came across my phone.
Thinking Frigid Air Pass was going to be a piece of cake, I soon ate that cake when we came to the last 100m of the pass. It was straight up. And on loose, wet dirt it was like hiking 45 degrees up sand. At points using my hands, I distracted myself with thoughts of “why would they name a pass out here after a refrigerator??” I didn’t even think maybe it was because the air is actually literally frigid. That thought and other creative names I would’ve came up with to name this beastly pass fueled me up, along with Chris laughing at how ghastly and ridiculous the climb was. We all rejoiced at the top of the pass, thinking surely this is likely to be the steepest and most difficult of the passes. Famous last words.
We snapped some photos and headed our way down to our second night’s camp. As we set up near a gorgeous waterfall, the sun made its first appearance of the trip and we were all elated! Finally, there was hope for a gorgeous bright second half of the trip. Everyone was very thankful for the coin’s wise and fruitful decision.
We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the third pass of the hike, Trail Rider Pass. Being at the lowest point of the two passes, we knew we were in for a climb. Being that I did zero research on this hike, I had no idea what that climb entailed. It entailed about 2000′ of elevation gain over roughly 2 miles. Pretty happy I had no idea I was about to conquer one of the more difficult passes I had ever come across.
We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. It was gorgeous scenery that we got to take in with plenty of breaks to catch our breath. We even got to see a small plane fly right by us! Reassuring in so much as if we all perish on this pass, at least there was a chance our bodies would be retrieved.
But the steepness gave way to a gentler grade to the top and we all basked in the glory of conquering yet another pass. Only one left to go! The view from the top was again stunning with breathtaking views of Snowmass Lake, which just so happened to be right where we were headed as we descended the pass.
We camped just past Snowmass Lake, avoiding the crowds the huge body of water draws. Our site was higher than the trail and we had a birds eye view of it. Chris spotted John and Sadie hiking, but they just exchanged hellos and John was on his way. I was happy they made it back on the trail, though maybe they would’ve been wise to have flipped a coin.
The next day was our last day! Just one last pass to conquer – Buckskin Pass. A little traumatized from Rider Pass, we all were hesitant to get too excited for today’s challenge. But it ended up being one of the more fun passes I’ve encountered! It was a gentle grade (comparatively) and the view was stunning.
We all made it to the top early and had enough time for Tom, Chris, and me to make it to the top of Buckskin Mountain, a pretty steep climb. But relieved of our packs, we made it relatively quickly. We met a friendly couple up there and snapped some pictures, a great future Christmas present for mom and dad.
We joined back up with dad and enjoyed the views of Pyramid Peak and Maroon Peak as we started back down for our final miles of the trail. But not before the plane from yesterday flew back right above us!
We ended the trail where we started and looked back with a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the challenges we would find on the trail, mostly being the temperamental weather. But we persisted and onward we marched!
We ended the trip with a bike ride up and down Glenwood Canyon. Afterwards we shared dinner with our cousin Julie and her boyfriend Adam in Denver.
Overall it was a wonderful trip. Being only 27 miles, I definitely want to return someday soon, either to run it in one day or bring Addie on the adventure of a lifetime. But alas, after the Pacific Coast Highway bike ride, Mt. Washington, the JMT, and the Four Passes Loop, my 2018 summer of non stop adventure had finally come to an end, and I was due to go back to work the following week.