Spending four days backpacking in the wilderness shows you what sorts of things you actually “need” to survive. Me and The Mrs. have backpacked plenty in our long and storied past but it had been a good 12 years since. The technology has probably changed a lot in the gear (most people we came across had a good 30% less than us) but the needs are the same.
You need to have food, you need to have shelter for warmth, you need to have water, and that’s about it – everything else we covet in life is really just a “want.”
We wanted to stay dry at camp, so I packed a 6’ x 8’ tarp and rope to string up for cooking in the rain. Turns out we used it every evening and it was really worth the weight. Speaking of water, you need a filtration system.
When you’re 500ft below the melting snow drift that is your water source, as we were for most of the trip, you could probably drink directly from the stream with no problem. The risk of parasites is undoubtedly not as great as getting water from, say, a Sri Lankan river, but I wouldn’t want to take any chances. We used a new UV light filtration system to purify a liter at a time, and it worked great.
Erring on the side of self-preservation, we had plenty of extra food, a map and a REAL LIVE compass that actually relies on Earth’s unwavering magnetic field just in case (phone apps are no good if the battery is dead), a minimalist first aid kit, and plenty of warm clothes.
Wilderness rules required we carry a bear-proof canister for food storage, and we each carried one of these heavy buggers.
The theory is if they’re tough enough to withstand a 600lb bear they must be heavy. And the Mrs. couldn’t stop laughing at my failed attempts to hang these from a tree branch each night. Just having the canisters was probably enough, but the boy scout in me just had to get the full experience. After all, with Trailrider Pass up next, we’d need plenty of calories…
Day 3: Trailrider Pass; Taming the Beast…
To have hot coffee on a chilly morning in the wilderness is a thousand times better than it is any other day. And to have this true luxury while the rising sun brightened the forest was an inspiring way to start day 3…
After a quick breakfast we loaded all of our Earthly possessions on to our backs, collectively groaning as the weight settled on sore backs. The stats on the day were a little daunting. We’d head down the valley paralleling the river for a couple miles, cross the river, and immediately be faced with a 2 mile, 2000ft vertical wall to 12,400’ Trailrider Pass.
And on the other side we’d descend nearly as much in a knee-wrecking series of switchbacks to Snowmass Lake. The morning sun warmed us quickly and the scenery was stellar.
Once we crossed the river things got serious and the trail really steepened.
Short, frequent breaks to take in the views is what it was all about to keep making headway. Little by little, step by step, the trees thinned and the views got bigger as we ascended.
Gasping for air, the summit grew closer: 1000 yards, 500 yards, 100 yards, 50 yards as we strained to crest the saddle.
Looking back from the flank of the upper slopes we could see where we’d started out hours before…
Once we crested the summit and peered north, the view was enormous with Snowmass Lake seemingly close enough to touch.
With the weather situation improving as the weekend progressed we lingered and ate atop the narrow saddle before submitting to the descent. Snowmass Lake sits at 11,000ft on the dot, and would serve as our camp for the night. As close as it appeared, it was a solid 60-90 minutes away…
With each descending switchback the air warmed and the azure water reflected against the blue Colorado sky.
Once again the trail wound through lower slopes where we again found ourselves knee deep in wildflowers filled with the buzz of bumblebees.
Upon arriving at the lakeshore we stared in absolute awe at the jagged Hagerman Peak rising 13,841ft in elevation, from the opposite edge of the water, and the view of Trailrider Pass from where we were two hours before.
As evening descended on the alpine lake our dinners were prepared under cover as a cold wind blew.
A misty cloud cover settled in on the jagged Hagerman Peak which loomed above the lake.
Once daylight faded to dusk it was an easy decision to escape the weather and retreat into the comfort and warmth of sleeping bags inside the tent. The chilly wind faded late that night and gave way to calm which couldn’t have helped more to let us sleep through the night.
Day 4: Buckskin Pass…
The grey tones of Hagerman Peak from the night before eluded to a harsh, cold and hostile place. But waking up the next morning, zipping open the tent flap and walking over to the water’s edge the view will forever be one of the most spectacular I’ve experienced..
Sunlight bathed the view of the mountains over the glass-calm lake. We enjoyed another stellar cup of hot coffee standing in the brisk morning, quietly reflecting on the experience of this remote cache.
Amidst the early morning we reviewed the map of the final pass; and were thrilled to discover that both the steepness and rockiness of the trail surface of the day before would give way to a much smoother, and perceptively easier final climb.
The final descent, however, would dish out one last kidney-punch by way of a 3000ft descent full of switchbacks in over 4 miles to complete our wilderness loop. And with a mighty groan our heavy packs were slung once more as we set off.
As far as backpacking trips go, the 4-Pass Loop is one of the genuinely gourmet trips there are. World-renowned Aspen serves as a launchpad, and day 1 is truly the appetizer. Days 2 through 4 serve up a four-course, tundra-infused meal that overwhelms the senses with color, countless vistas, and a truly remote experience. Visited by hikers from all over the world, being from Colorado we did have SOME home-field advantage.
As we climbed up through the alpine flowers we looked back towards Snowmass Lake in the distance and tried to pick out the peaks and valleys of our route the preceding three days.
It had been an indescribable trip, full of our own personal peaks and valleys.
Nearing timberline, the view of the final pass came into view… “Enjoy it, this is the last one!”
Finally topping out at the summit of Buckskin Pass the front side of The Bells came back into view, after completely encircling them on our route.
We got a glimpse of a herd of white mountain goats on a distant peak, celebrated, and re-upped on the calories that would get us to the finish. It was all downhill from here…
The cherry on top was the final days’ weather; cloudless from start to end amid flowers at their peak color of summer.
The 3000ft descent lived up to its difficulty and we were all pretty shot the last couple miles. “Would you do it again?” I asked The Mrs. as we rounded the steep switchbacks towards the shuttle stop at the base of Maroon Bells. “Ask me tomorrow…,” was the reply.
I knew my answer. Trips like this are grounding. We all get comfortable in the luxuries of home; the conveniences of cell phones, the reliance on the fact that whenever you open the refrigerator door there will be food in it, and when you push the gas pedal the car goes. But I loved being out there and self-reliant. When the sun comes up you wake up with it. You carry what you need and you propel yourself to the next destination. You make do with what you have, and when the sun goes down you go to sleep. This may seem very caveman and barbaric when described this way, but it’s all very organic and natural to me. It’s the breaking down of the reliance on conveniences and the acknowledgement of life’s necessities and the world that surrounds us. And it sure helps to have friends with which to share…