Backpacking Colorado's Elk Mountains

When it pours, good rain gear and a great sense of humor help you find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
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When it pours, good rain gear and a great sense of humor help you find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

This is a story about rain. Rain in its myriad forms—mist, showers, downpours, sheets, torrents—that inspires deep respect for what Noah accomplished without a good waterproof/breathable jacket. Rain so persistent that it erodes the spirit, clouds one's thoughts, and grows mildew on the soul. Rain that makes a trip one's worst—and best.

This is also a tale about friends, most of whom have never before met, united by the Internet's universal reach and the fact that none of them immediately deleted an e-mail from me asking, "Anyone want to backpack in Colorado's Elk Mountains?" As a result, we're standing at the toes of three 14,000-foot Colorado behemoths, Pyramid Peak and the twin Maroon Bells, watching the sky grow so dark that midday looks like dusk. An hour down the trail, the rain begins, accompanied by thunder that splits the air like an axe through a dry log. As Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells fade into a cauldron of foul weather, we pull out raingear, an act we'll repeat many times over the next 4 days.

Our eclectic and accidental team includes Gary and Mike, old high school buddies of mine in their late 30s who have lived in southern California for years and see rain only in the movies. There's Guido, 28, from Germany, a Ph.D. candidate in economics who I haven't seen since we first met while hiking in Utah 4 years ago. Beth, the 26-year-old girlfriend of a Denver climbing buddy, is making her backpacking debut. Though she endures endless ribbing from the rest of us, Beth proves she's the toughest member of our sodden band. Then there's Gerry, an obsessive, 44-year-old running and Nordic skiing marathoner from New England who covets arduous adventures purely for the mental and physical fortitude they impart. For the next few days, whenever it rains the hardest, the trail is steep, and the air is too thin, Gerry abruptly bellows, "Lovin' it!"

Leaning into a riptide of wind on our second morning, we crest our first high pass, West Maroon. Last night's leaden sky and intermittent rain have withdrawn briefly, revealing craggy, snowy peaks. A few years ago, I stood atop 14,130-foot Capitol Peak, my breath stolen as much by the seemingly infinite knife-edge ridges, alpine lakes, and sprawling massifs as by the altitude.

We descend through a pastel splash of wildflowers that would have humbled Monet—columbine, Indian paintbrush, bluebells. The raw beauty washes away the discomfort of the past hours and invigorates us. We'll cling to fleeting moments like this in the coming days.

We're backpacking on a loop of about 26 miles through the Elk Mountains' Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness on the western slope of the Rockies, using some of the highest maintained trails in the Lower 48. We'll spend much of the journey above 11,000 feet and grunt our way over four passes at 12,400 feet. But the Elks reward such air-sucking toil with majestic views. Six Elk summits rise more than 14,000 feet.

Now afternoon, we slog up to Frigid Air Pass, overlooking the Maroon Bells and Fravert Basin, an otherworldly valley of green grass dappled with wildflowers. We're feeling the physical toll of two passes long before we find a campsite. Come evening, the rain returns like an unwanted houseguest.

The skies grant no mercy the next day, as we ford the numbing North Fork of Crystal River and make another long, hurtful ascent to a meadow at nearly 12,000 feet, where we pitch our soggy tents. After dinner, we cram into the largest tent to play cards, commiserate over our meteorological misfortune, and laugh at Gary's jokes about his leaky tent ("You're going to find me tomorrow, floating down that valley"). From a cliff half a mile away comes the cracking rumble of a rockslide, the sound carrying for a full minute.

Raindrops perform a drumroll on our nylon roofs all night long. Come morning, I awaken groggily from a vague dream involving sunshine, a tropical beach, and a mixed drink with a piece of fruit the size of my head in a shallow, wide glass. The image smears and runs like a doused watercolor painting as I realize that once again, it's raining. I can smell the dampness, and its cold envelops me even inside my sleeping bag.

A steady mist sprays our gear as we eat and pack up. It matures to a deliberate shower as we pant up into the clouds at Trail Rider Pass. From out of the fog somewhere ahead comes Gerry's shout, "Lovin' it!" On the other side, we view Snowmass Lake, an emerald oval crammed tightly between cliffs and evergreens like a jewel set into a crown.

Soon, the shower intensifies to a monsoon, turning the trail into a gully of slick, ankle-deep muck. We plod on silently, hooded heads bent, faces dark as the sky. Some of us begin to behave like people held against their will for years, likely to snap at any moment.

Rounding a bend, I hear Guido curse, then Gary echo. I look up to see Snowmass Creek surging across our trail in a crotch-deep torrent, moving with enough force to sweep away a cow. We test the water—frigid. Only by crossing upstream of a beaver dam can we manage to negotiate the current. No one looks pleased about the icy bath ahead. Well, almost no one. Already in up to his thighs, Gerry shoots me a glance over his shoulder. He's grinning from ear to ear.

Beneath a dripping pine tree, we agree to hike out today, preferring a long, hard day to the prospect of another cold, wet night. We've had enough.

Like prisoners on a forced march, we string out through the numerous switchbacks on the slow hump up to Buckskin Pass. But at the pass, the rain ceases, and we're treated to a heart-stopping Colorado Rockies panorama of mammoth piles of broken rock and snow. As we descend—at one point tredding beneath a 20-foot-high snow cornice that curls over us like a frozen wave—the clouds dissipate, as if swept aside by a giant hand. After 4 days of interminable rain, we're finally basking in a warm solar glow.

We drop our packs to soak in the view. Gerry dances an impromptu jig. An hour later, we dismiss any possibility of missing the glorious evening now unfolding and park at a campsite overlooking North Maroon and Pyramid Peaks and the valley we'll hike down tomorrow. As stars slowly riddle a clear sky, we laugh about our suffering and vow to return together. Our shared misery has bonded us in a way that 4 days of sunshine never could.

What we've found in the Elks is a miracle, one witnessed only when the sky bursts open after days of rain.

Just before bed, our worries washed away, we take turns shouting—"you guessed it—"Lovin' it!"

EXPEDITION PLANNER
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Elk Mountains, CO

  • Getting there: The 181,117-acre Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado's fourth-largest wilderness, is about 31/2 hours west of Denver. The Maroon Lake trailhead is at the end of Maroon Creek Road, off CO 82 half a mile west of Aspen.
  • Season: Weather patterns change quickly. Summer weather is usually dry, but afternoon thunderstorms are common. Daytime highs range from the 50s to the 80s, and nighttime lows from the 20s to the 40s, depending on elevation. Snow can occur in any month at higher elevations. Trails and passes often are not free of snow until mid-July.
  • Trails: The wilderness area has 100 miles of trail and nine passes higher than 12,000 feet. Our 5-day loop from Maroon Lake followed the Maroon-Snowmass Trail (No. 1975) to West Maroon Creek Trail (No. 1970) through West Maroon Pass to North Fork Fravert Basin Trail (No. 1974) through Frigid Air Pass to North Fork Cutoff Trail (No. 1976) and Geneva Lake Trail (No. 1973) through Trail Rider Pass. Finally, at Snowmass Lake, the route turns right (east) onto the Maroon-Snowmass Trail, following it over Buckskin Pass and back to the trailhead.
  • Elevation: The route we took ranges from 9,500 feet at the trailhead to four passes higher than 12,400 feet. If you're coming from sea level, spend a night or two in a nearby town before your hike to begin acclimating. Plan to hike fewer miles per day than you would at lower elevations. Stay hydrated and hike at a pace that allows you to breathe deeply and easily. Treat any prolonged symptoms, including headache, nausea, loss of appetite, and especially diminished physical coordination or level of consciousness, by descending immediately. For more information on preventing altitude sickness, see "Heave Ho!" (August 1999).
  • Permits and access: No permit is required for backpacking, but parking at the trailhead requires a 5-day pass ($10). Maroon Creek Road is not maintained during the winter due to high avalanche hazard.
  • Guides: Trails Illustrated's Maroon Bells/Redstone/Marble map (#128, 800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $9.95). USGS 7.5-minute quads, Snowmass Mountain and Maroon Bells (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4). Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach (Fulcrum, 800-992-2908; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $18.95), describes routes up the Elks' six 14ers.
  • Walk softly: Use established campsites or camp at least 200 feet from trails, lakes, creeks, and wet meadows. If you camp at Snowmass Lake, use designated sites. No campfires. Check with land managers for federal wilderness regulations before you go.
  • Contact: White River National Forest, Aspen Ranger District, (970) 925-3445; www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver.