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April 2001

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.

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 Last night’s leaden sky and intermittent rain have withdrawn briefly, revealing craggy, snowy peaks.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.

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