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My husband and I decided on a very ambitious trek for our first time backpacking and being flat-landers.  We ended up making it over two passes, enjoyed a ton of amazing scenery, met face-to-face with God, and hiked over 20 miles in 3 days.  We are very proud of that and can’t wait to go back for round two!

Day 1: July 5, 2013

So we were supposed to find a campsite tonight either South of Carbondale on 133 or South of Aspen on 82 to finish acclimating. Last night we stayed in Fort Collins with Adrian’s uncle, and we had a blast. Even though we got there late due to Southwest overbooking our flight, we were happy campers because they gave us over $800 in vouchers. Since last time we came to Colorado I got such bad altitude sickness for not acclimating, we wanted two nights prior to the hike. We drove past the Carbondale exit and decided we wanted to acclimate at a slightly higher altitude (8,200′ compared with 6,100′). On the way we decided to drive down Maroon Creek Road a bit just to see if any of their campsites were open, which we knew was unlikely. On the way we saw a bear near the road about 20 yards from our car. He just stared at us while we took a picture, acting like he would rather not have anything to do with us. We got very excited driving down the road as the scenery was like something out of Chronicles of Narnia. As we reached the ranger station, we were informed that all of the Maroon Bells campsites were full as well as the Independence  Pass sites. We had no other options for a hotel, so he told us our best bet was to hike the 2 miles to Crater Lake and camp there as there should be about 2 spots open. We hesitantly agreed since that was at 10,000′, and we didn’t think our bodies were ready for that yet. As we started packing our things and changing clothes in the parking lot, we felt very rushed, uneasy, curious, and excited. We brisked past the Maroon Lake, snapping a few photos, and vowing to spend more time there on the return. We had less than 3 hours until dark and no idea how everything would pan out at Crater Lake. We began hiking and through the rush and chatter we ended up on a smaller trail that leads, we think, up to one of the 14ers to the South. Adrian was the first to point out that this trail wasn’t as easy to spot as the previous one, and he thought we had gotten off of the popular route to Crater Lake. We pushed on for a bit, trying our best to navigate and work together but steadily becoming uneasy as the sun kept getting lower. Our trail finally dead ended so we turned around to find the main trail again. There was a big area of rocks, and we ended up heading down a dry creek bed into the think woods. I finally lost it, and Adrian immediately prayed over me. He asked God to lead us out, scared, confused himself. Within minutes we heard a loud cough and called out. Two young men were just 30 or so yards above us and we followed their voices right to the very obvious and very close trail that I now have no idea how we could have missed. We walked with these two boys, and found out they’re both very solid faithful Christians, missionaries at times even. I wholeheartedly believe God sent us those two boys to rescue us and teach us about trusting Him instead of panicking. We finally reached Crater Lake and found a campsite. It turned out a guy had hidden his pack and tent there that we didn’t notice until we had began setting up. We moved our tent a bit away, and met him during our dinner as he was coming back from a day hike up a 14er. He was really nice and let us stay in his campsite. He too was a solid brother in Christ, attending seminary and leading guitar for worship. He was really chill and humble. I see God all around here. I pray for navigation tomorrow, trusting in God’s guidance. Tieing a bear bag proved to be difficult, but sufficient. Dinner was okay, but much appreciated after a long day.

We had a hard time sleeping as there was a night storm during much of it (it ended up raining every night and not once during the day as other trip reports had noted). We were also awoken at every forest noise. During one of our wake-ups, Adrian asked me if I could memorize something with him: The Shepherd’s Prayer, Psalm 23. He said it calmed him last night after our stressful evening, and that brought serene peace to my heart as well. We discussed how God is creator of all things, and we are so tiny, yet He loves us personally. God created the creeks, the bears, lakes, ridges, trees, and wide array of wildflowers. We can do nothing to control these things, yet God loves us so much that he knows each hair on our head and called us by name in the womb. I haven’t been in a place where I had to truly fully depend on God’s providence and grace in a while. This brought about a healthy fear and awe of who He is but also a new strong trust in His steadfast character and sovereignty.

Day 2, July 6, 2013

This morning, after a fretful sleep, we woke up at 5:45 AM from the sunlight. After taking down the bear bag, cooking some breakfast, meeting several other hikers, and taking our time packing up, we hit the trail around 8. We went back and forth about whether or not we would be able to stay on the trail, but it turned out to be very easy to spot and navigate the remainder of the trip (that first night there just happened to be a split at one of the switchbacks we later found out from a local that hikers get turned around there frequently…it should be easy to spot and circumvent, but just be aware that it’s there). We hiked a couple of beautiful miles past the first two large creek crossings near where we had intended to camp tonight if it were going to be our first night out. After much uphill hiking, low food, an nearly no sleep, Adrian was starting to doubt how much longer he could make it. [He hadn’t worked out his legs since high-school cross-country, and this was proving to be much more of a challenge than he had thought. Normally he is the stronger of us two, physically and emotionally, but his legs were really burning and I felt for him, being so proud he was trying so hard.] He was hurting all over and having a miserable time, so when we sat down for lunch he proposed we turn back and perhaps hike Buckskin Pass the next day if his knee stopped throbbing or end the trip completely and spend time in Denver (remember, no sleep, no food, aching body talking here). With a late start and clouds overhead, we weren’t sure if we would be able to make it over both Maroon Pass and Trail Ridge Pass before it rained. We actually had no idea if we would physically be able to make it over one pass to be honest. As we were sitting there going back and forth about our options, we chatted with several hikers. I encouraged him the best I could, but he was still unsure about finishing the hike. Finally a marathon runner came by at 11:45AM who had began the loop on the other side (a good 20 miles away), and a day-hiker who we had been chatting with joking said if he can do it in a few hours running we better get our butts up there now! That was just the motivation Adrian needed, and we immediately jumped up to make it up Maroon Pass. He found out he had more energy than he thought, and once we got going it wasn’t too bad after all. We trekked up there, making frequent stops to catch our breath, and we finally made it! That was definitely the greatest accomplishment for us because it was a challenge mentally and physically. We actually took our packs off near the very top, which was a doozy, and walked up the rest to take some pictures. The sight was breath-taking and worth every second of pushing ourselves. We had several backpackers doing the loop clockwise tell us Frigid Air Pass was extremely difficult and it would be very hard on us. We decided we didn’t want to push it because our entire reason to come out here was to live simply and be in God’s creation, experiencing true backpacking for the first time. We were both hurting at that time, myself with my colitis (tummy aches) acting up and several bad blisters, and Adrian with sore leg muscles. We decided we could physically finish the loop, but it wouldn’t be very fun, so we went back about a half mile and set up camp in the first one once tree line just barely broke. It was stunning, with mountains all around and far views, but we quickly learned the few trees there were not sufficient to tie a bear bag, and there were severe swarms of Mosquitos that even with bug spray made being outside the tent not very enjoyable. We packed back up and hiked about an hour past the first creek crossing to where we knew were good campsites, and they were still open so we snagged one up around 6pm. We enjoyed dinner and hot chocolate with a friendly deer encounter and spectacular views of the creek and mountains. We were able to talk, mend our wounds, and get a restful night’s sleep.
Day 3, July 7, 2013
Last night Adrian finally was able to sleep through most of the night, and since he desperately needed good rest, we slept in and got off to a late start around 9am. We hiked back to Crater Lake, eating lunch at the creek crossing just on our side of the lake (I had wheat tortillas with Justin’s honey peanut butter and dried banana chips wrapped up, while Adrian had dry Ramen noodles with the flavoring packet sprinkled on – yuck!). Today’s hike was much easier, and we were able to make a good pace. We went past the lake and began the Snowmass Trail up Buckskin Pass. We made it up to an amazing campsite with a pristine view of the Maroon Bells, and a thunder cloud started sprinkling on us. We contemplated whether or not we should hold off until the rain passed and attempt to cross Buckskin Pass and camp on the other side or if we should set up camp early in this beautiful place. Since we were all about enjoying our time out there, we decided to set up camp and enjoy a nice fire right in front of the “you have to see it to believe it” breath-taking view. There was a nice creek flowing right down from our site, so we spent several hours up there. I fell asleep for about 30 minutes, and when I woke up I just kind of felt out of it and no appetite for dinner. I didn’t have a headache yet, but I suspected that was because I had taken prescription-strength ibuprofen for the muscles. I walked around in a haze for a little while, not really wanting to move and just feeling grumpy for no good reason. About that time Adrian pointed out that our campsite was at 11,600′ and I was probably beginning to get altitude sickness. I went in the tent and took a Diamox while he cooked dinner. Shortly after taking the medicine, I felt much better, but Adrian thought it would be better to hike down some and re-set up camp. He was beginning to get a headache as well, which he never gets, so it was probably better to be safe than sorry and leave our beautiful camp site for lower ground. We got to enjoy a camp fire up there, and I read part of a book with the views as a backdrop. It was magical. Around 6:30 we hiked down past the creek crossing and first set of switch-backs. We feared we wouldn’t be getting to Crater Lake until near dusk and all the campsites would be filled up, so I found an off-shoot trail (that we later found out leads up to a 14er), and we set up camp in a fluffy meadow near the creek. There were some trees near-by, but not directly against our site, and that night around 11:30pm the hardest thunderstorm yet came rolling through (it never rained in the evenings like all the other trip reports said, but every night it stormed in the middle of the night). We woke to quite a bit of thunder and lightening. Adrian held me close and began praying for protection. Soon later I turned on my phone and we began belting out worship songs about how God is mighty and moves the mountains. How His voice is like thunder, and he knows the names of each star. How He is worthy to be praised and His glory is awesome. I think that night together in the tent brought about a new respect for God and an understanding of His might I had never known living in a comfortable American lifestyle. We knew that God alone controlled the outcome of our situation, and His power is worthy of reverence. A few hours later at 4am I awoke to use the restroom for the 4th or 5th time that night (did I mention Diamox is a dietetic?), and I noticed a headlamp pointing toward and then immediately away from our tent. This started me and Adrian jumped up to check it out. It turned out this was just a hiker up early to begin the massive 14er across the creek, but it got us both up and outside, which alone made the trip worth it. Sleeping in a meadow probably wasn’t a smart move given the nightly storms, but it sure made for a perfect view of the entire starry night sky. These stars…I can’t even begin to describe them in a manner worthy of their beauty. There were so many and each one was perfectly crisp against a dark black blanket sky. There were white streaks across the sky of deep far-away stars I’ve never before been able to see near a city and at lower elevation. We marveled at the sight for a while, tried to capture it on camera to no avail, and crawled back into the tent where it was warmer. Right before zipping my vestibule shut, I said a prayer to God thanking Him for just who he is and what He has created. I also thanked Him for protecting us during the storm and calming our hearts when suddenly a shooting star went by, solely, I believe, for my eyes alone to witness and marvel. Now I understand why Jesus went alone up a mountain for 40 days to be with God. He is mighty ruler there, and has His love on display for all to see who are willing to take the journey with Him.
Day 4, July 8, 2013
We woke up again slightly late and began making a freeze-dried breakfast of bacon and eggs we had saved (they were absolutely awful, do not buy them and expect a gourmet treat). We were both pretty sore from the previous days’ hikes, and weren’t entirely sure we were up for Buckskin Pass. After moving around a bit and getting some food on our stomachs (I ate a Cliff protein bar because I couldn’t stomach the eggs), we decided we would push through and climb up Buckskin Pass to get a view of Snowmass Lake and leave having accomplished two passes when we had never gone true hiking or backpacking before. We left our camp set up, re-tied the bear bag, and just packed a day-pack with lunch, water, and a first-aid kit. We basically, in comparison to previous hikes with a full pack, soared up the mountain way faster than we thought possible and are officially in love with day-pack hiking (don’t worry, we will still through backpack because we loved that too, but will definitely consider throwing in a few day hikes too if it makes sense). The hike up was pleasant because we hardly passed anyone until the switchbacks up at the top of the pass, and we met a very pleasant older couple from Ohio we chatted with for a while about God and beer (yep, that’s about right when talking to backpackers we’ve learned, who, by the way, are some of the friendliest people on earth). The hike up was beautiful complete with a majestic waterfall, wildflowers, dabs of snow in the distance, and immaculate backdrop views of the mountains behind us. When we finally got up we marveled over the views of Snowmass Lake and discussed how crazy Frigid Air Pass looked. There was snow on the top that caused most people to take the long hike around to the top, but we found a shortcut along some rocks right where the snow ended and jumped on up. We took out our salami and hard cheeses for lunch. Normally being non-pork eaters, that was the best lunch we had in days. I really think the fats and oils in that lunch were just what our bodies needed after a mostly carbohydrate cuisine. We scarfed that down, and even gave a piece to one of the dogs who was up there with his owner (we immediately became his best friend). After exchanging photo taking turns with the Ohio couple, we began our descent. Our knees were definitely starting to let us know we were giving them a beating, Adrian’s one knee he had hurt running downhill was really throbbing, he suffered a pretty bad nose bleed, and I had to stop to change the moleskin on my blisters as they had started hurting again. Despite that, the descent was relatively easy. We made it back to camp, packed up, and began the trek back toward Crater Lake. We had decided we would see if we could change our flights to come back earlier since we started a day early, and if we could we would either camp one last night along Maroon Creek Rd, pay for a campsite in Glenwood Springs with a shower, or use our free points to book a Hilton in Denver and enjoy the next day there. Our hike back toward the parking lot was filled with much relief and anticipation, mainly ti get to put on flip-flops again. After discussing with the ranger station about the number of spots left to camp (1), we decided we would go down to a brew-pub in Glenwood Springs for a celebration beer and some greasy food (which, by the way, the burgers turned out to be way above-par for a pub and very delicious indeed). After finding out we could change our flights, we decided to head on down to Denver and arrived at our hotel around 9:30pm. All in all, we are extremely proud of what we accomplished with little training (20 miles and 2 mountain passes with elevation gains of 2,500′). We are so glad we came and got to work together as a team, meet up close and personal with God Almighty, witness some of the most beautiful sights on this side of Heaven, and overcome immense challenges. The full 4-Pass Loop is officially on our bucket-list after we get a few more trips under our belts and maybe find some friends to join us. I highly recommend this trip to anyone considering it, and if you make your own route like us, it will still be worth every ounce of effort spent. We truly hope to have the opportunity if visiting this area again in the future! It is a sight to behold!
Pictures (Flickr uploaded them in descending order, sorry)