Going solo: West to East Maroon Pass Trip

When?: 16-17 July 2011
Where?: Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness Area, a few miles north of Gothic, Colorado
How far?: 27 miles (hiking)
Who?: mostly solo

I drew this route out a couple of weeks before hand and was pretty obsessed with doing it from then on. It was all I could think about come 3pm on the Friday afternoon before I left! Luckily, the weather report didn’t sound too bad, with only 20-30% chance of rain and storms. So I started packing my things. I couldn’t wait to get up valley and see all the peaks I’d been staring at on maps…

West Maroon to East Maroon

IMG_9004Ben and Lindsey joined me on the first part of the trip. Here they are crossing over Schofield Pass – usually this is accessible by cars but it seems unlikely to melt this year!


Left: some kind of mustard (Family: Brassicaceae); right: Lindsey and Ben in front of a still very snowy Emerald Lake at Schofield Pass


Plants along the way up to West Maroon Pass. Left: Aquilegia coerulea (Colorado Columbine, Family: Ranunculaceae); middle: Hydrophyllum sp. (Family: Hydrophyllaceae); right: Claytonia lanceolata (Spring Beauty, Family: Portulacaceae)


The view behind us as we hiked up to West Maroon Pass


Looking up the valley towards Belleview Mountain, and with Frigid Air Pass to the left of this picture


Left: we had to cross a couple of snow fields on our way up to West Maroon Pass; right: perhaps a primrose?


Ben picking his way across a surprisingly stable talus field, with the pass almost directly above him. We later realised the trail stayed at the bottom of the valley, avoiding the talus.


View looking west (the way we came) from West Maroon Pass.


Ben eating lunch at the top of West Maroon Pass


Me, a huge Labrador and the view looking east from West Maroon Pass


Left: I went on alone from here, with Ben making his way back to Gothic via the way we had come. The trail directly below the Pass was treacherously slippery, with slushy snow and mud, and a considerable drop. Right: perhaps an alpine buttercup?..


Going solo: me with the West Maroon valley behind


Left: the upper valley was still melting out, leading to a slippery descent; right: marsh marigolds, Caltha leptosepala (family: Ranunculaceae) lined the way.


View of the mountains at the end of West Maroon valley (I’m not sure which these are – let me know if you do, especially the tall pointy one!)


The first difficult crossing of West Maroon Creek, only about an hour after descending from the pass. It was strong, but not too much out of my comfort level and I managed to cross it bare-foot (to keep my boots dry) with the help of walking poles.


I liked the second river crossing even less, and so was very pleased when my scouting found a much safer way across…


Left: a bit of scouting along the river led me to a perfect tree bridge across the second difficult river crossing. Right: however, it did mean I had to do a little bushwacking!

I was unable to keep up a reasonable pace towards Crater Lake due to the sheer abundance of beautiful wild flowers!…


Left: Mertensia ciliata (Family: Boraginaceae); right: Phacelia sericea (Silky Phacelia, Family: Hydrophyllaceae)


Left: Cardamine cordifolia (Heartleaf Bittercress, Family: Brassicaceae); right: Viola scopulorum (White Violet, Family: Violaceae)


Left: Trifolium sp. (Family: Fabaceae); left: Polemonium pulcherrimum (Jacob’s Ladder, Family: Polemoniaceae)


Left: Aquilegia sp. (Shooting Star Columbine, Family: Ranunculaceae); right: Frasera speciosa (Monument Plant, Family: Gentianaceae)


First glimpse of Crater Lake


Looking up at the craggy peaks of the Maroon Bells – it’s unsurprising how many accidents and fatalities happen here! – these are serious mountains!!


Marmot encounter on talus before Crater Lake


Storm clouds caught up with me as reached the northern shore of Crater Lake. North Maroon peak to the right, and Pyramid Peak (I think) to the left


Having felt a rather large bolt of lightening close behind me as I walked along talus away from Crater Lake, I sought shelter underneath two spruce trees. Their boughs were so interwoven I hardly felt a drop. This was my view out into the storm that echoed of the walls of the mountains, making it the most intense thunder storm I’d ever been in!


The storm only lasted about 20 minutes, at which point the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen was projected across the valley towards Maroon Lake. I went from a state of fear and uncertainty to elation in a matter in minutes. It’s always amazing to me how going outside controls your emotions like that…


Mountains lining the south side of Maroon lake shimmered into view as the storm passed, as if there was some sort of magic veil in between


Left: a penstemon (Family: Scrophulariaceae) bejeweled with raindrops; right: Maroon lake just minutes after the storm had passed.

I was a little unprepared for the number of people at the lake – it’s actually accessible by road, so there were lots of people enjoying an evening stroll. None of them were wearing any rain gear, having clearly come out after the storm, so I felt a bit bedraggled walking past all the day-trippers! I took advantage of my sudden encounter with civilisation though and had supper at one of the picnic tables and dried out my gear.


The formidable looking Maroon Bells, nicknamed the “Deadly Bells” according to the information sign, because they have claimed so many lives. Loose rock, avalanches, and unpredictable weather greet climbers who try..


West Maroon Creek was completely white water after Maroon Lake. Thank goodness there were bridges over it!

The next part of my journey isn’t documented with pictures (as things so often aren’t when they get difficult!). My goal was to find the East Maroon Creek trail that night so that I could set off towards East Maroon Pass nice and early the next morning. However, it was more difficult than I expected to find the trail, as it isn’t signed from the West Maroon Creek trail, which eventually starts heading north towards Aspen. As soon as I found myself on a north bearing, I knew I’d gone too far and turned around, but by this point I must have gone a couple of miles out of my way. It was much easier to find the East Maroon trail on the way back – I just headed left and finally found myself in the right drainage, much to my relief! So if you go that way, remember that the trail isn’t signed, and pay close attention to trails that look as if they just loop back up with the West Maroon trail.


A more successful food cache than my previous attempt – snags often provide good hanging spots


My daily food intake of just over 3,000 calories (with a supper of 760 Cal, not pictured here): cereal (250 Cal), cereal bar (170 Cal), Hershey’s choc bar (210 Cal), trail mix 1 (on the left), consisting of peanuts (257 Cal), M’n'M’s (210 Cal), and cashews (170 Cal), trail mix 2 (574 Cal), banana chips (460 Cal). I try to eat every hour and a half or so, to stop myself from crashing. The food worked out well the second day (except when I got bored of eating junk food that was too sweet), but on the first day I didn’t eat enough going up to West Maroon Pass and felt pretty weak. In fact, I was ravenous all day and Ben had to give me some food! One day I’ll get the food thing sorted…


View of Pyramid Peak from East Maroon trail


Left: Arnica cordifolia (Heartleaf Arnica, Family: Asteraceae), I think; right: Castilleja sp. (Red Paintbrush, Family: Scrophulariaceae)


Just after I’d gone passed Pyramid Peak, I encountered the most difficult river crossing so far. I scouted it for a long time, but couldn’t find a better place to cross, and because of the steep hillsides on either side of the river, I thought it was best to try crossing rather than risk getting cliffed out. I kept my boots on for this one and headed for some friendly willows to grab onto on the other side. The water came up to the top of my legs; any deeper and stronger and I may have taken a swim…


Not even an hour after my river crossing adventure, I came across this wreckage. Initially I thought it was just a small obstacle and tried to hike down to the river to get around it. How wrong can you be?!…


The scale of destruction wrought by the avalanche (probably from last season) was staggering – trees were flattened right from the brow of the hill (behind this shot) down to the river, and even piled up on trees some distance into the forest. I had to hike up some 200-300 feet until I found a place where the trees were thin enough to hike through.


Some 20 minutes after crossing the avalanche wreckage, I came across an even bigger river crossing. Luckily, I also came across a fellow hiker – Justin, and we decided not to cross at this point and take our chances higher up. It turned out to be a good strategy – we found a much mellower crossing.


View of Precarious Peak (correct me if I’m wrong!) as Justin and I headed up to East Maroon Pass (which is to the left of this picture)


Justin and the very mellow path across talus to East Maroon Pass. This Pass was much less of a climb than West Maroon Pass.


On the other side of the pass, hiking down to the refreshingly cool Copper Lake (yes, I had to jump in!) It was a short hike from Copper Lake back to Gothic, and it was strange to suddenly be surrounded by people again. What a wonderful trip! – one of the most dynamic I’ve ever been on.
Two days outside always feels like so much longer…