It was probably an hour or so after midnight. My feet had already gone through a freezing cold stream and were quite wet inside my waterproof boots. I needed to stop and pee about every 5 minutes. My head was pounding, as it does when I exert myself at high altitude. I had more than 12 hours to go before I was finished. Did I mention that it just after midnight?
Something about being in those situations always makes me wonder why I get myself into those situations in the first place, then I remember…finishing is awesome!
All in, the hike would be 28 miles long, going over four passes all over 12,500 feet just outside of Aspen, Colorado for a total elevation gain of over 7,500 feet. We left town at 10pm for the short drive to trailhead, doing the majority of the hike in darkness to avoid afternoon thunderstorms as we finished. Most tried to sleep beforehand but I failed in that endeavor.
As we started to approach the first of the four passes, West Maroon Pass, I found myself in a small group of 3, and then 4, hikers. As we began to ascend the steepest parts, far above tree-line, I began to notice how spread out the group was with some hikers over 30 minutes ahead of us, just a few hours into the hike, and others over an hour behind us. At this stage I was dealing with the worst of the altitude sickness I was likely to feel but it didn’t help much. Had I not ‘fallen-in’ with these members of the group, by luck, I might have turned back after attaining that first pass.
The group I was hiking with was over 30 strong with nearly twenty setting out with us at the start of the night. (The other third of the group was starting a little later and going counter-clockwise to our clockwise hike.) This group, a bunch of executive types from the financial services industry, has pretty much committed itself to doing something outlandish like this every year. This year was the fourth such hike for the group, my second, with last year’s hike a trip up Yosemite’s Half Dome.
With a quick refresh at the top, having just climbed about 3,000 feet in elevation, the four of us began our descent into a small valley before starting our second ascent. This next leg would be just an hour or so long, our shortest leg of the entire hike. Timing was important, we knew that if it took us more than 7 hours to reach that second pass, affectionately named Frigid Air Pass, we’d need to turn back because it we wouldn’t be able to finish the entire loop in time. On the way to that second pass, we encountered another hiker who had been in front of us but who had slowed down. That hiker, Kevin, joined myself, Eric, Steven and Jessica. We’d be together for the rest of the hike. We made it to Frigid Air in less than 6 hours, so we were on track.
Our next descent was a big one and took us almost to the altitude we started at, but not quite. As we approached tree-line we were greeted by a trail runner, a member of our group, who had been well behind us with his father who ultimately turned back, and was now on a course to finish hours ahead of us. The way he continued running (walking already seemed difficult for us) with a sandwich in his mouth was something of an inspiration to our small band of hikers and kept us all ho-humming along. We made our descent, thought some moving shadows (the effect of our head-lamps on some logs) were actually bears, ate some breakfast and enjoyed a cloudy sunrise. There was a beautiful waterfall and incredible fauna and mountain scenery all around us and it was finally bright enough to actually stop and smell the wildflowers!
This was the time to speed up and make up some time but instead we found ourselves slowing down and feeling the affects of fatigue. A river crossing gave us a lot of down-time, forcing us to change socks and actually sit down for more than a minute. We decided it was probably our half-way point, right around 7am, and the rest was needed as our next uphill segment, named Segment Soul Crusher by our leader, was set to be a doozy. Thankfully, as we moved on and got ready for that climb we were followed by some Elk, or perhaps deer, on the other side of the valley and up the hill. Other than porcupines those would be our only major wildlife encountered. (NOTE: After turning back at the first pass several other members of the group encountered campers dealing with a momma bear and her two cubs. Although it sounded like a unique experience, I was glad to not have shared it!)
We quickly found that Segment Soul Crush was aptly named. It was some of the steepest hiking I’ve ever done and it seemed to go on forever. Thankfully, unlike the final hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the trail was pretty solid and not made of scree, a big plus. Still though it went on and on and even had a tantalizingly cruel false summit but we kept walking, mostly in silence. Our biggest break came when we encountered members of our group going the other direction, right about when we should have encountered them, meaning we were all moving in a timely fashion. On the false summit, my group stopped to rest and me, feeling bad as they kept stopping to wait for me, kept on moving. My mental state was one of needing to move forward, constantly, but at my own slow pace. Everyone else was moving a little quicker and enjoying breaks to let me catch up. By me setting off ahead just a few minutes we all moved much quicker.
Approaching the third pass, Trail Rider Pass, we were well above tree-line and the wind was howling at us again. I encountered three women who were running the same route I was hiking, but in the other direction, and they were joking that they decided to ignore the weather forecast for the day and look at Florida’s forecast instead. When I told them I was actually in from Florida they were blown away that my sea-level lungs were still pumping…they were in from Denver for the day. We took eachother’s photos, the rest of my group of 5 quickly caught up, and we were off again. Now though, we were looking at the clock as it was already past 9am and we were expecting some serious thunder around noon. We picked up the pace as we headed down.
It was a shame, this next segment was the most beautiful we encountered in the sunlight and were unable to spend much time enjoying it. First there was the insanely beautiful Snowmass Lake, inviting for a swim much as Odysseus and his men were called by the sirens of old. Our bodies all ached and 20 minutes of that frigid water would have made my body blissfully numb for the final climb up Buckskin pass.
Alas it was not meant to be. We had another 500 feet or so to descend before beginning our final ascent, another 2750 feet uphill. This time we were under the cover of trees for much of that hike and able to enjoy the scenery and shade as the sun became stronger. It was ironic, the sun was finally out in force, the first time all hike, and yet we knew it would not last long. The sunlight though did allow us to witness what must be the grandest dam built by beaver’s I’ve ever seen. I think it was easily twice the size of my first dorm room!
That final ascent was rough, mostly because we were all practically sleepwalking at this point. Still, we knew we needed to keep walking and it took all the energy we had to see it through. Those of us who had felt stronger earlier in the day were now feeling much weaker and it took the 5 of us as a team to really push one another up that final hill. Thankfully, once we left the shelter of the trees we could see the pass the entire time. The little shadows of people up there only helped to make it feel closer and eased the mental stress quite a bit. One hiker, John, who had passed us an hour or two earlier was now hurting and we caught up to him and finished as a group of six.
At the top, we rejoiced for about three minutes before starting what felt like the world’s slowest sprint down that final hill. Our group splintered on the way back to the parking lot with two of our members getting there and to shelter before the thunder started. The rest of us finished quite water-logged and cold. Still we finished and were safely below the tree-line when the thunder began. Others in our group were not so lucky, one shedding his hiking poles (a.k.a lightning rods) as he ran down the hill. In the end, everyone survived and enjoyed a raucous dinner together before departing town the next day.