Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

Hi, and thanks for reading my blog!  I thought I should start one of these things to compile some pictures and words from adventures I have amongst nature (seemingly my life purpose at this point for better or for worse). So, let it begin!

After my third trip out to the San Juan Mountains a couple weeks ago with my parents, I was obviously inspired by the beauty and already planning my next adventure.  Colorado has many great mountain ranges in which one could spend a full lifetime exploring, but I try to get a little glimpse of everything.  Strangely, I had never made it out to the Elk Range near aspen.  I knew those mountains had a reputation, and it was time to pay them a visit.  Upon reading various blogs of colorado runners, I knew what I must undertake.  The four pass loop is a marathon distance route around the famous Maroon Bells Mountains, and a proving ground for Colorado mountain runners.  So, I packed up my car and drove through the night to get to the famous trailhead.


Arriving at the trailhead, I was relieved that the the crowd at 5am were 20-30 runners preparing to do the loop in one day like myself.  I happily joined in the communal coffee drinking and chatted it up with some people, comforted in the fact that I wouldn’t be that one crazy person alone moving fast and light (Most people do this loops as a 2-3 day backpacking trip).  Watching the sun rise on the Maroon Bells was simply stunning, and I stayed around for a while letting my legs wake up while most people started off.  I looked at the names of the passes one more time, and said to myself “Screw maps! You are a mountain man who navigates by savvy alone”.  Setting off I made quick work of the jog up to Crater Lake where the loop begins.  The trail split, and I wanted to go counter-clockwise up Buckskin Pass first.  The problem was, the trails only had numbers.  So i asked a group which way to go as they undoubtedly noted my appearance to send a rescue operation later.  Indecision at trail junctions would be a common theme of the day, and probably cost me 20 minutes total.

I ran easily up the 3000′ climb to the top of Buckskin pass passing most runners that were ahead of me.  Atop the first 12000′ pass of the day, I passed a huge cornice that the trail conveniently goes around, and happily noticed a pair of runners already making their way down the other side.  I would not be venturing into the wilderness alone!

Looking back at the Buckskin pass climb from the cornice

Wanting to save my legs, I slowly picked my way down the first downhill to the next destination of Snowmass Lake.  Unfortunately, I caught the runners ahead of me about a half mile from the lake.  There was a junction at the lake, and I quarreled in deciding whether to wait for them at a or go with my instinct.  I went with the later and obviously chose the wrong way, but quickly got back on track after about 5 minutes wasted.  The climb up Trailrider Pass went by without much effort, and I thought things were going pretty well.  I never looked at how far I had gone, but it had actually been only 10 miles so far.  I had a long way to go.

Snowmass Lake
Snowmass Lake

Backpackers stated coming out of the woodworks by this point in the day, and I stopped to chat with various parties to ask them which direction to take at unforeseen junctions ahead.  They told me how beautiful of a day it was compared to Friday when it had rained all day, and how impressed they were that I was running.  I equally remarked at their ability to hike will carrying huge packs and was off.  From the bottom of the valley I could see that it was going to be a long ascent up to Frigid Air Pass, and my legs were starting to feel the 3+ hours of running I had already done.  As i now know, this was the crux climb of the route.  O hit my one low point of the day somewhere around a mile from the top, having a headache and low energy.  The grade was very runnable the whole way up, but I couldn’t really push hard.  I alternated between hiking and running while getting some calories in for the final push.

Going up Frigid Air Pass
Going up Frigid Air Pass

I started to feel better and had a relatively easy last climb of 900′ to Maroon Pass, which went well.  While power hiking up to the top of Maroon Pass the crowds of day hikers began to appear and comment about my disheveled appearance.  I would see more people than I had all day on the 6 mile descent back to the trailhead.  I felt good and had just crossed the 5 hour threshold, so I decided I would go hard on this downhill to try and beat 6 hours for the loop.  This trail turned out to be hellaciously technical, alternating from ankle breaking rocks to deep pits of mud.  Between that and passing hundreds of people on a small trail 6 hours just wasn’t going to happen.  I sprinted the final trail around Maroon Lake and stopped my watch at 6:29:51 amongst startled people who had taken a bus up from town to see the views.

Overall, I felt great all day.  Though certainly not a record (Sage Canaday’s record is a stout 4:27, and even Lance Armstrong beat me by almost an hour), I am happy with the effort and feel great a day later.  As others have said, it is hard to put in a fast effort on this route because the scenery is so amazing!  I definitely will be back.

My Splits:

Buckskin Pass: 1:17, 1:17

Trailrider Pass: 1:28, 2:45

Frigid Air Pass: 1:51, 4:37

Maroon Pass: 0:34, 5:11

Finish: 1:19, 6:30




Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

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