Dawn broke with warmth and clearer skies. Down jackets and porridge. Enough tea to clear the vision and lace the boots. Camp was broken and bags repacked. Achy hips resumed the weight of the packs and strained at the first, hardest, step.
But the trail flowed out and down the valley. The trail bisected the Crystal River at a low and wide crossing. Freshly laced boots were removed and the ice shot through our feet as we tested the balance of our laden bodies. Sitting and retying our boots as the sun moved from behind Maroon Peak to our east: layers readjusted. Jackets off, shorts on. Sun cream applied.
The trail forked and we went left. Trail Rider Pass, number three on the list, nothing more than a line in our mind, hidden above us by the first ridge. The map showed tightly stacked contours and our legs agreed. Pushing skywards in short vertical steps. We broke over the top of the ridge at 11,800 feet after a solid hour of uphill.
The wind whipped us just slightly, and the trail sank down into the high alpine basin. Another small lake with the water curling over the surface as the breeze pushed it along. We looked east at the Maroon Bells. Another coating of snow on the north faces had been applied last night. The red of their rocky faces now alternating with bright white lines. We stopped in the shelter of some rocks and looked up at Trail Riders Pass. Unlike yesterday, we didn’t see anyone on the top. We’d encountered a spread-out group of hikers earlier in the day, but approaching the slopes of this pass made me feel like we were finally escaping the grasp of easy access. There weren’t switchbacks. The trail cut straight up the southern slope of the pass, giving us a great view of Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Peak, both 13ers, to our west. We knew that Snowmass Mountain, a 14,000 footer was hiding somewhere close by, but we couldn’t get see its summit. I knew it was going to be windy on top. On the way up, little cuts in the rock had shot fierce winds at us. We peaked our heads over the top to feel the full force of the wind coming in from the north. Cold Alpine Autumn wind.
From the top of Trail Rider pass, Snowmass Lake was sitting comfortably in the basin below. 2000 feet below to be precise. The maroon slopes around its shores were plastered with bright yellow aspens that contrasted against it blue waters. Primary colours in the mountains. The way down was, once again, longer than anticipated. Without the drive to reach the top, the downhills splay out in front of you. The huge packs on our backs pushed us into the ground, testing our knees at each step. From tundra to trails flanked with huckleberrys, to scrub willow, and finally back into the trees. We kept descending. Past a huge scree field and eventually we picked our way through the deadfall to find the shore.
Frigid, icy, gently lapping. It needed to be jumped in, and we obliged with a quick splash. It ended up being a very quick splash, followed by a solar-powered dry on the rocks, and then we saddled up again for the last push towards our second campsite of the trip. It was tempting to stop at the shores of Snowmass Lake and camp there, but with plenty of daylight and a little energy left, we trucked onwards. Around the corner and up valley, directly towards the feet of Maroon Peak. Buckskin Pass was the final hurdle, and we wanted to tackle it as early as possible in the morning.
We crossed Snowmass creek on a sturdy wooden bridge, then coasted along next to a beaver-damed creek. As the valley narrowed, we found a campsite perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the marshy lake and the peaks in the distance. Fire > Food> Tea, a few card games and then we watched as the sun threw its final rays over the mountains. The trout jumped in synchrony in the lake, chasing every bug that got too close.
The Elk picked up their tuned from where they left off last night, and we eventually settled again into our sleeping bags. The clear night lead to a quick temperature drop, and we slept fully clothed.