There are plenty of warnings about strenuous exercise at altitude. Most of them caution that coming from sea level is a bad idea. To give yourself more time. To relax and enjoy the view. But what’s the fun in that? My parents arrive in Colorado on a regular basis – almost once a year. But that’s rare in the grand scheme of things, and leaves too little time to waste with aclimitisation and relaxation. We had things to do. Passes to hike.
The Four Passes Loop is a 28 mile circular hike around the Maroon Bells in Central Colorado. The Maroon Bells are some majestic 14,000 foot peaks of ruby coloured granite. Part of the Elk Range, south of Aspen and north of Crested Butte. Remote. Wilderness with that big W: nothing but feet and hooves allowed to traverse their hallowed slopes. The four passes crest the flanks of these huge mountains, giving us a three-day, 360 degree panorama of the peaks. In Colorado, roads will only take you so far, and a days hiking not much further. To really explore this state, sleeping bags and camp stoves and huge heavy rucksacks were needed. Christa and I loaded my parents down with as much as they could carry, and drove them to the picturesque Maroon Lake.
We set off south under greying skies with the aim of hiking the loop in three days. The guide books say it takes four days. I know people who can run it in eight hours or less. I thought three days was reasonable. With the intention of covering 14 miles and two mountain passes, we strolled gently up the trail, away from civilisation. The newly loaded packs weighed us down, and my parents pace fell off our early enthusiasm. We passed Crater Lake. Still smiling, quickly acclimatising to the rate at which calories will be burnt.
A stop for lunch at treeline below West Maroon Pass. We assessed the situation. Dad folded to the ground and devoured a sandwich in near silence. Mum stopped talking for more than a minute. They were tired. We rijigged our loads and saddled up again, inching our way towards summit number one, and crested it by noon. Five hours of hiking and only three passes left to go.
The going got easier. My parents found their stride: the altitude tempering their enthusiasm and them coming to terms with the needed moderation in the pace. We made slower progress, but less puffing, less worry that the thin air would fail to support the huge packs on our back. We stopped at a small lake below Frigid Air Pass and looked up at the final push. Reclining on our packs, the alpine wind just preventing that easy trailside snooze. Then we started up the slopes when we were ready, a better understanding already about what this trip would take to get to the end.
We crested without problem and admired the views south towards Mount Crested Butte, and west to Maroon Peak, and all around at the expanse of the Elk Mountains for which we didn’t have the time to name. From the top of Frigid Air Pass, the campground was within reach. Downhill to finish line number one. A long way down. The valley, and Fravert Basin, stretched below us. We set off in search of King Falls. The destination for this evening. It was a long way down. An hour of downhill and we took a break. Sat on a downed tree and ate an apple. The rain sprinkled lightly and a little harder, and the mix of dried sweat and warmth started to dissipate in the colder evening air. We strolled along next to the Crystal River. The crackling and roaring as it approached the falls, and we plummeted with it as it dropped. We pitched ourselves at the bottom. The clear pools slowly exiting the falls and working their way down through the broad meadow below. The fire started slowly among the damp foliage. Fail attempts at fire and a slow burning stove tested our meagre energy reserves. But tea was brewed and food cooked.
Fire warmed us until the sleeping bags called us into their anticipated warmth. Sleep came quickly. Broken, fitful camp sleep. Elk herds bugled in lengthy conversations in the trees above us. Camp sleep – not the quality you’re used to, but filled with quality of its own.