Four Pass Loop - Aspen Colorado


This fall we had the incredible opportunity to hike the Four Pass Loop with two of our good friends. Going into it, we knew it was a four day, 26 mile backpacking trip over four mountain passes, but in truth, we really had no idea just how epic this adventure would be! Neither of us had too much overnight backpacking experience, but fortunately we were with our friend Luke, who has done a significant portion of the Pacific Crest Trail and had gained a tremendous amount of experience. The day we met up to talk over the final logistics, he gifted us with a little fold up seat pad, a gesture with a huge payout in comfort for all of our rest stops along the trail. This is just one small example of the awesomeness that he provided in his insight and friendship.

Day One involved us getting up super early and hitting the road from Boulder to make the four hour drive to Aspen. We parked at an overnight lot at Aspen Highlands and took a shuttle bus up to the Maroon Bells Trailhead. From there, we had a five mile hike to camp one. The views were breathtaking! It was right at the beginning of the fall color change, so we were surrounded by incredible, shimmering aspens, fiery foliage, and sapphire blue skies! We stopped and made camp about a mile shy of the first mountain pass: West Maroon.

Day Two had us up just before sunrise to eat breakfast, break camp, and hit the trail to summit our first pass. We made sure to take a quick break at the top to enjoy the view and take in what we accomplished. Today we had a second pass to complete: Frigid Air. There was fortunately plenty of access to running water along the trail, and we stopped at any chance we could to filter some water and fill up our reservoirs. At one of our rest stops, another hiker approached and exclaimed, “Is that the Castners?!” It was a friend of ours, Morgan, whom we met a year ago taking some photos at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. What a small world! He had seen us post on Instagram about doing this hike and he just happened to be out doing the same trail at the same time. This goes to show you there are friends to be made everywhere at any time, you never know who you’ll vibe with and run into again! Be sure to check Morgan out on Instagram, he’s killing it!

We made our camp for the second night right next to a waterfall. It was one of the most beautiful campsites we’ve ever seen! We were feeling quite exhausted by the end of day two. Our bodies were still acclimating to the sustained effort, all while remaining above 10,000’, making two 2,000’+ climbs over the passes. We were sure to take advantage of the waterfall pool to take a dip, refresh, and cool off. Cool off is an understatement, it was an ice bath, but was just what our achy bodies needed. We prepared some dehydrated meals for dinner and sat around talking, waiting for the stars to show their brilliance despite wanting to fall asleep by 7pm. It was so worth it! It’s amazing how much city lights take away from the night sky; the view is stunning when you’re so far out in nature. It’s a shame not many people get to view this sight! As hard as it was, we set an alarm for the middle of the night to get up and takes some night photos. You have to make the effort to get the payout! The second night was the coldest, probably why they call it Frigid Air pass. Sleeping so close to the river probably wasn’t the warmest call, but it was still worth it for the accessibility to water!

Day Three we were feeling pretty sore, and we had arguably the most strenuous day ahead of us: Trail Rider Pass to Snowmass Lake. By this day though, our bodies were feeling adapted to perpetual motion, or at least we knew we had no choice but to continue on. It felt like a constant uphill battle. There were many false summits, making us feel like it was never going to end. It challenged our fortitude and cardiovascular systems. There’s an incredible amount of drive that arises from necessity, we were as far from civilization as we could get and had no choice but to continue on. Our food supplies were dwindling and a bit of concern that we brought enough started to creep in. Near the top of this pass, we were very low on water with no known sources in sight. This day was also the warmest, the whole time baking in the high altitude direct sunlight, with the water being practically drawn out of our system by the dry alpine air. We found covering our heads to be crucial. Anna got some blisters on her scalp at the part from the direct exposure!

Fortunately we had incredible sights all around us the whole time! We made sure to take some epic trail portraits at the top of Trail Rider pass! The campsite at Snowmass Lake definitely one-upped the previous night and set the new record for most beautiful campsite. We took another arctic dip and chilled by the lake for the rest of the evening. We had saved what we thought would be the best dehydrated meal until the end, Korean Bi Bim Bop. Unfortunately, it was quite a letdown. Perhaps it was the fact that we were thinking about this meal for much of the three days leading up to it, we had built it up to unattainable expectations. We made sure to get up and do some more night photography of the stars over Snowmass Mountain.

Day Four we got up around 4am to break camp and set off. Being the industrious little workers were are, we had made some plans to do a venue walkthrough in Vail later this day knowing we would already be up in the mountains, so let’s save a trip huh? This unfortunately put a little time constraint the day, but was ultimately worth the effort. This final day we had one more pass, Buckskin. We spent the first three hours hiking in the dark by headlamp. This is a really cool experience to be surrounded by the night, guided only by a small beam of light. We were summitting the pass right as the sun was rising, giving us an incredible light show! You can probably tell from the photos that we were feeling quite wiped, but we at least knew it was all downhill from here! The pictures speak a thousand words about the beauty of the sights before us!

The last few miles of an adventure like this are always the hardest for us. Psychologically and physically, we were completely exhausted and so ready to get back to civilization. We were fixated on the real meal we would enjoy back in Aspen to celebrate. This experience was a gamechanger. It showed us what we’re capable of, physically and mentally. There’s an incredible feeling of resilience that builds up from surviving four days in the backcountry with only the food you carry, the water you find, and the gear you brought. You learn to appreciate the ease with which we live our daily lives. The simple things gain more value: turning on the tap for fresh cold water, having access to a toilet, and not having to carry 30+ lbs of gear with you everywhere you go. You also appreciate the beauty that is nature. Our cities have stripped away most of that nature, leaving you feeling disconnected from it. Getting back into that full submersion nature gives you a tremendous awareness of how insignificant but necessary you are to the circle of life. This trip gave us perspective of the kind of contributors to this natural cycle we want to be. It’s only in the last couple hundred years our lives as humans have significantly changed. We’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years living a more primal existence. Sure, modern convenience is nice, but we’re not quite sure human evolution has caught up to deal with it. It’s so important to reconnect with our roots!

The Castners Are Moving to Colorado!

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
— Walt Disney
nate and anna castner

Before Anna and I even met, we both had dreams of some day moving to Colorado. It was one of those distant dreams, the kind you tell people about, the kind you so desperately want, but all too often the kind that stays forever on the horizon. We soon discovered we shared the same intense love for the outdoors, adventure, natural beauty, and the vibrant progressive culture found there. We've made a few trips out there together over the years and fell in love with it even more. 

We realized that we could either always be working toward this goal, always waiting for the timing to be perfect, the bank account to be big enough, or we could make plans to make it happen; and that's what we did. While Facetiming with Anna's cousin Biz the day after Christmas of 2015, inspiration ignited. Biz lives in Boulder and was raving about how perfect of a fit and time it was for us. We sat down and looked at what it would take to make it happen and to figure out how soon we could make the move. The biggest thing holding us back was my student loans and some credit card debt. We also had the photography business and all the couples we are working with in Wisconsin to consider. I'd also be giving up my incredible full time job which has given us such amazing stability and the means to live the lifestyle we wanted while being able to slowly and organically build up the photography business.

Many people would call us crazy for giving up such a job, but I've become acutely aware that I have outgrown it. The lure of the steady paycheck is strong, but the lure of following our passions and building something for ourselves is stronger. We've decided to plunge into the unknown, relocating to Colorado to re-build our business and put our full passion into it to grow it to a point that it can support our family. We identified when it would be feasible to pay off our debts and wrap up the wedding season in Wisconsin, and decided on January 14, 2017 as our official move date.

I find it highly amusing when I look back that I went to college to get a degree, racking up a decent sized debt in the process, only to get a job and work it to the point I can pay off those debts, then to leave and build our own business. I certainly gained a ton of knowledge and experience and had a lot of fun in the process, but there comes a time when it becomes clear that following your passions is what it's all about! We firmly believe that following your passions is what ultimately leads to success and happiness.

With this move, we will also be rebranding under Castner Photography. Nate Castner Photography started when it was just me shooting. I was new to the industry and trying to figure out how to implement my vision. Once Anna started working with me, our business grew to a place I never had imagined! Being able to collaborate and work with my wife has been one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done! We make an incredible team that takes equal parts of our different skills combined to create something really special. I couldn't imagine shooting now without her! She has an incredible gift to connect with people and make them feel comfortable, she provides an invaluable female perspective which I certainly don't have, and her attention to detail is unsurpassed. It is truly a joy to work with her, and our business wouldn't be the same without her, so it is absolutely necessary that we go forward operating under Castner Photography.

nate and anna castner

We've set our sights on Boulder: a thriving community focused on health, wellness, activity, culture, and growth. We look forward to weekend camping trips in the Rockies, evening bike rides down mountain roads, hikes and runs through the forest, weekend ski trips to some of the best mountains in world, and climbing our brains out in Eldorado Canyon. Instead of looking forward to an annual vacation out there, we want to live where we play. 

If we currently have a commitment with you (you should have already heard from us), we will certainly still be sticking to it. We do plan to be back in Wisconsin frequently to visit family and friends and shoot any events we have booked. 

We'll be using this blog as a place to share our journey from both a business and a personal perspective, since they both are so intimately intertwined. If you'd like to follow along with us, please subscribe to get updates! We certainly aren't the first to make a plunge like this, but if the wisdom we've gained along the way can help just one person, it'll be all worth it!