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!