The end of our summer was starting to take on characteristics of an actual vacation – Do as much as possible with a limited amount of time. With snowflakes showing on the five day forecast, we knew that our ‘vacation’ in Colorado was approaching an abrupt end. We’d been metering our efforts all summer long, making sure not to dig the fatigue hole too deep before spending some time recovering, and it was time to throw caution into the wind.
‘Four Pass Loop?’ I’d asked multiple times during the summer. Somehow, the 30 mile loop, which had been looming as an intimidating goal all summer, somehow seemed feasible. We knew that if we were going to make it happen before the snow flew, it had to be the next four days.
We also knew that once we did it, we’d probably be out of commission for a semi-significant amount of time, so we might as well make the most of the few days of good weather before crushing our legs.
Scott convinced me that a trip up Mt Princeton would count as ‘recovery.’ I often have conversations with my mom that end with, ‘I’m not worried about whatever hair-brained idea you have. Scott has a good, rational head on his shoulders and will talk some sense into you.’ My mom has no idea.
It’s only a 3,000 foot bike ride up a jeep road.
Then a little bit of ridable trail.
Before the trail deteriorates into a giant pile of rocks.
Another 2,000 feet of up leads to the summit.
At the top, we found not a breath of wind. It was warmer than the average summer day. We shared an apple and tried to pick out the route for Nolans 14. Before this recent foray into the 14ers, I’d thought ‘How hard could it be to travel 100 miles over 14 14’ers in 60 hours? That’s averaging less than 1.7 mph.’
Now the idea, in addition to exciting me, scares the shit out of me. That in itself makes it sticky in my brain.
Anyhow, we cruised down, picked up bikes, and before we knew it, were back at the car.
We visited our little hippy hot spring for the second time in two days and headed back to our camp spot near Aid Station 1 on the Vapor Trail.
Tomorrow, we decided, we’d get serious about resting for the Four Pass.
Because working at camp can be a little uncomfortable, we headed down to the coffee shop in Buena Vista for a little bit of Internet time the following morning. Carrot Quinn called it ‘running errands on the Internet’ in her book on thru-hiking the PCT. I liked the concept.
Then over Cottonwood Pass to the colder side of the Divide. Two summers ago, we’d attempted to ride Texas Ridge after the early snow storm shut down much of the high country. We found a lot of mud and snow, which was unfortunate. The ride is hard to access because of its complete remoteness from anywhere except Taylor Park, which is remote from, well, anywhere in the world, so it really takes a special effort to go do it. We couldn’t drive right by and not indulge.
Besides, it’s CDT and CT. Our favorite combination.
And it’s fairly to mostly beautiful.
The loop ends with the Texas Creek descent which is closed to motos, leading to some silky smooth descending. It’s not as remote and faint as it was when I first rode it many years ago, but it’s still a gem.
We were both feeling pretty worked by the time we rolled up to the van to sort and pack gear for the following day. We knew we’d be in for a pre-sunrise to post-sunset type of a day and we knew that the morning was going to be cold, so we should probably pre-pack. This sort of planning in advance is completely out of character for me.
We grabbed a burrito in Crested Butte and headed up to a campsite where I first honed my skills of living out of a car many years ago. Bikes were pulled out, the tent set up, and alarm set for far-too-early o’clock.
Most people access the Four Pass loop, a route that connects CB to Aspen and back via four passes (duh) from the Aspen side. We’re not the hugest of huge fans of Aspen, and apparently believed that we need additional challenges, so we’d opted to camp outside of CB and then ride bikes to the top of Schofield Pass and then the top of 401, then hike the loop, and then ride bikes down 401 back to camp. It was a brilliant plan. If it hadn’t been the end of October with less than 12 hours of daylight.
We woke before our alarms, downed caffeinated drinks (FYI, the Starbucks Coconut Mocha Frap is maybe the most vile thing you can ingest), ate some food, and started pedaling. We couldn’t stay warm on the ride up to Schofield. It’s steep, it’s slow, and we still lost our fingers and toes.
We burnt a few energy matches on the singletrack portion of the climb, because burning matches is better than walking, and it helped generate some heat anyhow. Bikes were ditched at the Wilderness Boundary at dawn and the march started.
The world seemed ready for winter. The plants bedded down, ready for snow.
I proceeded to slip and fall into the first creek we had to cross. Scott tried to think up a solution to my soaked pants, socks and shoes in the below freezing temperatures. ‘Let’s keep moving,’ I insisted. Body heat, and the eventual sun was the only solution to my natural inability to stay upright.
We didn’t see sun until the top of West Maroon Pass. But when we got there, it was glorious.
We made quick work of the descent, feeling confident in our level of daylight, our energy levels, the brilliance of our idea. The popular lakes at the base of the Maroon Peaks was strangely deserted of people and we saw only a few souls as we climbed Buckskin Pass. We relished the warmth of the east facing slopes and the late morning sun.
We topped out with little difficulty and stared with amazement at the view.
We promptly ran into the Vardami and their pup Stella on our way down, which is exceptionally funny because twice this summer we tried to run them down with some trail magic during their CDT section hike. Now, I had no trail magic to offer. I guess it’s not that surprising to see them, a beautiful day Colorado day, above tree-line trail, great minds think alike? I think they had more of the right idea with backpacking it, but we’d left our lightweight camping stuff in Winter Park.
We cruised by Snowmass Lake when I had a flashback. ‘I’ve been here before! I’ve skied that peak! We camped right there on the shore of the lake and I have a photo of skinning across it!’ I’d be lying if it didn’t ignite a little bit of fire to get back into skiing, especially big peak spring skiing.
We climbed steadily and started seeing the longer shadows of the afternoon sun.
We stopped for a snack at the top of Trail Rider Pass. One more pass to go! Except we still had to get down this one.
Horses had chewed the trail to bits and we found ourselves slip-sliding down to the valley. The descent did nothing to help our average speed and we watched the minutes of the day tick by, concerned.
‘The only way we’re going to have any chance of getting back to the bikes by dark is to take the shortcut,’ Scott said.
‘Fine by me.’ I’d argue against shortcuts, even though it’d still be 4 passes earlier in the day. Now, the idea was starting to sound entirely rational.
Rational or not, we missed the turn for it, so it was a moot point and we soon found ourselves climbing the long valley up to Frigid Air Pass. We lost the sun to shadows early on, but found it again as we topped out.
Shadows were long.
With no possibility of getting back to the bikes in daylight, and thus no reason to ride 401, our steps lost urgency and we made our way back down to the valley. I made is safely across the creek where I’d first dunked myself in the morning, and we started the endless 500 foot climb back up to the bikes with headlamps on.
With every item of clothing on, we shoved shoes in packs and ripped down the trail we’d climbed in the morning. The coast down Schofield was far from warm and we made haste with dinner preparations back at camp. It was lovely to have the tent already set up.
We were soon snuggled into sleeping bags, body temperatures rising rapidly.
‘I can’t believe we just did that,’ I declared, drifting off to sleep. What a terribly awesome idea. What a perfect end to high-country season.