Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bells Day 1 - West Maroon Creek

On Sunday -- day 2/3 of a long weekend -- I visited the Maroon Bells trailhead for the first time and met the mountain icons. Even the view from the parking lot wasn't too shabby.

It was pretty cold at the parking lot, probably 25-30 degrees, and I bundled up to take some preliminary photographs. Once I'd done that, I knew Crater Lake was higher up, so I started to jog up, not realizing or really caring exactly how far it was.

Past Maroon Lake, the trail surface became re-frozen slush, like winter running, and I quickly realized this was not going to be a dry trail run for very long.

At the lake, which was pretty low on water:

Since I didn't have all my gear, I headed back to the car to get my stuff and adjust clothing. Already the sun peeked out over the ridge next to Pyramid Peak, shining into the aspen groves along the trail. The lonely dark chill transformed into a benevolent glow on the fresh snow.

My little exploration ended up being 4.5 miles round trip, a bit longer than I anticipated. I grabbed proper running gear, water and my pack from the car, and set out again up West Maroon. The sun was shining fully into the valley when I reached the same point 45 minutes later, and ice was starting to soften and turn into mud.

At about this point I was down to short sleeves, and at a jog it felt like spring trail running, a bit warm. What a change in an hour.

Some of the uphill was running, but I hiked the steeper parts and most of the snow.

Several miles up there's a crossing of West Maroon Creek, which was pretty low compared to what it must be like in the spring. I was able to easily step across rocks to cross it. Above this, the trail headed up into willows covered in heaps of snow. This is where my shoes started to really get wet and cold, but since I was moving and the sun was shining it was manageable.

Shortly afterwards, clouds obscured the sun and snow clouds began to swirl at the top of the pass. Without the sun I immediately felt the chill, plus a bit of psychological exposure from being alone in the cold, with wet feet, far up the valley. But I had all the gear I needed, unlimited water, a soft shell, and as long as my core temp stayed OK, my cold soaked feet wouldn't be an issue.

At the same time began the mental argument between the inner voices that said "Higher!" and "Back to town!" I still felt OK, but it was past mid-day, the clouds were looking ugly, and the going was getting slower due to deepening snow. I pressed on for a while.

It was probably another 1/2 mile of post holing and sliding around in slush from hidden mountain creeks before I admitted it was going to take a long time to get to the top of the pass. Aside from being around 12,000 feet and snowy, I also knew that upper parts of trails tend to have switchbacks that make progress seem like a bad dream where the farther you go, the longer you have left. If I hadn't run up to Crater Lake twice, I'd probably have had time, but as it was I decided to turn around.

I saw a little band of ptarmigans as I ran down, and stopped to shadow them as they waddled among the pines and weeds pecking at low-hanging berries. They vocalize quite a bit, apparently talking to each other, especially if they have chicks along. I tried to imitate them in an attempt to put them at ease, but probably just insulted them in snow chicken talk.

I ran down much of the downhill through the snowy sections above, and the part through (and over) snow-covered willows was crazy fun. I could have taken a header if my foot had caught on a branch, but I held it together.

Hike/run distance was 15.8 miles, moving time 4:12 (total 6:52), and elevation gain/loss 2,975 feet.

My shoes were soaked and my pant legs were filthy from sand and mud, so I took my dirty shirt and washed them off at the creek. I felt like I was third-world citizen at the river doing my laundry. Or just a camper.

I drove into town and hit Aspen Brewing for a couple of pints, then New York Pizza for a couple of slices.

As usual I ended up walking for a while, starting at the cut-through path on Monarch (I forget the name), walking over on Lake and Gillespie, past interesting homes out of architecture magazines (wondering what they are like inside), over to the Aspen Music Festival grounds. Groovy architecture, man! A very peaceful walk. Then I headed back to Glenwood to rest up for Monday.


  1. Awesome! If you decide to try some GTX running shoes, put up a review.

    Have you ever stayed in Snowmass (much more reasonable than Aspen) and used their great public transportation? We park and never drive our own vehicle until we leave the area.

  2. HappyTrails - The bus is an interesting option, might be particularly useful in the winter if I ski in the area.

    When I went, Snowmass was considerably more expensive (x2) than Glenwood, but it may have been dates or availability. I'm not seeing the same thing today. Ah well.

  3. PS - "When I went" - I mean when I last stayed in Snowmass, a couple of years ago.

  4. Incredible. You need to tweak up the blog here so you can blow up some of those pix.

  5. GZ - You can view the 1200x1600 version by clicking on the image unless one is broken. Or is that what you mean?

  6. Ah, good to know. i was not doing that in my off line reader.

  7. Drop a line if you need a couple reference spots in snowmass - we're deal hunters ;-) The bus is incredible - we even took it to start our run at Maroon Lake.

  8. I have always wanted to go see Maroon Bells, gorgeous pictures. So jealous. We need to plan another fun run together. The pup misses his mtnrunner! How's the leg/foot doing? You've got all winter to mend it because I'm going to need a 14er partner next spring and summer!!

  9. WildChildT - Thanks, and agreed. The double whammy of being on the disabled list right in the middle of summer, and working too many days off, really put a dent in my plans.

    Things are looking up including the job settling down. The plantar fasciitis is still around (since April!) but it's manageable with care. The knees and legs love the rest and maintenance, and one outing per week seems totally maintainable, so yeah, we should be able to hit those 14ers and other stuff in the meantime.