I continued my flirtation with the Aspen Four-Pass Loop on Sunday, with much waffling in my head about how long would it take for the full loop (reviewing trail reports by way faster runners than me), can I do it in a shorter fall day, if not how far to run, etc.
So I said hello again to some of the most recognized peaks in the world, and took off up the trail to discover how things would turn out.
I was closer to peak aspen days this year...
Winds blowing the snow off of Pyramid Peak:
The trek up Buckskin Pass went pretty smoothly, but it's steep and was a combination of mud, snow and ice. Not quite as bad as the last fall I was here, but a little slow.
On the summit of Buckskin Pass was where I had a little talk with myself about whether to go ahead with the full four-pass loop.
Snowmass Lake, which is maybe 1/3 of the way around the loop, lies in the far distance, at the foot of Snowmass Peak and Mountain (center) just above the green forest. It seemed ridiculously far away given the snowpack, the frigid wind, and the fact that I'd have to descend all the way into the valley and then back up through the chilly forest to get there. Distance unknown, but... far enough.
I also realized at some point that I'd left my bear spray in the car. It's been my minimal protection on these long solo runs in the middle of nowhere, where I don't see a soul for hours and where an injury or missing sundown could mean a night in the wilderness.
And does anyone remember that I heard wolves at Castle Creek in 2009?
Or at least a pack of canines that sounded exactly like wolves out of a nature documentary? Long, mournful howls. All this is weighing on my mind as I'm running down the other side of the pass. My fingers are starting to go numb, I'm losing my balance post-holing through the snow, and I stop. And I turn back.
As I descend the other side, a vigorous middle-aged guy and someone I assume is his son greet me coming up the Maroon Lake side of the pass. He introduces himself and asks if I'm from Aspen. Apparently they are going to "commit" to the four-pass loop in their running shorts and shoes, in the snow. I said I'm just there for a long weekend, and I was turning back due to conditions. He still says, positively, "What a great way to spend the day!" about my outing and they head over the ridge.
I descend into the much warmer, sunny bowl and decide to check out Willow Pass. I ascend for a while, but the fact of those guys committing to the entire loop bounces around in my mind. Willow Pass seems kind of far away, and I'm thinking: if those guys can do the loop today, then sure as heck I can at least run to Snowmass Lake.
And so I turn around, and head back up to the pass, and over towards Snowmass Lake.
It was cold, and there was post-holing through deep snow, but eventually I got down below the wind and the bluebird skies and radiant sun made it downright warm, and I quickly progressed down into the valley. I surprised this ptarmigan right next to the trail. It clucked a little, and moved maybe two feet from the trail, and we sat there staring at each other, in a stalemate. I like ptarmigans. Mountain chickens. Even if they scare the cr*p out of me by flying out of the bushes as I pass by.
The descent from Buckskin to Snowmass Lake was long and somewhat depressing, since I realized I was going to have to run back uphill on the return trip. It was 1,600 feet downhill, but it always seems like more when you don't know the trail. It seemed like I was running down to the center of the earth.
I passed some backpackers here, and we chatted briefly. They were headed back to the West Maroon trailhead where I had parked, and I mentioned I might see them again since I was just running out-and-back to the lake.
The valley was cold and snowy in the woods, and it looked like winter.
At long last, I made it to Snowmass Lake.
The third group of folks I passed was a couple breaking camp next to Snowmass Lake. We talked for a couple of minutes, and they mentioned they had tried to climb Snowmass Mountain, but conditions were in between a dry rock climb and a snow climb with crampons, and they weren't comfortable with it and turned back. Hey, been there, done that -- better safe than sorry. Even at my modest level, I've failed at maybe ten summits in my time. But the campers still seemed pretty happy, and who wouldn't be? It's the Elks!
Running back out of the Snowmass Creek basin:
Finally back over Buckskin Pass and looking at Pyramid Peak:
The fourth person/group I passed was a pretty Asian girl trying to take a selfie on the top of Buckskin. I offered to take a few shots, and she was very meticulous, wanting a couple of views, that focused Asian work ethic kicking in and demanding perfection. She was nice :) But I ran onward.
About two miles from the trailhead, I passed the backpackers that I had seen climbing up from Snowmass Lake, and had told that I was running an out-and-back to the lake. One of them said "Hey, you did see us again!". I said hi and gave myself a little high five.
Aspen leaves were everywhere, like gold coins on the ground. I can't believe I get to do this. Is this real?
Distance was 21.76 miles, time 8:09 (moving 6:00), elevation gain/loss 6,646 feet, avg. pace 22:29 (moving 16:34), and best pace ~8:00.
I will be back, and I will run the full loop. Since I ran almost 22 miles in 8 hours, I think I just need to run this circuit near the summer solstice so I have all the daylight hours necessary to complete it. I can do it.
I bummed around Aspen afterwards, and I think I grabbed a brew at Aspen Brewing and then some grub at Hickory House BBQ. I like that place, but they don't know what brisket is, meaning it's not pot roast. Seriously. It's slow-BBQ'd beef breast, sliced thin, preferably with lots of fat. Still a good recovery meal though. A guy that looks like he could be JT's cousin works the bar.