The Four Pass Loop

A few weekends ago, we had the privilege of backpacking the Four Pass Loop in Aspen, Colrado. This challenging 27.1 mile loop includes 7,000+ feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of elevation loss. This is due to four difficult, yet beautiful passes.

We first did this hike two years ago as our first backpacking trip with just the two of us. That was truly a humbling experience as we learned the some important lessons about always checking the map, couple communication while doing difficult things, and how to be thankful for the smallest things.

The trail was still very difficult this year, however there were a few differences that helped us enjoy the trip even more than on our first time out together.

Amazing Hiking Conditions

Colorado has only received 73% of our usual snow pack amount. While this makes for nasty wildfire conditions, it also made for spectacular backpacking conditions as we had clear skies and no postholing at any point on the route. We still had ample access to water along the way, making for light(er) packs between camp sites. Two years ago we were not aware of the abundant streams so we wound up carrying more water than necessary at times. Even though we had crampons, gaiters, rain gear, gloves,  and hats, we didn’t wind up using any as it was blessedly dry for us this time around. Last time we were rained on, snowed on, hailed on, and woke up to a frost covered tent each morning.

Trail Rider Pass in 2015: Trail Rider Pass 2015

Trail Rider Pass in 2018: Trail Rider Pass 2018

Knowing the Course

Backpacking always has its challenges; one of the major ones being navigation. Thankfully the route we traveled was still fresh in our minds two years later, making interpretation of the map and critical junctures unbelievably easy. Thankfully this was not false confidence! This made for a much less mentally exhausting trip and also removed opportunities for disagreement due to different perspectives.

A Challenging Start

We arrived at the trail head around midnight, prepared to jump into sleeping bags to sleep for a few hours in the back of our vehicle, however we had a surprise in store. As we were prepping the car for sleep, the park’s camp host paid us a visit.

Camp Host: You’re getting a really late start.

Us: Oh, we’re not starting, we’re going to bed.

Camp Host: Where at?

Us: Just in the back of our vehicle for a few hours.

Camp Host: No. No you’re not. Not in the park. You can start now or come back in in the morning.

Us: Guess we’re getting a really late start.

With just a look we both decided to start hiking, 3 hours after we usually fall asleep, rather than risk loosing one of the two last spots in the parking lot.Thankfully this also set the tone for our trip; we didn’t set out to have a leisure stroll, but to be challenged and find joy in the midst of difficulty. This was not the way we wanted to start out, but it was truly a blessing to get an early start and to set a tone of perseverance from the very start.

Passes Were Still Wonderfully Difficult

Trudging up the steep slopes with loaded packs provided wonderful challenges, both physically and mentally. This time around, I was much better prepared for the passes thanks to Starting Strength, which I’ll write more about in a future post.

West Maroon pass

Thanks to our late night start, our approach to the first pass was just over two miles “shorter” than we had planned for it to be. This first pass is the second tallest pass of the four, however most of the ascent is gradual until you reach 11,700 feet or about four miles into this push. At this point we hit the steeper grades on which Kate’s marathon training truly pays off as her recovery rate is astounding. I on the other hand had plenty of heavy breathing to do but we made it up all the same. We completely forgot to take a picture at the top of this pass as we were eager to get down to start the next pass.

The steep descent from West Maroon pass: The steep descent from West Maroon pass

After rapidly descending 700 feet from the pass we started the gradual climb to Frigid Air pass. The views here are breathtaking, filled with vibrant wild flowers and lush greens. We were on this gradual ascent around 2 pm, meaning the sun was relentless. Our poor pup over-heated and had to be coaxed on with treats. We were both worried that we would need to turn back, rather than committing to the second pass, the point of no return on this trip. Thankfully, once relieved of her pack, Summit carried on, meaning we didn’t have to add 50 lbs to one of our packs or turn back.

Beautiful valley views

Frigid Air pass

The last pitch of Frigid Air pass is haltingly steep, reminiscent of summiting a 14er, yet missing those last 2,000 feet of elevation. This pass took my breath away as well and made for a great quick lunch spot.

Descending Frigid Air Pass

We set camp up around 12 miles in on this first day. While we hoped to go a bit further, we recognized a decent camp site on a ridge that was close to the last water before the terrain would get steeper again soon. This night we feasted, having underestimated the MountainHouse meals we brought along. The two packs of Pad Thai claimed to contain two servings each… this time, that was accurate. We went to bed more full than ever before in the wilderness.

Camping with a view

We awoke on our second day refreshed and ready to go. We practically flew through the gradual slopes of the first few miles.

Trail Rider pass

Prior to Trail Rider, you lose nearly 2,000 feet of elevation. This makes for an arduous hike up as you gain all your lost elevation over two miles. Throw in a false summit for a good mental obstacle and this stretch was truly testing. The top of the pass itself was dry but very windy. So windy that after pausing for a picture we started the descent to SnowMass lake. After a quick glimpse at the bustling lake we busted out  two more quick miles to finish out the day.

Buckskin pass

Having went to bed around 6pm the night before we hoped to arise quite early to begin our last pass and get back to the car. Our feet were certainly ready to be home. Even with the delightfully early bed time, we slept for about twelve hours. Later start than we had hoped for, but Buckskin pass proved to be quite easy compared to the previous days pass. While not easy, it was over before we knew it. The descent on the other hand was just as arduous as we remembered, but no rain this time! The elevation here is thankfully varied between steep and very steep, but this is where our feet took a good pounding as we plodded down the last few miles before hitting the main trail used by day hikers and backpackers alike to reach Crater lake.

This quick three day trip was a whirlwind. We were glad it wasn’t shorter but were also thankful when we reached the trail head. It was stunningly beautiful, provided opportunities to push ourselves, and helped to highlight both small and large things to be thankful for both on and off the trail.