Monday, June 25, 2012

Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop - A Heavy Dose of Mountain Beauty

The Short Version

I've become sensitive to the fact that sometimes I use a lot of words, and that some people don't like reading very many words. For those people, here is a brief synopsis of this trip report: I ran the Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop last Saturday. It was awesome. I swam in three alpine lakes and took over 150 pictures, only 25 of which are uploaded here because the others were too awesome for the internet and would make your monitor explode. I finished the run with a cannon ball into Maroon Lake and ruined some guy's $3000 camera with the splash but that's OK because he was rich so he high-fived me and invited me to the crazy party he was having at his mansion in Aspen that night. I politely declined because I had another crazy mansion party to attend that night, but I told him I'd hit him up the next time I'm in town and we can go buzz around in his Gulfstream or something.

The Real Version

Above my bed I have a print of a painting of the Maroon Bells. In my living room I have a print of a painting of the south side of Snowmass Mountain, Hagerman Peak, and Snowmass Peak. The Elk Mountains are second only to the San Juans in terms of extensive rugged beauty in the Colorado high country, and the heart of the Elk Mountains would be my setting for this adventure. The Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop is a roughly 25 mile route that circumnavigates the Maroon Bells massif, traversing some of the area's most beautiful terrain along the way. As the name implies, the route involves crossing four high alpine passes, all of which top out at approximately 12,500'. Between the passes, the route dips into the alpine and sub-alpine terrain of the separating basins, which during the summer host an abundance of wildflowers and other green vegetation. As Phil Mislinski states in his Trail Runner's Guide to Colorado: "The Four Pass Loop may well be considered the ultimate Colorado trail run."

I pulled into the Maroon Lake trailhead parking lot Friday evening just in time to catch the last light lingering high on the north face of North Maroon Peak. The iconic view of the Bells from Maroon Lake is a sight that never grows old. There is a reason this is the most photographed view in all of Colorado.

The next morning as I began heading up the trail and the sun began to rise, the Bells once again became illuminated, and my eyes were continually drawn to the view.

As I continued up the West Maroon Creek drainage, I felt buried within the deep valley between the Maroon Bells massif and the Pyramid massif. After several miles, the views opened into the upper West Maroon Creek valley and the wide expanses offered great views in all directions.

The hulking mass of Pyramid Peak, Thunder Pyramid, Lightning Pyramid, and Len Shoemaker Ridge loomed over the eastern end of the basin.

Once on top of West Maroon Pass, I stole one last look back toward Belleview Mountain and Maroon Peak.

The first descent of the day into the upper East Fork of the Crystal River Basin was made quickly, and I was soon traversing across the upper basin and began the (relatively) short climb to Frigid Air Pass.

As I climbed higher toward the pass, the views of the high mountains to the southwest grew more spectacular.

As I topped out on Frigid Air Pass and began descending into Fravert Basin and the North Fork of the Crystal River, the greenery around me became almost overwhelming. The best description I have heard of Fravert basin is that it's "So green as to make Ireland envious."

As I followed the North Fork down through the basin, I found myself below treeline for the first time in approximately seven miles. After passing by several small waterfalls, I began to hear the roar of the one I had been waiting for: King Falls.

Because of the routing of the trail, it's difficult to catch a glimpse of the falls until you're well below and across a small basin from them. I determined that I needed to find a route up to the base of the falls. Because both sides of the creek below the falls are choked with thick willows and above those slopes are rocky cliffs, the most feasible route to the base of the falls was to climb up the creek itself. By the time I reached the base, my feet were numb and I was mostly soaked, but it was well worthwhile.

As I began the climb toward Trail Rider pass, the view of Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak and their connecting ridge came into view, framed above upper Fravert Basin.

This is my attempt at an artsy wildflower shot.

After crossing a high ridge, the final stretch to Trail Rider pass came into view with a small alpine lake below. Of course I had to take this opportunity to stop and go for a swim. The lake was surprisingly warm (and by warm, I mean it was probably at least 40 degrees) and I took my time lounging on the shore after my swim.

Shortly after leaving the high lake, I was greeted by the sentinel of Trail Rider Pass.

Here's a little known marmot fact: marmots are approximately the same size, shape, weight, and structure as a regulation NFL football, which makes them excellent for punting or place-kicking. As an added bonus, they elicit a satisfying squeak upon foot-to-belly impact. After sending the little vermin spiraling neatly into the willows, I made the last steep push up to Trail Rider pass and was instantly rewarded with the views of Snowmass Lake below.

The view of Snowmass Peak and Snowmass Mountain from Snowmass Lake is one of my favorites.

After leaving Snowmass Lake and beginning the last climb of the day to Buckskin Pass, the fatigue of the day began to set in heavily, but I was helped along by the fact that the views behind me of Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak became more spectacular the higher I climbed.

After cresting Buckskin pass, I was greeted with perhaps the best views of the day: to the south were the north faces of North Maroon Peak and Sleeping Sexton, and to the east was Pyramid Peak and all of its' sub-peaks.

A nice waterfall in upper Minnehaha Gulch below Buckskin Pass served as my last water refill spot of the day, and I was able to quickly descend back to the lower basin of West Maroon Creek.

After reaching the trail junction at Crater Lake I began the final mile descent back to Maroon Lake, but not before snapping one last photo of the Bells.

This is a tremendously fun route to do as a single day run for someone who is in good shape. It's a tough route, but the beauty of the setting makes the difficulty well worthwhile. I have received varying opinions from people on preferences for doing the route in the clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. For this run I chose the clockwise direction and am glad that I did. No matter what starting point or direction you use for the route, the first climb will be the biggest. By going clockwise I extended the elevation gain of that first climb over more miles, which made for an easier warm up to the day. I have heard (and believe it) that descending West Maroon Pass at the end of the run when going counter-clockwise can be fairly miserable, while the alternative descent from Buckskin Pass only required that I keep my legs moving and let gravity do the work. The only pass that I imagine might be easier going in the counter-clockwise direction is Trail Rider, and even then I believe the benefit would be marginal.

What's left to say about this route? You have to do it for yourself - I guarantee you will not regret it. If you do regret it, just drop-kick a marmot and you'll instantly feel better.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Encounters With Nature and A Reason For Running

Yesterday evening I had one of the best training runs of my life. This wasn't a run in some exotic location with a lot of great friends, I didn't run unusually fast, and I didn't find a pile of money on the side of the trail. This was a 9 mile route in the foothills of Denver that I run frequently, by myself, and nothing too far from normal reality occurred during the run. What did occur though was just enough to spark a change in my perspective and appreciation for the run, and that made all the difference.

Yesterday I was sitting at work going through a mid-afternoon lull in my energy levels and thoughts started creeping in as to why it may not be a good idea to go for the run at Mount Falcon that I had planned. There's too much smoke in the air today. Traffic is going to be bad getting out there. I don't want another run in the blazing heat like I've had the last few days. I need to do laundry, go to the grocery store, change my oil, trim my nose hairs, and prepare for my trip this weekend. Despite all of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I ended up on the road at 5 o'clock heading west. The traffic turned out to be mild, and the air quality became visibly better as I approached Morrison (although everything north of Boulder looked to be enveloped in a gray fog).

Once on the trail and climbing, I immediately began to feel better about my place in the world. I could feel that I was fully recovered from my difficult runs last weekend and the temperature was much more mild and pleasant than it had been recently. At this point I was able to get in the groove and enjoy the gradual climb to the upper area of the mountain. After splitting off to a section of spur trails that wind around the upper mountain, I began to really stretch out my legs and have some fun.

As I was traversing around a small hill and starting to descend to a saddle, I saw a large feather lying in the trail. I stopped and picked it up. It was a nice looking feather with a brown and white striped pattern. Drawing from my rudimentary knowledge of birds and their feathers, I guessed that maybe it had come from a hawk. For some reason I decided that I should keep the feather, but since I was carrying water bottles in both of my hands I had limited options for carrying it. The best solution I could think of was to stick it in the back band of my hat, through the loop in the adjusting strap.

So down the trail I went with my feather sticking proudly up from the back of my head. Not more than 100 meters down the trail, I discovered where the feather had actually come from. Making their way down the trail in front of me were four turkey hens accompanied by at least a dozen of their chicks. They didn't seem startled at my sudden appearance, and they continued moving along casually. I slowed to a walk and continued to approach them slowly, and as I did so they moved off the trail and began to walk up the slope away from me, but still not acting startled. As I stopped and watched them, I heard another rustling sound behind me. I turned around and there was a young doe mule deer about 20 meters away walking slowly toward me. As we made eye contact she continued to approach me hesitantly, then stopped about 10 meters away and looked at me calmly. Just then, another turkey hen with two more chicks appeared on the slope just beyond the deer, and a black squirrel scampered down a tree onto the ground just a few more feet away. The turkeys hurried across the trail to join the rest of their friends, and the squirrel busied itself with scurrying around the ground under its' tree. The deer was still calmly standing, looking at me, I assume confused and trying to figure out whether or not she should trust the large creature wearing turkey feathers.

The whole encounter was very surreal. I've had encounters in the wild with exciting animals like bear, moose, lynx, and a creature that I can only conclude was a baby wolverine, but have never had so many types of wild animals surround me all at once and all seem more or less indifferent to my presence. After quietly observing the scene around me for a couple of minutes, I continued to make my way down the trail and I assume that the animals all went about their normal business as well.

As I continued running, the following thoughts began going through my mind: "Wow, that was pretty cool... I wonder if that deer was as curious about me as I was about her, or if she just wanted me to get out of her way so she could cross the trail... I can feel the drag from my feather... If I had more of these I could probably get a good lift going... I wonder if this is how a turkey feels... Maybe I should start wearing a feather in my hat more often when I run... It could become my thing, like Brownie and his floppy hats... On the other hand, maybe a feather in my hat isn't that great of a trademark. People are giving me weird looks and I almost knocked it loose while ducking under that branch back there..." And so it continued.

By the time I returned to the trailhead parking area, I had received several comments from mountain bikers, hikers, and other runners on my feather. One hiker even called me "Turkey Boy" as I ran by him, which didn't exactly have a satisfying ring to it. I've come to the conclusion that trying to make wearing feathers while I'm running my "thing" isn't the greatest idea I've had. In fact, I'm not so sure I even like the idea of having a "thing" that I'm known for in the running community, unless that thing is running fast and long through the mountains, and continually appreciating the experience of it. Lately I've realized more and more that not every run I take needs to be a fantastic adventure, and inevitably not every race I do will turn out as well as I had envisioned. Even so, the not so glamorous training runs and the less than stellar races can still be amazing experiences - all it takes is the proper mindset and perspective, and the enjoyment will follow.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Golden Gate Dirty Thirty vs. Mount Evans Ascent - A Comparison/Contrast

I had been considering whether to post race reports for either the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty or the Mount Evans Ascent - my two most recent races. Both were enjoyable and interesting events, but lacked any real drama or associated adventures that would make for a really good race report. I started thinking though about the comparison of these two specific events and realized that a comparison/contrast of the two races, and specifically the way I viewed the races and my performances in each of them, could actually make a decent report.

Basic Stats

Mileage: Golden Gate Dirty Thirty (candy-ass route) - 12 mi
               Mount Evans Ascent - 14.3 mi

Elevation Gain/Loss: Golden Gate - 3800'/3800'
                                  Mount Evans - 3600'/100'

Starting Elevation/Course High Point: Golden Gate: 7700'/9200'
                                                            Mount Evans: 10,600'/14,100'

Running Surface: Golden Gate - Typical Rocky Mountain dry, sometimes rocky trails
                             Mount Evans - Asphalt paved road

Personal Results

Overall Placing/Overall Percentile: Golden Gate - 3rd/97%
                                                         Mount Evans - 31st/91.6%

Subjective Enjoyment Ranking (out of 10): Golden Gate - 7
                                                                   Mount Evans - 5

Diggers taken: Golden Gate - 1 (+1 destroyed water bottle)
                        Mount Evans - 0

Free Hats Scored from Cute Montrail Girl: Golden Gate - 1
                                                                   Mount Evans - 0

Narrowly Avoided Inclement Weather Systems: Golden Gate - 1
                                                                            Mount Evans - 1

Race Reflections

Golden Gate: This was a good no-frills type event. The 12 mile race started at 9 a.m. which was late enough that the heat had started to set in even in the early miles of the race, but it wasn't to the point of being truly uncomfortable. It was hot enough that I was convinced I needed to carry a second water bottle, which turned out to be a great idea since one of my bottles was obliterated while I was tumbling down the rocky trail, and having bottles in both of my hands probably saved my hands from being turned into a bloody mess. The course was well graded on both the climbs and the descents, which meant that there were no sections quite steep enough to justify hiking on the ascents and just enough grade on the descents to make things really fast and wild. By the time I finished, I was truly worn out, happy, beaten up, and ready for a beer.

Mount Evans: The highlight of this race was the fantastic views. All but the first 3 miles of the race were above treeline and the mostly clear weather made the mental aspect of the run more enjoyable. The downside is that we were running on a road the whole way up the mountain. I considered this to be a stupid idea, but a lot of people seemed to like it. The average grade of ascent was just under 5% with a maximum grade of approximately 8% which meant that it was relatively fast uphill, with the altitude being the biggest objective challenge. By the time I finished, I mostly just wanted to quit running and have a beer.

I look happy in this picture because I'm wearing the hat I got from the cute Montrail girl at the Dirty Thirty, not because I'm loving running on the road.


Golden Gate: All things considered, I'm happy with the way I raced and where I ended up in the standings. The only avoidable thing that really slowed me down was the hard fall I took at the top of the final descent, which really messed with my mojo for the next few miles and made it hard to descend as quickly as I would have liked.

Mount Evans: The paved road and mellow grade were my biggest setbacks in this race. Not that I would have gone faster on trails than I did on the road, but relative to a lot of the people who beat me who are road runners by discipline, I would have been at an advantage on more technical and steep terrain.


I hope that someone finds this synopsis somewhat informative or enjoyable despite the lack of content that would actually lend itself to being informative or enjoyable. The question for me is now whether I will plan to do either of these races again in the future. With them both being local and easily accessible, I imagine that I probably will. The 50k in the Dirty Thirty is an intriguing option that I would certainly consider. With Mount Evans being my first hill-climb race on pavement, I'm considering trying Mount Washington next year. Maybe the steeper grade at that race would suit me better.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Most Beautiful Place In Colorado - Lone Eagle Cirque

One of the most valuable basic writing skills is the ability to immediately capture the attention of the reader. I am about to demonstrate one very effective way to accomplish this.

Do I have your attention? Good. Now, let's talk about the title of this post. I fully realize that proclaiming "The Most Beautiful Place In Colorado" is a very bold statement on what truly comes down to subjective opinion. I thought long and hard about whether I actually believed this to be true, and even so if it was truly an appropriate title. The conclusion I have come to is that even if no one else agrees, the title holds true in my own view and that's exactly what this blog is about - my own view - therefore the title is appropriate.

First, let's lay some background of comparison for the statement that Lone Eagle Cirque is the most beautiful place in Colorado. I've seen a lot of beautiful places in the mountains of Colorado: I've seen Ice Lake Basin, Blue Lakes Basins, Glacier Gorge, South Colony Lakes, and Lake Silex. I've been to Yankee Boy Basin, American Basin, California Gulch, and Fravert Basin during the height of wildflower season. I've stood on the shore of Chasm Lake and stared up at the diamond on Longs at sunrise, I've watched the mountains above Chicago Basin turn fiery red at sunset, I've spent time on the shores of Capitol Lake and Snowmass Lake, I've marveled at the Grenadiers from near and far, and I've viewed the Maroon Bells from every possible angle. I've also stood on the summits of the high peaks near almost all of these areas and taken in the scenery from above. All of these spectacular and beautiful areas contribute to my basis and standard for comparison of scenic mountain locations, and for this specific area to outshine all the rest is significant.

With that established, let's get on to the important part - the picture tour. I recognize that the photos I take with my iphone fall far short of doing this place justice, but the point I'm trying to bring is to inspire others to visit this place, and I think that they're adequate to achieve that.

There are a couple of routes used to access the Lone Eagle Cirque; one being from the Brainard Lake area west of Ward via the Pawnee Pass trail, and the other more direct approach is from the Monarch Lake trailhead on the southeast end of Lake Granby. I chose to take the latter approach, and am very glad that I did because it allowed me to not only visit the Cirque, which was my primary destination, but I was able to view the abundance of gorgeous waterfalls along Cascade Creek along the 8 mile trail leading to the Cirque as well.

There is a reason it's called Cascade Creek. This becomes evident approximately 3 miles up the trail, and the waterfalls continue in close succession for the next few miles.

Immediately above the highest major waterfall, the scenery changes drastically as the first open vista is reached. The level meadow with the creek winding an oxbow pattern and the views into the higher peaks are a notable change from the roaring creek tumbling through the deeply inset and densely wooded valley below.

As the trail makes the final steep climb up to the high basin, the valley opens up to the first good views of Lone Eagle and its' surroundings. As visible in the picture below, Lone Eagle actually separates two distinct cirques; the Crater Lake cirque to the west (right) and the Triangle Lake cirque to the east (left).

From Mirror Lake, fantastic views are had of the north face of Lone Eagle and its' parent ridgeline behind.

From Crater Lake, different angles on the western aspects of Lone Eagle are visible.

While Lone Eagle is striking, it's certainly not the only mountain in the area worth looking at. There is a high ring of impressive summits rising abruptly above the shores of Crater Lake.

From the entrance to the Triangle Lake Cirque, a gorgeous open valley meets a backdrop of even more rugged summits.

From a little higher in this valley, the ferocious east face of Iroquois becomes visible.

From Triangle Lake, Iroquois and the ridge to Lone Eagle dominate the view.

The upper portions of the Solo Flight route on Lone Eagle, including the Mohling Traverse, are visible in the photo below.

The view down the valley from Triangle Lake is absolutely stunning. 

One of the most pleasurable parts of this adventure was getting to take part in my second favorite mountain activity - alpine lake swimming. Short of standing on the summit of a highly aesthetic peak, swimming in a high alpine lake is the most enjoyable thing I have found that can be experienced in the mountains. Bonus points are awarded if a snowfield is actively feeding the lake, and double bonus points if a surface layer of ice has to be broken through in order to enter the water. In this case, the Fair Glacier was not only feeding into Triangle Lake, but the lower reaches of the glacier were actually covering a portion of the lake and as visible in the picture above, a thin layer if ice still covered the surface of the lake all the way to its' shores. There were a lot of bonus points gained on this excursion.

The trail from Monarch Lake to Mirror Lake was all very runnable single track with only a few short steep portions. Some portions of the trail were rocky, but could still be easily run going up and down despite the rocks. The only hindrance to maintaining a steady running pace was some deadfall on the upper few miles of the trail, but finding ways over, under, or around these trees was never a problem. from Mirror Lake up to Crater Lake, there are a couple of established trails and a few other faint use trails that can be used to navigate most of the way around the lake. There are no existing trails into the valley below Triangle Lake, but the easiest routes through the valley and up to the lake are obvious.

In closing; this is an area that is an absolute must-visit for anyone who enjoys the mountains. Even though I've heard about this place for years I had never made the journey to it, and now that I have I plan on visiting it again many times in the future. This is truly a hidden gem in an area that receives relatively few visitors despite its' close proximity and easy accessibility from the front range cities. Even if you have to go far out of your way to access this area, the experience is truly worthwhile.