For our 2-year anniversary earlier this month, Amanda and I headed to Aspen, the famous Colorado ski town with the outsized reputation (pop. 6700) that neither of us had before visited. Our primary goal was the Four Pass Loop, a classic 28-mile backpacking route through the Elk Mountains.
Awesome weekend. Here are five reasons that it was, or we made it be, worthy of an anniversary:
1. High bang-for-the-buck
The Four Pass Loop is very popular (and crowded, especially its starting point at Maroon Lake Trailhead), but for good reason. The route circumnavigates the Maroon Bells, two of Colorado’s most picturesque 14,000-foot peaks, and offers vistas of three other nearby 14’ers: Pyramid, Snowmass, and Capitol. It’s an all-trail route, and the trail quality is generally good, especially considering that it’s in a Wilderness Area. Finally, there were numerous “Sound of Music”-worthy spots, with extensive sections above treeline and magnificent wildflowers.
2. Comfortably light loads
Due to the popularity of the Four Pass Loop, I suspect that many fail to recognize its challenges, the biggest being its topography: four passes over 12,000 feet and 16,000 vertical feet of change in just twenty-eight miles. Most of the backpackers we saw — including some very tired and blistered ones — had large and heavy packs, which made the route unnecessarily hard. Our cumulative pack weight (equipment, food, bear canister) was about 40 pounds, most of which I carried in my 7,000 cubic inch Kifaru Bikini/Highcamp Pack. On our only full day, we ticked off three of the four passes, covering 14 miles with 9,400 vertical feet of change. It was a long day, but not destructive.
3. Creature comforts
How much happiness can a pound of unnecessary luxuries buy? If it’s very deliberate, a lot. Between her Kindle, a hot face towel before bed, and a fresh set of underwear per day, Amanda was much more willing to overlook that on her anniversary weekend she was sleeping on the ground and eating Polenta + Peppers for dinner. Minimal weight, big payoff.
4. Post-trip lodging
After two nights on the ground, we drove into town and checked into the ritzy Limelight Hotel, a splurge that we justified by cost-averaging it over three nights. From the downtown location, it was an easy walk to J-Bar, Paradise Bakery, and Justice Snow’s for post-hike calorie replenishment.
5. More backcountry camping, less ultimate hiking
Relative to my Kings Canyon High Basin Route thru-hike last month and my upcoming Wind River High Route attempt, in which every ounce matters, our Four Pass Loop hike needed not to be so austere. I made a few equipment adjustments that added weight but that increased our overall comfort:
Shelter. Rather than the tarp/bivy setup that I normally use in the Mountain West in the summer, I carried the Sierra Designs Tentsegrity 2 FL, a single-wall and fully-enclosed tent. The pitch is tricky, but the interior space was generous for its weight (2 lb 9 oz) and the ventilation was excellent for a single-wall tent.
Bedding. I’m a fan of quilts and (decreasingly) closed cell foam pads, but neither item is as foolproof as a mummy bag and an air mattress. (Quilts can be drafty, and foam pads must be used on soft sleeping surfaces.) So I ensured that Amanda would sleep well, or at least have a decent shot at it, outfitting her with a 10-degree Western Mountaineering Versalite and a 2.5-inch thick Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite.
Stove. Alcohol stoves are very light and compact, and reasonably efficient. But they are slow, especially for a cook group larger than one. Instead, I packed my winter stove system: the MSR WindPro II Stove and MSR Alpinist 2-Liter Pot. The extra horsepower allowed me to quickly make breakfasts and dinners, mid-day coffee, and hot water before bed for washing and drinks.
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