After soaking up the sun and drying our shorts, socks and boots, we continued hiking up the valley. After several other river crossings of moderate difficulty we took a rest break (shown above). Our next challenge was to cross a 12,000 foot pass over the snowcovered mountains.
As clouds were starting to build (a sign of impending thunderstorms in the rockies during the summer) I wanted to cross the pass before 1-2PM to avoid the risk of being fried by lighting. After a couple hours we made it to the snowline and the trail leading to the pass. We were exhausted by this time, but the pass was less than half a mile away so we decided to go for it.
The trail made its way along a cliff that became steeper the farther we went up along it. The "trail" wasn't actually a trail at this point. For one, everything was covered with snow. The "trail" was a small level spot, maybe a foot wide that ran along the side of the cliff that stretched hundreds of feet above and below us.
We had to carefully make our way up through the snow using our ski poles to steady ourselves. Where the "trail" was the narrowest I needed to ferry my backpack up a section and then return to ferry Micheles pack.
(unfortunately I don't have a picture. The exhaustion and stress and fear of lightning prevented me. I thought about it seriously at the time but it didn't happen. I guess I wouldnt make it as a National Geographic Photographer)
Finally we made it to the top of the pass where we were confronted by gale force winds. The pass was fairly wide and level but we had to cross several snowfields (shown at very top of page) to get to the other side where we made our way down to our campsite. What a feeling of accomplishment!
From Aspen To Crested Butte
Colorado, June 2003
While backpacking in the Maroon Bells wilderness in 1999 I discovered there was a trail system linking two of the most beautiful colorado towns, Aspen and Crested Butte. Aspen is known for it's world class skiing and celebrity clientele. It's off the beaten track enough to avoid the hordes of skiers that invade the rockies from Denver every winter weekend. Thirty miles to the south of Aspen lies Crested Butte, an even less accessible and more extraordinary destination.
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to embark on what looked like an incredible journey between two amazing destinations so close together, yet so far away. After 4 years of wishing, I finally got my chance in June of 2003.
Earlier that day I had spoken with the forest ranger in Aspen about the trail conditions. He wasn't sure if it was possible to make the journey as Colorado had received a massive amount of snowfall during the winter and the high passes were still snowbound.
Additionally, the melting snow at high elevations was causing the rivers to be extremely high and fast. I figured that the ranger was being overly cautious with his advice and thought that my experience in the outdoors would overcome any challenges that arose. So of course I didn't tell my wife what the ranger said - after all this was her first real backpacking trip. She had hiked with me many times, but never with a 40-50 pound pack.
The next morning we were faced with our first big challenge. There was a raging stream blocking the way further up the valley. The whole day and night I had been overclocking my brain to try to figure out a way across.
I found a spot that seemed to be slightly safer for crossing. I also figured that the best time to cross would be in the early morning because the snow feeding the stream would freeze in the middle of the night up higher. This would decrease the volume of water coming down in the early morning until the sun had enough time to melt the snow again.
We got up early in the morning and packed up camp. The temperature hovered around the mid-thirties as we made it down to the raging "River from Hell".
Our side of the river bank was still covered in shadows as we readied ourselves for crossing the torrential waters. Michele took off her boots and wore her sandals (seen above). I decided to keep my boots on for better traction.
The water was excruciatingly painful and was probably just above freezing. We made our way in on the edge of the stream using our ski poles for support.
So far so good. I thought that it was powerful but if we took it slow and easy we should be alright.
We were about three-quarters of the way across, with the water at waist level - so powerful that you wouldnt believe, when suddenly Michele slipped.
It was like a movie in slow motion. I saw her going down farther and farther and quickly grabbed her - miraculously saving her. She was able to get up to her waist again and soon we made it across.
We were freezing horribly because a large mountain was blocking the sunlight. We ran furiously up the mountain for about 150 yards to meet the sun which generously warmed our bones. (see picture right. I snapped this shot just as Michele crossed the threshold from darkness to light)
Lucky for Michele, the waterproof jacket I'd bought her amazingly saved her warm fleece from getting wet. She needed her fleece for the night ahead where would would camp at a chilly 11,000 feet elevation!
After crashing for a few hours I got up (while Michele was still recovering) and walked around the vicinity. There was a huge field of wildflowers which was indicitive of our proximity to Crested Butte. Not much farther now!
The next morning I awoke before dawn to shoot a scene I'd scouted the day before (shown above). The shot required me to place the camera very close to the ground on my tripod and I was required to lay down full length in order to look through the viewfinder. Oftentimes you get so engrossed with preparing for the shot and then shooting it that you entirely forget about your body. As I was shooting the scene, the temperature hovered around 30 degrees and there was frost on the ground. I must have been laying there for 45 minutes before I got up and discovered that I'd turned into an icicle! I felt like Kramer on an old episode of Seinfeld in which he fell asleep in the bathtup and woke up the next morning with his core temperature about 20 degrees lower!
Michele and I began packing up camp but my movements were seriously compromised. The sun still hadn't come up from behind the ridge. I was running at about 1/2 speed and somehow Michele had her pack ready before me, something that has never happened before!
Lying in-between Aspen and Crested Butte are the Maroon-Bells, a massive mountain range with 14,000 foot peaks.
Even though Crested Butte is only 30 miles south of Aspen, the road in-between these towns is 105 miles and takes 3 hours! You've got to take a roundabout route over 2 mountain passes.
My wife and I embarked on what was going to be a 3 day trek at the trailhead a few miles from Aspen. It was a gorgeous late-June day and everything was green and vibrantly alive. We made it up to the campsite (shown below) by mid-afternoon.
First night camp above the valley on the Aspen side of the Maroon Bells. Michele has "crashed" on the ground after a day's hike.
Michele after emerging to the warm sunlight after crossing the raging "River from Hell". She's wet almost up to her shoulders. The river valley, behind Michele, is still in cold darkness.
Rest break after the river crossings near the upper basin of the valley. Staring us in the face was our next challenge, the high snowbound mountains.
Campsite at Copper Lake. Michele "Crashing" out again at our campsite on the 2nd night after a tough day.
Early morning shot of the peaks above Copper Lake. I had to carry 10 extra pounds in my pack on this trip for my photography but it was worth it.
(2007 note: Probably technically and asthetically the best photo I have ever shot and my bestselling image on artselect.com)
Wildflower near campsite. I knew we were getting close to Crested Butte when the wildflowers became abundant.
Our first view of Crested Butte mountain. See the ski slopes in the distance?.
It was an easy hike down to the trailhead near Crested Butte. In Aspen I had arranged for a taxi driver to meet us on the other side and he was surprised to see us. He and his buddies were betting we weren't going to make it. He took us to our lodge located in the hidden paradise of Crested Butte where we immediately tracked down a large meal(below).
We had a great time relaxing in the hot tub, visiting many restaurants and walking through the historic downtown area. The next day we rented mountain bikes and had a wonderful time exploring the area(below).
Our original plan was to stay in Crested Butte for 2 nights and then hike back to Aspen on a different route. Even I was too exhausted to think about crossing more rivers, cliffs and passes by this point.
Since my 4Runner was still in Aspen we had a problem. I ended up having Michele stand by the side of the road and stick her thumb out, while I waited in the background. When a young firefighter pulled up, I stepped out and said "Can I come too?"
I think he would have enjoyed to have Michele to himself but he was a nice guy and gave us a ride to the Gunnison Airport, 40 miles away where we rented a car to pick up my 4Runner back in Aspen.
What an adventure! This was one of those times where the actual experience far outdid the expectation.
Gorging on pizza after the trek at our lodge in Crested Butte.
Mountain biking on one of the many trails Crested Butte is famous for.
Michele petting a local dog in town.
All photos Copyright © Chris Beckley