Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Copper Lake Loop

Site MeterCopper Lake Loop
Aspen, CO
Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness Area

4 days, 3 nights, 27 miles total

Day 1:
Nicole's mom was cool enough to drop us off at the East Maroon Portal. So the day wasn't a total waste for her, and to warm up our muscles a little, we all hiked the two miles from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake together first, before Nicole and I headed out on our little foray into the wilderness. It was a Sunday, and the number of people was overwhelming. It's an easy hike, and Nicole and I were feeling mighty smug about the fact that we weren't even breathing hard, even though it was a steady uphill climb. Of course, that was without packs - we had no idea what was actually coming. We had a quick lunch amid dozens of other people, stopped to splash for a bit in Maroon Lake, and then headed down to the East Maroon Portal, where we would start our hike.

Look at that confident smile.
 Hahaha I had no idea what I was in for.

It was after 2:00 when we got started. We finished gearing up and posed for a few pictures before leaving her mom and daughter behind and trudging along a trail that very quickly started leaning uphill. We opted to stop and take breaks about every mile, claiming it was so we could "enjoy the scenery." At 10,000 feet elevation, oxygen is a little hard to come by, and big packs add to the struggle. My pack weighed about 32 pounds with food, water, and a bear canister. Bear canisters are required in the Maroon Bells Wildnerness - too many hiker-bear encounters. The stupid thing weighs three pounds, takes up half the space in my pack, and I was a little irritated by it.

Until three miles in. We had stopped to "enjoy the scenery" (read: rest because we were already tired) and we were looking across a meadow to the creek below. And then we saw it.

Call me naive, but just because we were hiking in bear country 
didn't mean I actually expected to SEE a bear - 
especially not two hours into our trip.

"Holy crap, that's a freakin' bear." So we did what any sane hiker would do - we jumped up and down, waved our arms, and yelled, "Hey bear! Go away, bear!" He took a couple of steps toward us, stood on his hind legs to see us better, decided we weren't worth his time, and trudged off across the creek and down the valley in the opposite direction. He was a BIG BEAR. My heart was racing a little. It was exciting to see him, and also a little unnerving, knowing that we'd be setting up camp in just a couple of hours. From then on, we took to looking behind us every so often, making sure he didn't decide to follow us after all.

Taking a break with my trusty bear canister. 
We were pretty good friends by the end of the trip.

From then on, we took the "bear rules" seriously. We cooked away from camp. We stowed the bear canister far away from the tents with all of our food, toiletries, and other smelly, bear-enticing items locked safely inside. We ended up camping in the remains of an old cabin the first night, surrounded on three sides by falling down log walls, about five miles from the trail head. We built a small fire (why does fire make you feel safe at night in the woods?) and put up our tents. We hung out for awhile before crawling into bed. It wasn't a good night's sleep. Every time the wind rustled the trees, I was sure it was a bear coming through the woods to eat me.

Really, what did I have to be nervous about? 
I mean, I had this super solid, sturdy tent to protect me from bears. 

Day 2:

We woke up early. I'm really glad Nicole's an early riser too. We packed up our tents and gear, retrieved our bear canister, and headed down the trail about half a mile, where we knew there would be a creek. We filled our water there, and decided the best place for coffee and breakfast was sitting on rocks in the middle of the creek. This was not a bad decision. It was cold, but beautiful. Finding exceptional places to have coffee became the theme of this hike. We boiled water and mixed up Starbucks instant mochas (seriously the best instant coffee I've ever had.) I had a ProBar for breakfast - after the Ouray hike, I've graduated a step up from Cliff Bars.

First, we had coffee on the rocks in the middle. 
Then, we had to walk through it. It was early, 
it was cold out, and that water was even colder. 

Day two consisted of summitting East Maroon Pass, then heading down the other side to camp at Copper Lake. We were pretty happy to know it was only five miles. But those five miles kicked our asses - we were walking up, and up, and then up some more. There was no reprieve, nothing flat, just steep or steeper. The trail is rocky and you have to concentrate to make sure you don't twist an ankle. It's not fast hiking.

At one point, the rain started. And then the rain turned to sleet. We put on our rain gear, huddled under a tree, and waited out the worst of it. But it would continue to rain off and on for the rest of the day. When we got to treeline, about half a mile from the pass, some even darker clouds rolled in. The thing about passes is that you don't want to be on top of a pass, with no tree protection, during a thunder storm. People die from making that mistake. So we chilled out at a lovely spot under some trees and overlooking a huge meadow and valley. And we waited for the rain to stop. We waited a long time. It was getting later than we liked, and the rain wasn't going anywhere. We decided to go for it. There wasn't any thunder, it was just a constant drizzle, so we decided it was probably pretty safe.

So on we trudged up the "ramp like trail" to the top of East Maroon Pass. "Ramp-like" makes it sound so gentle. Reality was that we took 100 steps, then stopped to breathe for a minute before continuing. Yes, I counted. Everyone needs a coping mechanism, counting steps is mine. It wasn't long though, and we made it to the top. I have this thing for passes. I don't necessarily always love getting to the top (more on that in a minute) but to stand up there and look out from both directions and see forever is incredible. The views never disappoint. And the adrenaline and feeling of accomplishment are worth every set of 100 steps, every single time.

From there, we headed down (finally! Down!) a fairly steep path to Copper Lake. It didn't look terrible impressive at first glance, but as we got closer, we discovered it really was a lovely little mountain lake, and one that not a whole lot of people get to camp by.

Copper Lake, from East Maroon Pass. 

At Copper Lake, you are required to camp in designated campsites, so we walked until we got to the first one we saw, and promptly dropped our packs, worn out from the day's climb. The sun was finally starting to come out, so we set up our tents, climbed in, and took a nap. It was lovely, and it was warm, and it was just what I needed. Then, since it was still really early, we wandered the campground a bit and then walked down to the lake. It was nice to see that we were the only ones camped there - an entire lake, all to ourselves for the night.

We ate reconstituted dried noodles cooked on a tiny stove, drank a little bit of whiskey, and were in bed before the sun was down. I slept good that night. I mean, good as in woke up every hour, but managed to fall back asleep. That's about the best I do when camping, most of the time.

Day 3:

We woke up, packed up, and walked back to Copper Lake for our morning coffee and a hot breakfast. It was beautiful - the rocky mountain reflected on the lake, a baby ermine sneaking around to see what goodies we had to offer, and a rock slide coming down the mountain across the lake, right over the trail we'd walked in on the day before. Awesome Coffee Spot #2 - success!

On the way to Triangle Pass. Wanna feel small?
 Stand at the bottom of an avalanche path and 
look up at the destruction. It's pretty intense.

This was going to be the hardest day. I was dreading it, if I'm being honest. Every time I looked up Triangle Pass online, I couldn't find much information. Yes, it's a definite trail. But it didn't seem like a whole lot of people actually use it. The trip reports I did find about it used words like "sketchy" and "clinging for my life". And yet somehow, I didn't take that too seriously. I should definitely rethink that the next time I'm planning a hike. From what we could tell, only a couple of people had taken that trail so far this year.

There now. Doesn't that look like a nice, friendly little trail?

But seriously, the view was incredible. A huge glacial valley.

The trail to Triangle Pass is a mile long, carved into the side of a mountain. In some sections it's very narrow, crosses scree (loose rock,) and the fall down could be pretty devastating if you slipped. The trick is just not to slip. My trail guide said, "Some sections are not safe to cross if snow is present." Of course, it wasn't specific about which sections.

I hated the snow. Snow should not be allowed to exist
 in late July, especially in places where if you slip, 
you're going all the way down.

Then there were the "sketchy" parts of the trail. It was a little washed out, it wasn't exactly level, and it felt like with each step, the rocks under my feet could give out and send me sliding down the mountain. I hit a mental barrier at one point - similar to the one I hit when climbing Mount Sneffels. I really was very content with the idea of turning around, hiking out to Crested Butte, and calling my husband for a ride. I honestly saw nothing wrong with that solution. But Nicole, being fearless as she is, refused to allow me to do that. She struck up a conversation that involved faith, quantum physics, and a debate about Joel Osteen and whether or not he's a fraud. Apparently all it took to get me through the rough spots was griping about Joel Osteen. Anyway, we made it, no worse for the wear other than my elevated heart rate. We stopped to rest after the worst part, then seeing the rain headed in, we hoofed it up to the top of the pass. I'm not ashamed to say that I absolutely laid down, right there on the top of Triangle Pass, and laughed a little hysterically.

If you click on the picture and look really close, 
you can see a thin line going all the way around the right side, 
partway up. That was the trail.
 Even just looking at the picture makes me feel a little sick.

There was a guy up there that looked surprised to see us - he'd come up from the easy side - and he was nice enough to take our picture.

Even Nicole is actually smiling. Clearly, this was a high point in the trip.
Mostly because we were both still alive.

 We enjoyed the view from both sides, breathed for a bit, but then headed down since the storm was coming in quickly.

It was only two miles to our next camp, but it felt like a really long two miles. It was beautiful though - alpine meadows with more wildflowers than you can imagine. Several creeks - which were actually snowmelt - twisted through the terrain and met up with Conundrum Creek, the main creek in the valley and the one for which it is named.

Wildflowers ferdayz

Again, as soon as we got to the camping area, we dropped our packs at the first spot we found and set up camp. This time though, we had something better than naps to look forward to - a 100 degree pool fed from a hot spring at 11,000 feet elevation. It's the highest known hot springs in North America, and we were going to soak in it.

We'd read up on it. We knew it would be busy. We also knew that it was considered a "clothing optional" hot spring. But seriously - we thought - how many people would actually be bathing in the nude, in the middle of the day, in public? Clearly, we are naive.

No sooner did we arrive at the spring and set our things down when out climbs a twenty something punk rocker, stark ass naked. And such was our introduction to a "clothing optional" hot spring. Wearing our bathing suits, we climbed into the hot water and settled in to soak and appreciate the novelty of where we were.

At one point, we struck up a conversation with a couple of naked hippies. Somehow, it turned into Nicole and I educating a pool full of people on the safety and economic value of fracking for natural gas. Honestly, I can't remember how the conversation even started, but it was kind of awesome. Our oil'n'gas husbands would have been so proud. (Well, except for maybe the naked hippie part. But whatever.)

Eventually we headed back to camp, where we continued the conversation over dinner. Mine was instant mashed potatoes. Did you know you can get instant mashed potatoes, with cheese and bacon? And for only a dollar! Heck yeah! Obviously, it doesn't take much to excite me when it comes to food in the woods after a long day. We spread our our towels and swim suits to dry, put on lots of warm clothes, and headed to bed early again that night. I would've slept great, except that my tent was set up under a pine tree, and every time the wind blew, pine cones would fall onto my rain fly, jarring me out of sleep and wondering what was going on. Note to self: don't set up tents under pine trees.

Day 4:

It's hike-out day! After three solid days of pretty tough hiking, we were both ready to be done. Only 8 and a half miles stood between us and civilization.

In keeping with our Awesome Coffee Spots, we headed back to the hot springs with our packs. We heated water next to the steaming creek, made our coffee, and sat on the edge of a smaller pool that we had to ourselves. Wearing fleece pants and down jackets, we rolled up our pant legs and soaked our feet once more. We were serenaded by a naked hippie playing a ukulele (because some people think packing a ukulele makes sense?) and watched a couple of other people pass a joint back and forth as they enjoyed the big pool at 6:30 in the morning. (Honestly, I was surprised naked hippies get up that early. Good for them. Or something.)

Note the naked hippies in the background.
 Definitely a cool, if not somewhat awkward, coffee spot.

And then we headed out. It was definitely the easiest day of hiking, except for the eight and a half miles part. But it was downhill, mostly easy trail, and we traveled pretty quickly. (For us. Which actually isn't that quickly at all.) We crossed a sketchy bridge of sorts, made it over our last creek crossing (there were three or four total, usually knee deep and so cold they gave you brain freeze.) We walked past beaver ponds, through forests, meadows, and over a rock slide. And finally we made it to the end. 23 miles. 27 if you count the "warm up" hike the first day.

It's funny what constitutes a "bridge" in the backcountry. 
A few logs strewn haphazardly across a pond? Sure, let's call that a bridge!

Because we had been forced to park an extra mile and a half from the trail head parking (there had to have been at least 50 cars there when we arrived to drop off the Jeep on Sunday) we managed to look pathetic enough that a nice older couple offered us a ride up on their tailgate. We gladly accepted. We also decided that we are now officially thru-hikers - we've added hitchhiking to our list of accomplishments!

In all, it was a gorgeous four days. The scenery was overwhelmingly beautiful. Even if we didn't need a break every mile (or half mile, sometimes) it was worth stopping just to watch. We saw bear, deer, mountain goats, marmots, pika, ermine, and heard what was either an elk or moose calling, I couldn't tell which. We saw dozens of varieties of wildflowers. We met interesting people but we also enjoyed plenty of absolute solitude. We pushed past physical challenges to achieve amazing success, and we did it all on our own.

This backpacking thing... it's addicting. There's so much world out there that you can't see by car, or even by day hiking. You've got to really work for it, but it's so worth it when you do.

So, so worth it.

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