A hiker’s heaven from Maroon Bells to Crested Butte
Ryan Summerlin August 14, 2014
Not being one to shrink from a challenge, when my friends asked me to join them to hike the Maroon Bells to Crested Butte Trail, I enthusiastically agreed. I then set out to do my research. What I discovered certainly dampened my enthusiasm. Was it 11, 13, or 15 miles? Every blog or trail map gave a different distance. Was it 12,500 feet at the summit? That would make breathing difficult at best. The necessity of crossing mountain streams that ran at least knee- high? What was I thinking!
However the opportunity for adventure won out over all evidence opposing reason. The next step was to plan what I would carry with me. So many decisions! I had settled on a camelback holding 100 ounces of water until I ran into a friend who said she had done the trip two days previously and drank her entire 100 ounces and was left wanting for more. Footwear was another challenge: hiking shoes, tennis shoes or Keens? I knew we would be crossing streams that were at least knee-high, which meant packing some form of water shoes. I also knew that I would not be comfortable wearing my stiff hiking shoes the entire trip, but would need them on the rocky surfaces above timberline. Therefore, in order to guarantee my comfort I decided to wear my tennis shoes, pack my hiking shoes, and strap on my water sandals. Finally, clothing. I decided on shorts with a light short-sleeved shirt, covered with a light long-sleeved shirt, finished with a fleece vest. A rain poncho folded nicely in my pack, along with a space blanket just in case. Food was the easy part… pack lots!
The morning of the hike dawned early as the seven of us met in the New Castle City Market parking lot at 5:15am. So many strategic decisions had gone into the planning for this day.
This was not a hike one could decide to do on a moment’s notice, but all the planning brought together a great opportunity. My head and my heart were reeling from emotions: fear, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, and pure joy. We arrived at the Maroon Bells parking lot hyped and filled with anticipation: Let’s go!
Several factors regarding the hike instantly eased many of our concerns. First, the trail is clearly marked, so no getting lost in the wilderness! Additionally, there were about 100 other people on the trail so if something did go awry, there were many folks immediately available to help out. Finally, the sky was overcast which allowed for those fair-skinned folks to have some relief from fear of sun exposure.
I have come to the place in the retelling of this journey where words are not sufficient. The trail wove through pines, aspen, and meadows and miles and miles of vibrant, bountiful wild flowers. The pervasive beauty was a constant distraction and hindrance to progress along the trail. Nonetheless, we steadily progressed through the six initial gently sloped miles. As we neared tree line, the dread began to set in. The final two miles of the ascent was fairly vertical and the oxygen was in limited supply. I challenged myself to take 100 steps before allowing myself to stop and refill on air. However, on the final approach to the summit the cadence of 30 steps, (gasping) and then thirty steps again propelled me forward at a decidedly slow but measurable pace. When I finally breached the summit, it was well worth the struggle! Turning in a 360 circle I could not take it all in. The panoramic view was extraordinary, and yet so picturesque it was difficult to believe it was real. My desire would have been to sit and bask in the beauty of it all for the rest of the day, however the afternoon storm clouds were rolling in and it was time to get off the summit.
The remainder of the trip, a five-mile stretch, felt exhausting, and endless, and downhill definitely had a jarring effect on this old body. Fortunately, the never-ending fields of wild flowers made the final leg of the journey bearable. And then there it was, gleaming through the shadows of the final forest was the reflection from the top of a van. We made it! One of the longest, most glorious hikes I had ever completed. Who now wants to take the challenge? Sign me up!