Hello, Aspen

It’s a shame that Aspen is the base town for so many worthy peaks, because spending any time there on a budget is a nuisance. Gas in Carbondale is a pricey $2.96; gas in Aspen, a mere 20 miles down the highway, is $3.16. Street parking near downtown is either metered or two-hour. The Maroon Creek trailhead (for the Bells and Pyramid) has a complex fee system (five days vs. one night vs. …), and I don’t remember whether a Golden Eagle pass works there.

On the bright side, a cup of fairly good coffee is less than $2 at Peach’s Corner Cafe, and they have air conditioning, wireless, and plenty of outlets. Outside of that, the place is kind of absurd: a cup of fruit is $6, and the kids’ menu is “I.D. required.” Anyways, I have four trail days here: Castle, Capitol, Snowmass, and the Maroon Bells.

Castle (5h, 10.5mi, 4200ft)

I wanted to take it a bit easy after Solstice, so I chose to climb Castle, the easiest peak in the Aspen area. I probably could have driven higher, but opted to camp before the first stream crossing at 10,200′.

Castle being surrounded by gnarly ridges, you can’t see it (or at least easily identify it) until you are close to 13,000′ feet. An old mining road takes you to nearly 12,800′, at which point you have a snow climb (early season) or hideous scree scramble (late season) to a basin between it and Conundrum. After that, a reasonable trail leads to the relatively-solid ridge to the summit. Earlier in the season, there is an excellent time-saving glissade from the Capitol-Conundrum saddle to the basin.

If you climb this peak, do it early in the season to spare yourself much loose rock. Castle has an excellent view of the other Elks 14ers and an interesting southeast ridge. Other than that, it’s unremarkable.

Snowmass (11h, 23mi?, 6100ft?)

Snowmass is a long day by Colorado standards, but at class 2, I thought it would be a long cruise. I glanced at the route description on 14ers.com, but didn’t pay much attention, figuring it would probably be clear on a popular, walk-up peak. Famous last words.

I got a reasonably early start at 6:10, and cruised up the trail to the West Snowmass trail (to Capitol), which almost immediately fords Snowmass Creek. Even this early in the morning, the ford looked intense, so I dismissed my plan to do Capitol from this side. The approach trail climbs gradually along Snowmass Creek to the second lake, where it crosses a long, unstable log-jam that I thought would be the day’s crux. The trail starts climbing in earnest after the log-jam, to a fork in the trail and Snowmass Lake. Along this section, I startled a porcupine, which I chased into the woods and up a tree to get some pictures.

Snowmass Mountain, though a walk-up, is an impressive peak, with the enormous snowfield that gives it its name, surprisingly sharp ridges to the north and south, and beautiful Snowmass Lake below. The lake was home to several large trout and a single tent. The north side of the lake was cliffy, while the trail disappeared into snow and willows on the south side. Eventually, I found a set of old tracks.

I remembered that the route crossed the large snowfield, but the tracks I followed climbed away from the lake and snowfield to the south. I figured whoever I was following knew what they were doing. They did, as it turned out, but they were headed over Trail Rider Pass.

Reaching the pass, I turned north along the ridge to Snowmass. The ridge quickly turned class 3 and was sometimes exposed, so I knew I was not on the standard route, but it was still manageable terrain. A steep and somewhat loose pitch deposited me behind the summit of Snowmass Peak (not Snowmass Mountain), which I skirted to the left, not knowing it was a named summit. From here, the ridge alternated between slightly loose class 3 and painfully loose class 2, where even the larger boulders were likely to move.

Making my way toward the distant Snowmass, I was surprised to find a summit register along the ridge. Opening it, I learned that there is a mountain called Hagerman Peak, and that I was apparently the first person to summit it this year (bonus!). I signed the register, had a snack, and began the traverse to Snowmass, my original goal.

The descent off Hagerman involved some exposed 4th class along a short knife-edge, as well as a fair amount of 3rd class scrambling on and around the ridge. Much of this might have been avoided by dropping a few hundred feet to the left. The difficulties largely ended at the low point of the ridge, with an easy escape to the snowfield only 20-30 feet away. At last on easier ground, I wearily summited Snowmass Mountain, including its small summit block.

The snow was maybe 50 feet below the summit, but I retreated along the ridge to where an earlier party had exited the snowfield before taking out my axe for the epic glissade, which was every bit as fun and cold as expected. Better still, I found sweet booty — a newish pair of 10-point strap-on crampons. I was going to have to buy a pair at some point, so that’s a bit over $100 profit for the day (minus pop-tart costs).

After bushwhacking and sliding my way around the lake, I found the ridiculous five-way intersection where I made my mistake in the morning, and took off down the trail for the long hike home. It was a hot and endless, but otherwise uneventful, end to my longest day so far this season.

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