Gear Test! The Maroon Bells Capitol Creek Circuit

Before flying our backpacks 7800 miles to Auckland, Jonathan and I figured that it just might be a good idea to test out the ol’ set ups. We’ve radically shifted our gear since the PCT and although we’ve used it all independently, we wanted to see how it all worked together on a multi-day hike. Plus, who doesn’t need a good vacation before they quit their job? …

We’d decided some time ago that our week of fall vacation would be evenly split between climbing and hiking, but were torn between Colorado and Wyoming. With snow starting to fall up north, we settled on Rifle Canyon and the Maroon Bells Capitol Creek Circuit.

Rifle Canyon is a famously tough sport climbing area about an hour outside of Aspen, Colorado. The walls there are steep and many of the routes are overhung 5.12s or harder. That’s still—how shall we put it—outside of our comfort zone… but as it turns out, there were more than enough routes to occupy us. We spent the first day of our vacation getting used to the weird, slippery limestone, had a ball, and took a grand total of 0 photographs.

What?! It’s tough to take photos when you have to belay.

When the weather started to get stormy on day #2, we headed back to Aspen to rent some bear cans (required in the Maroon Bells/ Snowmass Wilderness) and started hiking in a light rain.

The Maroon Bells Capitol Creek Circuit circumnavigates two fourteeners, Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain. Jonathan and I added a side trip up the west slopes route on Snowmass and back down the east slopes to reconnect with the normal loop (going counterclockwise). With that extra adventure, we think the loop was about 42 miles and about 13,500ft of elevation gain.

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The loop started out with cow pastures on the West Snowmass Trail #2187, but steadily began climbing up toward our first pass. The trail was… well, not really a trail, as much as a series of cow tracks all running in different directions. We only got majorly off-route once, though, and after some backtracking and bushwhacking, we found ourselves back on course. After the pass, the rest of the afternoon was pretty smooth sailing.

That evening, we decided to camp right at the base of Capitol Peak, which is quite possibly Colorado’s most majestic 14er. The peak was dusted with snow and it was really (!) chilly as we arrived in camp and cooked our standard camp dinner: Annie’s mac with summer sausage. Great night to test out the sleep setups as temperatures dipped below freezing!

 Molly arriving at the base of Capitol Peak looking like native hiker trash

Molly arriving at the base of Capitol Peak looking like native hiker trash

 Capitol Peak in the morning sun. Capitol Pass is at the far right.

Capitol Peak in the morning sun. Capitol Pass is at the far right.

Day 2 was a roller coaster in more ways than one. We started out with the short, but stunning climb up to Capitol pass. Then, we headed down toward Avalanche Creek and caught a vague trail up toward our third high elevation pass of the trip. The trail to Avalanche Pass took us through gorgeous alpine meadows, past bubbling brooks, and up and over a smaller pass along the way. Once we cleared the first high point, the trail remained high and exposed. Some gnarly looking clouds were rolling in and thunder rumbled softly in the distance—it was time to move.

 Capitol looking majestic from the south with some very dramatic lighting

Capitol looking majestic from the south with some very dramatic lighting

 Molly still taking the time to cheese a little amidst the rocks. Note the gloves. It was cold!

Molly still taking the time to cheese a little amidst the rocks. Note the gloves. It was cold!

At the top of Avalanche Pass, we watched the clouds settle over us, but the storm seem to stay put on the far side. We descended through beautiful meadows filled with sheep and a couple of bow hunters. Jonathan suggested some easy targets to the hunters. They did not find this amusing in the least.

 Molly trying to look as epic as the view

Molly trying to look as epic as the view

After waiting out a brief rainstorm (hello! great for testing our rain gear AND our warm layers), we headed down a brief section on dirt road to briefly meet up with the legendary 4 Pass Loop. As the sun came back with a fury, Jonathan gleefully took his new trail hat and sun gloves for a ride. He gave his look an A+ for style.

 Jonathan lookin’ fly, as usual

Jonathan lookin’ fly, as usual

From the low point on the road, we headed up the switchbacks toward one of the coolest (and tallest) waterfalls I’ve ever seen. The trail takes you up and over the top of the waterfall to its feeder, Geneva Lake. Jonathan and I were lucky enough to have an amazing camp spot all to ourselves with a few out over the lake to the peaks beyond.

Not a person in sight! Until I took off my pants, that is… Alas. Someone was hiking up toward us, enjoying the view and wondering, “Is that a butt?!” Yep. It was a butt.

Anyway, after snagging a sweet spot right by our trail junction for the morning, we cooked up some couscous (pine nut, my favorite flavor) and settled in for another chilly night. We woke up bright and early and ready to tackle the high point of the trail: Snowmass Mountain!

Snowmass comes in just over 14K at 14,092ft, but it’s definitely not your Elbert/Massive walk in the park. Coming from Geneva Lake, Jonathan and I had decided to go up the non-standard West Slopes route, which is infamously chossy, and back down the standard East Slopes to Snowmass Lake. The initial part of the climb was incredibly enjoyable and the rock was much more stable than we expected (likely because we started early and the ground was still half-frozen).

Once we got above around 13,600ft or so, however, the push to the summit was a bit of a sketch-fest—not least because there was a thin film of ice across the rocks. We each picked our own way up the end of a loose, treacherous gully. Turns out, hiking up 3rd to 4th class 14ers with a full backpack is hard work! But we made it and had a sunny victory snack on the summit. I found this dope natural recliner, which Jonathan preceded to commandeer for himself:

 Taking a quick recline on the summit of Snowmass Mountain, 14,092’

Taking a quick recline on the summit of Snowmass Mountain, 14,092’

Although the West Slopes summit push was chossy, we soon forgot all about it as we slipped and slithered our way down the massive choss field that is Snowmass’ standard route. Oof. Here’s me descending the rockpile:

 Descending Snowmass’ East Slopes standard route

Descending Snowmass’ East Slopes standard route

 Well, it isn’t really a trail, but look at that view! Snowmass Lake from above on the East Slopes descent.

Well, it isn’t really a trail, but look at that view! Snowmass Lake from above on the East Slopes descent.

We finished off our trip with a refreshing (read: freeeezing) swim in Snowmass Lake. Can’t miss out on a skinny dip on a hot afternoon!

From Snowmass Lake, the trail descends 8 miles or so at an easy grade back to the trailhead. We cruised to the end, though not without sore legs, and passed about 100 small children in backpacking groups (the Snowmass Lake Trail is ridiculously popular, so I’d recommend trying to hit it on a weekday or off-season, if possible). We grabbed a burger in Aspen and headed back to Rifle for another two days of climbing.

All in all, the gear test was a great success. Jonathan tested the temperature limits of his warm weather sleeping quilt, and I decided that my hiking shirt wasn’t just right. Look for reviews of individual gear items coming soon! Overall, our gear functioned near-perfectly and we came back feeling confident that our setups were NZ-ready.

A quick side note: the one really critical piece of gear that I did not get to test was my new backpack. I’m a diva and ordered a custom pack that I won’t get until we arrive in Saint Louis just a week or so before we leave. Fingers crossed! On this trip, I used the ULA CDT, which was my pack on the PCT. It’s fine for light loads, but doesn’t carry weight very nicely (being frameless and all). It really doesn’t carry a bear can with grace—even a small one—and tends to chafe on my back. I’m so ready for my shiny new pack!

As of today, we’ve given our notice at work, sold our car, and paid our rent for the final month in Boulder. We head to Vermont at the end of October to kick off our U.S. tour before flying out of Houston in mid-November. There’s lots more to do, but it feels so close I can almost taste it.