Of Mountains & Marmots


There are those defining days – those days when the universe is pristine, and a divine sense of being forms concrete as the world spins on its perfect little axis – that shape you.These are the days – these defining days – that you remember the finest detail, the splash of red against the swallow’s breast as she fled the woods where which you ran, burned into memory. Here are the days that you consider for a lifetime, a hundred years and more, this day of adventure. And this day – this unforgettable day – for your lonesome author and his Father? June 23rd, 2013 … our shot at the Maroon Bells Four Pass Run.

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            Now, let’s be honest here, one friend to another – I am in no shape for this particular 28 mile extravaganza, this dizzying affair that will slip Pops and I up and over four passes sitting right at 12,500 feet above sea level. I, mistakes learned, chose to drink my way through the senior semester of college. Miles logged at the bar instead of the trail.

And thus I arrive in the quiet city of Aspen with my family – Father, Mother, and Marie – with a good bit of hesitation, body unsure of the coming venture.

Pops, of course, is in killer shape – fifty and spry, thin as a bristle and ready to climb baby climb in preparation for the infamous Leadville Trail 100 Run. This is shaping into a tale of two experiences.

But I swallow the trepidation and suck in the belly roll and walk around the chill town with hands shoved into my pockets, pockets shoved into my pants. Aspen is cold! Where in the world are we, four southerners from the humble state of North Carolina, tiptoeing through this memorialized town? I keep replaying scenes from Dumb & Dumber in my head, of a bucktooth Lloyd telling straw-haired Harry about this magical mountain escape: ‘I’ll tell you where. Someplace warm. A place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Aspen.’

Lloyd struck out, and I am shivering with no beer fountain and certainly without the harem of women jumping upstream to cling to my pants. And to top it off? We’ve just been told there was no way José the four passes are passable.

Pause for a moment.

What do you mean, it can’t be done?

We are buying energy gels at Ute Mountaineer, and the cashier looks at Pops and I as if we’ve been disemboweled by rabid hyenas after we’d struck up conversation about Maroon Bells. ‘It can’t be done. Chest high snow along the back three passes. We had a hiker up there last week that had to turn around at Buckskin Pass. I don’t want to even think about Trail Rider or Frigid Air.’

Oh snap. We’d just flown halfway across the nation to be told that, well, oopsie poopsie but there’s a shelf of snow keeping you from crossing over to Snowmass Lake? So sorry but check back in late July.

It seems that weather here plays by its own game.

But never fret! We’re hardy folk, us Carolinians … at least, my Father is and he happens to be the one calling the shots. It is decided over dinner to completely disregard the Ute employee and all of her professional expertise and attempt the passes come hell or high, impassible snow. I drink two thick Guinness and watch the cheese on my meaty macaroni bubble and burst atop hot noodles, contemplating the nature of thermodynamic heat transfer. Perhaps if I carried a cauldron of hot cheese to Buckskin and proceeded to pour the contents of this molten vat atop the snow – as one may do a plate of nachos – I would be at the very least afforded a look upon the famous Snowmass Lake?

Of course, the passes being blocked may prove better for one’s general health … there is far smaller chance of my broken body keeling over somewhere in the boonies between Frigid Air and West Maroon Pass, or of my slipping off the narrow pebbly trail along the backside of Trail Rider Pass to plummet down the steepened slope, coming to rest only when I’ve crunched up against a boulder way, way down. Ah, but such thoughts are no fun for consideration, and do little to ease the mind. Better instead to focus on the positive, to repeat a mantra, to grow a bit through the worries.

We’re here, dammit. We’re here and we’re going out there to at least venture the trail and despite my hesitation, despite all I’ve bemoaned, I want this run as bad as Pops – for him to guide me through as we lift each other up and over the snowy slopes. This will be our day, our mountains, and the Rockies shall shake at our ascent.

But maybe that’s just the beer talking.

Regardless, I’m emboldened heading back to the hotel, ready to check in and just as the night is taking hold over the town. Spirits within the ranks are high and I fall asleep early …

… And wake to Father rustling about the room, muttering to himself. A packet of GU slaps my face, thrown from across the room. ‘Get up!’ he said. ‘It’s almost dawn!’

Oh my. What a wakeup call. A quick dress, a bagel for breakfast, one last check of the equipment – three liters of water tucked into a small pack, four Honey Stingers, two sticks of elk jerky, two packets of Perpetuem, a water purifier, and a camera. Socks are up and shoes are on. Let’s boogie.

And so we go, the four of us, headed to the mystery. Who knows what the day will bring? Disappointment and defeat? Trial and retreat? Or perhaps – just maybe – the trail complete?

Us four roll to the park gates and into White River National Forest. I hear the bells toll. Our trial of trail has begun.

We pull up, park, and step out at Maroon Lake. I’m bowled by the beauty of the day. Gaw! Look at this! Mountains! Pines! Aspens up the hills, snow in the shade, and the steel blue waters sitting placid, watching our arrival. I squirm and shout, unable to contain the rustling that’d welled from chest to throat.

Marie and Mom (who are well prepared for their day with plans to hike to Buckskin and back … we hope to all be finishing around dusk) take pictures of us pre-run, a skinny short-haired Father and his skinnyish short-haired Son, and then we’re off, passing Maroon Lake, headed to Crater Lake and then Buckskin Pass, where we’ll find out the day’s fate.

We start slow, each considering the various complexities of the surrounding wilderness. I find thoughts venturing to my equipment, where I’m encumbered by my pack. Straps slap my chin as the bag bounces on my back and I wonder the consequences of shrugging off the bag and continuing upwards without.

Climbing steadily to Crater Lake breath grows heavy, bordering on ragged. We pass few, a couple here with their shaggy black Collie, a woman wearing all neon, all pink clicking along with her hiking poles against the rocky trail. They give us looks as we pass, a man and son hopping ponderously from stone to stone in the morning’s sun. The crisp air turns warm and I shed a layer. We continue up, not so much passing Crater Lake as skirting diagonally from it as we take to the switchbacks, stopping when afforded a view of the shrunken mass. From our height it looks more puddle than pond, more pond than lake. Yet names are names and Idon;t consider it further. There’s not enough oxygen in my brain for such thoughts.

We stop after an hour and eat a caramel waffle. Mmm. I catch my breath and chew, crumbs sticking to lips and mustache. Pops gives me a sidelong glance. ‘What do you think?’

I shake my head, unable to answer him. The words of this narrow-minded hillbilly bumpkin would only serve to sully the beauty laid before us.

Up we continue to Buckskin, drawing above the tree line and into marmot territory. Four of the eleven I spy today are on the ascent to Buckskin – which looms menacingly above, white and dense with snow. They’re furry little critters, not unlike the gopher from Caddyshack. I find myself humming Kenny Loggins in tune to my steps. Fuzzy eyes watch me from fuzzy bodies atop exposed boulders a hundred feet above. I attempt a picture but am rewarded just a blurry shot that could just as well portray yeti’s offspring as it could a bounding marmot.

Buckskin Pass is not chest high with snow. It is, in fact, devoid of snow. A hundred feet to the left, however, is an impressive icy shelf that’s poised to melt and fall as summer takes hold in the Rockies. I hold my arms to the whipping wind and holler, feeling alive. Pops smiles, catches his breath, and points my gaze further along the trail, to Snowmass Lake, sitting tucked between pine forest and mountain. ‘That’s where we’re going,’ he shouted over the wind. ‘About three miles!’ Bring it.

Down we go, giving up in two miles all that we’d worked to climb.

And thus is the theme for our day – climb and fall, sit and see, eat and think. We talk, my Father and I, about life and plans for the future. Ideas surface and sink, wants bursting over needs, dreams rising with altitude. If this is life then I want more of it. Adventure in the purest – uncut, unadulterated, a full blown adrenaline shot to the main vein – is adventure shared, and we continue along this trail from pass to pass, holding apprehension with each climb.

There are harrowing moments – a scramble over, aha, chest high snow atop Frigid Air, a slow trek on slick ice cutting across our trail on the front side of Trail Rider, and romp from drift to drift descending from West Maroon – but we win each pass.

I like to think that the marmots cheer us on, those cuddly creatures with their brown paws and fluffy faces. Our audience of rodents. I find them entertaining, reassuring. Where there are marmots there is hope – hope for this run and for my future, a future so unsure I know not where the next month lead.

And this day, this chill June day, I know where my steps lead. Down from West Maroon Pass to Crater Lake, Crater Lake to Maroon Lake, Maroon Lake to home. Home to the lives we’d left on the east coast – home to the fleas of Chapel Hill, the greens of summer in the Carolina hills, and the baggage of the tethered life.

Yet there is excitement, a sense gained at hour eleven, mile 27, as Pops and I pound the rocks down into Maroon Lake, back to Marie and Mother. A sense of knowledge, a gap filled with the experiences of the day – the simple knowing of the blues and greens and browns of this mountain trail, the realization that there is more to life than the walls of home, that somewhere there are dizzying heights hiding fields of yellow flowers where little marmot houses of rock and earth sit and stand in winter and spring.

There is more than work, more than the comforts of security, more than the norms of society. There are wonders yet to behold, feelings yet to rock the foundations as this day in Maroon Bells rocked me, snowy passes be damned. The marmots guided us through, our hairy friends. They kept the trail clean ahead and the cold far behind as Pops and I ran and considered the wonders about.

Of mountains and marmots, this is the story of Maroon Bells. Peaks and passes guarded by these lonesome critters, allowing passage for a Father taking his Son on a run in the bright light of a June day.