We arrived in the town of Aspen around 7:00 AM. At this point, we were like dogs who actually caught up to the postman, we didn’t know what to do now. So, we parked the car and started walking into shops to ask people where the trailhead was. After a few very vague descriptions, one man finally told us there was a shuttle that we had to catch. He also let us know where we could park our car for a few days without getting a ticket.
If you’ve ever been to the mountains, you know that there are some oddballs around. On that shuttle ride, we were the oddballs. All the pedestrians on the bus were casually dressed with REI gear for their lunchtime picnic at the Maroon-Bells. We were just three goons with thrift-store packs the size of us and as old as our parents. We didn’t care though, we were on our path, and there was no turning back now.
The trailhead begins with an array of different maps and trails, but everyone that got off of our shuttle went down the same trail like a colony of ants. “Let’s go this way”, Riley suggested, “It loops around to the same spot”. About an hour into the hike, something didn’t feel right. I pulled out the map and discovered that we were headed south when we needed to be heading northeast. So, that was detour number 1, but we just saw it as a warm-up. With spirits high and our chins up, we retraced the path we had just covered until we again reached the trailhead.
After that mistake, we were a little more careful. We followed the tourists with their Nikons and Canons until we reached the lake that marked the beginning and end of our four mountain loop. Several times people would look curiously at us and walk past us, often at a swifter pace than us. However, there were just as often couples with curiosities strong enough to engage in conversation with our troop. While it was enjoyable to spark the interests of others, the common understanding amongst the three of us was to get away from these people as soon as possible.
At that moment, as if on cue, the rain hit. The disgruntled tourists either hunkered down under shelter or decided to hike the two miles back to the trailhead, bitter that their picnic had been interrupted. We just slid into our garbage bag ponchos and embarked the uphill climb to the next lake that stoop three miles ahead. The proceeding journey of the day consisted of switchback after switchback ascending deeper into silence. Each step carried us further from the white-washed reputations we had constructed for ourselves. We eventually reached the next lake, but our plan for the day was to camp somewhere around two miles past the lake. So, we sat by the lake to refuel on some trail mix, then went on to discover camp .
After somewhere around a mile past the lake, Riley was feeling the effects of altitude. The expedition proved to be much more taxing than any of us had prepared for. We decided that we would just hunker down for the night and see if some sleep would help. Unfortunately, we had been hiking a steep slope for over thirty minutes and had not seen level ground to camp on. We were forced to push on further. Eventually we reached a meadow with a stream running through it and began to scout out camp. On inspection, we discovered several signs of bear activity in the area. As much as we desired to see the magnificent power of a bear in nature, none of us knew how to handle an encounter. We just filled our water bottles in the stream to boil later and pressed on.
After about another half mile, we reached an icy river we would have to forge. Next to that river was a flat rock bank. We decided to let riley rest there for a few hours before we traveled any more. Riley unrolled his bed matt and covered himself with the clothes from his pack. It looked awfully uncomfortable, but he was out within minutes. Matt used the time to take a few shots with his gopro and do a recon of the area. I walked upstream a little until I discovered a boulder to rest against and get some reading done. We hadn’t talked much since the second lake, not that we were upset with anyone, we were just too busy admiring the beauty before us and trying not to die.
An hour and a half had passed when matt and I reconvened where riley was lying and decided to wake him up. If we stopped for too long, we wouldn’t be able to get going again. We packed up our gear, hoisted up our packs and fastened them around our waists. One mile, we decided, was how long we needed to travel before we could reach a safe spot to set up tent. That final mile of day 2 was physically grueling , but held perhaps one of the most beautiful sunsets my young eyes had laid eyes on. It wasn’t just the sights either, the deepening brotherhood was something we could all feel, even without words.
When we finally found a spot to camp for the night, Matt and I divided responsibilities; he gathered firewood while I set up the tent. Riley rested. Once the fire was crackling, We poured our stream water into little tea kettles to let boil. I was also the designated chef for the night, and the menu consisted of refried beans with cheese on top. I know, great item for three dudes that would be sleeping side-by-side in a small tent. Nonetheless, the meal was well welcomed and as we sat there together swapping stories of the day, I could see dawning on my friends the value of this trip. In a little over 12 months, we would all part ways. We would graduate college and move on to the next stage in life. We would try our best to meet up every now and then, but everyone knows those are just words. But in that moment, we were untouchable. The shadow of high school seemed only a bump in the road, a switchback that we would have to overcome together. But, as we would find out the next day, some hills may be too high to climb, and some obstacles will eventually be our downfall.