2016-07-02 - Maroon Bells - Buckskin Pass
Cold and uncomfortable in a truck at 9000 feet, I slept okay considering the conditions. Brian, his border collie Tessa, and I started out around 7:30 AM. A short while later, we reached the trail head and, after another few miles, the magnificent Crater Lake.
The clear lake mirrored thick clouds blanketing the mountainsides. It was a sight of awe. After enjoying the lake and chatting with a few other hikers, we swung back onto the trail toward Buckskin Pass. Heading counterclockwise, we figured we'd tackle one of the toughest climbs first. If it was truly impassable, it would be better to find out sooner rather than be stuck on the other side. We hiked through forests and rocks and eventually reached a stream crossing, the first of many. We had to help Tessa on the water crossings but she ran literal circles around us everywhere else.
Great clouds of fog rolled in as the remnants of thunderstorms cheerfully challenged our rain jackets. Unfortunately a cloud was rolling into my mind as well. The amorphous discomfort caused by the high altitude was slowly taking shape as a painful headache. As the treeline receded behind us, so did any hope I had that the pain wouldn't get worse. Snow joined the patchy ground cover, alternating with areas of bare dirt and rock beneath our waterproof boots as we followed Tessa up the mountain.
Soon enough I was feeling as sick as I've ever been in my life. Brian and Tessa forged on ahead while I brought up the rear, walking slowly in a haze of pain. In places, walls of snow blocked off the official trail, forcing us to find our own way up steeper sections around the obstructions. Brian was waiting for me near the top of Buckskin Pass. He said I looked dead, like a zombie. I politely refused his invitation to explore a higher section near the pass and opted instead to dig my head into my backpack, hoping in vain that the agony would subside. The realization dawned that the pain was mine to keep, and I turned my thoughts instead to moving down the mountain, in hopes that a drop in elevation might heal me. Brian's solo excursion seemed to drag on impossibly long. When at least he returned, he told me he'd gotten close to the neighboring mountain peak but couldn't risk scrambling up the unstable rocks. I'm pretty sure that last picture of me grimacing was in fact a genuine attempt at a smile.
Patches of snow covered the landscape like animal stripes. Their gentle white hues contrasted nicely with the rough colors of the unyielding rock beneath. Hundreds of thousands of wildflowers breathed the same mountain air as we did, but my appreciation was almost purely intellectual -- I was in one of the most beautiful places on earth and not enjoying it at all. A solo backpacker named Austin joined us and we walked together most of the way towards Snowmass Lake. I fell behind again and was forced to stop a few times when my head felt ready to explode. We had originally considered hiking farther, but I badly needed to make camp as soon as possible. Austin went ahead to a campsite closer to the lake, while Brian and I settled for a site about a quarter mile away. I struggled to set up my tent and immediately went to sleep while Brian walked down to check out the lake. Later we ate dinner together. All in all I probably only consumed about 500 calories over the entire day. Eating more just made me feel like vomiting. Having slept a few hours I was at least feeling better, and nursed a faint hope that my body might adapt to the altitude by the next morning.