Best Laid Plans... (Part 3)

So day one was a very full day. Already had my first wildlife encounter, my first injury, and my first new friends! The plan was for day one to be travel, night one test gear, day two explore and enjoy Aspen, night two relax, day three start the hike! That was a good plan... probably should have followed it!

Night one was the first time I got to test my tent + sleeping bag + sleeping pad in a real Colorado mountains situation. The result was... BRRRrr! The Six Moons tent was great and had plenty of room even for a big guy. Setup was super easy, it had great protection from the wind, no moisture issues, and pretty much great all the way around. Aside from the weight being a bit heavier than some other options (45 ounces), this is the perfect tent!

Back to the BRRrr part though. The tent gets a 4.5/5 rating. The combination of a "25/40 degree" sleeping bag plus a budget Sleepingo sleep pad was a big fail. Even during the modest, 45-degree night temperatures, I was cold. The sleeping bag idea seemed decent on paper. It is a rectangle bag, not a mummy bag and one side of the bag is thicker and rated for 25 degrees. The other side is thinner and rated for 40 degrees. Perfect solution on paper as you can use it for summer camping or winter camping, right?

BUZZ... first off, sleeping bag makers still don't have a standardized system for rating temperatures for bags. Some list the temperature for their comfort rating while sleeping in boxers.  Some list the temperature as a comfort rating while dressed in thermal underwear. Some list the temperature as an extreme or survival temperature while dressed in thermal underwear + multiple outer layers. For this bag, that 25 number was definitely that last one!

At my test camp spot, the temperature got down to about 45 and during the night I got cold enough that I ended up putting on polar fleece pajama pants and my puffy jacket but with those two on I was just fine! Ok, problem solved. The sleeping bag kind of sucked but was easy to fix, I'll just have to take the polar fleece pajamas and the puffy jacket to stay toasty warm at night!

So I think this was a bit of blind optimism combined with some naivety plus a couple of beers with the camp neighbors making this really bad call. The difference between 45 degrees and dry after a warm day in the car vs 35 degrees and wet after a day of being chilled was WAY more than I planned for. I think a big part of the problem was not just my sleeping bag but the sleeping bag with a thin side (the 40-degree side) that was resting on a comfy but completely uninsulated sleeping pad. At my practice camp, I was on soft, dry ground that had direct sunlight all day and was fairly warm but on the trail, I was on packed, shaded, damp, frigid ground. I could almost feel it sucking the heat out of me right through the pad once I got on the real trail!

So, one night at elevation under my belt, check. The sleeping situation all squared around (in my brain at least), check. Spent the morning testing out my cooking stove situation and zero issues, another check! Packed up camp and put everything straight into my backpack and left camp to drive up the valley to Aspen. The reservation for the second night of camping was closer to Aspen so I could get an early start on Day 3 and get on the trail!

The drive-up Independence pass is slow but amazing. Lots of spots to stop for incredible vistas, waterfalls, meadows full of flowers, and even several historic mining towns. It is slow and windy and you WILL get stuck behind a mini-van going 10mph under the 25mph speed limit but it is still tolerable due to the views and the glory of it all!

I had been to Aspen but not for around 25 years. What I remember of Aspen was that it was a sleepy little mountain town with a few artsy shops and a bunch of ski lodges. 25 years later and Aspen is now completely overcrowded, has zero parking,  has what felt like endless rows of overpriced shops and restaurants, traffic is absolutely hellish, and I have zero intention of ever going back again if I can avoid it. Also, good luck finding a public bathroom. I managed to find one in the one, smallish grocery store and I ended up using it three times!

After about 3-4 hours wandering around Aspen, having a few slices of mediocre pizza from one of the few places that had outside/pandemic safe seating, I was done. Also, while I have been very cautious about Covid for the entire pandemic, I was trying to be SUPER cautious on this trip. Getting Covid would suck. Discovering you had Covid on a backpacking trip while 10+ miles from an exit, at low oxygen altitudes, and in the cold would be unimaginably bad!

By around 1 PM, I had decided I hated Aspen. I decided to go check out the parking situation for where I was going to leave my car. This is probably my least favorite thing for doing the Four Pass Loop from Aspen, the parking. There is parking at the trailhead but it has to be reserved months in advance and even then you have to get lucky. Everyone else has to pay to take a bus (during a pandemic!) to the trailhead.  That means you have o

After a ton of research, I found there were basically 3 common options. Option one, park at the bus stop that goes to the Four Pass Loop Aspen start and pay $45 a day for as many days as you're there. Option two, park at the ski resort 2-ish miles away, pay $25 but max 4 days and then walk or ride the bus to get to the bus to take you there. Option three, take your chances and park on the street or in worker lots for ski stuff and walk or take a bus to get to the bus to take you there.

Option 1, oof. Hard to stomach $200-ish just to park but man, sure is convenient. Also, not time-limited so you can stay an extra day if you want to. This is probably what I should have done. It would have been the least stressful even though it would have made my wallet sad. I usually pride myself on going cheap on backpacking trips (so I can spend all my money on gear instead).

Option 3, was too much risk for me. All the signs on places where people said to stay had big "WE WILL TOW YOUR ASS!" signs. Just couldn't stomach the idea of coming out exhausted, wandering to where my car was, and finding it had been towed.  The main spot people were suggesting was the Tiehack Parking spot and multiple people swore it was safe. Others said they got towed... tempting, as it was more convenient as well but I just couldn't stomach the risk.

So, option 2 it was! According to all the research I had done, the best option was to park in the Aspen Overnight parking at the Buttermilk Ski area and take the bus. I found a nice guide for the bus trip and it seemed fairly quick and easy!

While in the parking lot where I planned to park after another day of acclimating, I was searching on my phone for a place to grab some food that didn't suck. I was trying to figure out my afternoon and evening plans after discovering I hated downtown Aspen and it dawned on me that I could just start the hike a day early! The bus was still running for a couple of hours. I could just hike in and camp by crater lake, about 3 or 4 miles in! This made perfect sense at the time! Basically, skip Aspen and its insane crowds, start a day early, and get a head start on the hike!

While I was sitting in the car in the parking lot, thinking it all through, fate sent me a message and a car pulled up with two hikers in it. They started unloading their packs and getting ready.  Definitely a sign that it was a good idea! I jumped out, got my pack together, paid for 4 days of parking, and asked if they were doing the four pass loop. Sure enough, they were! I talked to them a bit and they both seemed like super nice guys. They were police officers from the Denver area and had both done a lot of backpacking including the John Muir Trail, a very difficult and long trail.

We talked as we walked to the bus stop and they were planning on doing the exact same trip as me! 4 days, 3 nights, and clockwise. Perfect trail buddies! After about another 7 seconds of thinking about it, I realized they were both from Colorado, had done a number of big hikes, were younger, and were bicycle police. These guys would HATE hiking with me because I would be so freaking slow compared to them! Ok, so not trail buddies but maybe getting to the trail buddies!

According to what I read, getting to the trail was a piece of cake, a straight shot bus ride to the village and then a bus ride to the trailhead! BUZZ! The bus routes in Aspen were all completely bonkers due to Covid. Fortunately, I was traveling with two assertive police officers who ran around talking to people until they figured out how to get us there.

Ok, so made it to bus stop one, got on bus one, made it to bus two, which took us to the ski lodge where you get on the real bus!  Making great time. Time to check-in for the bus to the trailhead! Whoops, my ticket was for the next day.  My hiking budies picked up theirs with no issue. I went up and said I had a ticket for the following day and they said no exchanging. I quickly mentioned that I was told I could swap it if there was room. The woman asked, "Who told you that?" I pointed to my new hiking buddies and said, "They did and they are police officers so I thought they would know." She smiled and exchanged my ticket! Friends with benefits indeed...  This also confirmed my suspicion that if I were ever a police officer, I would abuse my power endlessly for special favors.

So, finally on the bus to the trailhead! Relaxing 20-minute ride with a half-full bus. We finally arrive and depart and my real journey finally begins!