A Tale of 4 Passes: Marble to Alma, CO

Labor Day weekend saw us with our second consecutive weekend to escape into the Colorado Mountains and explore. After completing a nice little trip in the San Juans the weekend before (see the previous blog post), we were looking to both up the difficulty factor of the routes we would take as well as spend some down time at camp chilling out and being low key.

A plan was hatched to start in Marble, CO and drive Schofield Pass to Crested Butte, then Pearl Pass over to Aspen, Haggerman Pass to Leaville, and Mosquito Pass to Alma. This would give us a good mix of one of my favorite towns in CO as well as conquering Colorado’s most dangerous road, and North America’s highest through road. Once again the unusually rainy summer that Colorado was experiencing was keeping things slick and making some tough routes that much tougher. Off we go…


The road from Marble into Crystal is anything but smooth. Narrow, rocky, and rugged are the defining characteristics for the 5 miles.


Ironically, one of the most photographed, iconic spots in Colorado is in town of Crystal, the Crystal Mill. It used water power to drive large air compressors that powered drills in the nearby mines.


Downtown Crystal. A few hardy souls have summer places here occupying some of the old remnant houses in town. A general store, in the left of this pic, is even open at odd hours in the summer providing some basics to those passing through.


It is from the end of town here in Crystal that things get a bit more real. Climbing out of Crystal you immediately encounter steep grades and a fork, left taking you up to Lead King Basin and straight that takes you through Devil’s Punchbowl up over Schofield Pass. We had visited a couple of weeks earlier only to turn around at Devil’s Punchbowl due to heavy rains which makes a relatively sketchy shelf road that much more dangerous. We were hoping our fortunes would be more favorable today and we would have the drive in dry conditions.


This shot gives a bit of perspective of what the road is like on the way up to Devil’s Punchbowl. From this point till the Punchbowl, you would not want to encounter any traffic coming down since there is absolutely no pullouts.


At Devil’s Punchbowl we encountered a few Land Crusiers that had just come down through the renowned section. My plan was to walk up and scout it a bit on foot first but since a crew of 4 built Toyotas had just started up a few minutes before we decided not to waste anytime and get going. Having some vehicles ahead meant not encountering down traffic and having to deal with passing on a section that yielded only one spot where you could allow a vehicle by. The reason this section is held in such regard is that it climbs steeply, is narrow, and the rocks that were blasted in the 1890’s to build this road are rugged, and slope out towards the precipice below. This is considered the deadliest road in Colorado and has had its share of bad accidents, including a Suburban full of people sliding off and dropping a large distance into one of the waterfall plungepools. Only one person managed to survive. Though not the most technical trail out there, it has high consequences and a bit of a pucker factor. Given that we had just run Black Bear Pass the weekend before, my sense of fear was dulled a bit and I didn’t find it to be scary at all. I don’t have any pictures of the notorious part, but Julie did walk with the baby and shoot some video which I may try to add into this later. This pic was taken just beyond the bend of the hard part.


Looking up from the same point. The ledge road ends in sight above. From that point it is simply crossing the river and dealing with a few rocky sections before getting to the well maintained portion of Schofield Pass. Once we made it to that point we saw numerous people as practically any car can drive from Crested Butte and over Schofield to the top of Punch Bowl. I lived in Crested Butte in the ’90’s but had never been along the stretch down to Marble so this was quite satisfying to accomplish.


Crossing over Schofield is was nice to see a lineup of mountain bikers getting ready to hit the 401 trail, a Crested Butte mountain biking classic. On the way down towards Crested Butte we pulled off for a break on Emerald Lake.


The lake had a nice Lake Superior feel to it. 😉


We headed down into Crested Butte, its been probably 10 years since I was here last. Cool to see not much had changed. After grabbing some Mexican food for lunch we strolled around town a bit. CB is still one of my favorite towns and one of the last true Colorado ski towns. Its relative proximity to… well nothing helps to preserve its character to a degree. Being the original stomping grounds of some of the most innovative big mountain skiers gives it immediate street cred in the ski world. Its other huge claim is that of having the National Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Mountain biking cut its teeth here in the late 70’s as locals rode balloon tired clunkers on trails in the area around the same time that Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze, and Gary Fischer were pioneering the sport on Mt Tam in the bay area. It still is a true mecca for the mountain bike scene.


Some love for the license plate house.


While visiting town was fun, we wanted to get going and find some solitude and camp for the night. Thunderstorms were passing through sporadically now, which is typical for CO in the summer but this summer has been a pretty wet one. Our plan was to cross Pearl Pass and make Aspen by tomorrow. As we worked out way the 20 miles up to the pass we drove through rain saturated roads complete with mud, water, and general sogginess. The route of Pearl Pass is a classic. It is rugged, challenging at times and extremely scenic. It skirts the edge of the Maroon Bells and at times you are left with a feeling of seclusion. We pulled off for a break here, Teocalli Mountain in the background.


Upward and onward! Crossing a substantial scree field, taking our time.


There are several sections on the way up Pearl Pass that require some line selection and careful tire placements. We put the FJ Cruiser to the test several times with the wet rock and gooey soil. Everytime I doubted our ability to climb an obstacle, the FJC used its Atrac to seek out traction wherever it could, even when three-wheeling over large rocks. It worked great and made for little stress.


Now well above tree line, Mt Crested Butte is seen in the background.


The final shelf road along the way to the top of Pearl Pass. It is quite narrow in places with washouts requiring the passenger to help spot tire placement.


There are some great colors along the mountains here from various minerals. It adds an almost surreal feel to the view from Pearl Pass.


Success. Taking a short break on the top of Pearl Pass.


Family pic with the Maroon Bells in the background. Kruz was in his element and as content as could be all day.


The scree field you cross descending Pearl Pass towards Aspen is immense. The amount of effort put in, to build a route across it is staggering.


Daylight was fading fast and with the constant barrage of thunderstorms we would have to push on till we had cover below treeline. Twilight with the surrounding storms added a eery feel with the light.


While the Crested Butte side is generally considered the more technical side of the pass, there are a few rugged sections on the Aspen side that when combined with fleeting day light and heavy rains makes for some interesting descents.


If I had to pick one image that captured the nature of this trip, this might be it. While we originally had all intentions of preserving a good amount of time each day to relax at camp, today’s schedule had us pushing well into dark in driving rain and thunderstorms. We would be meeting our friends Shaun and Meredith the following day in Aspen and needed to get close enough to town that we could be there on time. No cell reception means, no changing the plans.


We descended well below tree line. We passed several camps where people were either sitting in their cars, or huddled under tarps as the rains continued. It was an inky black night. A good ways down I found a suitable spot off of the trail in a nice flat meadow. I waited for a slight lull in the rain, then set about setting the tent up quickly. 4 minutes or so to get it deployed and our goods we needed for the night up into it. It was a true team effort. Where as prior to having little Kruz with us, we would tag team the tent deployment and could have it up in 2 mintues. Now with the Kruzter, she would change him and tend to him while I got the shelter erected. Soon we were all up in the tent listening to the sound of rain pelting the fabric and thunder echoing off the mountains around us. Not many better ways to sleep than to that soundtrack. We awoke to a bright bluebird morning, pictured above. Since we pushed late the night before, we took liberties with sleeping in and enjoying some breakfast and tea.


I did a little inspection of the skid plates after a few good hits the night before. Descending down in darkness it was hard to see some of the ledges and drop offs and a couple little scuffs, and this one good ding in the skid plate were the fruits of that struggle.


Amongst the Maroon Bells


After packing up and driving the rest of the way down to Aspen, we grabbed lunch with the Goodwins at my favorite little divey sandwich shop, Johnny Maquires. Aspen isn’t really my season, and after getting our food fix we negotiated the rather busy town avoiding Lamborghinis and other exotica. Using pavement we drove down to Basalt, then east past the Reudi Reservoir before starting the climb up Haggerman Pass. Today was to be a day of leisure, early afternoon at camp, good food, catching up, and some laughs.


Haggerman Pass was originally an old rail line. Towards the top when the road runs out of good grading, the old rail road grade continues out and winds its way up and around towards a spot in the ridge where it went through an old tunnel. We followed the old grade to where it is partially collapsed into the mountain.


To our surprise, you could still see into the old tunnel despite the collapse near the entrance. The tunnel was half full of water but you could still see in a ways, into the darkeness and see the whale bones of old timber supports disappearing into the abyss. Shaun hatched a future plan to bring kayaks and explore this underground water tunnel at 11,000 feet. Interesting, might have to report back on that one.


The view looking out from the tunnel. Clouds were beginning to fill the sky.


If you have read all of my blog postings, you might remember Shaun Goodwin as the crazy guy that I crossed Chile’s Atacama desert with, in a 2wd pickup, with virtually no provisions. He’s one of my best buds and Kruz’s godfather. He is getting a little bonding time with the little man at a camp we found near the old tunnel.


We had a nice roaring fire, a dinner with a pretty good spread, even Ginga the chug was pretty happy with her monkey sweater on. Good timing on our part had us done with dinner right before we had a huge downpour of rain from a thunderstorm passing by us. We were camped on the backside of Mt Massive, the second tallest peak in Colorado, 2nd only to its neighbor, Mt Elbert. The weather hitting the range behind us made for some pretty spectacular light works.


Rain showers


Meredith and Julie took shelter with the baby while Shaun and I snapped pics of this awesome double rainbow over the lake next to our camp.


Our setup again proved to be good for the unexpected weather. Always good to have a place to go when the skies open up.


Day break with some mist rolling off the lake.


We cheffed up a big breakfast, then rolled back down to meet the Haggerman Pass Road which would bring us up and over towards Leadville.


Julie and the bambino on the top of Haggerman Pass. The range in the distance would be our next crossing.


Some cool skies over Mt Massive as we descended down towards Leadville.


Couldn’t help but to admire this beauty in Leadville. I imagine it sounds like a pipe organ and can tune into Miami Vice while cruising the highway. So we got to Leadville in time for lunch and had the desire to go local. We hit the Silver Dollar Saloon thinking it would be about as authentic as it could be. Problem was the service was SO terrible that it took us 2 1/2 hours to get burgers despite there being practically no one in there. On top of it the burgers had hair in them. By the time we got out of there it was after 4. Shaun and Meredith were originally planning on doing the final push with us up and over Mosquito Pass but it was getting too late in the day thanks to our dining experience. They had to bail. They aired up and hit the highway to Denver while Julie, Kruz and I went for our 4th pass of the trip, the highest pass in North America, Mosquito Pass.


The great thing about Mosquito Pass is that it wastes no time climbing. Seeing that Leadville itself is at 10,200 feet, it doesn’t take long to get above treeline, waaaay above treeline. I hadn’t done Mosquito Pass yet myself so was excited over the prospect of a new trail. The switchbacks are relatively steep but not technical and it was a breeze getting up to the top.


There definitely is an element of driving on top of the world.


Family shot at the top. As was the case most of the 3 days of this trip, we saw hardly anyone, a couple in a Jeep at the top briefly and we were pretty much alone.


Looking back west from the top. The sunlight highlighting the valley near Leadville. It was a pretty uneventful descent down to Alma. We were still getting periodical rain showers, and were still in awe of the scenery.


The upper terminus of the tram from the New London Mine. This was the first tram system in Colorado and was used to transport raw material down the mountain to a facility where it could be processed.

After getting back down to pavement in Alma, near Hoosier Pass, I fired up the Warn Powerplant and aired us back up for the drive home. We had accomplished what we set out to do. Get from Marble to Breckinridge. We didn’t have time to do Boreas Pass which is just an easy dirt road, but we did get all the rest of the route in. We managed to do the “most deadly” road in Colorado as well as the highest, plus had to earn it a bit on Pearl Pass. 3 days, 4 passes and some great memories. It was the last hurrah of our summer and was a great way for Julie, Kruz and I to celebrate our new life in CO and finally getting settled in. We are pretty excited to take advantage of our new location in the near future. I am hoping to keep the blog a bit better updated and catch up on some trips and things from last winter, spring and summer.

Will be sharing an October outing next likely. Will be cool to see Kruz grow throughout our forthcoming adventures. Till next time…

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