by Will Miles
At Curt’s Café on a Friday morning, Will patiently listened to Phil Madonna’s tales of his climbing days and the Fourteeners he had climbed some thirty years ago. Phil became especially sad as he remembered his climb on the Maroon Bells. Days long gone, never to return. Only the flickering of memories remained. Phil sighed. Will sighed with him. Silence reigned.
Finally, Will broke the poignant spell and volunteered to hike with Phil the short distance from Aspen to Crater Lake. Phil grinned ear to ear, whipped out a topo map and showed Will how WE could backpack a 46 mile loop starting at Crested Butte and looping around the Bells, climbing over four passes in four days.
Spectacular wild flowers on the route over Halsey Pass made the first day go quickly. We ambled over the world famous meadows filled with blooming asters, delicate Colorado columbines, purple lupines, red paint brushes and an array of several other golden species. The last half mile of the long and difficult Trail Rider’s Pass zig zags sharply uphill. As Phil approached this saddle he was pursued by a young trekker. Not to be passed in this last short section, Phil pushed himself, but during the final fifty yards the young speed demon streaked by. Phil looked up and there was Will surrounded by a group of trekkers staring down at him. Phil’s first thought was, “Oh my god, my fly is open.” Nope, the trekkers had been told by Will that his partner was 73 years old and they all began clapping vigorously. Phil tipped his hat and gave a graceful bow.
The next sun drenched morning we crossed over the famous Buckskin Pass and slipped by the front of Aspen’s Maroon Bells where we admired Crater Lake with a bevy of tourists from Aspen. Later, on the last and highest pass, West Maroon Pass, we found ourselves in the midst of an aging group of Aspen hikers with day packs who were on their way to Crested Butte, where a shuttle would return them to Aspen at day’s end. We dubbed them the wine and gourmet cheese hiking club. There must be something about the water in Aspen because everyone in their party had tight wrinkle-free skin and shiny white teeth. One woman asked Phil, “How heavy is that thing on your back?” When Phil replied, “About thirty-five pounds,” she exclaimed, “marvelous, just marvelous.” It was just the encouragement Phil needed to make it over the pass.
In the car driving home after four grueling days of schlepping heavy backpacks over mountain passes, Phil turned to Will and said, “Thanks, partner. I’m turning 74 this month and that was the last backpacking trip of my entire life.” Silence. Phil got an expectant look on his face: “Did I ever tell you how I used to canoe down rivers in Colorado when I was younger?”
Top: This is the snow chute Phil climbed 35 years ago en route to the summit of the Maroon Bells. photo by a fellow unnamed hiker
Above: Crater Lake below the Maroon Bells, the most photographed spot in Colorado. Phil started his climb of the Bells here 35 years ago. photo by Will Miles