Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
If you hiked West Maroon Pass to Crested Butte this summer, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating when I say the trail was like a conga line. You simply merged into the procession and marched. If you stopped, you lost your place and had to wait for a perch at the summit.
Rain or shine, huge crowds convened on this most popular mountain pass in the Elk Range. I crossed West Maroon four times this summer and I’ve never seen such traffic. On one picture perfect Saturday a Forest Service volunteer, with counter in hand, tallied almost 200 hikers crossing West Maroon in both directions. There were at least 30 people crowded onto the pass at any one time. Photo ops looked like class pictures as rows of hikers lined up on tiers of rock at 12,500 feet.
This harks to the lament from the ’70s: “We are loving the wilderness to death.” That’s when hiking, and especially backpacking, were marking incredible growth. That growth seemed to taper in the ’80s and early ’90s, but now the crowds are back and bigger than ever. Trail chatter alone is enough to warrant ear plugs for purists seeking solitude as throngs shoulder their way through willow canopies and jam the trail for wildflower photos. West Maroon Pass has become more a botanical park than a raw wilderness, and with cell service coming to Maroon Lake, more chatter will fill the air.
Last weekend, I walked back from Crested Butte via Conundrum Hot Springs where dozens of backpackers shuffled along the trail to what Time Magazine listed as one of the top 50 natural destinations in the US. One could hardly stop to pee for the constant press of humanity. A pack-out-your-poop policy is being urged by the Forest Service before water quality becomes a serious problem. A grant from the Aspen Skiing Co. environment fund this year supplied 2,000 poop bags at the trailhead.
Cathedral Lake, American Lake, and Lost Man trails are almost as popular, drawing legions of hikers who exult in the sublime beauty of nature while socializing with friends and family. Not even the thin air at 12,000 feet inhibits conversations about hair dressers, foreign travel, home decor, hiking fashions and the latest movies. Nature becomes a mere backdrop to conversation, which is an ironic counterpart to the contemplative experience wilderness supposedly invites.
Rather than getting cynical over what some consider the degradation of the wilds, I find it reassuring. To see people happily walking hard, rocky trails is evidence that nature immersion is nurturing many different needs. Also evident in mass wilderness pilgrimages is the growing political will to conserve wilderness. As Aldo Leopold said: In order to save something, you must love it, and in order to love it, you must know and appreciate it. There are thousands of hikers who love and appreciate wild places – and hopefully will rally to defend and expand them.
There are plenty of wild places to go for solitude, so resentment of the few popular routes is a little selfish. I must remind myself of this while waiting at a stream crossing as a dozen queue up before me. Still, loving the land is better than disregarding it. A resurgent trend toward wilderness is the best thing for conservation initiatives like the Hidden Gems campaign, which ought to be handing out brochures at popular trailheads.
West Maroon Pass also provides a harmonious exchange between Aspen and Crested Butte. The Elk Range becomes, not a dividing line, but rather a unifying geographic feature, offering a huge economic stimulus for Crested Butte. As I hear it, summer in the Butte has eclipsed their winter ski economy, with wilderness as the currency.
This wilderness-loving trend will only grow as hiking gear becomes lighter, the fitness ethic expands, and the love for nature in wild places gains a credible spiritual, esthetic and philosophical footing. Now, if only hikers could speak with hushed library voices through these sacred places there will be no need to issue earplugs along with poop bags at the trailheads.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.