Marolt: Overloading the infrastructure of nature

Roger Marolt
Cluster Phobic

The challenging four-pass loop — it’s as remote as you can get in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness Area. It’s an arduous hike that includes crossing the highest mountain passes around here: West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider and Buckskin, all around 12,500 feet above sea level. It’s designated wilderness areas, so you have to cross them on foot. It’s quite an experience. Ask the more than 450 people who were enjoying it on a recent Saturday.

Every able-bodied person in the area should get out and enjoy things like this incredible hike. The good news is that many are. The bad is that there might be too many of us here all at once.

In July and August, local hikes have become something resembling stilted shuffles through must-see attractions. There aren’t exactly waiting lines to get to places like American, Cathedral, Maroon and Weller lakes, but between watching your step and watching the backs of people ahead, stepping aside for others moving the opposite direction, passing those ambling at a slower pace, finding a vacant spot to rest and smiling friendly “hellos” to everyone, there’s not much opportunity to look around and soak it all in.

You want to jump in the Punchbowl? Get in line. Be prepared for parking hassles if you want to float through the nature preserve on Stillwater. The ghost towns of Ashcroft and Independence have more people in them now than at the peak of the mining era.

During the prime time to be outside, our surrounding mountains and forests have become something far less than what we hope to experience. Conundrum Hot Springs, 10 miles from the trailhead up Ashcroft Road, is about as remote as you can get, yet the place resembles a carnival on the typical summer day. It’s almost to the point where you have to wait in line to take a dip in the natural hot spring. At the end of the day, the bushes surrounding the area are a veritable lost and found rack of graying underwear and mud-stained socks. It has become one of those things everyone should experience but few will enjoy.

I can’t get behind the idea of requiring permits for the right to hike to our popular mountain attractions. “Wilderness” and “permit” should never be used in the same sentence. What’s next — one “fast pass” per family per week to get to the front of the line for the hike to Crater Lake, designated passing lanes on steeper sections of trails and permit scalpers in the parking lots?

We experience the crowds on the streets of Aspen from the period between Food & Wine in June until the music festival shuts down at the end of August. We also hear a lot from Aspen Skiing Co. and the local Chamber of Commerce about how we more hotel rooms — or “hot beds,” as the pros call them. This begs the question about how much tourism and the promotion of it our small and popular part of the world needs. To counter those who say enough is enough, the argument that our infrastructure can be modified to handle even more is always floated.

But what about the infrastructure of nature? Sure, we could modify it to accommodate massive crowds by widening and paving trails, erecting handrails and concrete barriers, and installing public restroom facilities above timberline. We could build concession stands and information booths, I suppose. But modifying the infrastructure of nature is not really modifying it at all; it is destroying it.

This non-option then leaves us with limiting people into nature. If you are here and are prevented from experiencing nature for lack of a permit, that’s a shame. But if you are not here, you can’t be too disappointed. You will have to try booking again when there is some vacancy. The answer would then seem to be to limit the number of people who can be here at any given time. It is time to seriously consider not providing more room and board — to not build new hotels and restaurants.

It’s not an issue of begin selfish. It is about keeping the bread and butter fresh and appetizing and rationing it out to feed generations. It is about preserving something truly special that people will make sacrifices to see, and it will still be worthwhile.

Aspen’s streets are packed, traffic is jammed, and it’s hard to find a place to eat, but we still can’t seem to convince ourselves that we are beyond full capacity now. However, if you just take a local hike to get away from it all, you’ll find that you can’t just get away from it all anymore. I think that means we’re full.

Roger Marolt thinks a Matterhorn ride on Fanny Hill could relieve some of the crowding on West Maroon Peak. Email


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