Marolt: Pain and gain from a hike to Crested Butte

Roger Marolt
Cluster Phobic
Roger Marolt

The thing about a great vacation is that you spend your time doing nothing important, and it makes whatever you do in your regular, everyday life seem less important than that. No wonder it’s so hard when they are over.

What could be less important than hiking over the mountains between here and Crested Butte? Not much. I guess that’s why I’m struggling with re-entry after the blip of a hiatus called a long weekend at that mountain resort that all the major publications seem to forget when they put together their lists of “The Best,” which, incidentally, probably means it is actually one of the best.

A hike to Crested Butte from Maroon Lake has all the elements of an endurance race without the deleterious nervousness before the starter’s pistol and the delayed disappointment at the end of not doing as well as you wanted.

Make no exhausting mistake, despite the fact that almost everyone you know has done it, covering the 15 or so gently climbing miles over East Maroon Creek trail or the significantly shorter, but far more severe West Maroon Creek trail makes for a tough day. Stopping to smell the wildflowers has never been more challenging.

Here’s the thing, though: Despite what we are led to believe by city dwellers who pay good money to believe that Snowmass Village is wilderness, we don’t really and truly live in the mountains. We reside at a high enough altitude surrounded by them. That’s the most I will concede.

We see the mountains every day for sure, but they are like the cover on a book. Once you get past that, it’s like a new world revealed. I know this is true because, if we really did live in the mountains, when we got to a place like Maroon Lake we wouldn’t say, “Wow!” And, when we got to places just a mile or so further away from a road or outhouse we wouldn’t think, “I need to come here more often!”

We picture the effort needed to hike a rough trail at high altitude with stream crossings where we have to take off our boots and are rewarded with a shot of adrenaline. We get in a walking rhythm and feel the fatigue and soreness coming on, and our bodies produce endorphins to get us through. We cross mountain passes at over 12,000 feet above sea level, and there is so little oxygen in the air that our brains are fooled into taking on daydreams as reality. As the shadows of the late afternoon grow, we instinctively feel that shelter of some kind must be reached. That’s what life in the mountains is like.

I’m never sure about the person who tells me they are completely comfortable in the wild. If they truly are, then I don’t think they fully grasp where they are. And, if they don’t really grasp where they are, they might as well stay at home.

Being familiar, enjoying and knowing how to take care of yourself are different than being completely comfortable in nature. Once I survived a horrific week-long storm in the mountains. If I ever get so far removed from the reality of that experience that I believe I am at ease, I hope somebody confines me to my armchair for storytelling. At that point I will have become a danger to myself.

It’s not that hiking to Crested Butte through the heart of the Colorado Rockies is inherently dangerous. It’s just that it could be. This is the factor that makes the peaks look higher and the rivers whiter. It’s what makes you feel that there are limits to the benefits of a cool breeze. It’s what makes you watch the clouds across a blue sky with more than passing interest. It makes you realize how the boulder field you are crossing got there in the first place. Strangely, it makes it enjoyable.

This awareness kindles something inside. It’s the thing that makes me understand that revolutionary things like an iPhone are only significant within range of other things that man has created and worth almost nothing in places still left mostly untouched.

It is that lingering thought that makes my to-do list seem not so important to get done this morning. It seemed like such an important, consuming document a few days ago. I must still be on my way down, to the place where everything can be explained on or before a given deadline. If my body could take it, I’d head out on another hike this afternoon.

Roger Marolt knows the loss of sensation when a blister turns into callous. Contact him at