Maroon Bells

The Maroon Bells and Crater Lake, as seen by a drone deployed by Mountain Rescue Aspen in the search for two overdue backpackers who set out on an early-season attempt of the Four Pass Loop. The drone, flying at about 500 feet above the ground, located the hikers on Wednesday evening.

Two hikers who set out for an early-season attempt of the Four Pass Loop were one day overdue when they were located near Crater Lake by a Mountain Rescue Aspen drone on Wednesday.

The hikers — males in their 20s, one from the Front Range and the other from New England, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office — departed on Sunday and were planning to complete the 27-mile hike spanning four backcountry passes over 12,000 feet by Tuesday.

The father of one of the hikers called authorities on Wednesday morning when he had not heard from his son, a sheriff’s office release says. The Forest Service trailhead register near Maroon Lake confirmed that the pair had set out on the loop on Sunday.

The sheriff’s office notified Mountain Rescue Aspen, which launched a search of the area. A helicopter from the Colorado Army National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Site was deployed to aid in the search, as well as local fixed-wing aircraft. In addition, a Mountain Rescue Aspen-operated drone was deployed in the Maroon Bells area. A total of 10 MRA search personnel were in the backcountry to facilitate the search.

At 5:20 p.m. the two men were spotted by the drone that was flying at about 500 feet above the ground near Crater Lake, the release states. The two males were uninjured but tired, as they encountered deep snow on the trail that slowed their progress completing the Four Pass Loop. Both backpackers had been well equipped to spend an extra night in the wilderness and had brought extra food. However, they were unaware of the local conditions, as they did not realize the amount of snow and the trail conditions this time of year, according to a sheriff’s official.

“Mountain Rescue Aspen strongly recommends that backcountry users check the current weather and trail conditions as those conditions can be variable and hazardous this time of year,” the release says. “A two-way communications device is also recommended and can be of great value if delays or emergencies are encountered.”

The Four Pass Loop, which most often starts and ends at Maroon Lake and takes participants on a hike around the Maroon Bells using West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider and Buckskin passes, is one of the state’s most popular backpacking routes, but most people wait until snow has melted at higher elevations.

Because of the popularity of the trip and degraded wilderness conditions due to overuse — including campsites too close to trails and streams and waste issues — the Forest Service is planning to roll out a permit system for the Four Pass Loop. That system will not be up and running until at least the 2021 hiking season.