From the trailhead parking area, head NE into the forest on the well-used trail #1970 that eventually leads to West Maroon Pass. This trail has much to commend it. It starts out passing through a heavily wooded forest, comes to a couple of old cabins (photo op) and then begin climbing steeply above the cabins for a while before exiting the forest and heading into open meadows full of wildflowers, especially the alpine sunflower (Showy Goldeneye), paintbrush and columbines.
For more than two miles, the trail heads northeast, gaining steadily but never steeply. At about 2.5 miles, the trail begins to turn east and climbs more steeply toward West Maroon Pass. This turn will be taking you away from where you really need to go. If you continue on the trail, at 11,720 ft., and about 3.4 miles from the trailhead, you will intersect Trail #1974. Turn left onto this trail for Frigid Air Pass. If doing this hike in mid-July, you will still be hiking through lush stands of wildflowers. Looking at a map, it might make some sense to shortcut things by heading more directly uphill about the time the West Maroon Pass Trail makes its turn to the east. There's a lone group of trees there that make a good place to begin heading straight uphill. Doing this will save nearly 2 miles one-way of hiking, but be warned that there is no trail through all the lush vegetation which can be a boot-wetting slog in the morning and time wise, may not prove to be an advantage, plus you may end up trampling a lot of vegetation & flowers.
Once on the Frigid Air Pass trail, hike NW toward another trail intersection along a fairly level stretch. We figured the trail to the pass was going to head directly up to a saddle just east of UN 12,648, but instead, we found it to switch direction after a short distance and head back east as it steeply gained another low spot in the ridge above. As you near the pass, it steepens considerably and becomes a little loose and gravely. At the pass, pause for a break and a chance to enjoy the expansive view of Fravert Basin before you and the East Fork of the Crystal River you have just hiked up. For years, going all the way back to my college days, I had wanted to hike in Fravert Basin. We had seen it many times from the summits of surrounding peaks but had never actually ventured into it. The access by a pass named “Frigid Air” seemed to add to the romance of the place. In reality, it’s mostly just a high, tundra basin with a stand of trees further down. Much of the mid basin near the creek is filled with willows.
Moving on from the pass, the trail descends on multiple switchbacks for a few hundred feet before heading out across the tundra. On this north side of the pass, the flora changes dramatically. Now it is mostly marsh marigolds, Parry’s Primrose and pink paintbrush. Gone are the magnificent fields of a large array of flowers, nevertheless, it is still a beautiful area. Further on, the trail begins to push through the willows and lose elevation down toward the trees, where it really begins to drop. As you drop down through the forest, the trail will begin to level out as it comes alongside the creek. Along this stretch there will be at least a couple of designated backcountry campsites. Keep descending the trail to about 10,850 ft., or a little bit before the map shows it descending to a lower basin on switchbacks. Now, it's time to cross the creek and get busy climbing the summit you came all this way to do.
After a couple of false starts, we found a low, rock ridge that extended north toward the creek and allowed access through all the willows without a major battle. This was very close to the 10,800 foot contour line and we have tried to point it out on a couple of the photos. To cross the creek, we located a spot to wade across, taking our boots off. After crossing, begin the arduous and final leg of this long day. From here, you need to ascend nearly 2,300 feet to the summit far above and a little west along the ridge. We began the ascent passing through more lush flowers and sought a path of least resistance avoiding low willows. The hiking will become very steep, but the heavily vegetated slopes will prevent you from sliding down, at least too much. You may be tempted to go up through some red rock cliffs further west but it's best to avoid that area because you might become cliffed out. We chose another route that kept us between cliff outcrops and on tundra and grass slopes. Stick with the intensely steep slope and eventually, you'll reach the ridge east of the summit.
Once on that main ridge, the tundra gives way to mostly scree & rubble, but the walking is fairly easy going. We thought we would gain the summit quickly because we could see a high point not too far away with a large cairn on it, but it turned out to be a false summit, so when you see that, continue the westward trek heading for the more distant high point. It took longer than expected to arrive, but we made it by about 1:00 PM, six hours from the trailhead. In this range, don't be surprised to find yourself being threatened by distant thunder. Sign the summit register and beat a path out of there if afternoon storms are building, but try to leave some time to get a quick view of the head of Snowmass Creek before heading back. The overall view here is very impressive with Hagerman and Snowmass to the NW, the Maroon Bells to the east and Belleview SE. Head back east along the same ridge as before, walking a little past a section we call "sidewalk-in-the-sky," (you'll understand when you see it) and as much as possible descend by your ascent route. Try to get this 2,300 foot drop over with as quickly as possible (before afternoon showers) because a descent on wet tundra and grass on the steep slopes below would be very difficult.
As we walked along the ridge, we overshot the correct place to start our descent, so had to back track some before going back down. Fortunately, the rain never materialized to any great degree so our descent was more safely made down the steep, vegetated slopes. We tried to stay on our ascent route, by looking for trampled vegetation and other markers but it was difficult to do so. At some places, we managed to stay on route and at others we diverged. One small row of conifers about 2/3rds way down served as a bearing marker and eventually, we made it all the way back down to the creek and the same crossing point. This was easy to see from above, especially the rock outcrop that takes you over to the creek from the south bank with little problem.
Once you get back down to the creek and get across, you may want to take a good rest break at one of the backcountry campsites. Eat some food and rest the feet a little for the long trudge out, which includes regaining nearly 1600 vertical feet back to Frigid Air pass. Though tired and having a long way to go yet, we found that stopping for more photos of the back side of the Bells and the wildflowers was mandatory. Then comes the endless switchbacks back up to Frigid Air Pass. Once across the pass, it's finally all downhill. At the trail junction for Frigid Air Pass, we paused for some photos at the Frigid Air Pass sign. We joked about one of us taking off most of our clothes and standing strategically behind the sign looking like we were freezing to death (which we would have been) and taking some photos. But since it was now well past 5:00PM, we didn’t want to bother. Though it was not raining, skies were cloudy, it was breezy and we just wanted to get back. For us, this arduous, long day finally ended twelve hours after it had begun, but we must confess that we spent at least an hour and a half taking photos. This is one extraordinary hike. Save it for the height of the wildflower season.
Links to other information, routes & trip reports for this peak that may be helpful.