Maroon Bells Traverse (7/19/10)
Last week, I decided that I wanted to climb a difficult Fourteener, after being turned back just shy of Crestone Peak’s summit a couple of weeks earlier. Originally I had thought about joining my friend, Jon, from work on Capitol Peak, but he and his friend were going up on a day I had to work. So out of nowhere, I thought “Hey, why not give the Bells Traverse a shot?” So I mentioned it to my buddy, Matt, and he said he was down. Then I asked Jon if he and his friend wanted to go, even though they were climbing Capitol the day before, and he said he was down. So it was a go.
Part of me was excited, while part of me was thinking, “what the hell am I getting myself into?” The Bells Traverse, after all, has a few Class 5 pitches on it, but the rock is bad enough up there that roping up is not a good idea since (1) ropes can knock down a lot of loose rock, and (2) there are really no good places to set anchors. Nevertheless, I felt like we had a good, experienced group heading up there (Jon and Chris both skied from the summit of North Maroon around Memorial Day), so I took on the “Bring it on!” mindset.
I took off from work just after 3:00 on Sunday, picked up some food, and swung by Matt’s place in Golden, just a few blocks from where I work. We left around four and drove to Aspen, stopping in Glenwood Springs for some delicious barbecue at the Rib House (they had mustard-based sauce and pulled pork… a win in my books!). I didn’t get in touch with Jon until we left Glenwood Springs, as he and Chris had just gotten off the trail after a 14-hour day on Capitol Peak. However, they were still down to ring the Bells, so we all met at the trailhead around dark. We didn’t wake up insanely early since Jon and Chris needed some extra rest after climbing Capitol, so we set our alarms for 3:30 and set off from Maroon Lake shortly after 4:00.
After an easy 3.5 mile hike from Maroon Lake, we found the odd-shaped tree, which is the landmark for the turnoff to the route up South Maroon Peak. From here it was time for the section known as the “2800 feet of suck”. We had to hike up an insanely steep trail through grass and, higher up, loose rock to the ridge line, gaining 2,800 feet in a mile. While it was certainly a tough hike, I felt like it would have been worse going down.
Jon doing a little bit of scrambling
Nearing South Maroon’s ridge
The “2800 feet of suck” was the most difficult part of South Maroon. From the ridge line at about 13,000 feet, it was a fun scramble up to the summit. I didn’t find it to be nearly as hard as it’s made out to be, and the four of us did a nice job of route-finding. The excellent route description from 14ers.com, which I had printed out, certainly didn’t hurt either. Shortly after continuing past the ridge, we dropped onto the left side of South Maroon and scrambled up a fun Class-3 chimney.
From here, we traversed across the mountain until reaching a snow patch that appeared to be the start of one of the two “nasty and loose gullies” described on the 14ers.com route description. We had the option of climbing either gully. I believe we climbed the first gully described, and it was pretty loose and nasty, but we made it through this section very quickly. We actually ended up climbing too far up the gully, but were able to work our way around to some ledges to the left. By this point, the rock was much more tolerable and enjoyable.
After some more traversing, we scrambled up a gully between the summit and sub-peak 13,753′ to the right.
Not far from the summit, we reached some ledges that were awesome to scramble across.
After rounding the final corner shown in the picture above, we quickly reached the summit ridge, with a short, easy scramble separating us from the top of South Maroon Peak.
We reached the summit at about 9:30 a.m. Even though our day was just beginning, the feeling of standing atop one of the Maroon Bells was incredible. There’s nothing quite like standing atop one of North America’s most iconic mountains (similar feeling to the Grand Teton, which not coincidentally, is the most photographed mountain along with the Maroon Bells).
We didn’t hang out for long, though. A few clouds were starting to form, but the weather still looked like it would be good for a while and the temperatures were some of the warmest I had experienced on a Fourteener in quite some time, so we decided to go for the traverse. The connecting ridge to North Maroon was certainly intimidating looking, and Matt actually decided it was too much for his comfort level, so he opted to turn around. I was caught off guard at first – I really wanted to do the traverse, especially with good conditions and a good group of climbers, but I also didn’t want him descending South Maroon Peak alone. He assured me he would be fine, though, and told me not to pass up the traverse, so I decided to continue. However, the rest of the day I found myself second-guessing my decision. In hindsight, I won’t ever leave someone behind in an area like that again (unless they are able to join another group or something) even though he insisted I should continue. Fortunately, he has good mountain sense and made it down without any problems, but admittedly, the guilt crossed my mind a few times the rest of the day.
From the summit, we had a daunting view of what lay ahead of us.
The down-climb to the saddle between the two peaks was relatively short, but it was a pain in the ass. With loose, metamorphic rock, we had to be careful on the descent.
Once reaching the saddle, the route became serious. There were three main “difficulties”, according to the route description, with the first one laying just ahead of us. The first difficulty involved a climb up a dihedral, which was mostly Class 4, with maybe a couple of low Class 5 moves. It wasn’t too bad, though… it was kind of fun, actually, and certainly easier than what was to come.
Shortly after scaling the dihedral, we reached the second of three difficulties. This one seemed to have several challenges, and was by far the most demanding part of our day, both in terms of climbing and route-finding. We first climbed a solid Class 5 face just to the right of the ridgeline. By this point, we were all realizing that this route was no joke, and I would be lying if I said there weren’t a couple of sections that spooked us a little bit! The first face we climbed on this section was definitely exciting!
After topping out on the first pitch of the second difficulty, we were scrambled up onto an exhilarating ridge with awesome exposure!
We exited the ridge pretty quickly and came face to face with the most difficult part of the entire route. There was no obvious way to scale the next face that lay in front of us. We kept looking for routes on the left (west) side of the ridge, but there was just nothing we felt comfortable with being un-roped. I even tried a face I thought looked reasonable at one point, but then hit a section less than halfway up with a move I just didn’t feel comfortable making without a rope, so Jon guided me as I climbed back down, and then we continued to look for a good way.
I eventually went back around the more exposed right (east) side of the ridge and found a reasonable option. I called Jon and Chris over, and Jon also found a a climbable gully a little farther beyond the one I had found… honestly, I can’t remember which one we decided on, as there was a lot going on in our minds in a short period of time. Right before we climbed this section I remember taking it all in, thinking about how small I felt in an exposed area surrounded by huge mountains… it was actually a pretty awesome feeling.
Chris led the way up the gully we decided on, then I went next, followed by Jon. There was one handhold that seemed great until I noticed it was kind of loose as I worked my way past it. While Jon was making his way up this section, he asked me what move I made, and I said, “Man, I hate to say it, but I didn’t notice that rock was loose until I was in the process of making the move, so I honestly don’t know”. I tried to help him, but fortunately, he figured out a way past it. We had to climb one more short section to reach the ridge again, but it wasn’t too difficult. Regardless, I think all three of us were glad to have this part behind us.
We still had one more difficulty to deal with, and more route-finding issues lay before us at this point. Although exposed, we traversed along the exposed east side hoping to find a reasonable way to scale the final difficulty. However, we continued to follow a path along the east side that was reasonable to walk across, in spite of the exposure, and eventually we reached a saddle and realized we had inadvertently bypassed the third difficulty! From here, it was just a straight-forward scramble to the summit of North Maroon
From here, it was a relatively short Class 3/4 scramble to the summit (which was pretty easy compared to what we had been on!). We had seen a couple of other people on the summit, but they were gone by the time we made it to the top. Since it was a Monday, we didn’t see anyone else on the Bells all day. After gaining about 500 vertical feet or so, the summit of North Maroon greeted us at 12:30 p.m. It had taken 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete the traverse (I was expecting no more than 2 hours), but knowing that we had just “rung the Bells” was an awesome feeling!
Skies were beginning to threaten a little bit while we were on the summit, and we still had a long descent down North Maroon, so we didn’t hang around on the summit too long, in spite of the comfortable temperatures and calm winds.
Right as we were downclimbing the crux of North Maroon’s standard route, a short Class 4 section, it began to thunder and lightning. This was not good since we were still at least 13,000 feet high. Just as the three of us finished down-climbing this section, we saw a huge lightning strike right in front of us (in the valley below us, as seen in the above picture) and an almost-instantaneous BOOM of thunder.
“Oh shit, here we go,” I thought. We decided to hunker down and wait it out, which is about all you can do when you’re caught in a storm that high on a mountain. We saw several more big lightning strikes that were a little too close for comfort, but all we could do was wait. It then started to pour down hail on us, and strong winds pelted us with hail as it covered the ground within a minute or two. In a way it was kind of cool to see the power of a thunderstorm from where we were, but at the same time, I don’t really like seeing lightning on the side of a mountain at 13,000 feet!
After about 10 or 15 minutes, the storm moved on, and we were able to continue moving down the mountain.
The hike down pretty much sucked to honest. Already exhausted, we lost the route at one point and probably lost an hour trying to figure out where to go. I remember at one point, all three of us had different opinions on the best way to go, and as it turned out, none of us knew what the hell we were talking about. Eventually, we negotiated our way down some ledges on a cliff and regained the route lower down.
The rest of the way down involved me slipping and taking a big gash out of my hand on a rock (why you should always take a first-aid kit with you!), crossing a huge “rock glacier” with lots of large, loose boulders, and losing the trail and bushwhacking, all the while muttering lots of foul language as a result. Really, I’ve had worse hikes out, but when you’re tired, hiking down a steep mountain can be frustrating!
Fortunately, we had some nice views on the way down.
After finally making it back to an actual trail, the rest of the hike out was quick and easy. We made it back to the trailhead at about 6:00 where Matt was waiting for us (he had made it back a few hours earlier and had been relaxing all afternoon). It was a long, 14 hour day, but it was totally awesome! The Bells marked my 24th and 25th Fourteeners, so I still have a long way to go before climbing all 58, but two of the most difficult ones are now completed.
I’d like to give a big shout out to Jon, Chris, and Matt for being awesome climbing partners… having a strong and knowledgeable group of mountain climbers on a route like this is important… and to Matt for being so cool about descending South Maroon by himself and encouraging us to continue the traverse without him. By the way, I found out later that this was just Matt’s third Fourteener climbed… doing one of the hardest fourteeners (some people say that South Maroon is the hardest) as just your third total is pretty impressive!
Check out Jon’s account of the day here