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Berthoud Pass (12/7/10)

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On Tuesday, Jon, Sarah, and I met up at Berthoud Pass, where over a foot of fresh powder greeted us.  Jon had already skied a couple of dawn patrol laps at Jones Pass earlier in the morning before Sarah and I arrived at the pass at about 10:45 a.m.  While waiting for Jon to finish his “in-between ski tours” breakfast in Empire, Sarah and I skied a quick lap on the west side of the pass, aka the “gaper run”.  But to be fair, Jon was about 20-30 minutes behind us, and there wasn’t a single track on this run, so I figured we might as well make a quick lap.  It was short, but the turns we made were excellent and provided us with a few face shots.

First tracks on the west side of the pass
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We timed it almost perfectly as Jon arrived at the top of the pass just as we were making our quick run down the west side.  We all piled into my car and headed north of the pass to the Current Creek Trailhead.  From here, we skinned up to the 110’s area and made a couple of laps.  It was a relaxing and mellow day, as we enjoyed the scenery and solitude almost as much as the snow itself.  The skin up was very nice, while the turns on the way down happened to be pretty awesome as well.

On the way up
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Jon making some nice looking powder turns
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Sarah getting in on the action
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Looking back at some of our tracks
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Once we met back up with the skin track, we decided to head back up to the ridgeline for a second lap.  We headed skier’s left, rather than skier’s right, of the skin track on the descent this time and found some more goods.  At one point on the second lap, Jon took a nasty spill after hitting a hidden rock, but fortunately came out unscathed.  Otherwise the descent was great, and even skiing along the skin track back to the parking lot was fast, tight, and fun.  All in all, the snow conditions were fantastic.

At the top of the ridge, ready for round two
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Jon takes off
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The clouds slowly began to lift as the afternoon progressed
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Sarah making some turns
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Jon…
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Sarah…
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Jon…
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Sarah…
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Late afternoon sun on the way out
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While we were already skiing in a pretty safe area, as far as avalanches go, to begin with, we didn’t notice any obvious signs of instabilities in the snowpack.  However, there are dangers lurking out there.  Tragically, a local man lost his life in a hard slab avalanche near Dry Gulch on Sunday.  Also, a skier set off a large slide in the Second Creek area of Berthoud Pass just yesterday, and posted a dramatic video to accompany it.  More on both of these incidents later.  But for now, be careful out there… even if you don’t find any obvious signs of weaknesses in the snowpack, that doesn’t make avy-prone slopes safe to ski, as evidenced by recent hard slabs which, while less frequent, are often deadly.

But avalanche concerns aside, the early season snow conditions continue to be amazing, and another good storm is expected to hit northern Colorado tomorrow night!

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Colorado Snow Conditions Update – Dec 2

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In terms of early season skiing, the month of November was about as good as we could ask for in the Rockies.  Long range predictions had indicated a strong La Nina developing and bringing plenty of snow to Colorado by December, but it seemed to start earlier than predicted, leading to near record November snowfalls for some ski areas.  I had three fantastic backcountry days in November – better, in fact, than any backcountry days I had all of last season in terms of snow quality.  The resorts haven’t been doing too badly either, with many turning in epic opening days thanks to plenty of snow falling in the prior weeks.  I’ve been out nine times so far this year, easily a personal record (before this year, the most I’d ever skied before December was only two times I think).  Here is a little recap of the skiing conditions I have observed over the last couple of weeks, mainly around the Front Range.  Please feel free to send me your own recent observations!

Resort Skiing

Loveland (11/25)

On Thanksgiving morning, my friend Ryan, his girlfriend Brandi, and I skied at Loveland before the holiday festivities began.  It was a cold start to the morning, with a temperature of -2 when we got there around 9:30 (the official low was around -10 I believe).  Skies were completely clear, though, so in spite of the chilly lift rides, it was a beautiful morning.  Temperatures “warmed” into the single digits while we were there.

The amount of terrain open was impressive for so early in the year.  We made our way over to Chair 8, finding variable snow.  Strong winds a day or two before had created some hard wind-packed areas where turning was quite difficult (but still fun once we figured out we were better off straight-shooting these sections).  However, by the time we got to Chair 8, we found nice, soft snow in the trees that was a lot of fun to ski.  All in all, it was a fantastic Thanksgiving morning, with the advantage of burning extra calories to allow for more food consumption later in the day.

Winter Park (12/2)

This morning, I went up to Winter Park for a few hours and skied Mary Jane until my legs were about to fall off (which only took about 3 hours… hey come on, it’s early season, my skiing legs aren’t in that good of shape yet!).  The Jane was fantastic, though.  I was actually quite surprised.  There were very few people on the mountain today, while plenty of leftover untracked powder stashes could be found in the trees.  The weather was nice, and actually quite warm, but the snow still remained fresh when I took off around 1 p.m.  I had forgotten how much fun Mary Jane is to ski when the snow is good.  Right now, I’d say about 75% of the terrain on Mary Jane is open right now, which is quite impressive for this early in the year.  I scraped a few times on the bump runs far skiers right of the Challenger lift, but in the trees I was skiing, I don’t think I scraped at all as the coverage was quite good.

Backcountry Skiing

Berthoud Pass (11/17)

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have skied Berthoud Pass, so this report will be somewhat outdated, but should still give a good idea of how strong the early season coverage is (which of course means, it should be even better by now).  My friends Nick, Jamie and I headed up to Berthoud in the morning for three laps before heading back to Denver in time for work, school, etc.  We made a lap off of West Russell and skied a gully near the 90’s, before jumping across the road and skiing two laps in the Floral Park area, the second of which was amazing.  There were some wind-loaded areas up on the pass, the result of a strong storm from the day before, but we avoided these areas and found stable snow on our lines, mostly below treeline.

It was a true pass-skiing type of morning… skinning up above the pass, skiing down to the road below the pass, and hitchhiking back to the top of the pass.

The skin up the west side of the pass

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James enjoys some powder

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Fun little gully we skied

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The smile on Nick’s face says it all

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The “ski lifts” at Berthoud Pass = riding in the back of pickup trucks to the top of the pass

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It was very pristine at Floral Park on this morning… and the skiing was pretty good too

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Rogers Pass/Indian Peaks Wilderness (11/22)

About a week and a half ago, my friend Michael, an old friend of mine from Jackson Hole, spent a couple of days in Denver while on his way to Oklahoma for Thanksgiving.  We were able to get out for a nice ski tour in the Indian Peaks while he was here.  We ran out of daylight and didn’t quite make it to any true downhill skiing areas, but we did have a great afternoon with about two and a half hours of good exercising skinning a few miles into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

We started at the Moffat Tunnel and skinned the Heart Lake Trail, finding a pretty good snowpack.  Being the eastern side of the Front Range, variable snow is obviously going to exist with the windy conditions that area receives, but the snowpack is pretty deep as you get closer to the divide.  I suspect good turns can be found on north-facing (and perhaps east-facing) slopes right now, if you don’t mind a longer approach.  The ski back down our skin track was fast and, at times, pretty tight, but all in all it was an excellent tour in a beautiful area.  We had cold and windy conditions for most of the tour, but the snow that had been falling was pretty much winding down by the time we got there.

Avy beacon check

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Bridge crossing

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Creek crossings on skis are always exciting

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Caught a pretty cool sunset on the way back

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Current Conditions

As I took Highway 40 to Winter Park this morning, I couldn’t help but wish I had taken a backcountry set-up with me to ski a run at Berthoud Pass, because it was looking very good.  The 110’s area had a couple of good looking tracks in it, and coverage appeared to be better than the last time I was up there.

Avalanche conditions have been reasonably stable lately, at least by Colorado standards.  Many steeper slopes have been relatively safe the last couple of weeks, when evaluated properly.  Pockets of wind slabs are forming, though, and weak layers are continuing to form, so definitely keep your guard up, especially as more snow starts to fall.  In fact, the CAIC has already indicated pockets of “Considerable” danger above treeline in the Front Range zones, indicating wind slabs.  If you’re a backcountry skier, make sure you follow the CAIC’s excellent website religiously and don’t get a false sense of security just because there hasn’t been much avalanche activity recently.

More snow is headed for Colorado this weekend and early next week, but there is still a bit of uncertainty regarding how much snow will fall.  Still, the weather pattern continues to look pretty favorable for us overall.  For more weather information, check out Colorado Powder Forecast.

Early Season Skiing 2010/2011

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Jones Pass

 

It’s been in an unbelievable start to the ski season in northern Colorado this year.  After a couple of months of very dry weather, winter came in with a bang in late October, starting out with a few back-to-back moderate snowfalls for the mountains and ending with a huge storm dropping a few feet of snow.  After a little break, the snow train has picked back up, with consistent snow having fallen pretty much every day for the past week in the northern mountains.  It’s a classic La Nina set-up which has been dropping moderate amounts of snowfall every day on a consistent basis, and I would love to see this pattern continue through the winter (07-08 anyone??).

It looks like the rest of the week will be dry and sunny, but I plan to make a few bluebird powder laps up on Berthoud Pass tomorrow morning.  Easily the best website for weather and ski conditions in Colorado is Joel Gratz’s site, Colorado Powder Forecast.  A local meteorologist out of Boulder, Joel forecasts specifically for outdoor related activities (mainly skiing) in Colorado, and does a much better job forecasting the many micro climates in our mountains than weather.com or other automated sites do.  We Colorado skiers are indeed lucky to have such a reliable site to help us find the freshies.

I’ve been out five days so far this season, easily the most I’ve ever had for so early in the year.  Granted I didn’t really start getting into the backcountry a lot until late last season, but still, it speaks to how good the conditions have been so far.  Also, the earliest powder day I had ever had prior to this season (keep in mind, this is just my fourth winter living out west) was on December 3 at Loveland two seasons ago.  As of November 11 of this year, I have already skied on three powder days.  Yes, this is shaping up to be an amazing start to the season, and the start of calendar winter is still over a month away!  Lets just hope the snow keeps on falling.

My first day out was on October 26 at Butler Gulch with my friend Angela, right after the huge early season snowstorm I spoke of earlier.  The snow was insanely deep for October, which was great, except the only available ski set-up I had for that day was my spring mountaineering setup – Black Diamond Havocs with Fritschi Freeride Bindings and alpine boots.  Not exactly the best for higher-than-waist-deep snow (not even joking) that was a bit on the heavy side by Colorado standards.  Angela also had a skinnier set of skis, so we both were getting stuck in the fairly low angle terrain a lot.  Regardless it was a fun day and I was able to get a few good shots on the initial steeper section.

 

Ready for the season’s first turns

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Angela making some powder turns

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Day number two was about a week later, and with proper gear was a much better day.  Three of my co-workers, Jon, Nick, and Rico, and I went on a dawn patrol before work at Jones Pass.  We hit some north-facing soft-snow and had some awesome turns.  Much better than day #1 as it turned out.  I took out a pair of 184 cm Movement Sluffs with Marker Baron Bindings and Black Diamond Factor boots.

I really enjoyed the Sluffs.  Even though they’re a little longer and stiffer than what I’m used to, I didn’t even notice the difference.  I found the Sluffs to be very responsive, when I needed to whip some quick turns through tight spaces I could easily, but they also floated through the powder very well, even though they aren’t true powder skis (99 mm waist) by today’s standards.

Being in the market for a set of AT boots after touring all last season (including a few 14ers) on alpine boots, I was very pleased with the way the Factors performed.  The flex on the walk mode was nice and comfortable and made skinning much less painful than in stiff alpine boots.  They also skied very well on the downhill.  Overall I felt like it was a very good balance of tourability and downhill performance.  However, they aren’t too good to be true and their downside will probably cause me not to get these boots.  Unfortunately, BD boots sometimes tend to break, and I found this to be true when I tried on a defective pair just prior to this trip.  The flip switch from ski to walk mode did not work, and apparently this has been a quite common problem with BD boots.  The last thing I want is to be in the backcountry and have one of my boots not switch into ski mode when I’m ready for the descent.

I didn’t get any action shots on this dawn patrol, but I did take a picture of the Continental Divide just after sunrise.

Jones Pass scenery

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Last Thursday, Greg Floyd, Sean Mattingly, and I headed back to Jones Pass after some fresh snowfall, and had what is seriously one of the best days I’ve ever experienced skiing the backcountry.  It was a day that I will not soon forget, with wonderful early season conditions and a great group of guys to ski with.  I took out the Movement Sluffs again, but this time with Dynafit Titan boots.  The Titans were solid as expected, but to nitpick I found them to be a little too stiff (never thought I would say that to be honest).  I also didn’t think they toured as well as the BD Factors, and they didn’t keep my feet warm at all (as evidenced by the purple toes I had when we got back to the car on a day that wasn’t that cold).  Then again, that could have been more the result of not having an exact fit with the demo boots and not having a custom liner.

Regardless, we had an amazing day.  It was a long tour, with some tough uphill stretches, but we skied three laps and every single turn was phenomenal, especially for November standards.  As it turns out, Greg, who is one of the owners of Bent Gate Mountaineering, is also an incredible photographer.  Here are some of our shots from this beautiful day.

On the way up


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This was easily the best “skiing photo shoot” I have ever been a part of.  Greg’s shots are amazing, and I wish the ones I took of him were as good as the ones he took of Sean and I.  Nevertheless we had a blast the entire time.  What a day!

Skier: Greg Floyd  (Photos: Alan Smith)

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Skier: Sean Mattingly  (Photos: Greg Floyd)

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Skier: Alan Smith  (Photos: Greg Floyd)

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Some of our tracks

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And it was all powder smiles…

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On Sunday, I made a trip up to the Indian Peaks Wilderness with Emily and Lida for some snowshoeing and exploring.  And yes, there was plenty of snow on this day too!  It was snowing steadily, the temps were cold, and the wind was howling, but we had a great time.  We followed a “trail” towards Woodland Lake from the Hessie Trailhead right outside of Eldora, but much of the hike involved a lot of trail-breaking through deep snow, as well as lots of snow plunging and snow diving (sometimes intentional… other times not so much).  Emily tried to take me out at one point even though I was trying to pull her out of a deep pit in the snow, but fortunately my cat-like reflexes allowed me to escape her wrath.

Pictures from the Indian Peaks Wilderness
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Written by Alan

November 17, 2010 at 12:05 am

Mt. Sneffels (8/13/10)

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Dallas Peak and Blue Lake

Heading into the second week of August, I had three straight days off from work (Thursday through Saturday), so that meant it was time for a little bit of a road trip.  My main goal of this trip was to head down to the San Juans and climb a 14er, then backtrack back to Gunnison, where my friend, Jay, lives, and then we’d all hit up Crested Butte for some world-class mountain biking.

My friend, Matt, decided to join me since it would be his last weekend in Colorado before heading back to school in California.  We met up in Golden around 10:30 on Thursday morning, then headed west.  There was a summertime cold front moving through, so we drove through some heavy rain showers and thunderstorms, but luckily, the weather forecast was calling for completely clear weather for the next few days with no thunderstorms… and unusual treat for midsummer in Colorado.

Our plan was to end up in Ouray, then drive to up to Yankee Boy Basin and camp at the trailhead for Mt. Sneffels.  On the way out, though, we decided to take a little detour and stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  This was well worth a side trip (even with the $15 entrance fee), as the canyon is very dramatic and awesome to see, and the variety of vegetation is cool too, with lots of scrub oak and deciduous plants to go along with the fir trees.  We parked at the visitor center and went on a short hike around the rim of the canyon to get some exercise and get a little taste of the Black Canyon.

Due to the afternoon lighting, my pictures don’t really do the canyon justice, but I highly recommend a visit to anyone who’s in the area.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
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After leaving the Black Canyon, we drove to Ouray, with the dramatic view of the San Juans, highlighted by Mt. Sneffels, greeted us as we drove south from Montrose.  This was the first time I ever visited Ouray, and it’s definitely one of the cooler mountain towns that I have visited.  It’s situated right in the middle of a deep valley, and has a friendly, old-school western town feel to it.  We ate at an Irish pub there, then headed up to Yankee Boy Basin to camp.  We couldn’t have picked a better night to camp in the San Juans as there was a meteor shower going on at the time.  We both slept outside under the amazingly star-filled sky, and it was pretty cool watching the display of shooting stars in the crystal clear sky.

We set our alarms for 5 a.m., and woke up to frost on the ground during a surprisingly cold summer morning (of course, we were at about 11,000 feet).  Due to a generous starting elevation, we didn’t have a long approach ahead of us, unlike some of the other fourteeners I’ve summited this summer.  We hiked up through Yankee Boy Basin as the sun rose, aiming for Blue Lakes Pass, from which we’d pick up the class-3 rated Southwest Ridge Route.

The spectacular San Juan Range presented itself to us as it got light outside.

Gilpin Peak
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Blue Lakes Pass, looking up at the Southwest Ridge of Mt. Sneffels
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The southwest ridge ended up being a fun, mostly straight-forward route on mostly good rock.  Following cairns, the route up the left side of the ridge is pretty easy to follow initially, and the only part that’s kind of tricky is when you have to cross over to the right side of the ridge.  At this point, when staying left would pretty much force you to be cliffed out, you drop into a larger gully on the right side, scramble up the gully (which is fairly loose) for a little ways until picking the ridge back up again.  From here on out, the rest of the route to the summit is pretty obvious.

Matt checking out the route
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Looking west at Dallas Peak
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Wildflowers growing out of the rocks
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The notch that we crossed before dropping into the aforementioned gully
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This gully was the only nasty part of the route, but fortunately we didn’t have to stay in it for long
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More solid terrain awaited us upon exiting the gully
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Looking southwest at the Wilson Group and Lizard Head Peak
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Just before the final pitch to the summit, the route traverses under the summit and then ascends up the right side of the peak.  It’s tempting to just go straight up, but as we found, it was easier and quicker to just stick to the route and follow the cairns.

Matt looking at the final stretch to the summit
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Final push to the summit
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We reached the summit at 8:15 a.m., breaking a personal record by 15 minutes of the earliest I’ve ever summited a mountain (Longs Peak and the Crestone Needle were tied for my previous record, at 8:30 a.m.).  It was a good thing this route was short and we made it to the top early, too, because I left my sunglasses in the car… something you should NEVER do in the mountains!

As expected, the summit views were phenomenal.  We had total bluebird skies on what was really a fall-like day.  The monsoon season had hit southwest Colorado brutally hard in the prior weeks, too, so we were really lucky.  A couple of locals we saw said it was the first clear day the San Juans had seen in over three WEEKS.

Summit views, looking back over Yankee Boy Basin
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Matt enjoying the views
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Looking north, Uncompahgre Valley in the distance
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Dallas Peak, with the Wilsons (Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak, and El Diente Peak) in the background
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Where are my sunglasses??
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With the sun higher in the sky, the views on the way back down the mountain were awesome, too.

Another wildflower growing out of the rocks
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Lizard Head Peak
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Looking down at Blue Lakes Pass
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Blue Lakes and Dallas Peak
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Looking back up at Sneffels, still wishing I had my sunglasses
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Wildflowers on the hike out
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Teakettle Mountain (I think)
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Yankee Boy Basin
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We got back to the car around 11, and since we still had a long day ahead of us, we drove back to Gunnison and met up with my friend, Jay, to hit up some of Crested Butte’s world-renowned singletrack that afternoon… continuing what turned out to be a pretty epic weekend.

Written by Alan

September 13, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point (8/7/10)

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Willow Lake Falls

Two weekends ago, my friend from work, Nick, and I headed down to the Sangre de Christos for a one-day assault of Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point via Kit Carson’s classic north ridge.  My camera batteries died early on in the day, so all of these photo credits belong to Nick, who was generous enough to loan me his excellent pictures from the day.

We both only had one day off from work, so we left Friday afternoon and drove down to the Willow Lake Trailhead, where we slept for a few hours before a super-early alpine start due to the length of the approach.  We set our alarms for 1:30 a.m… except I accidentally set mine for p.m., so Nick’s alarm was the only one that went off.  It was an obnoxious ringing noise and he didn’t seem to know what was going on, so we were both very confused as we tried to wake up.  Naturally, the first thing that popped into my head was a line from the movie Grandma’s Boy, so I half-coherently said, “What is that ringing noise?  Do I have a tumor?”.  Then I said to Nick, “Dude, are you going to turn that thing off?”, to which he replied, “Oh yeah, I didn’t realize what was happening.”

Otherwise, the morning went smoothly.  The temps were comfortable at our 9,000 foot starting elevation, and after breakfast and energy drinks, we were on the trail by about 2:15.  Surprisingly, we passed a couple of other parties on the way up who had started hiking even earlier than us.  The hike wasn’t bad at all in the dark.  The elevation gain was steady, and enough to get us sweating, but it was a good warm-up for what was to come.  We made it to Willow Lake (where most people camp, and do these peaks as a multi-day trip) around 4:30 and it was still pitch-black out, so we decided to wait a little while until we had some light and could see the remaining route, as the trail pretty much faded out at the lake.

Hanging out in the pre-dawn hours
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We hung out near the lake with two other guys we met on the hike up, then once we just began to see a little bit of light, a ton of headlamps started making their way past us.  Clearly these mountains were going to be popular today, but we had chosen the lightly-traveled and more challenging north ridge route on Kit Carson, so it wouldn’t be long before we would leave the crowds.  We followed some of the groups with headlamps and were eventually able to find a faint trail again that took us around the upper part of the lake, over a creek, and into the alpine basin below Kit Carson and Challenger.

We didn’t cut off for our intended path soon enough and had already started hiking up the route to Challenger when we decided to cut left and continue to the base of the north ridge.  We were high enough up, that it involved a bit of boulder-hopping to reach the cliff bands we were aiming to skirt around at the start of the route.

Kit Carson Peak
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Our route continues left of the cliff bands in the left side of the photo, before going up
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“RED BULL!  YEAH!  LETS GO CLIMB SOME MOUNTAINS!” – Nick
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I don’t normally drink energy drinks during day-to-day life, but I’ve actually found that Red Bulls help to wake me up on climbs like this if I’m sleepy, so I guess they’re a replacement for coffee.  Definitely not good for you typically, but they help in these situations.

Once we made our way past the aforementioned cliff bands, we begin scrambling up and over some ledges, angling right toward the north ridge.  There was one other group in front of us who seemed to be a little in over their heads.  One guy got freaked out and turned around, while the other two guys were yelling down to us asking whether or not we knew the route.  They were staying left of the actual north ridge, which was the intended route, and eventually went out of view.  Fortunately, they ended up making it safely, but later that day a couple of other people told us they had seen these same guys on the way down and that they described their route as “scary”.  Glad they were alright, and I in no way mean to insult these guys, but more I want to point out the importance of staying on-route in difficult terrain.

We angled right here up a series of ledges to ridge the north ridge, as seen in this photo
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A little bit of scrambling to reach the ridge
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Sangre views upon reaching the north ridge
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Alan ready to climb the north ridge
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Nick ready to climb the north ridge
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The climb up the north ridge was awesome and exhilarating!  The exposure was pretty intense, but the rock was very solid for the most part and the route-finding was very straight-forward.  Overall, the north ridge is a blast to climb, but it does require lots of focus and attention on every move as it involves about 1,500 vertical feet of solid class 4 climbing.  Toward the very top, on one of the last pitches, a few of the larger rocks were loose, so I found it was better to climb up the right side of the ridge.

Nick on the Kit Carson’s north ridge
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Alan on Kit Carson’s north ridge
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Columbia Point in the background
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Looking up at the final climb to Kit Carson’s summit
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Nick ready for the final push
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We reached the hard-earned summit at 9:30 a.m., with the Crestones staring us right in the face.  Unfortunately, cloud cover over the Crestones prevented any good picture taking opportunities of the famous view, but it was still awesome to see nonetheless.  We took a well-deserved break on the summit, but eventually had to go because clouds were building very quickly and we still had to drop back down before gaining more elevation to reach Challenger Point.  We met a younger dude on the summit, Sam, who was hiking alone so we invited him to hike down with us… we figured we’d both be better off – he wouldn’t have to hike down alone, and he already knew the route down Challenger which would help us out.

Famous view of the Crestones (unfortunately, with poor lighting)
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Great Sand Dunes and the Blanca massif
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Awesome Sangre views
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Alan (left) and Nick (right) on Kit Carson’s summit
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The traverse over to Challenger involved more uphill than my legs wanted, but that’s the way it goes when you want multiple summits in one day.  I expected to be hiking down Kit Carson Avenue instead of up, but luckily the final climb up to Challenger wasn’t as bad as it looked from Kit Carson Avenue (hey, when you’re tired from climbing one 14er, 500 vertical feet of uphill does look kind of brutal!).

Ready to head down from Kit Carson’s summit
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Kit Carson Avenue
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Challenger Point
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We reached the summit of Challenger around 10:30 a.m. and took another nice break while sharing the summit with several other people.  Then it was time for the only part of the day I wasn’t looking forward to – the loose and steep descent down Challenger back into the valley.

Challenger Point summit
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More awesome Sangre views
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Nick with Kit Carson and the Crestones in the background
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The descent down Challenger was, in fact, one of the shittiest of shitty descents of any peak I’ve been on recently… right up there with North Maroon Peak (although, not nearly as long as North Maroon… fortunately I avoided the notorious South Maroon descent, but I’ve heard stories!).  Luckily, after we finally reached the valley, the rest of the hike out was actually really nice.

Looking back up at Kit Carson Peak… the north ridge is the one on the left side of the peak
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One nice thing about hiking up in the dark, is that you get to see everything for the first time on the way back when it’s light (assuming you’re on a nice trail anyways).  Willow Lake and the waterfall flowing into it are simply stunning.  We found a nice spot above the lake and near the waterfall where we took a nice break and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

Willow Lake
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Awesome waterfall flowing into Willow Lake
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Chillin’ above the lake
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The rest of the hike out was great.  Sure we were tired, but the hike was beautiful and it was cool being able to hike through different vegetation zones while looking down into the San Luis Valley.  We made it back to the car around 3:00 – a long but awesome day.

San Luis Valley
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Being all gangsta on the hike out
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Looking back up
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Looking back at the Sangre de Christos on the way out
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The north ridge route on Kit Carson is a great option for those looking for an adventure.  The class 4 climbing is serious, though, and the exposure is fairly intense, so I wouldn’t recommend this route to someone with little experience on class 3/4 terrain.  That being said, for those who are experienced and looking for a classic route that’s off the beaten path, I highly suggest taking a look at this route.

I have to say that even for those who aren’t into climbing mountains, the hike to Willow Lake is a worthy destination in of itself.  I imagine this area is especially beautiful in the fall when the aspens are changing and the peaks are dusted with snow.  Looking forward to my next trip to the Sangres as always.  Thanks for reading!

Written by Alan

August 23, 2010 at 7:56 pm

The Citadel and Hagar Mountain (7/24/10)

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My friend, Sarah, and I decided to climb a couple of lightly-traveled “13ers” in the Front Range, choosing the Citadel and Hagar Mountain based on it’s central access from Denver (where I was driving from ) and Fraser (where Sarah was driving from).  Access to The Citadel is from Herman Gulch and Herman Lake, a beautiful but extremely popular area.  We started hiking at 7 a.m., before the crowds showed up, and considered hiking down the trail-less Dry Gulch, if feasible, on the way out.

With the wildflowers seemingly at their peak, the scenery on the hike to Herman Lake was awesome on the beautiful summer morning.

Columbine in full bloom
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Pettingell Peak
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The Citadel (left) and Pettingell Peak (right)
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Alpine meadow filled with Indian paintbrush
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Herman Lake
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After reaching Herman Lake, the trail came to an end, so we hiked west across open tundra, dodging willows along the way, as we made our way up to “Fortress Pass”.  Once we made it across the open alpine basin to the steep mountainside, we found a faint trail that took us the rest of the way up to the pass.  The alpine wildflowers continued to impress.

Indian paintbrush
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Hiking toward Fortress Pass
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Aster
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More columbine
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Closer look at The Citadel
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Once we reached Fortress Pass, we hiked along the steep ridge until reaching a formidable wall of rock, from which point we traversed to the left until reaching a Class-3 gully that leads to the summit.  The gully itself was fairly steep, so Sarah and I climbed up the left side, where much more stable rock and solid handholds could be found.  From the top of the gully, the summit block lay right in front of us, requiring just a quick scramble.

We traversed left at this wall of rock to reach the Class 3 gully to the summit
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Preview of the ridge scramble over to Hagar Mountain
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Gully leading to the summit… stay left for slightly more difficult, but much more stable and enjoyable climbing
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Sarah making her way up the gully
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Summit block
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We reached the summit shortly after 10 a.m. and enjoyed beautiful views of the large expanses of Front Range alpine tundra.  The weather was fantastic and we still felt strong, so continuing on to Hagar Mountain was a no-brainer.

Looking at the route to Hagar Mountain from The Citadel’s summit
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Looking northwest toward the Gore Range
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Alpine basins to the north
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The ridge hike to Hagar Mountain wasn’t as strenuous as I was expecting, and after some easy walking, we came face to face with some exciting Class 3 and 4 scrambling, all on good rock.  This ended up being the highlight of the day.  The scrambling was fantastic and wasn’t anywhere near as difficult as the Maroon Bells traverse just five days earlier!  We even got to scramble across an awesome mini-knife edge just before reaching the summit (mini, compared to the knife edge on Capitol Peak, that is!).  I would definitely rank the final scramble to Hagar’s summit as one of my favorite Class 3/4 scrambles on a mountain thus far.

Right where the fun begins just below Hagar Mountain’s summit
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Closer look at some of the climbing difficulties
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Sarah enjoying the awesome scrambling
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We weren’t expecting a knife edge ridge, but it was pretty sweet!
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Just after crossing the knife edge we reached the summit.  The weather was so nice, and wind-free for the second weekend in a row, so we must have chilled out for almost half an hour.  Surprisingly, a couple of other climbers joined us on this relatively seldom-visited summit just before we headed down, after coming up the opposite direction from Loveland Ski Area.

Myself on the summit
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We decided to descend via Dry Gulch and make a big loop of the day rather than backtrack.  We scurried our way down loose scree into the vast alpine basin, then bushwhacked the rest of the way out until eventually hitting a trail about a mile and a half from I-70 and the Loveland Pass/Loveland Ski Area interchange.  After the initial steep descent, the rest of the way out was pretty cool, the bushwhacking wasn’t too difficult and it was nice walking through a beautiful, remote valley. Not surprisingly, the wildflowers were awesome here as well.

Looking back up at the Continental Divide while descending Dry Gulch
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Primrose
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Indian paintbrush
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As we exited Dry Gulch, we had a longer walk back to the trailhead than we realized.  We had to hike west a little ways along a dirt road paralleling the interstate to reach the Loveland exit, and from there, we picked up a newly-built bike-path and hiked east to reach the exit for the Herman Gulch trailhead.  At this point, we were walking on a paved path parallel to a noisy interstate, which I supposed pretty much canceled out the bushwhack through a remote wilderness valley we had just completed!

Of course our bushwhacking wasn’t quite finished as it turned out.  We missed the junction with the Continental Divide Trail that would have taken us right to our cars, so we decided to bushwhack through frustrating willows and marshes a short distance to the parking lot.  When we were almost there, we reached a creek and couldn’t find any obvious ways to cross without getting our feet wet, but decided it wasn’t a big deal since we were just about to reach our cars anyways.  This was the second time I had worn my new and lightweight La Sportiva Exum Pro trail shoes.  I love these shoes so far, they’re much more comfortable and breathable than hiking boots, but the only trade-off is that they aren’t waterproof.  So between drenching them in this creek, and wearing them on the Maroon Bells epic, these shoes have been through a lot on their first two days in the mountains!

The parking lot was packed once we returned, but amazingly enough, we had only seen two other people all day since passing Herman Lake that morning (well, except for crossing the interstate and Loveland Ski Area, obviously).  Our route up and around these two 13,000 foot peaks proves that you CAN in fact find solitude in the Front Range on a Saturday!

Written by Alan

July 31, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Maroon Bells Traverse (7/19/10)

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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.

Looking at the Maroon Bells from the start of the trail at Maroon Lake (taken later that afternoon when we got back)
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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.

Hiking up the “2800 feet of suck”
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Jon doing a little bit of scrambling

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Nearing South Maroon’s ridge

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Looking west into Fravert Basin from the ridge
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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.

Matt (left) and Jon (right) climbing up the first chimney
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Chris climbing up the chimney
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View of our remaining route to the top of South Maroon
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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.

Entrance to the gully we climbed
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Matt, shortly after exiting the gully
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Jon (left) and Matt (right) checking out the views to the west
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After some more traversing, we scrambled up a gully between the summit and sub-peak 13,753′ to the right.

Working our way up the mountain
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Not far from the summit, we reached some ledges that were awesome to scramble across.

Traversing across an exposed ledge
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Jon climbing just below the final summit ridge
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Chris traversing one final ledge before the summit ridge
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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.

Final push to the summit
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Jon (above) and Matt (below) approaching the summit of South Maroon Peak
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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.

North Maroon Peak, seen from the summit of South Maroon Peak
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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.

Chris downclimbing
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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.

Jon scaling the first of three difficulties of the traverse
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Chris following Jon up the dihedral
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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!

Jon making a tricky Class 5 move
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Nearing the top of the pitch
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After topping out on the first pitch of the second difficulty, we were scrambled up onto an exhilarating ridge with awesome exposure!

Chris and Jon making their way across an exposed ridge
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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 traversing the east side of the ridge just before reaching the gully we climbed
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Pyramid Peak dominates the view to the east
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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.

Chris climbing up one of the pitches on the second difficulty
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Jon scaling a section on the east side of the ridge
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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

Traversing along the east side of the ridge to the saddle below North Maroon Peak
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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!

Final scramble to North Maroon’s summit
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Jon gives a well-deserved victory cheer just before reaching the summit
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North Maroon Peak summit!  – looking back toward South Maroon Peak
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Summit self photo
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Woohoo!
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The three of us on the summit – Jon (left), Alan (center), Chris (right)
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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.

Jon hiking down… we had to make it back to the far side of the lake just right of center
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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.

Looking at the storm cloud as it leaves us and passes over Pyramid Peak
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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.

Pyramid Peak looks HUGE from the flanks of North Maroon Peak
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It rained off and on a few more times, but we got to see a cool rainbow as a result
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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

Written by Alan

July 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm