| Maroon Bells Miracle
Have you ever felt on top of the world one minute, and then the next second something so dreadful is happening that you almost cannot believe what your eyes are telling you? That was how our climb on the Maroon Bells got underway. Let me set the stage.
My climbing buddy, Jason, and I left the Denver area on Friday morning, after watching the forecasts and delaying this four-day trip a couple days to miss the monsoonal moisture pattern. Parking at Maroon Lake, we backpacked to Crater Lake and set up camp, carefully preparing for a much-anticipated attempt to climb Maroon Peak.
Jason and I at the Maroon Bells trailhead
Perhaps it was a case of the nerves about what lie ahead but I was wide awake before the alarm went off, and we got up at 2:45 and were on the trail by 3:45, hiking by headlamp under a glorious canopy of summer constellations. The dreaded 2,800-ft. slog up the notorious South Ridge lay ahead, and we wanted to give it plenty of time.
The bottom section of the South Ridge is quite scenic. This was taken on the way down.
The South Ridge is steep and gets steeper as you go—and the upper portions are covered with a hideous mix of loose rock, loose dirt, and ball bearing scree. It's one of the tougher obstacles on any of the 14er's standard routes.
The South Ridge: Maroon’s summit is in back on the right, and climbers usually ascend the ridge to the left, near the arrow.
Dawn approaches as we continue up the South Ridge.
We made pretty decent time and were nearing 13,000 feet by about 6:50 a.m. I stopped to take a rest, setting down my pack so I could have a drink and take a picture. That’s when it happened. I guess I underestimated the steepness of that spot, because my pack tipped over. Tipped over and started rolling.
Make that tumbling… right down the mountain.
In my shock and horror I uttered a prayer—something like, “Please Lord Jesus, let it stop!”
The pack disappeared out of site…
Did I mention the pack was open, too?
Looking down the South Ridge from where my pack rolled down.
This wasn’t life-threatening. And Jason is a kind and considerate person; he would certainly have shared his provisions to help get me back down the mountain, if necessary. But this trip had been a year and a half in the making. And of course I would need that stuff over the next three days, not to mention on any future hikes and climbs. And I hated the thought of ruining Jason’s trip too, over my own carelessness, as these aren’t peaks to attempt solo.
So I set off down the rubble-infested path the pack had taken. At one point I grabbed a boulder to steady myself, and it just rolled right over onto my arm, cutting up my wrist pretty good. With the dreams of this trip quickly dissolving, I continued down—praying for help in finding the pack.
Soon I found my jacket and my GPS—which still worked, amazingly enough. A bit further, my pack cover. And then I spotted my pack, probably about 250 feet below where it tipped over, perched on a little ledge that stopped it from tumbling down many, many hundreds of feet further. And it looked like—am I dreaming??—my helmet was there, too—sticking out the top of the open pack!! Surely, only Divine interference had stopped it from coming out and literally rolling all the way down to Maroon Creek. The other items were still in the pack as well.
Scarcely able to believe my good fortune and this answer to prayer, I headed back up the ball-bearing slope to Jason. The trip had been salvaged, with just some beat-up equipment and a sore wrist to show for it.
On top of the South Ridge, the rest of the route looms overhead.
When the South Ridge ascent was finally behind us, we continued on the more interesting parts—with plenty of intricate route finding. Fortunately, much of the upper route is pretty well cairned, although there are some spots where there’s more than one possible route, so you just need to figure out which looks best.
The route ascends this chimney through stable rock slabs.
The early morning light plays off 14,092' Snowmass Mountain (left) and 14,130' Capitol Peak.
Soon we're treated to scenes that remind us why we do this.
We chose the second of two gulleys you can climb.
There's quite a bit of up and down traversing as the route winds around corners and cliffs.
The short ledge above the gulley. It's not as bad as it looks and there are plenty of handholds.
Jason ascends the upper portion of the South Ridge route, with much of it visible behind him.
Reaching the summit at 10:20 a.m. on a spectacular summer day.
After reading all those stories about the Bells, summiting was a mixture of relief and exultation. I was glad to find that no one part of this peak was as tough as I had built it up in my mind to be. But it makes for a long and very physically demanding day, due to the steepness, routefinding, and minute-by-minute attention to loose rock required over so much of the route. I felt this was the hardest of the “harder” 14ers, although I haven't done Pyramid Peak.
Sharing the summit with some raggedy friends.
At the summit we had lunch and soaked up the beauty for an hour, a time which was made all the more memorable when we were joined by a couple amiable goats.
Our disheveled friend sashays past 14,014' Pyramid Peak.
North Maroon Peak and the connecting traverse.
Looking down from Maroon's summit
Changing conditions over Capitol Peak, way up to the north.
The weather was perfect where we were, but with this kind of rock, it takes almost as long to climb down it as up, so we headed down about 11:20.
The South Ridge worked us over once again, and by the time we got back to our tent, our plans of attempting North Maroon the next day and “maybe” Pyramid the next were dissolving like the energy in our bodies.
We decided a more restful day was in order. So the next day, I hiked a couple miles up the Maroon Creek valley and attempted to capture some of its beauty through pictures, and Jason bushwhacked up next to a high waterfall behind Crater Lake, descending part of the North Maroon Peak route. It provided nourishment to both the body and spirit to be able to take a whole day to just explore the area.
A waterfall along Maroon Creek, with Miner's Torch ablaze along the trail
Maroon Peak from up the Maroon Creek trail
We set off at 4:10 a.m. from our camp near Crater Lake for North Maroon, with just the stars—and a porcupine, by the lake!—to accompany us. Although it has the same loose, sedimentary mudstone, North Maroon has an altogether different feel. More airy and exposed, the Northeast Ridge route has a very alpine feel to it.
The first rays of light hit North Maroon's summit. Four goats are way up on the left side of the mountain.
Looking down Gulley #1
Looking down Gulley #2, with our ever-present friends.
Wooly, white and wily: they look cute and cuddly, but...
...when they were high above us in the 2nd gulley, they started knocking large rocks down… like some kind of alpine bowling alley where the climbers are the pins...
This class 4 cleft isn't too bad...
...but on the descent it helped to have someone who can hold your pack as you go down the more challenging part, and then hand the packs to you.
We met a great couple—John and Sue, from Rochester, Minnesota—and did much of the ascent and descent with them. They said this was their 57th 14er!
Getting closer, with Crater and Maroon lakes forming a lovely backdrop.
Jason ascends the upper Northeast Ridge.
I was concerned with how I would handle the exposure. Ironically, while I love to hike and climb mountains; climbing steep, exposed places has been extremely tough, due to a phobia I seem to have about those places. So this peak wouldn’t have been possible for me a couple years ago. It’s taken plenty of prayer and experience in the mountains to get to where I enjoy those places.
Let me see that route description again...
Things get a little complex above the two gulleys. Having the photos and description from this site was a huge help.
At the summit, our sure-footed companions compliantly pose in front of Maroon Peak.
We reached the summit with John and Sue at 9:30 a.m., after nearly 5 ½ hours of hiking and climbing. This summit seemed even sweeter, perhaps because I had been more apprehensive of this peak than any other 14er.
Carrying the heavy backpack down the trail and driving back to Denver gave us plenty of time to reflect. Our experience with the Maroon Bells—even with my gear tumbling down them—deepened my respect for this special place and the One who created it.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):