| Maroon Bells Traverse
We camped at the BRB Campground Monday night. Pretty nice campground even though it is a bit far from the TH. We got up around 3:15 am Tuesday morning and left around 3:40. After paying the $10 parking fee at the Maroon Bells parking area, we got there at around 4:30. We hit the trail at 4:40 am. The moon was out on the drive up, but when we got to the TH it was blocked by the Bells themselves, so we didn't get much added light.
We planned on ringing both the Bells, and we decided to climb North Maroon first and then do the traverse to Maroon Peak. We climbed Pyramid last year, so we knew the way to Crater Lake. I had a JR 14ers copy of the Bells trail map, and also tracked it and loaded it onto my Garmin Rino 120 GPS. We cruised quickly to where the turnoff to head up North Maroon was on my GPS and the map, but after going about 100 yards discovered that the trail was very faint, and turned into an animal type trail. We decided to keep going and bushwhack. Hmmmm....not the best idea. I think it cost us at least an hour. However we were able to go through some amazing Colorado foliage that way. We met up with the actual trail just before the first major boulder field you have to cross at 11,700 feet. There were plenty of cairns to guide the way through the boulder field to the fairly obvious shoulder. At this point every thing was following the map and GPS perfectly, and the trail was pretty easy to see.
Going around the mountain, to the east face, we started heading up. You really start going straight up tundra, dirt, and a loose rocky trail. The trail seemed to get worse (i.e. funner) the higher we went. We kicked down a few rocks, and watched them disappear out of sight. We knew there were 2 people behind us, so we hoped they heard our yells from above. In Roach's description, he says "Traverse south into the new gulley and ascend broken, Class 3 ledges to reach the crest of the Northeast ridge at 13,200 feet." I found this area a bit confusing, and we kind of cliffed out at somewhat of an arete, and decided to ascend straight up the arete instead of continuing into a very steep and loose gulley. This turned out to be the right decision, as we topped out at around 13,500 feet or so. I think that was where I was confused, was that he said the "crest" of the Northeast ridge. Both my altimeter and GPS agreed that it was a little off. However, we found more cairns and evidence of human travel, so we continued along the ridge.
There is a lot of class 4 exposed and class 5+ scrambling and climbing along this section, so opt for what you feel most comfortable. We did what we felt was safe, yet fun. I started really feeling the lag, and was getting a bit burnt out at about 13,700 feet. James was a little more peppy, and hit the summit at about 8:40, and I got there at about 8:50. 4 hours...not too bad, we thought.
We hung out on top to recoup a bit, and then figured we better not chance getting caught on the ridge in weather, so we headed down the ridge at about 9. Talk about exposure! The whole way down felt like if you took a tumble, you were gone! We got to the level part of the ridge without incident (tie your shoes!) and made our way to the rappel. You will know it easily because there are 2 pieces of webbing tied around a huge boulder. I would definitely recommend this route because the alternatives just looked too loose and exposed. The webbing only had one aluminum rap ring, so I added a steel locking biner and tied the 2 webbings together. I brought a 50m x 8mm rope, and it was more than plenty. I am thinking a 100 foot rope would be plenty to double up, rap down, and pull it.
Shortly after the rappel, the class 4+ downclimb gets pretty wicked. We are talking exposed, loose, and crappy. We may have taken the path less traveled - there was one chimney that we downclimbed that was super exposed and hairy - but I would recommend sticking with your skill level. As soon as we got to the bell cord couloir, we felt the danger was mostly over. I started to feel a bit mentally and physically spent. However, heading up the north ridge of Maroon Peak still loomed overhead.
The trail was pretty good and well cairned, but there were still some wicked class 4 spots. I sometimes felt that a class 4+ (5?) boulder scramble was safer and more fun than a class 4 loose ledge. Again, opt for what you are more comfortable with. We worked our way up slowly but surely, always taking the time to make good decisions. This is a dangerous ridge, and I found it tough mentally and physically, especially for the first peaks of the season.
The beautiful part was that it was challenging pretty much right to the end as you scramble up the last few ledges to the summit. The view was amazing as usual! It took us right around 2 hours to make the traverse. James summited at about 10:50 and I followed at about 11.
At the top we ran into a few guys - Brad and Brandon from Denver. They were heading back down and we decided that since the descent of Maroon Peak was pretty hairy with rockfall, we would stick together. We joined up with them and the 4 of us headed down at about 11:30.
The descent was way hairier than I thought. Loose, nasty, steep...almost every rock you touched slid out on you. Now I fully understand the term "deadly bells"! Our knees barely carried us to the final tundra and talus covered eastern face, where we thought this descent would NEVER end. We were knocking plenty of rocks loose, and at one point, I knocked a softball sized rock down...yelled ROCK, and Brandon and Brad jumped out of the way. It bounced and tumbled almost 2,000 feet to the bottom of the valley! We tried to tighten up the group after that, but sure enough, I sent another rock bounding down, yelled, ROCK, and just as Brad was turning to look, WHACK it hit him in the side of the helmet! Sorry DUDE! KIDS: WEAR YOUR HELMETS! (adults too!) I don't know if that helmet saved his life, but it definitely saved some MAJOR brain pain. I was being extremely cautious, and we were all trying to stick close together, and it STILL happened. At that point we spread out even further, and were able to make it back safely to the valley floor. We then cruised at Brandon warp speed and made it back to the cars by about 3:30, a full 4 hour descent. The entire day took us right around 11 hours.
So lesson learned: stay close, be careful, but still wear that brain bucket! Overall a great day in the mountains, knocked off the Maroon Bells, and finished it off by buying Brad (and Brandon) a burger at the Hickory House BBQ in Aspen to help repair their nerves. Great way to end the adventure!
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