| An Excruciatingly Fun Week
Ahh, finally our annual climbing-fest! After all the planning and anticipation, it's now really here. This year our goals were: 1. Keplinger's Couloir from Sandbeach Lake (the historic first ascent route) to the summit of Longs, with a possible addition of SE Longs and Mt. Meeker; 2. A "new" route up Conundrum and Castle from the west side; 3. North Maroon Peak; and finally, 4. Culebra via the north ridge from Mt. Maxwell. No, didn't go as planned...
First, amazing Longs and the Keplinger's Couloir. Why this route? For one thing, lack of crowds. We saw no one the entire time, until the Homestretch. It enables you to get relatively close to the base of Longs with a backpack to Sandbeach Lake, so one might be able to start the climb a bit later than the Keyhole route (I'm not too much of an early riser). And it is historic, and all.
So, my friend Cody and I rented our bear canisters in Estes Park, paid the $20 backcountry permit, shelled out another $20 for the National Park entry fee, cleaned out our car of all food items and placed them in the bear lockers, then made the 4.6 mile backpack to the lake on Friday afternoon, hoping to meet up with Keller and his son, Tom, who would be arriving later that evening. We found a nice site (#3) to set up camp and waited for their arrival. And waited. They didn't show up until 1:30 am, couldn't find our campsite and set up in the Group Site. Cody and I are ready to go at 5:30, but once we found the others, they informed us that they needed to pack their daypacks, filter water, and make coffee. As a result, we didn't leave camp until an unbelievable 7:00 am . Not going as planned already.
On the hike in the day before, we had determined the point where you should leave the trail before the lake, and set up a small cairn to note on our way up. We made our way to this spot and struck out into the woods, sans trail. This is not a walk in the park. We encountered downed trees, large boulder fields, steep drop-offs, creek crossings, bogs, and thick willows. It's one and a half miles of SLOW progress. We finally broke free of all this and spot one of the high alpine lakes below us.
And above us, our destination:
We start to make pretty good time, until we enter the couloir. Keller really starts to slow here, which is quite unusual for him.
Here we're met with scree, talus, boulders, grass, slabs, you name it. This is one long couloir.
Finally, we see the Notch and some interesting rock formations
Once we reach the base of the Palisades, we turned left toward the Homestretch, where we saw a few people just decending it. There was no one else going up by this time. And it's a Saturday in August! Of course, it is getting late...
The weather was just amazing, no clouds anywhere, no wind to speak of, so we decided to make the summit, at 2 PM!!.
We knew we had a long journey back, relatively speaking (actually only about 4 miles or so to camp). But it was getting late, and there's that bushwacking you know... Along the way, we decided to take a slightly different route down through the valley toward our lake. Unfortunately, this caused us to get surrounded by thick willows and bogs full of water-filled holes. Slow, slow, wet going. We followed the river for a long time, until it got dark. Out come the headlamps. Oh wait, Tom forgot his . Now, I don't know about you, but thrashing around in a very dark forest, no trail, treefall everywhere, boulder minefields everywhere, and running out water along the way isn't a lot of fun. One of us happened to have an iPhone, so we managed to determine our location in relation to the lake, which was somewhat reassuring. We angled toward the direction of where we thought the trail would intersect, and finally reached it, not 20 feet from our small cairn! By the time we reached our campsite, it was 9 pm, a 14 friggin' hour hike, fer cryin' out loud. Yes, yes, it was worth every miserable moment. After a painful night's sleep, we backpack to the cars. Keller and Tom, however, have had enough of all this fun and bid us goodbye. Imagine that!
After a drive to the southwest, over Independence Pass toward Castle/Conundrum, we chow down on some good food in Aspen, then drive down Castle Creek road, where Cody and I find a good camping spot. We're on the trail by 6:30 the next morning, after driving further up the road to where Pearl Pass Road intersects and park the trusty Pathfinder. A nice little waterfall is nearby.
The standard route up Castle is to ascend the snowfield to the saddle between Castle and Conundrum, unless the snow is melted out (which it was). In that case, the preferred route is along the Northeast Ridge. We actually ended up doing the "variation" of this route, going directly up the ridge crest from the end of the road. Cairns and fresh footprints guided us this direction, but in retrospect, it was much more difficult climbing than the regular trail (which we descended). Another party behind us did the same.
This peak holds a special place in my heart, as Cody's father, Craig, and I had attempted it a few years earlier on the West Face side. We had picked that route to enjoy the hot springs, which were wonderful, but we turned back about half way up after realizing that seeming miles of loose scree and talus was just not any fun at all. So, we vowed to return a different way and finally summit them. Craig unfortunately passed away from cancer before that could happen. His family had made maroon bracelets that said "Endeavour to Persevere" to encourage him and others during his struggle. I carried one of these bands along with me on this trip with his son, dedicating our climb to Craig:
The "Castle Peak" sign was already there. In the tradition of other members who encounter such signs, I safely dispatched it over the side after the photo was taken. 8) The hike over to Conundrum went quickly, and we returned back to the summit of Castle. Another group ahead of us took the direct way down, descending the rock/snow slope below the saddle. This looked a bit tricky to me, with a long walk across loose rocks to the road. Also, there was constant rock fall off the saddle, which made it somewhat spooky.
Weather was buiding and it was time to go. We had planned on camping that night at one of the 2 campgrounds near Maroon Lake, but both were full. After considering our options over barbeque and wheat beer in Aspen, we noticed a huge storm had developed right over the Maroon Peaks area. Feeling a little grubby, we opted to stay at the Aspenalt in Basalt for a hot shower and a real bed instead. A good rest before taking on North Maroon looked like a good idea.
North Maroon. I had debated about ever climbing this one, since it's not an "official" 14er and it has such a dangerous reputation. But, it seems to be included in most peoples climbing list and it is such a majestic peak when viewed from below, we decided to attempt it ever so carefully.
One thing about the Maroon Bells: there's nothing easy about their approaches. Consistently steep, loose, and exposed almost all the way. It seems like someone needs to bring an enormous broom and sweep off all the nice little steps that are there. And each step is tilted downhill at an angle to make it even more interesting. Plus, there is a type of rock there that looks like fossilized mud that when it gets wet, it's like grease has been applied to the surface.
Weather was starting to build but holding ok, which was good since I seemed to be slowing down. Probably a combination of the apprehension of this climb and the cumulative effects of the previous climbs. We proceeded up the "green gullies".
Once we reached the crux chimney, we moved to the climber's right to ascend ledges to the ridge.
This led us to the way cool point that seems to reach out in space.
We met a couple coming off the summit as we arrived, who seemed to be anticipating the weather and were moving quickly. There were also some people visible on the summit of Maroon Peak. We made our summit pictures and within 5 minutes began our descent.
Which was very timely since by the time we made the boulderfield it began to rain, then it really opened up with lightning once we reached Crater Lake. Along this stretch, I inadverdently stepped on a small bush next to the trail which just happened to have a nest of bees in it. They were not pleased about this. We got chased down the trail, in the rain, by a swarm of very angry bees, one of which managed to nail me on my scalp.
It was good to be down, however, and safe at last. One last look back at our accomplishment:
So, I suppose I am now an official member of the ABC club, since we decided against trying for Culebra. Our legs were putty and feet were resembling hamburger, so it was time to call it a week. Some may think Culebra would make a terrible finisher, but I'm thinking otherwise. I have convinced my wife to join me on that one next year, which would be her first 14er, something she's been somewhat reluctant to do in the past. It's gentle slopes would make a good starting mountain for her, and a great place to share a little bubbly on the summit. Looking forward to next year and more climbing! Thanks for reading.
Sandbeach Lake with Mt. Meeker
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):