| Bells are Ringing
Maroon Bells via the class 5 traverse
New climbing buddies: Amy and Joe
From afar, the brick-red rocks on bare mountain peaks, interspersed with lush green valleys are sensational. The infamous Bells tipped jagged symmetry with bands of white reflects on Maroon Lake. These mountains have plenty of human company as they arrive in herds of busses admiring them all day long. The Maroon Bells are two of the most difficult peaks to scale in the state. A placard at the lake cautions that they are deceptive, deadly even. Skill is advised, but the rewards for summiting and then traversing are colossal. With a 70% chance of thunderstorms after noon, we tread quickly. It’s 0500 on Saturday July 6th and my new buddy Joe and I move nervously via headlamps Westward toward Maroon Peaks South ridge. We expect a 10 hour day. I don’t remember a crooked bent tree or a cairn that marked the junction to bisect the South ridge but once we approached the river I knew we’d gone too far. My handy GPS pointed behind and to my right and at 2.9 miles not 3.5 like the 14ers route describes but hey, who’s counting? The nice easy dusty trail is now a brutal lung busting 2,800 foot climb in one mile to the saddle at 13,250’. Our legs take a beating like the Casino Royale torture scene. The rain the previous night allowed for better traction up the loose dirt. The broken aspect of the trail was only mildly frustrating but essentially if you keep going up without too much zigzagging you’ll find the remaining route to the saddle. Once on the saddle we pause a moment to catch our breath and look at maps to plan our summit attack. I take a good long hard look at the remaining route knowing that the sedimentary rock is not to be trusted. Really this whole mountain is one large mudrock and not as beautiful up close. What blasphemy! Just like while inebriated and flirting with someone you otherwise wouldn't have. The route cairns are helpful but I resort to trusting my mountaineering skills instead of somebody's pile of rocks.
We are on the West side of the mountain now and there is a gentle breeze from the West. With the sun still creeping its way from the East our route is in shadow. The air is moist. A small gray cloud rolls in and I am hoping that if the air stays cool just maybe the nasty storms will subside. Wishful thinking perhaps. We discuss our plan with the option of turning around should the clouds thicken, which would leave us heartbroken. Would North Maroon have to wait another day? We press on with an ambitious goal of summiting by 0900. We see the large gully left of the saddle then find the chimney in the rock towers. Oh what fun is had scrambling up these. We find our first set of ledges and eerily peer over the edge. We decide to take the first of the two steep gullies. We find comfortable access while maintaining the right side of the gully always with three points of contact. While I'm good at pacing up the mountain, Joe is stronger with the technical aspects. Also, I prefer to navigate while watching what he does to keep our mistakes at a minimum. We find the second ledge of the route and this one is longer than the first. There is a small snow patch to negotiate which is not a problem except now the soles of our shoes are wet. At least the next gully is less steep than the previous twin gullies. We finally approach the notch of the South ridge and saunter over to the third ledge of the climb, which brings us to another rib to scale. Again, staying right of course is more comforting while checking each hold. Now we have just one more ledge to gain with overhanging cliffs and I’ve noticed a pattern with this climb: Up, turn left stay right, up, turn left stay right, up one tricky right turn to a left turn, up, left and now one last up with a right turn. Sounds confusing huh? But if you can remember the pattern I think it would help with route finding. I’m quite certain I would not be able to repeat that route precisely again.
We are now just below the ridge crest with one final right turn at 13,900’. At 0858 we summited; exactly 4 hours from the trailhead. Even though we were all alone scratching our heads as to where everyone else was since the parking lot was packed on this 4thof July holiday weekend; our summit celebration was at a minimum because for now, the clouds seemed to cooperate and we were eager to attempt the traverse.
We were told to expect the traverse to North Maroon to take an hour and the final climb another 45 minutes. One look over Maroon Peaks’ drop off and its “small” cliff bands takes my breath away. Yikes. I can sense the nerves and tension but try to stay positive because as soon as we drop in and attempt the first of the three cruxes, we are committed. There is no turning back. North Maroon is only one half mile and 234’ down and away but it is rated as the most difficult 14er to climb. We study the route and then drop in. There are two small cliff bands with a slight inversion. The rock is slippery, loose and unfriendly. Bad mud rocks, bad. Backwards is the only way off and down. Turn around, back towards the cliff, which you don’t want to see anyhow, right foot down to find a good kick stand, left hand shoved in a small crack, left foot down and below the right looking for a good foot hold then the right hand is free to find something, anything, I am desperate. Joe of course doesn’t struggle at all and I can hear my heart pounding in my ears with labored breath and sweaty palms, I am freaking out. The little angel on my right shoulder is cheering and the devil on the left is snickering. But every little obstacle I succeed at a small victory is won and confidence swells but not too much. You must have confidence with humility while mountaineering. Vigilant while swift and smooth. The descent to the top of the Bell Cord Couloir goes without drama and holy cow that couloir is steep.
Now the time has come to negotiate the first of the three crux moves. We climb up some small cliff bands to what is referred to as a dihedral crack. Once in the dihedral class 4 low class 5 crack there is a mere 20’ to ascend before getting to a small ledge. This crack is whack but to our surprise poses no problems. Okay, one obstacle down, two to go. After the first spire is where I struggled. Joe attempts the 40’exposed cliff band first and tells me this one will be tricky for me. The Devil Went Down to Georgia is playing in my head and my name is not Johnny but I’m willing to take a bet that I can get up this inverted suicide rock. Joe holds out his hand but I want to do this on my own. I sneak into a tiny crack and then reach my right hand around and on top of the ledge to find a good solid hold. I push up on my right toe just enough to give me the arm length I need to find another good left hand hold. In order to get to the top the only way for me was to push off my right toe and swing my left leg up and over to heel hook it on the ledge knowing that I would only have two points of contact for a millisecond. Joe is standing there with his outstretched hand as I tell him what I’m about to do and says he can’t watch so I desperately cry, “don’t leave”. With one mighty push I propel myself with all the strength my biceps have and cheerleader kick that left foot with solid success over this bastard crux. That is by far the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life. From the ledge I peer over and one look at the exposure gives me a small bout of vertigo. Will the final crux move be worse? The final crux is a 20’impassable cliff. The best way is to go slightly left where yet another small dihedral crack will take you up and over the cliff because the right side is heavily exposed. I’m starting to like these dihedral cracks much better than the cliff bands because the footing options seem endless while the cliffs leave you hanging, literally. The final move was flawless and we are now starring at the final summit pitch where we see the first climbers of the day summit North Maroon. We are flying through these obstacles. We see the water stained crack and blast right up the final class 3 broken ledges. Exactly one hour from the start of our down climb from Maroon Peak we top out. We totally smoked that traverse and I have never screamed so loud from the top of any mountain. Woohoo!! Again, we are all alone. Where is everybody? Are we really the only people who climbed Maroon Peak then traversed to North Maroon Peak on Saturday July 6th? The weather is absolutely gorgeous. We sat there for at least an hour marveling in our triumphant success. The views of Snowmass and Capitol are stunning. I see Pyramid and say, “look at that little guy over there, he’s next”. Joe laughs at my “little guy” label. Pyramid is equally challenging and I hope our legs are up to the task tomorrow. East of Pyramid is Castle and Conundrum. The Elk range has these long glacial valleys between them and I ponder the process that occurred millennia ago that causes such discrepancies in appearance.
We start our descent just after 1100 and another four pack of climbers are making their way to the top. We get some good beta about the unknown initial descent and proceed with caution. We get to the first obstacle, which is a Class 4 chimney and again while I struggle, Wildman Joe blazes on down. We can see the first four climbers who summited N. Maroon on the bluff about 300’below so we angle that way. The ledges on this route down are steeper and looser than anything we’ve yet climbed. We are entertained by a heard of shedding goats who effortlessly teeter on the ledges and stop momentarily to throw a blank stare. We foolishly miss the turn to access the narrow trail down the center of the long gully but the sheep are kicking rocks that way anyhow so I see it as a blessing in disguise. We are left of center and I think we ended up here because we could see the ledges and had such success on Maroon Peaks’ ledges we must’ve thought these were the safe way down. They are not. Things got a little sketchy and Joe decided to take his chances down the loose ledges to gain the solid ledge at 12,600’. I decide to go opposite of him and cross the gully to gain the narrow trail. This was a good plan because we were out of harm’s way when we both caused loose rock to dislodge and fly down the gully. At last we are at the good trail and making good time down. The weather seems to be holding even though the clouds have thickened. We welcome the shade. There is one smaller loose gully, another good trail down then a large rock glacier to manage. With soft soled hiking boots, the rock glacier is like a massage for the arches of our feet. We glance back at what we just descended and this Bell is glistening with its lingering snow on the North ledges. We had no idea there was still so much snow on the North face. Once across the stream the remaining known route down has us bellowing with joy. I take one last look back across the lake and pause to give thanks to the mountains that allowed safe passage. I've saved them for last for a reason so yes, LePhantom, I absolutely see the value in having a climbing buddy now.
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