| Maroon Bells Traverse, S to N
As Labor Day approached, I jokingly decided to shoot my friend Steve a text message saying, “In an ideal world, we would climb the Bells over Labor Day weekend.” His response was, “Interesting.” Interesting is right! From there, my joke of a text idea became reality and we made plans to drive out from our homes in NE Kansas to Glenwood Springs on Friday, Aug. 30th, in order to climb the Maroon Bells on Saturday, Aug. 31st. A 14ers.com friend of mine who I had met on my Culebra Peak climb in July, Michael, was also able to go on the trip, so it would be 3 of us climbing the Bells Traverse from Maroon Peak to North Maroon Peak.
Michael was very accommodating and offered for us to stay at his house in New Castle, CO on the Friday night before the climb. So Steve and I drove all the way to New Castle from Topeka on Friday, and arrived at Mike’s house at around 9:00 p.m. We talked for a little while and then we tried to get a few hours of sleep. We woke up at about 12:45 a.m. on Saturday morning and got ready for our day. We got in the cars and drove to Glenwood Springs where Mike parked his car and hopped in with us. We then made our way to the Maroon Lake trailhead. We arrived there at about 2:30 a.m., readied our packs, and we started on the trail at 3:00 a.m.
The trail was easy to follow and uneventful to the point beyond Crater Lake where there is a sharp right turn proceeding up a steep incline. This sharp right turn is well-marked by a large rock cairn and a dead tree laying there pointing up the slope. Once making the turn, the trail becomes very steep and remains steep all the way up 2,800 feet to the ridgeline. This slope is relentless. We powered up the incline and made it to the ridge by about 7:20. At this point, we had wonderful views all around, including excellent views of Maroon Peak’s summit as well as Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak. Here is a pic of me at this point with the outstanding view:
After a short break, we continued on the trail, which stayed well left (west) and below the ridgeline, kind of in a dark place with the sun being on the opposite side of the ridge. I thought this section of the trail was going to be very difficult, but in my opinion it was much easier than expected, and the route-finding was not difficult to figure out. We just continued to follow our trail descriptions we had, and continually took the path of least resistance along ledges and up couloirs. Eventually the ledges led to an obvious couloir which we needed to ascend a little bit. We then escaped left on a ledge and continued our zigzag. Here is a pic of Mike coming up one of the climbing sections in a couloir:
Eventually, we reached another major couloir to ascend and it led to a ridgeline. The remaining ridge to the Maroon Peak summit was fun and easy, and the summit abruptly appeared. At this point, it was 9:15 and the weather was perfect. Here are the 3 of us on the Maroon Peak summit with North Maroon in the background:
We shared this summit with a few other individuals who had caught up with us on the route. Two of these guys continued on the Bells Traverse but we never saw them again as they were faster than us. One other guy climbed only Maroon Peak and was descending back down that route. We stayed at the Maroon Peak summit only briefly, as we thought we should quickly start on the Traverse to North Maroon Peak. We were on our way at about 9:30. Initially, the route off of Maroon’s summit went off the northeast (right) side and traversed down along some ledges, and then after turning somewhat of a corner, the route took a left turn along a rib on Maroon’s north side. This Class 3 downclimb was somewhat steep and tedious, but not too difficult. Along this rib, Mike snapped a picture of me with the whole Bells Traverse route up to North Maroon Peak in the background. This picture is incredible and I thank Mike for taking it!
In this area, I ended up staying on the ridge proper all the way toward the Bell Cord Couloir saddle, and that was the wrong thing to do. I cliffed out very close to the saddle, and then had to upclimb about 100 feet back the way I came to find the correct route. The way around these cliffs was an escape couloir which descended off the west side of the ridge. Going down this couloir about 80 feet and then turning right easily enabled us to get below the cliffs. The ledges here led us to the saddle. Steve was there waiting for Mike and me as we approached. Here is a classic picture of Steve lounging just above this saddle on the cliffs, while waiting for us:
And here is a picture of Mike and I coming toward Steve while he was lounging in the saddle:
You can see in the bottom left of this picture a slight drop-off in the terrain. This is a short tricky Class 3-4ish downclimb of about 5-10 feet which allows you to arrive at the actual Bell Cord saddle. Then there was a short easier Class 3ish upclimb to get to the ledge where Steve was lounging. When arriving at this spot, we took a short break, and we knew the route was about to take a very serious turn. The Class 4 and Class 5 terrain was shortly ahead, and we braced ourselves and our attitudes for it. Initially, the route was easy and there were very passable ledges on the west (left) side of the ridge. We shortly reached a narrow couloir which we could obviously tell was the route. The couloir was about a 25-foot Class 4 incline. It was relatively easy to overcome and had for the most part solid rock. When reaching the top, there was a wide ledge we were standing on, with no other way to go but up a wall. This was the first Class 5 section. We found a climbable spot on the left side of this wall; it was probably about 30 feet of climbing up. There were good hand- and foot-holds in this area and it was the easiest Class 5 section of the three sections we would encounter. Here is a picture of me arriving at the top of this wall:
Once to the top of this wall, we continued to traverse on the west (left) side of the ridge across ledges, until we reached the crest of the ridge again. At this point, there was a narrow section of ridge to cross, which is pictured well in Bill's Bells Traverse trail description on 14ers.com. Looking at the 14ers.com trail description, we discovered that we were definitely on route and that we needed to cross this narrow piece of ridge which led to another wall ahead of us. Steve went over the narrow piece of ridge which looked a little bit sketchy to Mike and me. Mike and I found an escape ledge to the east (right) of and about 15 feet below the narrow ridge section which we thought was easier, and we were able to then climb up to where Steve was relatively easy. It was at this point where finding the route became much more difficult. The 14ers.com trail description was a little bit helpful at this point, but for the most part we were now winging it on our route and trying to figure out the best way to go. We all looked up at the 30-foot-tall wall and tried to figure out which line would be best. Steve suggested a line which had a large rock plate jutting out from the wall which we had to somehow overcome first. Once on top of the rock plate, there seemed to be reasonable hand- and foot-holds all the way up to the top. Looking behind and below us, this line would have significant exposure to it. Any fall here would most likely result in a precipitous fall all the way down the east side of Bells. Steve, an accomplished climber in his own right, having climbed practically all of the mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park as well as the Crestone Traverse, Capitol Peak and Pyramid Peak, attempted this section first. He climbed up to a spot just short of the plate, and then he slid himself underneath the plate to the climber’s left using his arms/hands as the primary weight-bearers. He was then able to reach up to a higher hand-hold, bring a leg up on top of the plate, and pull himself up. He then easily climbed the remaining section to the top of the wall. Mike then repeated almost exactly what Steve did. I watched both of these guys make the “plate move” and realized I would have to do the same thing, somehow. So I climbed up to do it, and I made the move in the exact same way they did. It was crazy nerve-racking, knowing that a mistake here would likely be fatal. Once on the plate, the remaining climb to the top was easy. My 6’3” height here made a huge difference in my opinion. A shorter person with shorter legs would have had a more difficult time making the “plate move”. The rock on this wall and line was very solid.
At the top of the wall, we were again on the ridge proper. The ridge was relatively wide here and we continued the traverse along the ridgeline. Shortly thereafter, we reached another wall which seemed impassable. The wall extended around to the left, so part of the wall faced south and part of it faced west. There was no ledge on either side of the wall to escape on, so we determined that we obviously had to climb the wall on some line. Mike snapped this picture of the extreme right side of the wall, which obviously indicates this is not the way to go:
We stood there studying the wall for a good 20 minutes trying to figure out the best line. The wall was probably about 30-40 feet tall throughout, and below the wall in every direction was serious exposure; a fall off the south-facing part of it would probably result in a precipitous fall down the east face of the Bells, and a fall off the west-facing part of it would result in a precipitous fall down the west face of the Bells. The south-facing part seemed unclimbable, so we turned our attention to the west-facing part. Below the west-facing part was a ledge, probably about 10-15 feet wide. The ledge ended at about the same spot where the wall ended. The major problem here on the west-facing wall is that the top of the right half of the wall had overhanging rock jutting out, so we figured any lines below these overhangs would be impossible to complete to the top of the wall. There was a rope dangling to the right of the overhangs, which someone had used for a rappel going from North to South, but the spot where the rope was dangling seemed unclimbable. There was a section to the left of the overhangs which seemed climbable, but the problem here was that the first reasonable foothold was about 10 feet above our starting ledge. We couldn’t really get to it. We thought we possibly could climb to the right of this line, and then try to move left along the wall to get to that foothold, but I tried this and I thought the move to reach the foothold would be ridiculously difficult and I deemed it too dangerous, so I came back down to the bottom. Steve then tried something similar to what I tried, and somehow while Mike and I weren’t looking at him, he made the move onto the foothold. From there, he spidered up the wall easily to the top. I looked up at him with somewhat of a WTF perplexed look, shouting, “How in the f*** did you do that?” He tried to explain, but his explanation simply described what I had already tried to do and had deemed too dangerous. He then yelled down, “Once we’re at the top of this wall, it looks like we’re golden to the summit!” Once we’re at the top of the wall?, I thought. How in the f*** am I going to get to the top of this wall? Right around this point, we heard a thunder rumble, and I felt a small amount of panic setting in, and I said, “Guys, we’re in trouble here.” However, shortly after that, I was able to fight off the panic and focus on our job at hand, and then Mike and I got to work figuring out a line. Mike looked at the overhang more closely. On the far left side of the overhang and pretty much in the middle of the west-facing part of the wall, there was a small crack or gap in the overhang at the top. Mike began climbing up toward the left side of the overhang and toward this gap. The hand- and foot-holds here were good, but we had initially thought it was impassable because of the overhang. But once he got up to the gap, he realized it was just big enough for us to sneak our bodies through it. The move through the gap was a move done mainly with our arms. You had to sneak your body into the gap, with your arms above, and pull yourself up through the gap. He did it! I followed him on this line. The final move through the gap was incredible. As I pulled myself up through the gap, my feet were in the air below me, and above the abyss below. Every bit of my body weight was on my arms/hands. I even looked down at this point, and saw my feet dangling above the abyss. With a last burst of effort, I pushed myself up through the gap and to the top of the wall, up onto a large platform above. What a relief it was to be past this wall! The rock on this wall was very solid, thankfully.
I looked at the remaining route ahead of us, and Steve was correct that it looked relatively benign. We continued our traverse along the ridge and overcame another wall on the ridge via an escape ledge on the east (right) side. From there, we easily scrambled up the remainder of the ridge to the North Maroon summit, arriving there at 12:00. Wow! The three of us had this summit to ourselves, and it was and will remain one of the most incredible summits I’ve ever stood upon, due to the nature of the Bells Traverse climb, the stature of North Maroon Peak as a test-piece for all mountaineers (as Roach calls it), the incredible views from there, and the fact that I was sharing it with two good climbing friends. We snapped a few pictures:
We then started making our way down the long, arduous descent. This descent was very steep and dangerous, but the trail ended up being very easy to follow. Below the summit by a few hundred feet, there is a dramatic spur where I snapped a great picture of Mike:
The steepness of this descent was very tough on my old basketball knees, and it took me a long while to get down this route. The short Class 4 section we had to descend on the standard North Maroon route was relatively easy, especially compared to some of the other climbing sections we encountered on the Bells Traverse route. All in all, we had a 3:00 a.m. start and Mike and I ended up arriving back at the car at Maroon Lake at 5:30 p.m., so it was 14 ½ hours start to finish. We had that one thunder rumble while on the Traverse, but other than that, the weather was absolutely perfect all day long. Steve drove us back to Glenwood where we parted ways with Mike, and then Steve drove us to Silverthorne for a Which Wich for dinner, and then all the way to Colby, KS where we got to a hotel room at 2:30 a.m. We had a few hours of sleep and drove home on Sunday morning. The Bells Traverse climb was unbelievable and represents my greatest accomplishment in the mountains in my life. Although I still consider Capitol Peak to be the most difficult stand-alone climb, the Bells Traverse route is definitely the most difficult overall route I’ve encountered.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):