| 2 Great Traverses to Finish the Elk 14ers
The plan for the weekend was to solo Pyramid and hike into Crater Lake Saturday. Craig (Cheeseburglar) would meet me at the lake that night and we would try the Bells Traverse together on Sunday. Again, like every other trip this summer, those plans would change. But unlike those other trips, this one only got better. It ended up as one of the most rewarding, and definitely challenging weekends of my young climbing career.
Saturday August 23: 12.5 miles/5,600 feet.
Pyramid Peak: Northeast Ridge
I set off from Maroon Lake TH at 5:00 for a solo ascent of Pyramid Peak. The hike up to the amphitheater was uneventful but you can't help but praise the CFI for the work they've done. I've heard grumblings of what the approach was like prior to the work and I can't imagine how miserable that climb would be without the trail. The current trail is steep, but in great shape and makes for a nice wake-up to start your day.
The climb up to the saddle from the amphitheater isn't nearly as bad as it looks from below but, once on top, I was glad to be done with it. There are definitely some loose sections but solid rock can be found generally to the right of the worn path.
PT 13,122 side trip and an introduction to Elk rock:
I knew I had plenty of time so when I gained the saddle the spire to the left held an inviting little chimney climb which I thought would provide a nice perch for some photos. I slung my camera over my shoulder and quickly scrambled the 50 or so feet to the summit. It was high enough to get a nice overview of the NE ridge and far enough north to see the Bells in early morning light. After a few shutter snaps I started my descent. I ascended the gully to the left and came straight down the middle one. About half-way down I began to lower myself in a dip motion and a coffee-table size rock gave way underneath my right arm. I scrambled for a grip with my right hand and kicked my right leg out to avoid the rock fall. I ran a real risk of having my right leg broken by the rock but, my left leg was on a stable rock so I escaped with only a superficial scrape down the back of my calf. I now knew to take the reputation of this area seriously which would prove to be a valuable learning experience for the rest of my weekend – 3 confirmed solid holds at all times and NO exceptions.
It was now 7:30; I gathered up my stuff and made quick time of the remaining route to the summit. I found the climbing on the north side of Pyramid extremely fun, solid and the route is very well cairned. It wasn't quite as intense as I had been led to believe but my only wish was that it could have lasted longer as I topped out around 8:20.
Elk 14ers from Pyramid
I had nowhere else to be, so I couldn't think of a better place to spend my morning than on the summit. I hung out for an hour, enjoying the perfect day, when Scott Rodgers came trotting up. His schedule cleared and headed for Aspen on a whim Friday night. We talked for a few minutes and then I asked the question…
So, how about the Traverse?
I was half-joking when I said it, but when the response came back, "Sure." I was in. (As a disclaimer, I have been researching the route for the past few months but just couldn't get my schedule to align with my potential partners. While the actual undertaking was spur-of-the-moment, the decision was an educated one. I knew what to expect and I had already talked to Scott about the route after our Kit Carson trip earlier in the summer.)
The work ahead of us
There still wasn't a cloud in the sky when we left Pyramid's summit at 9:30. We stuck with the route depicted in Jason Halladay's great trip report for the initial descent and then came up with our own path from there on. We decided to stay high along the ridge (Not consciously, just kind of happened) which offered some great views of the surrounding areas and very challenging scrambles. All-in-all we probably had a half-dozen or more 50 foot (and more) low 5th class down climbs and whenever we came across something we didn't like, we negotiated the ledge system down the east side until we found a ledge that would lead us south until we could regain the ridge. The east side is terribly loose but the exposure is tolerable and bumping from ledge to ledge was manageable but we never did explore the west side. We took our time and played it safe, making sure of every move before proceeding.
Scott after the initial descent off of Pyramid
Some shots of me downclimbing
Scott downclimbing one of the cruxes
Thunder from close to Pt 13,820
After a quick summit tag of Point 13,820, we finally came to the final low-point before heading up for Thunder's summit. I was elated to be done with the down climbing but some clouds were starting to form. I debated whether to just forego the summit and start the descent but nothing was really threatening yet and I thought we could get down pretty quickly if needed. (Geez, was that a false assumption) We found a 4th-low 5th class rib to the north of the white gully that had possibly the only solid rock on the mountain. A few minutes of very enjoyable climbing dumped us just a few feet short of the summit. A quick jaunt to the summit and the traverse was complete! It took us about 2:30 to make it across. There are now 2 summits where I experienced a true adrenaline rush – Capital and Thunder Pyramid.
That's me, worn out from the day's work behind me
We didn't spend much time outside of a few photo snaps as the clouds were now building more rapidly. The descent turned out to be pure hell. The rock is miserably loose and I thought the white gully would be more solid. Once there though, that rock was brittle and would not only crumble, but it was abrasive and would scrape your skin something awful. As luck would have it, the weather system seemed to sit right on Thunder's summit. I would bet East Maroon Creek saw rain, but we never even had shade. Once at the base of the gully, we thought our troubles were over since we were on grassy slopes, but from above you can't see the numerous cliff bands that you have to negotiate. Other than a side trip to a beautiful waterfall, I despised the descent. Tired, sore, frustrated (and even a little bloody), we made it to the West Maroon Trail three and a half hours after leaving Thunder's summit. We made it back to the trailhead at 5 pm, making for a 12-hour day.
Waterfall on the descent
I had no intention of packing in to Crater Lake so we went down to Aspen and I left Craig a few phone messages. I had no idea of the epic day he was enduring himself but I did have the feeling I wouldn't be seeing him. I figured I would solo Maroon and play it by ear for the traverse.
Sunday August 24: 9.4 miles, 4,850 feet
Maroon Peak: South Slopes "2,800 feet of suck."
The alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 2 am and I was on the trail at 2:45. I made my way to the turnoff for the South Slopes when I saw a headlamp click on about 20 feet up the trail. I introduced myself to Cliff (Ascent88) and learned of his night battling the local porcupine population. It turned out he was also heading up, so I now had a partner for the morning. He wasn't doing the traverse so I would still need to figure that part out. We set off from his campsite at 4:15.
CODave completed the traverse the previous day and described the trudge to the ridge as "2,800 feet of suck." Well, this is pretty accurate. One of my hiking poles broke on the descent from Thunder and, unfortunately, this route screamed for them. I had enough of the dirt so I found some rock outcroppings to the right of the trail to scramble on instead. We topped out on the ridge around 6:45 and then made our way to South Maroon's summit. Like Pyramid, gaining the ridge is tedious, but once there the route was tons of fun and seemed to be over before I knew it. We summited around 8:15. The ridge scramble more than made up for the slog up the slope, this is one fine mountain.
Maroon Peak from the Ridge
Capitol and Snowmass in early morning light
After about 15 minutes on the summit, 2 more climbers came strolling up. I asked if I could join them on the traverse if that was where they were headed. One of them needed a ride back to Denver, so it seemed like a fair trade. We set out for the ridge around 8:45.
It seemed even more impressive when I looked back on Pyramid and Thunder from Maroon.
North Maroon Peak: Traverse
North seen from Maroon
The initial down climb held a few challenges but nothing too crazy and we calculated our route from the saddle above the bell cord. We negotiated the first crux pretty well and once back on the ridge, a cairned trail directed us to the left of the second. We followed these cairns for the next 45 minutes as it led us around the west face of North Maroon. We found ourselves making some sketchy 4th/5th class up and down climbs to stay on what we thought was the route but not really gaining or losing any elevation. Finally, the cairns petered out and we were stuck. I think we had gone as far north as the summit – just a couple hundred feet directly below it. We found a ledge system that ascended from our right. It went up and backtracked south to be so it seemed like the best option we had. The only catch is that it was terribly exposed and covered with an inch or more of little ball bearing-like rocks. We hugged the wall and after 15 minutes or so, it led us right back to the ridge. My heart sank as I saw how far we were from the summit, but a look at the ridge revealed a wonderful trail of cairns leading the way. Once back on route, we were on the summit in less than a half-an-hour, at 11:30.
A look back at the second traverse in as many days.
Since the traverse took longer than we had hoped, we didn't stay on the summit very long, especially since we heard route finding from here on was not going to be trivial. 3 sets of eyes came in handy but descending the 4th class chimney proved to be one of the harder things I pulled off during the weekend. I had definitely been on more difficult stuff so I don't know if I was just mentally exhausted at that point or I if had started to relax after my second ridge traverse in as many days, but I struggled with it. I made it down without incident and we made the long trek back, arriving at the TH at 2:45 – my 2nd consecutive 12-hour day.
As I loaded my car, I got a tap on the shoulder and someone asked, "Are you Scot?" It was Cheeseburglar. I learned of his 18-hour day the day before and after going to sleep at 11, he woke up at 2 to try and get to Crater Lake to meet me. Knowing his plans, I had a feeling that he had a monster day and was going to be surprised if he could make it. After hearing of his efforts, I was incredibly impressed and would definitely look to him for a climbing partner in the future. (By the way, he still managed to summit Maroon that day but waited at the trailhead for my return – and I never met the guy before.)
I learned a lot about myself during this weekend and, most importantly, I found my limits. Much of what I did extended my current skill level and pushed my tolerance for exposure considering the rock quality. I was also incredibly lucky to stumble across some great climbing partners. Finishing off the 14ers in my favorite range was bittersweet, but there are so many possibilities for future climbs, I'll be back every chance I get. This leaves me with Pikes Peak and the Chicago Basin group left on my tick list. My finisher is one step closer, but first, on to the Weminuche…
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):