| Winter on North Maroon- The Power of Partners
Winter Ascent of North Maroon- The Power of Partners
North Maroon (14014')
Trailhead: T-lazy 7 Ranch (8236')
24 Miles / 6778 (as climbed with an extra 2 miles RT and 1000' for pre-packing trail)
Climbers: Mark Nieport, Steve Gladbach
Super Sherpa : Tom Pierce
Two weeks ago, I wrote a trip report in which I complained about not really liking hiking/camping alone. Tackling the harder 14ers in winter is especially disconcerting. In anticipation of my next outing I posted a request for partners for anything in the Maroon Bells group. Not wanting to get anyone in over their heads, my post clearly stated the very serious nature of the peaks, especially in the winter.
I received three responses. Two appeared highly qualified, the third not so much. Lee (Mountainfreak) and I just couldn't make the logistics work. Tom Pierce (TomPierce ) was very interested. Both Lee and Tom had a resumes of mixed climbs far superior to mine. Tom said he'd had an interest for a while in a winter ascent of North Maroon (between us we had quite a few summer ascents of the peak.) Yeah, I have a guide!
The third respondent, Mark Nieport (climbhard511), made me hesitate. He's much younger than me and, by self-report, very fit. His profile made me think he might not appreciate what he was getting into. He's definitely an outdoorsman. He'd hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, climbed Whitney (CA), Katahdin (ME), and Mt. Washington (NH). He enjoys winter camping and sport climbing. However, Mark had climbed 23 Colorado 14ers all in the Front, Sawatch, and Mosquito ranges. No San Juan, Sangre de Christo or Elk peaks. No winter peaks. I was guessing that he had no idea how big of a skill leap he was contemplating.
I forwarded Mark's profile to Tom and asked, "What do you think?" Tom responded that he was usually inclined to give a guy a chance. We could put Mark in the middle of the rope and he'd learn a few things. Besides, he was young and strong; who else was going to carry the extra weight and break all that trail? I called Mark and again highlighted the difficulties and dangers of North Maroon in winter; he said he wanted in.
The weather outlook for the four-day period of January 15-19 was idyllic. Though the avalanche forecast was still considerable at and above timberline on NE through S aspects (moderate below timberline), the onset of several days of warm temperatures was likely to settle the pack further. By summit day, I anticipated a moderate snowpack at all elevations on the NE and E (standard) route we planned to follow. That's basically how it played out.
The plan called for Mark and I to spend the night at the TH in our cars and get an early start to snowshoe 9.5 miles up just past Crater Lake to set camp. Tom, who couldn't come in till the next morning, would follow our track and arrive later that afternoon. The way the gear shook out, Tom would be bringing in a 35 meter, 9mm, dry rope that he was fond of for alpine use. He also was bringing a small alpine rack.
Mark and I left the winter closure at T-Lazy 7 Ranch at 6:30AM and easily pulled our sleds up the groomed track laid by the ranch for its customers. Piece of Cake! Two miles later, we reached the fee station where, currently, the T-Lazy 7 has decided to end their maintenance. The amount of grooming done by the ranch changes week- to- week and after several consecutive avalanche mishaps last month, they opted to stop here for now. It is likely that they will groom it further when the snow reaches its late-season maturity.
T- Lazy 7's assessment of the route to Maroon Lake
The next three miles had been skied classic style sometime in the last week by a small group. The narrow track was somewhat helpful, but our wider snowshoes and sleds still required some heavy pulling. The final 2 miles to Maroon Lake had only been breached by one skier and we started to sweat. I'm not complaining though. The track we laid was only about 6 inches deep.
Before reaching Maroon Lake, Mark, sled in tow, gets his first view of the famous Bells
Arriving at Maroon Lake, we get a final opportunity to use an actual toilet before we become real woodsmen. Mark pointed out the device above the door that Big Brother was using to monitor toilet usage. I wonder if it could distinguish those going #1 from those going #2. I'm certain the data will someday be used to justify a pooping fee at the site of the most photographed feature in our state.
Around the corner from the bathroom, the Bells display their full glory
The trail for the next 2 ˝ miles to camp was all ours to break. I have no idea when the last trekkers were at Crater Lake, but there were no remaining signs of visitors.
Leaving our sleds near Maroon Lake and donning very heavy packs, we completed the trip to camp in relatively easy conditions. We decided to push west past Crater Lake hoping to find a site nearer Minnehaha Creek that might have flowing water. We didn't find water, but we found a nice flat spot in a beautiful grove well out of any slide paths. Mark wondered if we were ever setting up a tent as I stomped and re-stomped the site for 20 minutes. Finally I declared the pad ready as Mark looked around for the cement mixer I surely must be intending to use. As the tent was erected, we noticed a plaque carved with the #6 nailed to a tree. I thought we were quite a ways from the summer camp sites, but we'd actually found one of the permitted sites.
At 1:00PM, with camp erected, I set out to break some trail for tomorrow. Mark wanted to rest up for what lay ahead. A little over 5 minutes away, I heard some running water. I stomped out a marker and went over to find the source. I located a water-bottle sized hole (1 quart/minute flow) and went back to camp to tell Mark. Then, I took off again, this time with more purpose. The summer route follows the trail to Buckskin Pass for a mile or so north before leaving the trail, crossing Minnehaha Creek, and then turning back south to a platform 1200' over camp. I decided to save the distance and head straight for the bench above.
Hard work with tiny switchbacks and some tree-pulling aid allowed me to reach a gully about 800' above camp. Here, I needed to remove the shoes to kick up the gully. As I did, I looked below and saw Tom coming across the flats of the Crater Lake shore to our encampment (for now that we had water, and a third partner, our little home in the woods had matured enough to hold a rendezvous.)
200' up the gully, I'd had it for the day. I only hoped the night would bring a freeze that would allow my work to form full blown steps which could be easily be followed in the morning by the light of a headlamp. Turning down, I realized Tom had set camp in pretty short order as he was hiking up to the watering hole to fill his bottles. I hurried down since I was excited to meet him (we'd only talked by phone) and go over the plans. I was anxious about the mountain, but had not shared that with Mark. Arriving at the water station, I discovered that it was Mark, not Tom, which awaited me. I told him that I thought I'd seen Tom arrive at camp and that I had believed it must be he that was collecting water.
"Tom's not coming", said Mark.
I replied, "What do you mean, who was that I just saw walk into camp?"
Mark explained, "That was Tom; I just meant he's not coming on the climb with us; he's already gone."
Tom it seems, felt puny the night before and continued to feel bad on the drive to Aspen. Knowing we needed the rope and pro in his hoard, he decided to pack in to Crater Lake and camp with us. As the day wore on, he wore out. By the time he'd covered the 9 ˝ miles to camp, he just wanted to puke and get out. So that's exactly what he did.
He left us his good rope and an alpine rack, emptied his stomach, and began what he later told me was a Bataan Death March back to the car. As he had intended to at least stay the night with us, even though he knew he was not well enough to climb, when he arrived he was still loaded with full kit. Now he had to carry it all out. Before he left he imparted as much knowledge as his fuzzy brain could bestow to the young Jedi who'd come to train with him. Tom told me he advised Mark, "don't step on your pants leg with your crampons, you'll trip." He found himself a nice motel (the cleaner the toilet the more satisfying the barfing) in Glenwood and was up sick all night. **Warning to young climbers: children carry germs; you get kids, you get sick. Mark's sacrifice to deliver the goods has earned him the title: Tom, Super Sherpa.
Speaking of going out of your way for the team, though I did carry in the reserve stove and fuel, Mark carried the whole tent and the primary stove and fuel (I did previously mention that he was young and strong, why not have him pull his weight (and mine!)) I spent three days and two nights in the mountains and never lit a stove or boiled water. Mark took good care of me; fooled by my "I'm cold, I'm tired, and my knees ache" routine. He boiled some water for both of us and we enjoyed dinner and hot drinks. What a partner he was turning out to be.
I like this waiter (I mean, partner) stuff.
Mark asked what time we'd start, I told him 3:30AM. "You mean we need to get up at 2:30!?" he asked in the way that only a college student could.
"If it takes an hour to get going, that would be right", I told him. As I turned over, I took pity and set the alarm for 3:30AM. He deserved an hour.
The alarm went off and it took the full hour for the two of us to wrestle to get dressed and ready in the cold tent. At 4:30AM we were shoed-up and ready to go. Mark started the day a very strong hiker and camper, by the end of the day he had impressed me as a mountaineer. We made good time up yesterday's track and quickly kicked through the rest of the gully. We stashed our snowshoes on the plateau 1200' above camp.
7:30 AM View down to camp at Crater Lake and Maroon Lake beyond
Now in morning light, we could see the much tilted and somewhat exposed ramp that would lead around the corner to the first gully. Mark later said that, had he been alone, the base of this ramp would have been his highpoint for the trip. I encouraged him to follow and we struck out on a climbing traverse across the ramp to reach the first gully. Little did we know.
7:33 AM Traversing the first ramp
Fifteen minutes later, we begin a precarious climbing ascent of the first gully. This was the only poor snow of the day. It consisted of 12" of fresher powder on top of some solid snow. The adhesion was good, the fresher powder had not consolidated, but it would not slide on the firmer snow beneath. The effort was exhausting and the steps deep. Periodically, Mark, who likes to go up rather than across when he climbs a mountain, would work his way through some low 5th class rock. Unfortunately, the higher traverses were no better. It took 1 ˝ hours to climb the short first gully.
Climbing in the first gully
Tired, we took a break and considered diverting from the standard route in favor of a rock route up the ridge separating the gullies. The route looks unfeasible. We contemplated postponing a summit attempt for a day, but decided first to look around the corner to consider the conditions of the second gully.
Steve goes around the corner separating the NE gully from the longer E gully
Ecstatic at what we found, we decide to push on. The 1000' gully was filled with beautiful cramponing snow.
Mark prepares to lead the gully
The WHOLE gully (Steve whines about his knees!)
All is well as Mark efficiently tramps us up the gully. Then, there's a problem. In summer, the exit from the gully is 3rd class on a series of cairned rocky ledges each about one foot wide. Toda y,no such route exists. All we see is a cliff band encased in steep walls of exposed snow. In the middle of the band is one crack that looks like it might go. As Mark stops for a break, I attempt to breach the headwall. Forty feet up, I'm baffled. I think I MIGHT be able to exit the crack at this point and climb some ledges to the right, but first I climb back down to take off my crampons. As soon as Mark sees me climb down, he makes his own attempt and quickly passes my high point in the crack.
Mark attacks the crack in the headwall
He makes it half-way up
He's making it look easy, right? Three feet higher, he gets stuck. From my point of view, he's done all the hard stuff and with a simple mantle move, he should be able to flop on his belly escaping the crack's neck. Apparently, I was wrong. I guess advice from the back seat isn't always helpful. Mark yells down that he can't figure out how to make the move; the top is sloping crappy rock; there are no holds and no flat surface to climb upon. Crappy rock on the Bells? Who knew?
Mark is worried; he says he can't downclimb. I duck under an adjacent overhang as his attempts to exit knock down a series of increasingly larger rocks. Once he has enough cleared away, he is able to find a hold strong enough to make the move and he disappears over the top! Later, he says to me, "You lead the rest of the rock, I'm done!" (None of the remaining route came close in difficulty.) Fifteen minutes later, I pop over the lip on belay, having used the bottom ˝ of the crack and the upper adjacent ledges. Mark is belaying off the only thing he could find, a smallish and definitely questionable rock, backed up by his axe. Breaching the headwall took an hour and fifteen minutes. We'd be anxious about getting down from this spot for the rest of the day and bandied about solutions for the remainder of the ascent.
12:15 Steve leads the final 200' above the belay to the ridge
Normally, the route crux is in the cliff band above Steve's head in the photo above. Today, we climb around behind the band and eye a low class five route onto the top of the next portion of the ridge. Our original 2:00 turn-around time is one-hour away and we know we won't summit by then. We decide to continue and I lead the next portion; Mark arrives quickly on belay. Mark boots up the ridge for a hundred feet, and then we eye the summit. It's still a ways off, but it looks as if we can make the next bench we'll have the ascent bagged (Anybody considering the DESCENT?") Mark suggests a snow traverse below the ridge proper. We each coil 1/3 of the rope on our shoulder and tie off the last 1/3 between us. We cover some good ground in the next hour.
Traveling Alpine style just below the ridge top
Mark's self-portrait at 3:00PM. You can see PART of his face.
We decide to summit. We realize a bivy or night descent will be needed, but we're prepared for either.
Mark's 4:59PM summit photo. He has the strength to squat so Pyramid will be visible.
Steve apparently can't stand for his summit photo
As we prepare to leave the summit, I pick up an ATC at my feet. Offering it to Mark, he points out that it is mine. Mark digs out his headlamp, but I decide to get mine in a few minutes. It's not in the pocket I expected so it must be in my top compartment, having earlier been exchanged for my camera. My hands are too cold to work that out now. I exchange frozen mittens for expedition weight mittens and warmers; I'll get the lamp when my hands warm. Five minutes later, a crampon kicks off (a problem I've had with these crampons for a while.) Mark is worried by these events and make's me tell him I'm OK and repeat his name for him (I guess he's forgetful.)
I assure him I'm strong and alert and lead the only portion of the descent where we significantly diverge from our ascent route. We are able to use a snow route to bypass some 5th class rock we'd climbed earlier, but as we regain the ascent route, we know it's getting too dark to risk losing our original track. I tell Mark where to find my lamp and he gets it for me so that I don't need to remove my pack on the steep side-slope.
We took the remaining descent slowly and carefully take turns belaying the 5th class portions and traveling the snow Alpine style. It was dark; but the route was easy to locate by headlamp. Each time we recognized a landmark, we were surprised by the tortoise-like speed of our descent. But, the tortoise DID win the race! Mark belayed me over our scary crux and then he efficiently downclimbed partially protected by my top-rope belay using the same less-than-perfect belay rock. We both chose the ledges for the upper portion of the descent. We plunge-stepped the main couloir and slowly downclimbed the smaller couloir (where the snow had set up nicely.) Once the hard parts all behind, we epected a quick return to camp,but were disappointed that our descnet continued to be agonizingly slow. With a stop at the watering hole, we returned to the tent at 1:30 in the morning. A 12 ˝ hour ascent followed by a 8 ˝ hour descent made for a very long day. Mark boiled water, we ate and we slept!
Rising at 9:00AM, we were on the trail by 10:30.
A look back at the mountain banner made us appreciate the glorious conditions of the day before
Mark made it back to the car before 2:00 PM, but I had sled troubles and spent way too much time trying to fix it. In the end, I had to carry out the pack except for a few items which were normally tied onto my pack. This is all the repaired sled could pull without tipping over. From Maroon Lake down, we had plenty of skiers with which to visit. My favorite question was asked at the Maroon Lake bathroom.
"How much farther is it to the Lake?"
"About a hundred yards", I re-assured the tired skier.
"Is it worth going to see", she asked?
"You just skied 7 miles and now it's three more minutes to the most photographed mountainview in the United States. I'd risk it", I told her.
I arrived at 3:00PM and Mark and I ate at a diner down-valley before saying our good-byes. We agreed that we needed to buy Tom the Super Sherpa a new rope as his had suffered a few crampon bites (for now the Super Sherpa is declining, but he may feel differently after he inspects his rope and he notices the missing runner that is slinging a sloppy rock above a certain exit from the main gully.)
Remember, this was Mark's first real snow climb. You can't tell by a guy's peak profile if he's got the calm reserve to meet every new challenge with self –assured confidence and without false bravado. Wow.
It's also hard to tell from a phone conversation if the guy on the other end is the type to hike 19 miles with the flu to bring you a rope just because he SAID he would. You can't tell if he's the type to tell you not worry about damage you may have caused; "buy me a beer and consider it my contribution to the trip." Wow.
As Martha Stewart always says, "climb with a strong partner; it's a GOOD thing."
Mud-slide path at Maroon Lake that wiped out the former Maroon Bells Campground in 1990
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