| finally taking our turn on the Bells Traverse
Peaks: Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak
Route: Bell Cord Couloir, Bells Traverse (South to North), Northeast Ridge on North Maroon
Date Climbed: July 11, 2007
Elevation Gained: ~4,900-ft
Roundtrip Mileage: ~9.5-mileage
Group: Andy & Sarah
Timetable: 01:00 Maroon Lake TH
03:30 bottom of continuous snow of Bell Cord (~12,000-ft)
05:30 top of Bell Cord Couloir
06:45 summit of Maroon Peak
07:30 top of Bell Cord Couloir
09:30 summit of North Maroon Peak
15:15 Maroon Lake TH
The Maroon Bells have been hanging over our heads for quite some time. Many weeks of planning the routes, meeting with friends who had already climbed them, and stressing over the planned date went into our first attempt on the Bells in July of 2007. Two days after climbing Pyramid, we made it to 13,000-ft on the south ridge route of Maroon Peak before turning around. We lost the route in the dark hours of the morning, and sat down to wait for the sun to rise. A group of climbers caught up to us an hour later, and we fell in line behind them. The rock fall from them above us proved too much for us to handle, and when a watermelon sized rock screamed inches from Sarah's head, we had had enough.
Fast forward two years, and we were again making an attempt. This time we had two of the traverses under our belt and were foregoing the loose rock on the ascent by climbing the snow. However, we still had a hard time getting any sleep the night before the climb. There's something about seeing the Bells come into view as you head up the Maroon Creek road that always sends chills up my spine. To think about all the people that do this same routine with the intention of skiing these peaks just blows my mind. I'll stick to the mere mortal task of climbing them in prime conditions.
(current snow conditions on the Bells as of July 11)
After sleeping in our truck in the parking lot the night before, we left the TH around 1:00 A.M. The trek to the turnoff for the Bell Cord passed really quickly considering the stress level of our minds. The only comment I have is if you want to see a lot of wildlife action in Colorado, do this hike at this hour with a bright moon. We saw porcupines (a.k.a. selfish trail hogs), marmots, and even a deer swimming in Crater Lake.
We easily spotted the "intermittent stream crossing" that to us resembled a huge trench in the talus. From this point on, the best way to describe this route is steep. We really paced ourselves up the talus field to the Garbage Chute, trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the snow climbing ahead. Per Jordan's (jcwhite) route description, we used the snow field to the north of the large gully, avoiding the Garbage Chute to the south. We then did an ascending traverse across a break in the snow to the south to the start of the continuous snow of the Bell Cord Couloir. From this point, it was just a matter of trying to find a marathoner's pace up the steep snow. Luckily, the snow was in perfectly firm condition. We never post-holed a single time, and rarely was more than a soft kick needed to set the frontpoints of our crampons. We climbed the entire couloir by moonlight sans headlamps, which was really surreal. Currently, there is approximately 3-ft of snow in the couloir, with one major runnel whose bottom has only and inch or two of snow. There are numerous gaping bergschrunds, though, and in a few places only a few dozen feet of snow separate you from the abyss. It was difficult to gauge their depth in the dark.
I arrived at the top of the couloir at 5:30 A.M. on the dot, just moments before a spectacular sunrise. Unfortunately, the camera was stashed in Sarah's pack, and she was a few minutes behind me. We quickly stashed our crampons and axes before heading towards the summit of Maroon Peak.
(just after sunrise at the top of the Bell Cord Couloir)
(looking toward Maroon Peak from the top of the Bell Cord Couloir)
Opting for solid rock instead of loose gullies, we traversed south less than 50-ft from the top of the Bell Cord Couloir and headed straight up to the ridge crest. We then followed the ridge all the way to the summit, working our way to the west (climber's right) whenever we encountered difficulties. We reached the summit at 6:45 A.M. With a long day still ahead of us, we didn't spend much time on Maroon Peak's summit. Once we caught our breath and tried to calm our nerves, we headed back towards the Bell Cord Couloir. On the return, we opted to descend the north side of the loose gully in Jordan's description, avoiding the difficulties on the ridge crest.
(looking across the traverse at the next stop on the agenda, North Maroon)
We arrived back at the Bell Cord Couloir without incident, grabbed our stashed gear, and turned our attention to the traverse. For the most part, the route finding on the traverse was very straightforward, staying directly on top of the ridge 99% of the time. We followed the route description by benners (sorry, I don't know your first name) move by move, and it was always right on the money. His photos and descriptions really helped inspire confidence that we were heading in the right direction.
From here it's difficult to appropriately describe the technical class of the route. Climbing classification will always be subjective. But after all the reading I did of others' trip reports in preparation for this climb, I feel I need to make a few notes here. All I can say is that the more and more I do "class 4" routes on the Colorado 14ers list, the more and more I realize that I'm not a very skilled rock climber. For subjectivity's sake, I've been dabbling in the world of rock climbing since 2005 when I moved to Los Alamos from Cincinnati. I consider myself proficient at leading a pitch or two of 5.7. When you get into the 5.8 range, I tend to struggle. Let me just say that my first trad lead (last year) was a 5.6 half pitch in Los Alamos (Cindy's Chimney at Portrillo), and I would be more comfortable climbing it again free solo than I would doing the Bells Traverse. That's just my opinion, so take it for what's it's worth.
From here, my description follows the terminology of benner's route description. We both had no problem with the first crux, and I didn't feel it was much harder than the summit headwall on the Crestone Needle on the Crestone traverse. As we studied the second crux from the top of the first spire, we struggled to see a doable line and really started getting nervous. At this point, we switched from mountaineering boots to rock shoes and decided to give the line a quick try before bailing. The view from the spire ended up being a bit deceptive as the second crux passed with only slightly more difficulty that the first. We both breathed a huge sigh of relief as benners rated this the crux of the entire traverse, so we thought we had the most difficult part behind us. Our confidence quickly began to soar, and the fun factor turned up a notch. "Ok, we can actually do this without falling to our death." For the first time all day, we were smiling off camera.
(Sarah making her way up the first crux)
(Sarah approaching the first spire)
The third crux quickly obliterated our confidence. After several minutes of studying the photos in our printout of benners route description, we opted for the left line up the dihedral. The right line just looked too overhung. Sarah went first, and made it smoothly up the first 2/3 of the crux to the first major ledge while I hid from rockfall. I then joined her on the ledge to help inspect the next section. I climbed up ten feet or so and fumbled with a difficult move for several minutes. I just couldn't find a way to complete the move without relying heavily on an outward pull on a sole handhold. Considering the generally unreliable rock on the Bells, I just could not get myself to pull the move. It felt to be much more difficult than typical moves on a 5.7 route at home. Toss in the rotten-rock factor and the super-exposure factor, and my knees were knocking 100 times a second. Sarah did a hairy traverse to climber's right while I downclimbed back to the ledge with sweaty palms and pumping veins. She yelled to me that she found an easier way, and I felt a bit of relief. The traverse was awkward for me because I'm a bit taller than Sarah, and the "easier" way was still a formidable task for my stressed morale. At the top of the third crux, I remember uttering something along the lines, "Five zero my ass." And Roach rates this entire traverse Class 4.
(looking toward the summit of North Maroon from just below the third crux)
Compared to these moves, the remaining route to the summit of North Maroon was a cake walk. We arrived at the summit of North Maroon Peak at 9:30 A.M. The weather still looked clear, but as much as we wanted to relax, we knew our day was nowhere close to over.
(Sarah and I muster the energy for some smiles on North Maroon Peak's summit)
(looking back across the traverse toward Maroon Peak)
Originally, we thought the northeast ridge on North Maroon was not a viable descent route because of the poor snow conditions. Therefore, we had planned to traverse back to and descend the Bell Cord Couloir. However, the traverse crux proved much more difficult than we had anticipated, so we were relieved to see a set of footprints weaving through the snow fields on the upper reaches of the north face. It appeared that someone had recently taken the route, so we switched to Plan C (Plan B was to descend the south ridge of South Maroon if the snow conditions in the Bell Cord had deteriorated). The stacks of 14ers.com printouts we had lugged up the Bell Cord were paying dividends.
(looking down the northeast ridge of North Maroon Peak from the summit)
From the summit of North Maroon Peak, we very closely followed Bill Middlebrook's route description all the way down the northeast ridge route to the Rock Glacier. The snow on the upper reaches of the north face was quite rotten and made for some dicey moves above blind cliff bands. I cannot fathom pointing my skis down that face. Bill's route description and accompanying GPS track proved priceless. We really took our time descending the upper half of this route. We carried a healthy dose of fear of getting off route after reading and hearing others' horror stories on this route. Without too much searching, we identified the class 4 chimney that Bill describes as the rock band near 13,600-ft. In fact, his Photo #44 was especially helpful. Without too much trouble, I was able to mantel down onto the first ledge and then downclimb onto the snow at the base of the chimney. I then helped guide Sarah's feet down, so we escaped without fumbling with a rappel anchor. In fact, all of our rock gear stayed in our packs for the entire day.
We had a very difficult time identifying the entrance into the upper gully. We got to a point where it just didn't seem possible to continue down the ridge, but venturing out onto the east face didn't seem good either. We blew over an hour on this section, climbing all over the place. I was searching desperately for the notch that Bill describes at the exit (Photo #36) but was never able to locate it. Meanwhile, Sarah managed to stumble unknowingly upon the exact line Bill has traced on the photo. As it turns out, I had scrambled all the way down to the overhanging rock on the south side of the notch but just didn't realize it.
For us, this was the most stressful part of the entire day. By the time we found the entrance into the upper gully, it was well past noon. It was three hours since we had left the summit of North Maroon Peak, was we had only dropped 1,000-ft. The clouds were rapidly building to the south, and our margin for error on the remaining descent was rapidly narrowing. I really thought we were in serious trouble.
Luckily, the rest of the descent to the Rock Glacier went super smoothly. We found the exit from both gullies without a problem thanks to Bill's detailed photos. I cannot imagine doing that descent with Roach's description alone. We followed a consistent trail down the lower third of the upper gully and through the entirety of the lower gully.
Once we arrived at the Rock Glacier, we felt the enormity of the day lift off our shoulders. Now we knew that it was just a matter of time before we got back to the trailhead, even if Mother Nature decided to unleash Her fury. We managed to work our way far off trail below the Rock Glacier. Another hour or so quickly ticked by as we fumbled down steep, loose talus slopes and bashed through annoying willows. We just kept making our way to the north knowing that we would eventually hit the Maroon-Snowmass trail.
We arrived back at the trailhead at 3:15 P.M., a mere six hours after leaving the summit of North Maroon Peak. As a parting gift, the skies opened up and started dumping rain on us as I fumbled for the keys in my pack. We dragged ourselves into the bed of our truck and slept to the drone of the rain. We had escaped alive from "The Deadly Bells."
(beta for Pyramid and Thunder Pyramid)
(beta for Snowmass and Capitol, still lots of snow)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):