| Maroon Peak - God Is Good
NOTE: For important information on SPOT Trackers, see this thread: http://www.14ers.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=21231
Before this report, I feel that it is necessary that I write a disclaimer. This report was written mainly for my friends and family, though I think it would be beneficial for some climbers to read. As a result, many of the terms common to people on this site are defined to help other readers.
Second, before anyone goes on instructing me on what I did wrong - I KNOW. Trust me, I may not be an experienced climber, but I'm not inexperienced either. I completely understand that I made some mistakes (mainly involving weather and then everything that happened at the top of the couloir). I also, however, know what I did correctly after screwing up. So please, I don't need anyone else telling me what I did wrong. Disclaimer over.
In my opinion, every climber and hiker has that one trying moment where they get a true glimpse of what danger really is. For some, they make the right decisions, and it keeps them safe. For others, they make the wrong decisions, and the results are sometimes deadly. At other times, however, they make only a few small bad decision, and it still ends badly. That is basically what happened on July 31st, 2009.
The sign that everyone should pay attention too. Thanks to lostsheep5 for the picture. He took this on 07/31/09 at about the time I got into serious trouble
The Maroon Bells are nicknamed the "Deadly Bells" on purpose. They kill people. They are notorious for loose rock and steep cliffs. I've heard one person describe them as a pile of plates stacked on top of one another, ready to fall down. That's an accurate description. My friend Noah and I had originally planned on an ascent of the southern Maroon Bell, Maroon Peak, and they planned to attempt a traverse to North Maroon Peak. Between the two of us, we have significant experience. I am particularly good with route finding and class 1-3 navigation. Noah has good experience with the more difficult and technical class 4 hiking. The Maroon Bells, while considered some of Colorado's hardest 14ers, were not out of our range of experience. Both of us are also fairly good at weather decision making in the high country, though there is no "good" weather predicting at that altitude.
We got our early alpine start at about 2:30am and began "the approach." Most people complain about the end of this hike, for me however, the beginning is the most frustrating: 3.5 miles of hiking on flat ground. The approach was rainy, but fairly easy. After finding a "cairn" - a pile of rocks - that marked our ascent route at 5:30am, we worked our way up the most frustrating section of the hike - 2,800 feet of elevation over the course of about 1.5 miles. It's annoying, tough to follow, and according to Noah, very slippery and hard to descend.
Snowmass and Capitol Peak
Light coming in over Pyramid Peak
The ascent route
At about 8:30am we reached the top of the ridge at 13,300. The final section to the summit involves playing the cairn game - moving a cross of very skinny ledges and loose gullies as lead by cairns. I love searching for cairns... and I love ledges. As a result, we finished this section, which is supposed to take about 1.5 hours for the fast climber, took us an hour total.
Looking up towards the summit of Maroon Peak
The summit was great. Though I wouldn't recommend anyone get near it, the views are incredible. You can see EVERYTHING, from the dangerous looking summits of Pyramid and Capitol, to the spacious snowfield on Snowmass Mountain. It was incredible. We didn't stay long on the summit, and headed down the saddle towards North Maroon Peak. We were faced with some technical (class 4 AND class 5) down climbs before we reached the low-point on the ridge at 13,700ft - the top Bell Cord Couloir (A couloir is a steep snow-filled gully).
Looking towards some climbers on the summit of North Maroon Peak.
Capitol Peak in the distance
Noah in the bottom-right on his way over towards North Maroon Peak
We searched for the route up North Maroon and quickly realized it was more of a challenge than we expected. As we sat at the top of the couloir trying to decide what to do, a storm blew in. Now, I've been on 26 different expeditions, and summited peaks over 30 different times, but I have NEVER seen a storm behave like this. From clear skies at our summit time of 9:30, conditions changed. At 10:45, it was thundering like crazy and snowing (not actually snow, but a pellet like substance known as grauple) hard. Noah and I pulled our space blankets and hunkered down at the top of the couloir to wait out the storm. As the storm slowly began to taper off and the fog surrounded us, we realized just how bad our situation was. The climbs up to both South and North Maroon Peaks were wet from the storm AND technical AND exposed to long deadly falls. The couloir was filled with a very thick icy snow. Neither Noah nor I had packed for a snow climb - our crampons and ice axes were at home. The left and right edges of the couloir had melted out, creating intermittent and very deep cave-like openings that apparently are known as "moats." Thus, down the couloir was not an option either.
This is where things got VERY dangerous. We knew we needed to do something, as sitting was not an option. In a decision that neither of us were comfortable with, I began to slowly traverse across the snow. And I tripped. In a normal situation, I'd have my ice axe to arrest with, stopping the fall. This time, I had nothing but a hiking pole. I did my best to arrest without any success at all. I was being flung left and right through the couloir on a very speedy downwards trek. At least I was going the right direction. After a few HUNDRED feet of downwards movement, the scariest thing in my life happened. I finally "exited" the couloir on the left (north) side, headfirst, into the cliff wall on North Maroon. My helmet took the full force of the fall and turned me around enough that my feet hit snow. I had basically slid a few hundred feet down at high speed into a cliff and didn't break a single bone.
Admittedly, I was NOT in good physical condition. I was bleeding from somewhere (apparently my nose, as it's a nice scar now). I was scratched and scraped everywhere, and my right leg was exceptionally painful (I'm guessing it was second after my head to hit something hard). My first thing was to scream up to Noah not to try ANYTHING, but to stay put. He agreed. At this point, I realized how badly my luck had turned. My SPOT tracker, a small GPS/satellite device that allows me to tell home that I'm "OK" or notify 911 that I was in trouble, had come off of its harness during the fall and continued down the couloir. I had just lost my last connection to help. But things improved slightly. I searched (slowly) around the area, and as I looked further down the couloir, I realized that the moat I was in continued downwards for a VERY long time. I had a chance to get down by crawling through the moat. I yelled up to Noah that I had a chance of getting down, but no SPOT tracker. I told him to stay put as I continued down.
From here, the two of us were split up, with no way back to one another. I started down as the fog FINALLY started to lift. While I wasn't sure what Noah did at this point, he later told me that he worked his way back uphill to the summit of South Maroon to attempt a standard descent - a very dangerous prospect going solo. Meanwhile, I worked my way down the couloir, using some ledges along North Maroon get down as far as I could. At 13,300ft, I was VERY surprised to discover my SPOT tracker in the middle of the snow. Unfortunately, it was in a very steep section, and I had no way of getting to it. Once again, God intervened in a huge way. The loose rock, that the Bells are famous for, started to slide and a number of huge rocks hurled down the couloir. After chatting with Noah later, I realized that it was about then that Noah was on the side of South Maroon, and probably started the slide himself. One of them bumped my SPOT tracker out of the couloir down into a moat on the side. I was a few ledges above the mote, but could see a ramp down from my ledge into the mote. Within 10 minutes I had the device.
With the orange box in my hand, I knew the next move would be tough. I had to press the 911 button. While I was in pain, I was not in any significant danger anymore, but I still though Noah was still stuck up top. I knew pressing the button would mobilize the search and rescue (SAR) teams that were necessary, but I knew it would cause panic back at home. I pressed the button.
The next few hours were some of the most tiring. After activating the SPOT unit at 2:30pm, I realized that there was no way down the lower, steeper part of the couloir. I began to traverse a set of ledges across the south and west faces of North Maroon Peak. I was confident that I could make it around the peak to the north face, where I hoped to join the normal route down. However, at 4pm, I reached the end of the ledge system - there was no further way across. It was clear that the next task was to work my way downhill to try and reach the approach trail back at 10,500ft.
Being alone and tired in the wilderness can be a trying experience. I had trouble keeping moving at times, as taking breaks often seemed reasonable. Route finding and searching can be tough, especially when there is nobody to backup you decisions. I prayed constantly, knowing that God would hear me. And he did. One of the biggest blessings was the overwhelming sense of calmness that overcame me - so much that it was almost difficult to worry, as so much of my mind was focused on getting down safely. I also found a strength, which, given my condition and circumstances, made very little sense. God is good!
It was about now that SAR sent out an airplane to try and spot Noah and me. Unfortunately, wind kept him from circling as low as he wanted, but it was encouraging to know that they were looking. I found a set of... well... I don't know what to call them. Basically, there was a "staircase" of ledges with short sections (maybe 15-20 feet high) class 4 and low class 5 cliffs. I worked down this staircase to 11,700ft where a 300 foot cliff face stopped my descent. At this point, it was 4:40pm, and I was getting frustrated. My next option was a set of grassy ledges south of the staircase. I had to re-climb almost the entire staircase back to 12,100ft before working down to the grassy area. At approximately 6pm, I reached a wide grass ledge and realized there was no way down any further. I was cliffed out - stuck here with no chance of getting down.
I did an inventory on my pack. I still had my entire lunch, a number of cliff bars, gorp, and some other random food. I had another jacket and an emergency bivy sac (basically an emergency sleeping bag) - I was prepared to stay out all night if necessary. But first, there was one final surprise for me. At sometime around 6:30pm, I heard a noise that sounded like the SAR plane making another attempt. I quickly realized however, that the noise was not a plane, but in fact, the SAR helicopter. I cheered VERY loudly, excited that finally Noah and I had a good chance. I hoped they would track down Noah first, but still pulled out my large space blanket to try and signal the copter. After a number of passes, they finally spotted me, and with some help from a flashlight, we made first contact.
By 7:15, an Aspen Mountain Rescue team was on the ground and in contact with me. I conveyed Noah's last known location. I was surprised to hear Noah's whistle as I sat there, very happy to know he was alive... somewhere. Steve, Johnny, and Jeff worked towards me while the copter headed back to SAR Operations back at the trailhead. As Steve and Jeff setup protection to rappel me off of the cliffs, Johnny climbed (or tried to) up the snow (one of the many things blocking my descent). His Grivel crampons weren't doing so great for him. It was about here that I was very excited to receive word that they had found a hiker down at the bottom of South Maroon near Crater Lake. The SAR team asked me what colored jacket and helmet Noah was wearing. I was able to confirm that it was him, and was extremely glad that he was safe. They hiked Noah back to the trailhead and got him fed and taken care of while they continued with my extraction.
I'll shorten the hike out. We worked down the cliffs on belay, and then Johnny setup a snow anchor using his ice axe, and belayed the rest of us down the snow as well. We used a snazzy self-rappel thing - it was a mechanical descender. I like it... sorry for the lack of specific details. After getting down the snow, we hiked down for another section before running into the garbage chute area. I don't think we climbed down the actual garbage chute, but as I understand it, took the next set of cliffs to the north. Johnny and Jeff setup another rope station, and Steve and I setup to repel down with Jeff doing a fireman's belay below us. I tell you, there is nothing as annoying and... wet... as rappelling off a waterfall. Of course the fun wasn't over yet. Another 1,000 feet of hiking down steep loose rock to the trail was painful. As we reached the trail, a thunderstorm that rolled in earlier decided to dump a TON of rain on us. The trail quickly became a lake, basically. Steve and I moved fast - faster than I've ever hiked out in my life - to get back to the trailhead as soon as we could. Drenched from head to foot, at about 11:30(ish) we reached the trailhead.
Jeff drove me back to Aspen, where Noah and I were reunited at the Mountain Rescue cabin. The sheriff and SAR directors talked to me to get a feel for how things went and how I was. We got some food and drink, and before long, were at a hotel that thankfully my dad had booked for us. Finally, after almost 22 hours in the field, we got some much needed sleep.
Looking back, it was clear that with only a few exceptions, we made the right decisions. For one, despite the fact that my personal weather forecast/prediction said I was safe and NOAA said we were safe until afternoon, weather is unpredictable - I shouldn't have taken the chance of heading for North Maroon even though we were ahead of schedule. Second, I shouldn't have set foot on the snow to begin with. It resulted not only in injury, but in separating Noah and I - one of the biggest problems with the entire day. Other than these things, the decisions both Noah and I made were solid, and resulted in a successful rescue. Personally, I would have been much happier without having any rescue at all, but in the end, it all worked out.
The Aspen Mountain Rescue as well as the Pitkin County Sheriff were all great to Noah and I, and I can't thank them more for the work they voluntarily do help people like us caught in unfortunate circumstances. It's amazing what they did. Also - for any hikers out there - this rescue would have cost that search and rescue team tens of thousands of dollars had it not been for the fact that I have a CORSAR card. Basically, by donating to this fund, the SAR team was able to divert the costs of my rescue to the CORSAR fund - saving them tons of money. Check it out here: http://www.dola.state.co.us/dlg/fa/sar/sar_purchase.html
Second, my SPOT tracker turned out to be the real life-saver. It (almost) provided the copter with a fix on my location, and it was enough to get my family informed and also helped to identify me. Thanks to the way the system is setup, they could also tell I was moving downhill, which relieved my parents (some). Between that and my gear, I couldn't have been safer (given the circumstances... of course, not needing rescue would be nice).
Above all else, I can't state more how much God blessed us with safety. Considering I've been through two snowstorms, two thunderstorms, a rainstorm, fell down a couloir, lost my spot, found my spot, and was roped off of cliffs, waterfalls, and snowfields, I am blessed to be alive. As Noah and I prayed constantly from the mountain, the prayers from those in Denver were heard too. If it wasn't for God's protection, I probably wouldn't be here. I felt his strength inside of me too - as I was somehow able to stay very calm and collected even after being awake for 20 hours in dangerous locations after only a few hours of sleep. Many people might attribute these things to luck, but I can truthfully say that God undoubtedly was there in all the details, even the bad, to make this work out. When death seems inevitable and yet God pulls through, it's really hard not to have faith in our great protector.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):