If you were to look at my peak list before this past weekend, you would have seen a big gaping hole in the Elks. Sure, I'd done Castle, but you know what I mean. The ones everyone ooohs and aaaahs about – and worries about. I felt that nagging at me, so I decided to go over Labor Day weekend regardless, but really preferred to have partners along on this trip. I had put a general call out on the Forum and a more personal call out to some folks I had hiked with before. Shortly, emcee smith had agreed to do North Maroon with me, but he could not spare the whole weekend. As the date grew nearer, we also picked up marcvolland and Don Eberl for North Maroon.
I had intended to hike in Friday evening and meet the rest of the crew at the 2nd turn-off (about 0.75 mile above the junction above Crater Lake). Well, I had arrived at the overnight parking lot at 8:30pm Friday evening, so my hike in was lit entirely by my headlamp and the full moon above. So when I came to the Crater Lake campsites and found that the first two were unoccupied, I grabbed one. The idea of hiking up any further was kinda stupid anyway: these campsites are a good central spot for this group. The down side is that the proximity to Crater Lake and the foot traffic from dayhikers make it a bit noisy. One afternoon, a young woman was singing "Rocky Mountain High" at the top of her lungs. (At least she knew all the words.)
Anywho, emcee smith has already written an excellent account of our attempt at North Maroon (did we make it?! You'll have to read to find out!). So I'll sit quietly and wait while you read that:
So Saturday afternoon we said our good-byes, and I was left to hunt for partners for either Pyramid or South Maroon. I shortly found out that my weekend neighbor, Jeff R. from Sedalia, had turned back twice on Pyramid due to storms and was back to put the old saying to the test. I asked if he wanted company, and we ended up agreeing to start out before dawn.
I turned in early, but couldn't sleep. Kind of surprising since, although North Maroon had not quite lived up to its nasty reputation, it certainly was physically and mentally taxing. It must have been the altitude – combined with the anticipation of tackling Colorado's third hardest 14er (according to 148 other 14ers.com members).
Sunday morning, I rolled out of the tent under cloudy skies. Errrrr. Oh, well, maybe the clouds will burn off. We backtracked to the Pyramid turn-off – easily finding the huge cairn in the headlamp beam – and started up to the Amphitheater.
It's socked in over by the Bells (from the start of the Amphitheater)
Pyramid is not so bad – that could just be a few people hitting a bong
All too quickly my legs started to feel like lead. I thought it might be dehydration, so I started testing that thesis. After sucking down more water, I did start feeling better. But this is just one unrelentingly steep trail, and my legs just never fully woke up.
The huge cairns that marked our entrance into the Amphitheater were a welcome sight – until we realized what was still ahead of us. I knew the Amphitheater was supposed to be a stretch of talus-hopping, but I thought it was at least supposed to be pretty flat. Nope, we were looking at more gain across a heap of rocks with no discernible trail. Sure, there were a few cairns here and there, but they really don't help. Just stay to the right and make a bee-line up from there. About halfway up, there is a bit of a trail on the right edge, which makes things easier until it crosses over the remaining snow and peters out.
All morning the clouds had been teasing us. They would look like they were breaking up, then move back in. So when we made it to the end of the Amphitheater, we still were not expecting to summit but didn't have anything better to do than to continue up. So onward and upward.
"Wild Man" Jeff scoping out the route up to the saddle
Wow! That must be Cheech and Chong on the Bells!
I had heard about the steep, nasty climb out of the Amphitheater, but as Bear Grylls would say, you don't know what it's really like until you rub noses with it. Holy Crap! That is steep! I tried to go at a slow, steady pace, but there's no pace slow enough for this pitch to be steady. It seemed like I was stopping about every 5 steps to catch my breath. Somehow, we actually made it up this 1000' pitch in only 55 minutes, but it probably took a month off my life.
At the saddle, the clouds weren't breaking up – as expected. So after having gained something like 2,500 feet, we called the time of death for this attempt at 9:00am.
Disappointment spreads across my face – it'll be there for a while
The third time was not the charm for Jeff
We had heard the weather was supposed to be better on Monday than on Sunday, so it was easy to convince Jeff to stick around for another attempt. We agreed to start out a bit earlier the next time (4:20am instead of 5:45). So fast forward about 22.5 hours to find us in the same spot – with a cloud-deck that wasn't quite so low.
Still a low cloud-deck on Monday morning…
But it's broken up a bit – at least you can see Snowmass and Capitol
It was a short, easy hike/scramble to get over to the corner where "the ledge" comes into view.
Jeff scrambling just before the "Ledge"
Still making our way over to the corner where we could see the "Ledge" and the summit pitch
From here on, it was more physically and mentally taxing than North Maroon. The ledge actually wasn't bad. Jeff elected to scramble around it both ways; I elected to jump it both ways. Within a few yards of that, there were two places where you need to hang your butt out over the ledge while hugging the rock. I found these to be scary on the way up, but not on the way back.
Jeff and another hiker elect to scramble around – rather than jump – the break in the Ledge
Scrambling around the break in the Ledge
On the Ledge
Returning across the Ledge. Of course, right when Jeff is trying to concentrate on the rock-hugging section, I decide it's an excellent time to play the role of director.
The return across the second rock-hugging section
Then, there was more concentration, and more class 3/4. Thinking back on it now, I don't think it was too bad. The route was pretty well cairned. There was one spot where Jeff executed what was probably the hardest move of the day. I felt I could do it on the way up, but it would have been quite scary on the way down. So I decided to look for an easier way and found the cairns leading toward it. And there were a few places on the climb where I was thinking, How the heck am I going to climb down that?! But, luckily, I really couldn't remember any of those spots on the downclimb. The downclimb was not as bad as I had expected.
The remaining climb
Jeff executing one of the harder moves of the day
More than anything, I was worried that the effort I'd already expended to get to this "tough," "scary" summit pitch would take its toll and I would get careless – I'd pull on a loose handhold, or my body would crap out on some mantle move, or I'd simply stumble over a loose rock.
The Diving Board shot of the Maroon Bells. Do I look a little tense? I'm not celebrating just yet
But none of that happened. It took a long time, but we made it back off the summit pitch safely. And, although we still had to contend with getting to and then over the Amphitheater, we felt like we could finally relax a bit. I will say that if I were to do Pyramid again, I'd definitely bring my microspikes for the downclimb from the saddle to the Amphitheater. Trek poles would probably help a lot of people, too. I tend not to use them too much and find that they can sometimes get in the way when I'm scrambling and they're stowed in my pack.
This guy showed us the way down
About 9.5 hours after starting out, I fell down into camp – knowing that I still needed to pack out and drive home. Wow! That's what I call a Labor Day weekend. My toughest 14ers to date.
The aspen are starting to turn
Exhausted on the hike out
Parting shot with aspen
And no trip to the Bells is complete without a reminder of the danger
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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