Trip Length: 9.25 miles
Trip Duration: 10 hrs. 30 min.
Elevation Gain: ~4,500 ft.
Climbers: John (Cairngorm), Jim Davies, Carol Davies, myself
I really need to get a better alarm clock. No way did I drive this far to have the rest of my party take off and leave me in the parking lot with 'visions of sugarplums' ... I drove over Independence Pass late the night before, dodging the imaginary fairies on the road that my fatigue-induced brain was conjuring, and snoozed for a few hours at the Maroon Lake trailhead. My phone's alarm decided not to ring, and I woke up by chance at 5:30 to the rest of the group almost ditching me. In my haste to get it all together, I left my shades in the car - a mistake I'd regret later.
We got underway just as the sun was coming up and got our first good look at the Bells a few minutes later. This apparently wasn't going to be your average 'Bierstadt walk-up':
Moon over the Bells
Moonset over Sleeping Sexton
Fortunately, the trail gains quite a bit of elevation in the woods, and by the time you cross the moraine, you're really already about 1/2 way up the mountainside. A really nice Class 2 warmup to the steeper sections higher up. Along the way, you're afforded some amazing views of Pyramid across the valley:
The view back down to Crater Lake and Maroon Lake makes you realize why you live here and not in New Jersey:
Once the traverse begins, two things quickly jump out at you:
1) How far down the valley below already is:
... and 2) How steep things are already becoming: Jim and Carol traversing towards the first gully
John loving every minute of it
The entrance to the first gully is marked by climbing over about a 15-foot band of out-of-place-looking conglomerate rock:
The scramble that awaits you:
Once up the gully, a small cliff band and a cairn to your left marks the crossover point to the second gully: Carol 'short-roping' Jim up the mountain. That's gotta be tough on the 'ol ego ...
Turn the corner and get a first-hand look at entire length of the 2nd gully. Time to put on the facepaint. Play time's over:
Like several other points on this mountain, it looks virtually unclimbable from a distance, but is manageable once you get there. Also, like other access points, the entrance is intuitive since the mountain falls away to oblivion below it: The entrance point to the 2nd gully that cliffs-out below.
Higher up on the gully, we could see the Roach's crossover point.
This small cairn marks the alternate route if you choose to climb the entire 1st gully
On the way down, a group ahead of us gave it a look, but turned around quickly. It must be pretty hairball over there. The climbing continues, getting steadily steeper as you work your way towards the obvious 'notch': Climbers just below the notch puts the gully in perspective
Can you see them now?
Jim and John making their way along the upper stretch of the 2nd gully
The cairns will chase you left before you reach the notch, but it's highly worth the brief scramble to catch your first views of Capitol and Snowmass lurking behind 'Sleeping Sexton'
John getting progressively giddier as the air gets thinner
John and I in the 'notch' above the 2nd gully. Giddiness is apparently infectious.
The climbing picks its way steeply along ledges above the 2nd gully before coming to the infamous Class 4 'Chimney Crux'. It looks rather tame when you're looking up at it (we weren't initially sure this was the actual obstacle), but the difficulty soon presents itself after the first moves on the down-sloping ledges force a climber into some creative solutions.
Jim already having 2nd thoughts about the chimney. He chose to bypass this route to the right.
Like everywhere else on this mountain, the ledges are easy to attain, but the downsloping angle adds a degree of difficulty to every hand and foothold Note the angle of the icicles with respect to the ledges. The whole mountain looks like this (taken just below the summit)
The upper stretches before the summit don't provide much respite, and demand full concentration. Once past the 'precipice', the exposure ratchets up about 5 notches as you're forced to cross over the ridge line.
I personally felt that the crux of the day was a Class 4 bypass around a really exposed Class 3 section. Harder moves with a 10 foot penalty seemed much more palatable than easier moves with a 2000 foot penalty. The route along the final summit push, with the bypass route in red
Make note of this section as the cairns will move you towards the exposure along the dotted line. A closer look at the bypass
A close-up of this bypass taken during the downclimb.
After this section, it's only a short scramble to the small summit - and the views make all the work worthwhile:
Glory shot on the summit with Maroon Peak in the background, nearly 6 hours after getting underway.
Jim explaining the finer points of snowball-packing to John. Carol demonstrates that snowballs have greater density, and therefore more impact when a rock is inserted in the middle.
After spending about 1/2 hour on the summit, it was time to head down. The downclimb is only slightly easier than going up, and significantly more difficult, I felt, when downclimbing the 'chimney'.
John starting the downclimb while Jim tries to break his concentration with shouts of "Noonan!"
After no small amount of hazing, Jim chose to downclimb the chimney on the way back.
Downclimbing the '2nd' gully
Shortly after taking this shot, I dislodged a dinner plate-sized rock that started to tumble end-over-end. In no time, the rock was approaching terminal velocity on the way down the mountain. Fortunately, the only climbers below us had already begun the traverse out to the first gully, and no harm was done.
A mama goat and her 'goatlet' supervising our progress down the gully.
Once past the 1st gully, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, let the adrenaline subside, and took in the scenery: Pyramid peeking out behind the trees.
The usual 'postcard' shot of the Bells from Maroon Lake.
We got back to the trailhead at 4:15, 10 hours and 30 minutes from time of departure. Took a quick drink of water, donned my long-lost shades, and headed home. Upon reaching Independence Pass, I was able to take one last look back at Pyramid, and the Bells - amazing mountains:
This was easily my favorite 14er to date - a true Class 4 route with awesome summit views. 8)
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