| Ringing A Bell for Spence
July 24, 2010
Climbers: Earl Jones & Darin Baker (& later joined by climbers we met on the trail: John, Henry, Cindy, & Greg)
Maroon Peak (14,156')
a.k.a., "South Maroon"
Trailhead: Maroon Lake TH
Route: S Ridge
Distance: ~10mi's (RT)
Elevation Gain: ~4,600'
Time to Complete: ~11hrs, 45min
(Side Note: The N-S traverse of the Bells I did in 2005 took us ~12.5hrs)
Gear: Daypack w/Essentials, helmet
Resources Used for Trip Planning: Roach's Colorado's Fourteeners guidebook; weather forecast accessed from 14ers.com
Earl has been plugging away at the 14ers for about ten years, and now he's down to the tougher class 3-4 climbs in order to finish his "dang list." ;)
He and I have done a few peaks together, and he's proven to be a good partner, so I offered to go to the Elks with him to tackle something in the Maroon Bells area. He chose Maroon Peak. Ugh. The last time I did this peak, it was not a pleasant descent.
In July of 2005, I went with Carson Black and Bill Tarvin to do the Bells traverse, from N to S, therefore the descent off of Maroon was unfamiliar terrain. I remember being off route much of the time on the descent, which was hell!
Well, maybe this time I can get it right!
Maroon Peak is on the left, North Maroon is on the right.
We left from the parking lot at 3:30am, with headlamps on as we contoured around Maroon Lake. I could see a group ahead of us, but they went to the southern end of the lake, missing the turn-off for the trail. Unless there's another connecting trail somewhere down there, I think they must have had to bush-wack NW to regain the trail. Hmmm, probably not a pleasant way to start the day!
Earl and I continued down the trail, gaining mileage but very little elevation. This part of the hike is rather mindless, as I've been down it several times in the past (so I'm familiar with it), so my mind wandered as we hiked along.
Some of the mind wanderings were memories of Spence; but other wanderings were "wonderings" of the climbing route. Not the eastern slopes, but what comes after.
"Could it really be as bad as I remember?"
I did have some anxiety because of my prior experience, and I even remember thinking I wouldn't climb Maroon again unless it was a snow climb. But, there I was, and I have Earl to thank!
We came to the turnoff sometime around 5am. There was a group of 4 already there, we exchanged a few words, and they started up the hill. We took a few minutes to refuel before starting up.
The start of this section is flat, for the first ~20' that is.
The next ~2,800' is an all uphill unrelenting grunt.
We tried to stick to the trail as best we could, but sometimes meandering away from it became part of the drill.
One meandering section put us on a grassy rib and to climber's left of a gully, but we could see a strong climber's trail on the other side, so we went over to that and took it as far as we could. While on this, we passed the group of 4 who were in the gully we just crossed and abandoned, which they did too and followed us on the trail, because there's "greener pastures" on the other side…
The shadow of Maroon Peak on Fravert Basin, taken from the saddle.
We reached the saddle on the S ridge at 7:30am, stopped again to refuel, put the trekking poles away, and prepared for the rest of the climb, where I wouldn't allow my mind to wander anymore.
The group of four (John, Henry, Cindy, & Greg) took a break here too, but would soon be with Earl and I for the remaining of the climb.
Somewhere there's a route in this
Heading off from the saddle, there's (what guidebooks like to call) a "strong climber's trail" and the cairns are generally insight along the way. The start from the saddle consists of mostly walking in and out and around corners, with some ups and downs thrown in for the hell of it.
Finally some climbing
And then more walking
Using a combination of Roach's route description, and following the well traveled path with the occasional cairn, I thought the route was fairly easy to follow.
Roach says to look for a gully that "drops southwest from the saddle between Maroon Peak and Point 13,753." We could see one, but it didn't look inviting. I scouted ahead around a corner to see if there was another option, where I saw another obvious gully that looked friendlier than the last, it also had a "stranger's pile of rocks" near the bottom.
(A "stranger's pile of rocks" would sucker me into a gully on the descent, a gully that turned out to be the first gully we looked at from the bottom. More on that later though…)
Earl entering the gully
As Earl and I started up this couloir and were looking for the exit on the left (NW) side, the group of 4 caught up to us, and from that point on, the six of us stuck together to the summit, trying to minimize the threat of knocking rock on one another. As well as sharing leading responsibilities of the route.
Earl, Greg, John, Cindy, and Henry along the NW face of Maroon Peak
The route continued to be fairly obvious most of the time and the climbing was decent, in fact, it was better than I expected. My earlier anxiety of a possible repeat from my first experience with this peak was dissipating. Phew!
Once beyond Pt 13,753' and on the NW face, we zigzagged along, following cairns and our intuition. In places up higher, I went to the ridge while the rest stayed on the face. Both work.
I eventually dropped back down on the face to join them.
In this picture, Cindy is demonstrating climbing with "screwdriver courage"
Notice the nalgene bottle with the suspiciously looking orange liquid. ;)
We were on the summit by 9:20ish.
Hey Earl, I think those there are more foreteeenerz
Basically the same view as the last photo, but 5 years earlier….
Bill Tarvin, Carson Black, and me. July 9, 2005
After hanging out on the summit for close to an hour, Earl and I headed down. Our new friends from the ascent had already headed down a few minutes earlier, but we would catch up to them and descend together.
Earl descending south along the summit ridge
Earl down climbing near the summit ridge
The descent went smooth, retracing our line we took on the way up. However, as I stated earlier, a "stranger's pile of rocks" suckered me into a gully that I don't recommend using.
As I approached it, John realized that I may be off our ascent route, and thought we should continue down the gully we were just in. I didn't doubt him, but I also thought the one I was looking at would go, so Earl and I stayed with this one, while the 4 went back ~20' and descended there.
As I looked down the gully, it looked like a pile of rubble. (Note to self, what looks like a pile of rubble, is a pile of rubble.)
But it had a cairn at the top! Well someone has been here before! Let's do it. Besides that, I could see the trail at the bottom.
Hindsight says go back to the other gully and descend what you know.
Oh, what the hell does hindsight know? I'm in the present, and we can do this rubble filled gully.
(Maybe I'm stupid?)
The gist of the story is:
I knocked a rock down, it made a lot of noise, it collected some other rock on its fall, made more noise. Luckily, no one was below.
On a face in down climb, I trusted a foothold when I shouldn't have, but it looked solid from above, but it wasn't. It sheared at its base when I put my weight on it; I fell/dropped a foot or two and my feet luckily landed on a ledge. If I didn't have a solid left hand, it could have been ugly.
My right hand came off of my hold, and I scraped a little skin off of the inside of my right elbow.
It definitely put butterflies in my stomach and it got me a little excited, but not in the good sense of excited. Close call. Unfortunately, sometimes we encounter those moments in the mountains.
I've been in worse gullies before though.
Looking back at the gullies…
The left one with the snow goes just fine; the right one is not as nice.
We exited the gully onto the trail, and waited for John, Cindy, Henry, and Greg to finish their descent of the proper gully. We continued on traversing around the mountain to hit the saddle, where the much anticipated east slope descent was next!
The east slope descent sucks. That's all I'll say.
But I would do this route again.
Trailside scenery on the way out…
In Memory of Spencer Swanger
On Tuesday July 20, 2010 a friend and a local legend died while climbing in the Dolomites. Most people called him Spence.
Spence, along with his wife Karen, were on a climbing trip to the Dolomites in Italy with five other friends. I believe this was the third trip to the Dolomites for Spence, an area he came to love after seeing a presentation on the Dolomites and then going there himself to see what the climbing hype was about.
Photo provided by Sam Campbell, taken in the Dolomites in 2008
The climbing hype, whether it was in the Dolomites or here in Colorado, was a large part of Spence's life. However, hype may not be the best word to describe his climbing life, but to put it in one word would be difficult, at least for me when describing a climber like Spence. Because I don't think it was "hype" that drove him, nor did it define him.
When I climbed Pyramid Peak in September of 2004, Carson Black was with me. On that trip, I heard about the first ascent of "Thunder Pyramid," which is a centennial 13er to the south of Pyramid. Carson was a member of the first ascent party, and Spence was the trip leader. A little "green behind the ears" when it came to Colorado mountaineering, or mountaineering as a whole, I was in awe!
"Wow! A first ascent?!"
For me, that was impressive. Carson however, was very nonchalant about it.
And I remember him recalling what he said to Spence after arriving on the summit of Thunder, "Spence, it's no wonder this hasn't been climbed before, it's a pile of crap!"
"Thunder Pyramid" as seen from the eastern slopes of Maroon Peak. The white rock band is the line most climbers use today for their ascent route.
It was the same nonchalant attitude, the humble and unassuming aura that marked Spence's character that struck me when I finally met him in September of 2006. At this point, I had heard a lot about him, and even read a bit about him in Roof of the Rockies: A History of Colorado Mountaineering by William M. Bueler.
I was in South Colony Lakes in the Sangre de Cristo range when I met Spence. He was leading a CMC (Colorado Mountain Club) trip while I was there to do the Crestone traverse from Peak to Needle. My friend Sam was there as part of Spence's trip, but would join me on the traverse.
After completing the traverse, we descended from the Needle and we caught up to Spence and his group on their descent. They were on the ridge leading away from the lower east gully, and I saw Spence spotting his teammates through a crux section. This is something Spence was noted for, being a good leader and climbing partner, and spotting those that may not be comfortable in a tough section.
Later that day back in camp, I had the chance to talk to him. He congratulated me on the traverse, and we proceeded to talk about climbing.
That conversation was my first with him, and he came across as a very genuine person, as he would each and every time I would see him again in the future.
I never had the chance to climb with Spence, nor did I become as close to him as some of my friends did. But each time I would run into him, it always felt like old friends reuniting, even if only for a short time. That was the kind of person he was. Always with a quick smile and ready for a good conversation, generally about our climbing life.
Spence along the 4 Pass Loop in 2009
The last time I saw him was sometime in June, while on the Manitou Incline. I was descending and he was going up. Spence was in his typical summer attire, wearing a bandana around his forehead, with his short shorts and no shirt, showing off his bronze skin! For 70 years old, he looked fit, and he was.
The one thing that surprised me that day was that he was alone. Most times when I would see him on the incline, he would be with a group of beautiful women!
I turned around and went back up part way with him so we could talk and catch up a bit.
We swapped stories of what adventures we had been on recently, and what was coming up next.
I said my goodbye to him, he thanked me for joining him for a bit, and we went our separate ways.
The loss of Spence was a shock, to me and many others. It is a sad loss for sure, and he will be sorely missed by many. His contributions to the CMC over the years were numerous, from leading trips up difficult 14ers and at the same time mentoring aspiring mountaineers, his photographs would grace some of the covers for Trail & Timberline (T&T), as well as articles he submitted to T&T.
More importantly, he was a good friend and inspiration to many of us. He was the first to finish the highest 100 peaks in Colorado, so for me with the same aspirations, he was someone I looked up to. He was also still going strong at 70 years old, something that I can only hope I too will be able to do at that age.
Anytime there's a death in the mountains, I think that we as climbers feel the pain of the loss. This loss is no different; but for some of us it hits closer to home because we knew him, and because he was such an all around nice guy.
Spence, you will be missed, you will be thought of often, and you will continue to make us smile and laugh when we think of you.
And you will continue to be an inspiration to me as I try to complete the Top 100.
Thank you for the memories and sharing your life with us.
Thanks for reading,
A thread dedicated to Spence can be found here.