| North Maroon: Mama Nature Spices it Up
North Maroon Peak:
Mama Nature Spices it Up
Peak: North Maroon
Route: Standard NE Ridge
Date: August 31, 2010
Length: 9 miles
Vertical: 4800 feet
Ascent Party: Brian (CloudCityKid), Jim (Dancesatmoonrise)
Brian nears the summit of North Maroon in interesting summer conditions.
Sometimes plans just don't go according to plan.
It's Monday. I arrive in Aspen after dark, and locate Randy and Britt. To my pleasant surprise, Jeff (Slimshady) joins us. This is shaping up nicely. Britt's two new friends haven't shown up yet. They were supposed to meet Jeff an hour ago to set up camp at Crater Lake. So we switch gears and decide to stick close, with a plan to head out from the TH at 4:00 am.
I notice Jeff's axe is on his pack. He says there's snow on the Bells. The forecast is hot and dry – I can't imagine snow lasting more than an hour after sunrise, but a good excuse for a late start. I lobby for 6am. Jeff and Randy are in. Britt demurs. We're back to 4:00. OK, I'll start at 6 and catch you guys at treeline. They're good, it's a plan.
During the night, the forecast looks suspect: heavy cloud cover; rain. Not summer rain – more like winter snow – soft, quiet, constant. Heavy black clouds break in the middle of the night revealing a moony glow from our waning orb. I'm not sleeping well. It's 4am. I decide to get up and join the guys. No sooner dressed than the rain starts again. I decide to do what every good alpinist does when we wake up to bad weather – go back to sleep.
At 6am the trailhead is dark as night, under heavy black clouds and drizzle. A chance meeting with a young fellow in the parking lot: he asks if he can tag along. He's alone. I politely tell him I'm going to be moving kind of fast to catch a few friends. He's very polite and assures me he doesn't want to slow me down. I push the pace a little and he seems able to hang on, so I figure, what the heck. A few casual questions finds that he has studied the route, though planned to tackle North Maroon solo, after only eight 14ers, half of those being the Decalibron. I tell him he's about to experience another dimension. I do not fully realize, at this moment, the prophetic nature of my statement.
We gain elevation. The heavy cloud cover refuses to break. Drizzle turns to graupel. The treachery of the mud on the steep approach through the trees foreshadows our future conditions in the alpine. I want to catch Britt, Randy, and Jeff. Brian, my young cohort, is fast, but can't hold the pace. Conditions are questionable. The notion that we may be on the mountain alone on this cold dark morning – no Britt, no team up ahead – has dawned on me. I can push ahead and make a solo attempt in adverse conditions, but instead make the call to stick together. We take a break, sit down, and have a chat.
What we see in the skies is not in the forecast. This is a serious mountain. It's difficult in the best of conditions. I carefully explain that to continue on means we're taking on significantly more risk than doing a walk-up 14er in good weather. Brian wants to continue, but is reasonable. I tell him our options are to summit, with neither one of us getting hurt; or to not summit, with neither one of us getting hurt; but the primary goal is to return alive and well. Today is the beginning of a three day weather window, and my strong suspicion is that the start of the window has been delayed by a few hours. I'm more comfortable at the beginning of a weather window than near the end. We decide to take it through the boulderfield and into the first gully to see if the weather improves, and to have a look at conditions. I'm impressed with Brian's steadfastness and passion for the mountain. We press on.
The first gully goes ok, though now we are encountering intermittent areas of snow and piled-up graupel. Several times the sun taunts us, coming out on neighboring peaks, but refuses to give us warmth. The sky occasionally exudes soft swirling snow. We're bundled in more layers than we'd have for a warm winter day. Rounding the corner to the second gully, I spot Britt and Randy. I smile, and call out to them. Half-jokingly I tell them not to kick any rocks down. No response. It's not Britt and Randy.
We meet the two alpinists, and ask how the summit ridge looks. They tell us they turned back at the upper gully. The one gentleman says they didn't like the looks of the weather, it's not clearing, so they made the call not to summit. They did see two guys at the TH at 4:15 heading up, but didn't see any tracks in the snow above. We thank them, and a few minutes later we have a much better perspective on their decision, as we're making third class moves on loose rock covered in fresh snow. Given the weather, it doesn't look like it's going to be melting soon.
We carefully make way to the top of the second gully, taking a break at the ridge to reconsider our summit bid. I'm concerned about reversing some of the moves we just made. Brian feels the same. The moody sky refuses to relinquish day. We talk about calling it; neither of us wants to. Brian reminds me the headwall with the chimney is just up ahead, so we decide to go have a look, but I know in my heart the summit is probably out today. If we hear one peep from above, we're out of here.
The fresh snow blanketing the apron below the headwall leaves no doubts that we're alone on the mountain this morning. I go into winter mode. It's the first winter trip of the summer. With careful foot placements and a willingness to accept slow progress, the going is not too bad. We arrive at the chimney around 9 am under moody, wintry skies. It's beautiful, really. We take a few moments to look around and enjoy it. Shades of last winter.
The chimney itself looks ok, till we see that the ledges and holds are covered in slushy snow. A few icicles taunt mutely, their dripping adding to the ice and slush at the base. The base of the chimney, where one must stand to start the moves, slopes about 15 degrees outward. One would not notice this under dry conditions, but the feet keep slipping on this surface, and without a positive handhold, coming back down could be tough.
After nearly admitting defeat, we wipe off the lower ledges as much as possible and I give it a go. Twenty feet later, I'm bummed to find a sloper ledge at the exit completely covered in wet snow, with no handholds to protect a foot from slipping off while making the final move. I downclimb. We discuss options, and go around to the left. The left side ends at the "precipice gully." There are two lines that are short and dry, maybe in the 5.6 range. Trouble is, they hang out directly over the gully. Brian won't do the exposure. He suggests I give it a go and he'll stay there and wait. I don't want to separate, but climb up it to see if it's a possibility, and though the 5.6 section is easy, the ledges above are icy, wet, and exposed. I downclimb. We try going right.
To the right of the chimney, we find a few more dry fifth class lines leading up to slushy slopers. No go. Traversing far right to the presumed third class area is not a good option, given the snow and scree above runout. I'm about to bail when Brian reminds me it's only four or five hundred verts to the summit. I was thinking more like twice that. But the fire on my summit desire doesn't help melt the ice on our route. For the third time, Brian insists that I go on to summit while he waits. He finally talks me into it. Crampons would not be as good as a rope and a few nuts right now. The only nuts I possess at the moment are surprisingly small. But I do have some spikes. On they go, and up I go. I say goodbye to Brian, with plans to hurriedly bag the summit and get back down before the weather decides to turn the snow to ice.
At the top of the dripping chimney, I clear the exit ledge of snow. I'm reminded of a Kiefer trip report where he's brushing snow from every ledge as he ascends Capitol in winter. At this pivotal moment in the trip, I discover the key hold hiding under the snow – a positive incut edge in the flat rock, perfect for a "self-belay" in the too-likely event of a foot slipping while cresting the top. I carefully clean the ledge and the hold and go for it. Soon I'm on top, making my way to the summit. Ten minutes later, Brian calls out. He's going to give it a shot. Truthfully, I'm fearful. There's not a thing I can do to help Brian over that top section, though I'm comforted by the fact that he saw all the moves, and knew all about the pivotal hold at the top. Did he make a bad decision? Am I making bad decisions? As a mountaineer, I fully understand that each of us has to live with the consequences of our decisions. I turn to the summit.
The weather is starting to look less like winter. Heavy, dark greybottoms hang in the sky just above the summit. The going is good, and fast. At one point I'm faced with fifth class moves above. A traverse right brings it to more manageable fourth class, just below the summit. In that wintry dreamlike state, my first thought on viewing South Maroon is that I've just crested a false summit, and there's still more to go. The Bells traverse below assures me I've attained the easier half the objective – getting to the summit of North Maroon in one piece. Curiously, the traverse does not have much snow on it, and after this morning, it looks like cakewalk. I'm sure it's not. I take a few photos and get moving.
Brian is minutes below the summit. Come on, Brian, get up here, let's get a couple summit photos, and get down to the chimney and see what we've got. Making the summit, Brian is beside himself with ecstasy. He's got the heart of the mountaineer. He confesses that twice this morning, he was forced to give up – once at the chimney, and once at the fourth class moves below the summit. It's sheer joy to watch this magical moment as Brian stands on the summit of North Maroon Peak. As we start down, he tells me that he was really glad he had my footsteps to follow. I reminisce about my own good fortune to have followed the snowy footsteps of some mountaineers I truly respect. I tell Brian it won't be long before he's making the footsteps. The sun is now out, and our belated weather window is finally coming in. We shed some layers and find the going much easier, smiles on our faces as wide as the welcoming blue skies, as we begin our long descent.
"Easy mountains in tough conditions are tougher than tough mountains in easy conditions."
The planned start is looking a little sketch.
The sun really wants to come through and dry things out.
Even the 13ers are dusted.
Conditions in the second gully.
Nearing the base of the headwall and the chimney.
Let's just skip to the summit and better weather.
South Maroon melting out.
A look back as I leave the summit of North Maroon.
Brian's a trooper. He's going to make the summit of North Maroon in style.
The traverse. I've had enough fun for today.
Finally, here's that sunny forecast.
Brian's having a great time with his intro to fourth class.
This is the chimney after it's melted out. Hard to depict on the fly with a quick photo.
Now safely on our way down, Brian and I watch as Britt scampers up the chimney, leading his team's ascent.
The "headwall" area. Note the "Three Sentinels" at upper left.
The end of a perfect day....
In yet another chance meeting on this most magical day of thwarted plans and tough decision-making, we bumped into climbers coming up the apron below the headwall, as we approached the top of the chimney, on our descent. (Watch for three nearly identical rock formations, side by side, which we got to calling "The Three Sentinels," to guide you down the summit ridge to the proper entry at the chimney. The chimney is just to the left of the sentinels, as you descend the summit ridge.) Fearing that the chimney may still be icy, I called down to those three hardy late arrivals, and found, to our surprise, Britt Jones on the mountain, with his two new comrades. Our fears were quelled when we found drier rock, making the downclimb pretty easy. We chatted briefly, then watched as Britt scampered up the route. Britt was very fluid, and made it look like a breeze. I told Brian that Britt was climbing 5.9 his first time on a rope. Probably from all the fourth class stuff.
Britt called last night to say that his party successfully summitted, and that North Maroon was the toughest mountain he's been on. I trust that his finisher next week, Mount Evans, will not supplant that exalted position.
I think I'll pack up and head for the Crestones in a few days. Now let's see, where'd I put that axe?
Wishing all of you a great Labor Day weekend!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):