| A Week in the Elks Part I
A Week in the Elks Part I
Due to an external site and link issues with photos there, I had to redo this original 2010 report which had Pyramid, Castle, North and South Maroon all together in one report. I had to split this into two reports, putting all pics on this site for easier editing and making separate reports for (i) North and South Maroon Peak and (ii) another for Pyramid and Castle.
North and South Maroon Trip Reports can now be found by clicking here
Short Trip Summary
Saturday 9/4 - Arrive into Aspen area from New York
Sunday - Castle Peak
Monday - Planned Rest Day
Tuesday - Pyramid Peak
Wednesday - North Maroon planned - didn't climb due to weather - went fishing all day instead and did some easier hiking.
Thursday - North Maroon attempt, turned back due to weather
Friday - South Maroon attempt, turned back at ~13,000ft due to weather
Saturday - Maroon Peak
Sunday - North Maroon Peak
Monday - Flew back to New York
Vertical Feet: 23,020ft
Distance: 63.25 miles
I had a full week planned in the Elks and had set out to climb the Bells, Pyramid and Castle/Conundrum.
My first climb in the Elk Mountains was Castle Peak; the tallest mountain in the Elks at 14,265ft, but the easiest of all 14ers in the range. I figured this climb would give me a good taste of some of the rock
in the area and start to prepare me mentally for the later, more difficult climbs I had planned for the week. I tried to time my trip for the post monsoon season and was hoping the weather would cooperate.
Under a starlit night with a thin sliver of a crescent moon, I began the walk up the road from the main trailhead at ~9,800ft, for what would be a 13 mile roundtrip.
Starting out at 3:30AM, I wanted to ensure I was up and down before any possible weather moved in and I was also accounting for my expected slowness
given it would be my first climb up high of the week after coming in from sea level and didn't have my climbing legs yet.
Before getting to the trailhead, I saw two porcupines and oddly a mouse scurry across the side of the road along Castle Creek Road - I would later see many more
porcupines this week, more actually than I've ever seen in my life. To those parking nearby, note this fact, as many have discussed the problem of porcupines chewing radiator and brake-line hoses.
I saw a couple of trucks wrapped in chicken wire to help prevent these little fellas from getting underneath the engine compartment and chewing away.
The walk up the 4x4 road was fairly monotonous, save for the occasional sound in the night and for a few bats flying about, perhaps attracted by my headlamp. Glad I didn't take the rental vehicle up here
or I'd have some explaining to do to Hertz. I figure the extra walking would be good for acclimatizing.
The monotony was broken, however, when some denizen of the dark swooped down, dive bombing me and quickly flew back and forth above my head, though strangely without making a sound as if
I were watching a silent movie. I thought it might be a large bat, but I didn't think there were any bats that large around here (think fruit bat size). As if it were a giant hummingbird, the creature then hovered
in front of me for a few seconds and landed silently in a tree only five feet from me. Illuminated in the beam of my headlamp, I discovered it was an owl, now staring at me, its bright eyes lit up in the darkness.
I thought possibly a Saw-whet owl or Boreal Owl.
Though its wingspan made it seem much larger, it was a small owl, probably only standing 8 inches high, but picture perfect with its perch on the evergreen in the darkness. We both were motionless for a
good 30 seconds. As I reached for my camera to take a snapshot, it unfortunately took off into the night. Interesting way to start the morning! Soon after the relatively pleasant owl encounter, a deer jumped
out of the brush and ran across the trail/road right in front of me, scaring the daylights out of me, as some portion of my primordial brain assumed this was a mountain lion looking for an easy breakfast.
It was a morning rich with wildlife, and the sun hadn't risen yet. Onward I hiked up the road.
As false dawn approached, Montezuma basin came into view as did what appeared to be Castle and Conundrum, though later I would realize as I rounded the bend in
the road, these were other smaller peaks. I reached the road high point, surprisingly there was a truck there and made my way across the stream onwards.
I thought it must be cool to have a truck that could get to the top of that road without worrying about flats or bottoming out.
As I crossed the stream above the high "parking lot", I made the mistake of going too far left thinking the route would shoot over up the basin, getting myself into some messy terrain.
I then backtracked and downclimbed the talus and moved to the right of the water and made my way up the steep boulder strewn slope on a more defined path of sorts, though wouldn't
have called it a trail.
Note to would-be climbers: after coming up the road, veer right of the water, near the snowfield and not to the left. There was snow up into the basin against the talus field, but it didn't extend
low enough or towards the right direction to make this a real snow climb, and one can climb up completely off the snow if desired on either side.
As this was my first hike after flying in a day before, the altitude was getting to me and I was moving like a cow up the mountain, slow, though steady...then the wind
picked up and really kicked in once above the talus field and blew a steady 20mph or so for the remainder of the day. Skies were generally clear though some clouds
began to move in.
Not entirely certain of the snow conditions, I also carried my axe and crampons, which as you can see from the images, were not needed at all >:-| OK, trying to justify bringing them,
I told myself that they made good training weight!
Once the talus hopping ended, a steep ascent up the scree slope began, which when coupled with the increasing wind, was a bit uncomfortable with sand blowing horizontally with the increasing wind.
I figured I'd make the decision as to whether or not to continue on to Conundrum after I was on top, hoping I'd make it up given how I was feeling. No headache or any ill feeling, just a bit tired. I continued up slowly.
Nearing the top of the scree, I was met with my introduction to some classic Elk rock, i.e. loose and unstable which made for precarious footing. The climbing was not hard, though some thought was
required to stay on the right route and keep the climb manageable. Some steep Class 2/3 sections were encountered but doable as I made my way up to the sub summit before the last push to the top.
Some exposure was encountered on the climb but remained manageable. The photo below shows a few folks climbing up the last 500ft or so to the summit and another shot shows two climbers with
helmets in a similar area (the summit is off to the right in that photo).
The wind continued and had been increasing, to gusts probably around 30-40mph, not terribly strong, but enough to be annoying and to warrant an additional layer
on and to merit some extra caution while moving up the slippery scree slope. Some more clouds moved in.
Soon I was on top and enjoying a great view of the Bells and what appeared to be Pyramid, my first views of these peaks, peaks which I was aiming to climb later in
the week. The summit view from Castle was great, filled with rich colors and contrasts unlike those from the Sawatch or Front Range.
This was a good warm-up hike and while skies were fairly clear, I was pretty worn and opted not to go over to Conundrum and save it for the next trip (and also to get a qualified 3000ft ascent ).
The additional clouds also helped my decision.
I saw the infamous crevasse(s) from the summit and the steep descent from the saddle one would have to make if you opted to go down from that route.
The descent off the saddle between Castle and Conundrum looked pretty steep and two climbers seemed to be having a bit of trouble going down as they spent a good 15 minutes
looking down at the route, seeming to decide whether to go down or not. Someone commented that they were roped up. I cannot verify if they were, but
the angle of their path seemed quite steep at least from the vantage point along Castle's NE ridge. This picture above shows them a bit less than half way down. It also shows the
current shape of the lake/sinkhole and crevasses around the water.
The rest of the hike down along the road was LONG and dodging ATVs coming up kept me alert.
I was intimidated by Pyramid and the Bells given their reputation and recent events surrounding them, including the very unfortunate fatality last month of
Spencer James Nelson. However, I wanted to give climbing them a shot, though I wasn't aiming to do the traverse.
Since I've heard and read of their reputations, I was a bit nervous, not ever having been climbing in the Elks and not having ever seen the routes or knowing how difficult they would be,
while understanding the consequences of getting off route.
As such, instead of doing them alone, I decided to hook up with someone who had been up them before and also bring along some rope for any dicey sections.
Bringing along some rope would also enable us to move up some better, solid (relatively speaking) rock sections rather than some of the loose, crumbly stuff.
I know plenty of people climb them without being roped up, but given that I had never been out in this area and didn't have first hand knowledge of the routes, I figured I'd play
it more conservative and not wind up on Denver 9 News this trip. I wanted to summit of course, but was prepared to go down if conditions were bad or I was not feeling it.
I turned to two such experienced folks in two friends Zack and Karen to climb with.
For Pyramid, the plan was to go up the standard, Northeast Ridge route. Luckily, the forecast was solid and we got started just before sunrise from Maroon Lake parking lot.
Driving on Maroon Lake Road, I again, saw two porcupines and a red fox. The weather today was just as I hoped it would be, clear, cool skies and only a slight breeze.
The day before, I visited some areas and did some light hiking around Independence Pass (around 10,000-11,000ft) to stay loose and help acclimatize.
The morning was brisk, but not too cold, mid 30s, which made for nice hiking that morning once my legs warmed up.
The approach hike into the basin was not too bad and I noticed I felt a little stronger than I had felt on Castle two days earlier, thanks to a couple days in the area,
sleeping at about 8,000ft.
We slowly made our way up the decent trail through the woods as the Bells were soon lit up by soft alpenglow. I had to stop and take it all in for a few minutes.
What an awesome place.
We soon hit the boulderfield, which reminded me a bit of the Longs approach. Pyramid's intimidating summit came into view and dominated the skyline for the rest of the day.
Wow, I was climbing *that*?
We made our way across the rocky boulderfield, gaining some elevation along the way towards the steep slope leading up to the ridge where the real climbing would begin.
Although there was a good deal of snow against the wall leading up to Pyramid, there was none on the route proper. This steep section of scree was draining and was more
like "two steps up, one step sliding back type" of movement up the steep loose rock and scree, holding onto any secure rocks and an occasional branch where possible to keep
from sliding backwards. I imagine this would be more comfortable in late season snow. Poles helped here quite a bit as did slow steady movement, almost kicking steps as if ascending Spring snow.
There is about a 1,000 feet of climbing here until the saddle, where the real climbing began. I was a bit nervous but just focused on each step at this point, taking one section at a time.
Upon reaching the saddle, we were greeted by a curious mountain goat, which I would later learn to be after our pee (and I thought he was just being friendly). We saw four or five
goats on the day and one would later surprise us as it appeared on top of a ridge. We would have to watch these guys as they would often inadvertently dislodge some rocks
which would tumble down around us.
After a brief rest, we stashed our poles and any dead weight, tied up and headed upwards into some more difficult terrain. I was still a bit nervous, but also excited to see
what was next. After reading so many stories and trip reports, I was filled with anticipation of what was to come.
Looking at the remaining route was a bit daunting and it seemed steep.
The summit seemed to shoot straight up with no easy way to the top. Route finding was a challenge and it always seemed there were several ways to go from any given point.
I can see how it would be easy to get off route here. Maybe being up it more than once, I would feel different.
We came upon various sections leading to the cliff traverse, which although in some places was only as wide as my foot, wasn't too hairy, even as my heels dangled off the
edge due its narrowness with only air underneath. This section was over rather quickly, though the walking was on super loose, sloping terrain, where any footstep could result
in sending rocks careening down the mountain. Take care of those below you and watch out from above. I felt the morning sun was also warming the ground, possibly melting some ice,
loosening some rocks, contributing to the rockfall risk. Every few minutes, we heard rocks tumbling down the nearby mountains, seemingly triggered by nothing other than gravity.
We then came across the spacious gap in the ledge, which called for a leap across, the so called "leap of faith", which I didn't think was too bad and jumped across without thinking too much.
The first significant hurdle to overcome was the green wall, the green monster I dubbed it. Nobody was above us, neither were any goats, so after a quick breather,
we started to head up without hesitation, figuring to get it over with. While steep, exposed and demanding of your attention, this part was ok, and though I was feeling the altitude,
my mind was too busy concentrating on the climbing to feel the thin air. The rock here was fairly solid, more so than in other locations on the route. I took it one step at a time,
testing handholds and before I knew it, this steep section was over. Many rocks would pull out as I grabbed them, however and care has to be taken these don't tumble down below.
There was still several steep class 4 sections to get through and much of the connecting terrain was akin to walking on a stack of broken dishes, but moving slowly and deliberately,
we got it done. There seemed to be a few different ways to get to the top, some more technical than others, so I think a couple ways would work. Just take care to locate your next couple
of moves at once so you don't get cliffed out. I was concentrating so much on each step and each handhold that before I knew it we were on top!
The view from the summit was awesome. North and South Maroon, Snowmass and Capitol all stood out as if I could touch them.
Nobody else was on top, no goats either and the wind seemingly died to nothing just as we summited.
While I found most sections on or near the standard route were probably doable without a rope, in many spots along the route, any falls would certainly have been "game over" type
of falls or at the least accidents requiring a rescue since getting someone down this peak would be very tough at best. I was glad to have rope, which, again, gave us the option of
going up a more direct, albeit steeper ways up in certain places, affording the additional protection, whereas with no rope, I imagine you would be more limited in your route choices.
Either way, the climb was challenging, tough and in many cases pretty fun. The Green wall was not as bad as I had imagined, though it is exposed, the climbing was on firm rock.
The looseness in general was not fun and the descent down that last 1,000 feet of scree into the boulderfield was not fun and more like a controlled slide.
The views of the Elks were stunning on the hike out. Capitol and Snowmass dominated the view to the west.
As we went down, clouds started to come in and soon the summit was covered in gray. By the time we got down the sky was overcast (it would later rain then for two days).
The Bells though looked stunning in the overcast sky with a slight turn in the color starting along the aspen forest.
We lucked out with the weather and had a great climb!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):