Peak(s):  Maroon Peak  -  14,156 feet
North Maroon Peak  -  14,014 feet
Date Posted:  08/11/2011
Modified:  08/23/2011
Date Climbed:   08/06/2011
Author:  Paul_Robert
 Maroon Bells Miracle  

August 6: Maroon Peak

Have you ever felt on top of the world one minute, and then the next second something so dreadful is happening that you almost cannot believe what your eyes are telling you? That was how our climb on the Maroon Bells got underway. Let me set the stage.

My climbing buddy, Jason, and I left the Denver area on Friday morning, after watching the forecasts and delaying this four-day trip a couple days to miss the monsoonal moisture pattern. Parking at Maroon Lake, we backpacked to Crater Lake and set up camp, carefully preparing for a much-anticipated attempt to climb Maroon Peak.

Jason and I at the Maroon Bells trailhead

Perhaps it was a case of the nerves about what lie ahead but I was wide awake before the alarm went off, and we got up at 2:45 and were on the trail by 3:45, hiking by headlamp under a glorious canopy of summer constellations. The dreaded 2,800-ft. slog up the notorious South Ridge lay ahead, and we wanted to give it plenty of time.

The bottom section of the South Ridge is quite scenic. This was taken on the way down.

The South Ridge is steep and gets steeper as you go"and the upper portions are covered with a hideous mix of loose rock, loose dirt, and ball bearing scree. It's one of the tougher obstacles on any of the 14er's standard routes.

The South Ridge: Maroon's summit is in back on the right, and climbers usually ascend the ridge to the left, near the arrow.

Dawn approaches as we continue up the South Ridge.

We made pretty decent time and were nearing 13,000 feet by about 6:50 a.m. I stopped to take a rest, setting down my pack so I could have a drink and take a picture. That's when it happened. I guess I underestimated the steepness of that spot, because my pack tipped over. Tipped over and started rolling.

Make that tumbling... right down the mountain.

In my shock and horror I uttered a prayer"something like, "Please Lord Jesus, let it stop!"

The pack disappeared out of site...

Did I mention the pack was open, too?

Looking down the South Ridge from where my pack rolled down.

This wasn't life-threatening. And Jason is a kind and considerate person; he would certainly have shared his provisions to help get me back down the mountain, if necessary. But this trip had been a year and a half in the making. And of course I would need that stuff over the next three days, not to mention on any future hikes and climbs. And I hated the thought of ruining Jason's trip too, over my own carelessness, as these aren't peaks to attempt solo.

So I set off down the rubble-infested path the pack had taken. At one point I grabbed a boulder to steady myself, and it just rolled right over onto my arm, cutting up my wrist pretty good. With the dreams of this trip quickly dissolving, I continued down"praying for help in finding the pack.

Soon I found my jacket and my GPS"which still worked, amazingly enough. A bit further, my pack cover. And then I spotted my pack, probably about 250 feet below where it tipped over, perched on a little ledge that stopped it from tumbling down many, many hundreds of feet further. And it looked like"am I dreaming??"my helmet was there, too"sticking out the top of the open pack!! Surely, only Divine interference had stopped it from coming out and literally rolling all the way down to Maroon Creek. The other items were still in the pack as well.

Scarcely able to believe my good fortune and this answer to prayer, I headed back up the ball-bearing slope to Jason. The trip had been salvaged, with just some beat-up equipment and a sore wrist to show for it.

On top of the South Ridge, the rest of the route looms overhead.

When the South Ridge ascent was finally behind us, we continued on the more interesting parts"with plenty of intricate route finding. Fortunately, much of the upper route is pretty well cairned, although there are some spots where there's more than one possible route, so you just need to figure out which looks best.

The route ascends this chimney through stable rock slabs.

The early morning light plays off 14,092' Snowmass Mountain (left) and 14,130' Capitol Peak.

Soon we're treated to scenes that remind us why we do this.

We chose the second of two gulleys you can climb.

There's quite a bit of up and down traversing as the route winds around corners and cliffs.

The short ledge above the gulley. It's not as bad as it looks and there are plenty of handholds.

Jason ascends the upper portion of the South Ridge route, with much of it visible behind him.

Reaching the summit at 10:20 a.m. on a spectacular summer day.

After reading all those stories about the Bells, summiting was a mixture of relief and exultation. I was glad to find that no one part of this peak was as tough as I had built it up in my mind to be. But it makes for a long and very physically demanding day, due to the steepness, routefinding, and minute-by-minute attention to loose rock required over so much of the route. I felt this was the hardest of the "harder" 14ers, although I haven't done Pyramid Peak.

Sharing the summit with some raggedy friends.

At the summit we had lunch and soaked up the beauty for an hour, a time which was made all the more memorable when we were joined by a couple amiable goats.


Our disheveled friend sashays past 14,014' Pyramid Peak.

North Maroon Peak and the connecting traverse.

Looking down from Maroon's summit

Changing conditions over Capitol Peak, way up to the north.

The weather was perfect where we were, but with this kind of rock, it takes almost as long to climb down it as up, so we headed down about 11:20.

The South Ridge worked us over once again, and by the time we got back to our tent, our plans of attempting North Maroon the next day and "maybe" Pyramid the next were dissolving like the energy in our bodies.

August 7: Recuperation

We decided a more restful day was in order. So the next day, I hiked a couple miles up the Maroon Creek valley and attempted to capture some of its beauty through pictures, and Jason bushwhacked up next to a high waterfall behind Crater Lake, descending part of the North Maroon Peak route. It provided nourishment to both the body and spirit to be able to take a whole day to just explore the area.

A waterfall along Maroon Creek, with Miner's Torch ablaze along the trail

Maroon Peak from up the Maroon Creek trail

August 8: North Maroon Peak

We set off at 4:10 a.m. from our camp near Crater Lake for North Maroon, with just the stars"and a porcupine, by the lake!"to accompany us. Although it has the same loose, sedimentary mudstone, North Maroon has an altogether different feel. More airy and exposed, the Northeast Ridge route has a very alpine feel to it.

The first rays of light hit North Maroon's summit. Four goats are way up on the left side of the mountain.

Looking down Gulley #1

Looking down Gulley #2, with our ever-present friends.

Wooly, white and wily: they look cute and cuddly, but...

...when they were high above us in the 2nd gulley, they started knocking large rocks down... like some kind of alpine bowling alley where the climbers are the pins...

This class 4 cleft isn't too bad...

...but on the descent it helped to have someone who can hold your pack as you go down the more challenging part, and then hand the packs to you.

We met a great couple"John and Sue, from Rochester, Minnesota"and did much of the ascent and descent with them. They said this was their 57th 14er!

Getting closer, with Crater and Maroon lakes forming a lovely backdrop.

Jason ascends the upper Northeast Ridge.

I was concerned with how I would handle the exposure. Ironically, while I love to hike and climb mountains; climbing steep, exposed places has been extremely tough, due to a phobia I seem to have about those places. So this peak wouldn't have been possible for me a couple years ago. It's taken plenty of prayer and experience in the mountains to get to where I enjoy those places.

Let me see that route description again...

Things get a little complex above the two gulleys. Having the photos and description from this site was a huge help.

At the summit, our sure-footed companions compliantly pose in front of Maroon Peak.

We reached the summit with John and Sue at 9:30 a.m., after nearly 5 hours of hiking and climbing. This summit seemed even sweeter, perhaps because I had been more apprehensive of this peak than any other 14er.

Maroon Lake

Carrying the heavy backpack down the trail and driving back to Denver gave us plenty of time to reflect. Our experience with the Maroon Bells"even with my gear tumbling down them"deepened my respect for this special place and the One who created it.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
Brad Post

Good Calendar shots!
08/12/2011 02:56
Paul - Quite a story, especially the pack tipping bit! Fantastic pictures as usual. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy duddy, but I may never get up the courage for these mountains. Great job, and great report! Perhaps I'll see you around and you can tell me more.


Good Calendar shots
08/12/2011 12:55
I feel the same as you...when I'm in His creation, I have a deeper love and respect for these places and even more for the One who created it. It truly is humbling to know that these magnificent, larger than life mountains are nothing but dust compared to His Majesty!!!


Beautiful shots ...
08/12/2011 16:33
Congrats to you both on those summits. Thanks for posting. Happy trails!


08/14/2011 21:47
Three days later I went up Northeast Ridge to North Maroon. After peeking at me from his perch up on the ridge above the first gully for about half an hour, a lone goat then slowly descended to the trail and stalked me for about half a mile till I gave up, when it kept following me at no more than 30-40 feet. There, right before the second gully, it followed me in small circles as I tried to let it go past me. Did not feel exactly comfortable.You may say amiable,but don't go Disney all the way. That was more turf marking than being friendly.Tried granola, tried calm talk.Nothing.Goat would not go away.Only once I started going down,it let me go.A hiker who came down about half an hour later told me that he got some macho grandstanding as well. Groups of hikers may create a false sense of security, but those two which were killed last year were with groups as well. And, on Maroon, they do not have to gore you, just bump you, or, as you witnessed, do the classic and roll rocks on you. As I said, don't go Disney, and be wary.Basic rule is that once the fear from humans is gone, it escalates.


Fantastic Trip!
08/14/2011 23:08
Thanks for the great write up Paul! It truly was an amazing journey. I am glad we made it-beautiful area & some great memories!


I have a long ways to go before I attempt this...
08/15/2011 05:30
I was just browsing and thinking about the 14ers I'm nervous about when I read this. Honestly, I'm afraid of the Bells (and I'm not very comfortable with exposure), but it's encouraging to know that you overcame your fears with experience and prayer, and I hope I can do the same a few years down the road. Baby steps, I guess. Thank you for sharing your trip, and I'm glad you didn't lose your pack! The pictures are absolutely beautiful!


Just keep at it...
08/15/2011 16:15
Thanks for everyone's feedback!
Julia - I encourage you to keep doing what you're doing, and you'll do fine. From your pic there it looks like you just did Long's Peak last month, so congrats on that! And yes, I have found that as you gradually increase your ”exposure to the exposure,” and pray and just hand these situations over to the Lord for His strength, guidance, and direction, it gets easier and much more enjoyable.

For example, being on The Narrows on Long's Peak used to be really tough on me, but now that I've ”desensitized” myself a bit over the years, I like it up there. My sensitivity to exposure returned a bit on top of N. Maroon, but not enough to keep me from enjoying it. Not the sort of panicky feeling it used to be. It really helps to work up to the hardest peaks by doing some of the moderately tough ones that also have some exposure--peaks like Longs, Mt. Sneffels (which also offers a truly astonishing view), Wetterhorn, Eolus (has the fun ”catwalk,” and amazing views as well), Kit Carson (be careful on descent to find Kit Carson Ave.), and Castle. Castle Peak, or just about any Elk Range peak, will also help you learn how to deal with that nasty scree.

The key thing here is to stick to peaks within your climbing ability, and then you can do tougher ones as your skills and comfort level with exposure improves. One other thing--as you may know, the experienced climbers using the Forum at this site can also be a great source of information, and even, as I found when I was considering doing the Bells, encouragement.

God bless and happy trails!

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