Peak(s):  Pyramid Peak  -  14,018 feet
North Maroon Peak  -  14,014 feet
Date Posted:  02/22/2018
Modified:  02/25/2018
Date Climbed:   08/06/2017
Author:  benlen
 Tragedy & Triumph in the Maroon Bells  


Forward: Triumph & Tragedy in the Maroon Bells



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The view from the slopes of North Maroon Peak in the early morning of August 5th, 2017.


On the weekend of August 5-6th, 2017, my friend Katy Biette completed her quest to climb all of Colorado's 58 14,000ft peaks. And yet, the events of that weekend, and the consequences of it, had precluded me from writing this in full until now.



I: Descent, Saturday, August 5th, 2017, North Maroon Peak, 14,014 ft



Climbing Party: Ben Gadberry, Nick Saladin



Get to the Base of Gully #1, and this is in the bag. I mean, how likely are you to screw up on the Rock Glacier or Crater Lake trail back to the car?

This and thoughts like it were running through my head as Nick and I cautiously descended North Maroon Peak. It was Nick's final Bells summit, having previously claimed South Maroon Peak the summer before, and Pyramid Peak the summer before that.

For me, North Maroon Peak, one of the 'Deadly Bells' of Aspen, Colorado, and one of the most photographed mountains in the world, was my first successful summit on a Elks Range 14er, and I was elated.

Since moving to Colorado nearly three years before, I'd come to regard the Maroon Bells with a mixture of awe and fear, and also a litmus test for a hiker being considered serious about completing the 58.

A lot was riding on this summit attempt.

'Do the Bells,' I thought, 'and you'll be considered serious about this 14ers business.'




II: Summit, August 5th, 2017, North Maroon Peak, 14,014 ft



Image
Nick triumphant on the summit of North Maroon Peak.




I managed to be the first person to summit North Maroon Peak on August 5th, at 8:15am, with Nick surmounting the final rise around 8:35am.*

Typically, Nick moves faster than I do on technical terrain, and especially on descent. But because I slept well the night before**, and Nick had slept poorly, he was moving slower than his usual pace, and was afflicted with an upset stomach.

The grassy ledges of North Maroon were sketchy and steep, and though we both rested frequently, I soon was ten to fifteen minutes ahead of my partner.

I justified this situation because we were not alone on the peak. We'd met a group of three backpackers, each of whom was carrying a pack around 40 pounds, hoofing it to the summit. They'd crossed West Maroon Pass the day before, encountered mountain lions, and summited Snowmass some days earlier. They seemed well versed in the mountains, and were keeping an equal pace with Nick.

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Cellphone pic from Aspen locals. In spite of Protect Our Winters being founded in Aspen, they were confused by my hat.


Nick is capable. Altogether, he has more than 60 14,000 foot summits under his belt, and, as of this writing, has 2 summits (Capitol, Pikes) to complete the 58 Colorado 14ers.

In spite of these assumptions, I look back and consider my actions that followed bad form. I put a sizable, fifteen minute gap between me and my partner, on a dangerous peak, at one of the most critical pitches on the mountain.

I had even forgotten to pack my BCA Link radios I had brought on the trip, specifically to be used in an instance like this.

The weather the night previous to our ascent had been unsettled (rainy, humid, and foggy), and that morning, foreboding grey tendrils stretched across the sky.

The sun made an appearance only briefly at dawn, and later, an hour from the summit. Hidden behind cloud thus most of the morning, the sun burned a defiant, burgundy red through the haze, casting the surrounding Elk mountains into a sinister light.

Neighboring peaks, including South Maroon, and Snowmass, the frozen sanctum of nearly year round snow, were blanketed in cloud. A stiff breeze blew intermittently, and with that wind, the clouds moved with unnerving speed across mountains and valleys.

If any of those fast moving clouds built into thunderheads, I knew we would be in for trouble.

Thus, it was fear of weather, fear of failure, and a desire to prove that I could summit one of the Bells that made me pedal to the metal on North Maroon's rotting ledges, flail my way up the crux Class 4 chimney, and deposit my unexceptional body on top.

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Nick's hat game is on point.



***

The base of Gully #1 sits at a critical juncture on the standard route to the summit of North Maroon Peak. It's a rare spot to rest the knees before/after ascending/descending grassy ledges mixed with loose, maroon rock and scree.

It's also where it becomes mission critical to put on a climbing helmet, where human caused rockfall becomes a very real hazard.

Gully #1 is thus the terminus between committing to a summit or aborting due to weather, physical fatigue, or being overwhelmed by lack of experience.

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Me crossing Gully #1, picture by Nick.


And it was here, relieved, triumphant, and knowing Nick and I were descending into Aspen to report the best of news to our friends and family, that we encountered an older woman hiking up the mountain.

Later, all I could initially remember from the encounter was that I had remarked to Nick about the woman's lack of a climbing helmet, and that she had asked me to take her photo on her phone.

This photo, which I hope never to see again, for its memory haunts me, is very likely the last picture ever taken of her while she was alive.

Nick's memory was sharper. He had remembered what she was wearing, and the details of our stilted conversation. We didn't catch her name, any personal details, or what her summit plan was. We both were wary of her lack of climbing helmet and the late time of day to be headed towards the summit.

The woman was older (we guessed in her 40s-50s), asian (later identified as Korean in news articles), and her English, at least based on our encounter, was not particularly good.

It was for this reason I had turned to Nick and told him to 'Let it go.'

Meaning, to not try and convince the woman, who we thought was unprepared, to abandon attempting North Maroon Peak.

That decision, for better or worse, has tormented me since that day.



III: Whole Foods, Basalt, Colorado, 6,611 ft




Meeting at the unassuming public parking area in Basalt (near the road that leads to Capitol Peak's trailhead) was a joyous occasion, as it meant reuniting my three original 14er partners: Nick Saladin, Audie Medina, and Katy Biette. In the two years since I'd begun my own 14ers quest, these folks have become more than my most trusted hiking, climbing, and skiing partners. They had become friends. They had become my family here in Colorado.

Due to schedule conflicts, family issues, and the whole assortment of life's day to day troubles, however, the four of us had not hung out together as a group in over a year since an aborted attempt on the Crestone Traverse.

It was in this moment I was keenly aware how much had changed about all of us, and what was going to change very soon.

If all went according to plan, Katy would complete the 14ers the next day on Pyramid Peak, and then move to Nashville for graduate school.

Audie would not complete the 14ers in 2017, but once he completes them in 2018, he's moving from Colorado to Kauai, Hawaii.

Growing up with one brother, I have always been drawn to the idea of having a sister. My cousin Whitney fulfills that role to some degree, and Katy does as well. For two years we'd supported one another, and Katy had given me second chances when I didn't deserve them. My goal the next day would be to keep it together with the knowledge that I would be seeing her sigificantly less, at least for two years, while she was in school.

With all these factors in mind, I appreciated every second of sitting on the rough pavement on a hot afternoon in the Roaring Fork Valley. Eventually, Nick left and began the journey home to the Front Range to spend the rest of the weekend with his girlfriend Shasta, while Audie and Katy, fresh from a day of rest after climbing Snowmass, accompanied me to Whole Foods to chow down. Katy is vegan, and at the time, so was I (until I met bergsteigen that is and went to a paleo diet), so the challenge was finding a decent meal with sufficient calories to accommodate that. In spite of trying to 'spend less' I dropped something like 50 bucks on vegetables, rice, and fruit. Whole Paycheck indeed!

That night, Jeremy (Katy's boyfriend) arrived, and we set about car camping at the lower trailhead for Castle and Conundrum Peaks. Since any form of organized camping in the Roaring Fork Valley was long sold out, and sleeping in our cars at the Maroon Bells overnight parking lot was out of the question for me in my tiny Subaru Impreza for a second night in a row, the Castle Conundrum trailhead seemed like the best compromise. Audie and I clambered into my Tepui roof top tent, suggestive giggles emmanated from Katy's Jeep Cherokee where her and Jeremy were slumbering, and we soon were all engaged in blissful sleep.



The ascent up Pyramid Peak, August 6th, 2017, 14,018' ft



Image
Views of Snowmass and Capitol from Pyramid's Amphitheater.


Climbing Party: Katy Biette, Jeremy Keller, Audie Medina, Ben Gadberry


The leg and lung burner that is the standard route up Pyramid Peak had me yearning for what had been a pleasant, gradual ascent up North Maroon the day before.

The entire valley early Sunday was warm, and lit by a chorus of headlamps. The sky was clear overhead, and stars shone.

The foreboding I had felt the day before on North Maroon was absent. I had done one of the Bells. Pyramid was supposed to be more difficult than North Maroon, but not by much, and it didn't have the same reputation the Bells had. It wasn't just a Nick/Ben mission, but a mission with Audie, Katy, and Jeremy, Katy's ultra capable boyfriend, who makes any skier or climber in virtually any group he adventures with pale by comparison.

As Audie and I huffed and puffed up rocky switchbacks, Jeremy bounded ahead, one strapping his pack like all the cool kids in the 90s did.

I asked him why he was doing this, and he mentioned avoiding back sweat. Good idea. I tried it, but it felt even more awkward for me than back sweat was uncomfortable. So back sweat it would be.

Audie and I, being the old men" of the group, were grunting and making noises as we clambered over the rocks and roots. This soon devolved into loud, extended grunting, because that makes Katy profoundly uncomfortable. And, being the brothers in spirit we were to Katy, making Katy uncomfortable is often funny.*** We can only imagine what other hikers must have thought, in the dark, hearing two men making loud, vaguely sexual groaning in the woods.

Rising into Pyramid's Amphitheater, Audie and I quickly discovered that unless we wanted all of Aspen to have a death wish against us, the grunting had to stop. The sheer power of the echo in the Amphitheater was impressive, as was the field of remaining ice and snow. The name Amphitheater, I decided, was apt.

I was happy as hell to have my micro spikes, and make quick work up the snow. Being a skier, snow travel is far more comfortable for me than rocks and roots.

The sun gradually began to rise on the surrounding Elks Range peaks, and photo ops were perfect. I wanted to capture Katy and Jeremy in their element, and was happy when I did.

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Jeremy gazes out at the Elks.


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Katy gazes out at the Elks.


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Katy and Jeremy.



Ascending from the Amiptheater to the ridge is one of the more miserable experiences on Pyramid. There's no getting around it. This slope is 1,000 feet of pure tedium and rock fall.

Cresting the ridge, all that remained was the scrambling to the summit. The day was gloriously sunny, and soon we were comfortably cruising up Class 3-4 terrain.

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Audie on his second summit of Pyramid on the diving board. "Never again" he uttered to the 1K of gain up from the amphitheater. I agree.


With the summit in reach, Katy became visibly emotional, and it was decided Audie and I would summit first to film the proceedings. This was a culmination of a big journey for Katy, witnessing her grow from a fresh college grad into a confident young woman about to pack up her bags and move to Nasville for a few years to become a nurse.

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Katy and Jeremy on the diving board.



As hugs were exchanged, silly photos were taken (I somehow lost my shirt, then found it again on descent) and we spent a delightfully long time on the summit, I was keenly aware this was not an end to my 14ers journey, but a conclusion to Katy's part in it.

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The diving board scared the bejesus out of me, as I have a profound fear of heights. This was as close as I would get to the edge.


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Dance party at 14K.


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Dance party at 14K.


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Classic Ben ruining the family photo.


***

It was a joyous occasion and triumphant finish on Pyramid Peak in Aspen. As the crew (Katy, Audie, Jeremy, and I) descended the peak in early afternoon, and made our way together as a group through the throng of summer tourists that invade the Maroon Bells Wilderness like clockwork each year, we were all sweaty, overtired, elated, and very hungry.

Famous 14er finisher and consummate Roaring Fork local Michael J. Weddell and his fiancee Cindy were waiting at Maroon Lake to congratulate Katy, and it was promptly agreed upon that we should all celebrate with a meal.

An hour later, the swell of emotions we had all experienced on the summit were almost as palpable as the juicy veggie burgers we were stuffing down our throats at the Aspen Hickory House.

Katy had finished the 14ers. I had completed my first two Elks 14ers with the '14ers Wolfpack': Katy Biette, Audie Medina, and Nick Saladin. I now had 35 14ers 'in the bag.'

Nothing, I thought, could cast a pall over this perfect weekend.




The Fate of Rei Hwa Lee: Vail, Colorado, 8,120' ft




"Oh shit! Ben, you'd better take a look at this."


My heart sank when Nick messaged me on Facebook with a screenshot of a post made on the 14ers.com Facebook group, indicating that the asian woman we'd met hiking North Maroon Peak on Saturday had gone missing. The post was made by the lady's son, and identified the woman as Rei Hwa Lee, and admitted that they did not know even what peak she was hiking that weekend, only that she was missing in the Maroon Bells area.

My first call was to Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA), who had been feverishly combing the Maroon Bells wilderness for two days since she'd been reported missing Sunday night, but had at that time no information on what peak Rei Hwa Lee had been climbing. My call, and information from other climbers of North Maroon Peak later that day, would be the critical pieces in focusing MRA's search to North Maroon Peak and locating Lee's body on the mountain's north face.

If the MRA call sent chills down my spine, the two calls and numerous texts exchanged with Lee's son were even worse. My mother is about the same age as Lee was, and I am roughly the same age as her son. The mind invariably leads us to 'what if' scenarios, and I did not like this particular tangent.

I have always known that pursuing the 14ers entails the chance of death, but this was my first real instance of confronting it, and putting a human face to a statistic. As of September 2017, 11 people had died on Colorado's 14ers that year, with seven of those dying in the Elks Range. With each passing month of 2017, and more deaths on peaks I had climbed or was planning to climb, the questions from my family mounted. My own personal guilt for not attempting to dissuade Reei Hwa Lee, and the knowledge that my peak bagging put my mother through a tremendous mental strain each weekend, weighed heavy on me.


***

Mountain climbers have long been denigrated as being selfish, and the mystique surrounding mountain climbing, the general public misunderstanding of the 'why' motivating climbers, leaves many scratching their heads.

Moreover, the exotic nature of mountains, and the narrative potential of a mountaineering disaster, is often too salacious for the general public to ignore.

The narrative that has tormented me is this: while Nick and I celebrated on the remainder of our descent, and wide eyed tourists expressed disbelief that we had ascended 'all the way up there,' Rei Hwa Lee had wandered dangerously off route on North Maroon Peak.

Later, when Nick and I were safe back at our cars, catching up on the year since we'd seen one another, exchanging jokes, and me ravenously downing food, Lee was dying.

***

Somewhere in my Colorado 14ers quest, when I had more summits behind me than ahead, I began to seriously examine why I was drawn to this particular sport.

There's long been this idea in the public sphere that people climb dangerous mountains because of the inherent dangers.

'Because I could die on this, I get a thrill/pleasure/spiritual experience from it. If it wasn't dangerous, it wouldn't be worth doing.'

I disagree with this response.

The mountains that I've hiked and scrambled or skied each present unique dangers. But I don't pursue peaks because they are dangerous, I pursue them in spite of the inherent risks.

When approaching North Maroon Peak, I didn't say to myself, 'Theoretically, a rock could fall and kill me on this mountain, and that's why I'm doing this.'

I said instead: 'These mountains are beautiful, and I relish the physical challenge of scrambling to the top of peaks. What a thrill and privilege to be up here.'

Ultimately, mountain climbing presents challenges and rewards to those few willing to pursue the peaks. Katy's completion of the 14ers was not only a great physical feat, but symbolic of the woman she'd grown into and the challenges she had overcome both in and out of the mountains.

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But invariably, when someone dies attempting a mountain, it calls into question the actions not only of the dead, but those who came home alive.

I have spent the days and months since August 5th meditating on those questions. What I have concluded is this: mountain climbing done right is not an inherently reckless activity, and it is a pursuit that empowers and thrills those of a disposition like mine. We don't chase peaks to frighten our friends or family, or make them worry unnecessary.

Lee, myself, and my climbing companions hike because it is part of what makes us whole. And in departing our cars at a trailhead by torch light, gazing up at a cloudless, Colorado night sky, and the dim outlines of peaks bordered by the stars, we are in our element.








***


*This is a reasonable guess. Of course, I cannot know for certain if I was the 'first' to summit on August 5th, but seeing as Nick and I began at 3am, and met no one descending North Maroon during our ascent, it's reasonable to assume that nobody completed the traverse or an ascent of North Maroon Peak before we did. I don't state this for bragging rights, only as information.


**Not sure how I pulled this off. My current vehicle (as of early 2018) is a 2013 Subaru Impreza named Steve, who in spite of his low clearance and small engine has taken me to many places. I'll be sad to sell him in spite of getting a more capable vehicle, an Outback, in March 2018. Sleeping in the back of an OB should be far nicer than sleeping in the back of an Impreza, and the higher clearance (8.7 inches versus 5.25) will make rough roads far less stressful, and allow less walking on 4x4 roads! Even at my modest height (5'8) I can't sleep straight in the Impreza, but Nick and I decided to sleep in our vehicles at the overnight lot at Maroon Bells. Normally, I would sleep in my Tepui roof top tent, but such a flagrant violation of 'no camping in overnight lot' would undoubtedly get me ticketed, so we had to be low profile and sleep in the cars. I popped melatonin and wore earplugs and somehow didn't hear the numerous car alarms and an idling taxi at 1am. Poor Nick, usually comfortable in his Land Cruiser, was kept up most of the night by these unwelcome intrusions.

***A brief but important aside:

There's a reason for this mostly harmless harassment. A month earlier in Chicago Basin, my alarm had woken me in the middle of the night. In my solo tent, I groaned loudly. In his solo tent, Audie also moaned about the wake up call.

In her tent a few paces away, Katy began to giggle and laugh, and insinuate that old men grunted and groaned. A LOT.

Well hey, doesn't Jeremy grunt and groan a lot too? I asked.

No! Katy said.

Not even during, um, you know? I pressed.

Outside of our tents, in the gloom of the Basin, I could sense and feel rather than see Katy's 'look.'

And so began a month of a five summits and trips where Audie and I would, whenever crossing a large boulder, or descending a scree field, make a large, audible moan/grunt/grown/manly sound, much to Katy's endless amusement.

After North Eolus, Katy had enough and began to sprint away from us. Being in outstanding physical shape in 2017, Katy put distance away from the groaners. Little did she remember, however, that she carried a radio, and Audie and I could call her on it. Grunting ensued until she found out how to turn the radio off.



Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
Beas

RIP Rei Hwa Lee
02/22/2018 19:47
I did the traverse S->N that day and crossed paths with Lee on the way down North Maroon. A similar gut-wrenching feeling consumed me as I spoke with SAR and her son. For months, I had trouble coping with the fact that I didn't do more to discourage her from going up any further. Never again will I have trouble speaking up when someone is underprepared. I just wanted to say you aren't alone in your grief and that we all made similar hesitations that day. Some lessons are harsher than others. Climb on, good sir.


benlen

Thank you
02/24/2018 14:01
Thank you Beas, 100% agree with your comment.


Mike Shepherd

Good write up
04/09/2018 08:01
of a rather sad event.



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