North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Pyramid Peak - 14,018 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Pyramid Peak - 14,018 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
Hi climbing friends,
Climbing the two Bells, with the traverse between, and Pyramid in one day has been on my bucket list for over a dozen years. I have tried to complete this climb several times without success until finally, on August 17, 2019, I got it done. It took a blue bird late summer day, as no other kind of day would do. I have tried this over the years with multiple routes, some with partners and some solo. For this attempt I went solo, as my strongest climbing partner could not get away and I had no more climbing weekends to spare before the days got too short.
I have no pics to share, other than summit selfies from the day. There was no time to stop moving, except to eat quickly on each summit. The many pictures and route descriptions provided on this forum by others are thorough and invaluable, and show all that is needed to know.
Here is my story. This is not intended to be any kind of guide. Avoiding my mistakes might be good though.
My first attempts at this started with the standard route up the North Bell, leaving the parking lot around 5 am. It is not always easy to find the turn off to the North Bell from the main trail with a headlamp, so it is advised to have this well scoped ahead of time, as no time can be lost in the valley bottom. If things are wet, getting through the forested section to the rock glacier can be messy. Once on the rock glacier, it is pretty easy to see where to get onto the mountain climb. The climb up the North Bell is of course solid work, but straight forward, and on a nice day you will have plenty of company. Just steep, steeper, steady, and always careful and alert for accelerating wayward rocks.
The traverse from North to South Bell is also straight forward, though a bit of a blind down-climb. Stay mostly on the ridge, or just west. I carry a 20-30 foot length of small rope to lower my daypack and climbing stick down the steep sections where there is a chimney or an outside ledge. Don’t want a pack to catch an edge and buck you off – it will only happen once. Sometimes there are slings or slings with fixed lines left by other climbers. Other times, nothing at all. The cruxes on the ridge are very well described by others. The rock at these cruxes is generally "solid", with good hand and foot holds to be found. You must be confident enough to put the one-off exposure aside. Balance exposure with equal care, and then focus only on the care. You must believe that these bouldering moves are no harder than they are at the gym or at the local sport climb, and that the solid rock will hold you tight. Once you reach the bottom of the traverse, at the top of the Bell Cord couloir, it is a fairly easy up climb and scramble to the South Bell. If you want to get all three peaks, the traverse must be done in 1 to 1.5 hours.
The exit off the South Bell onto the ridge is tedious. The route off the south ridge is worse! If it is dry, hard boot soles will turn the route to marbles. The nearby grass can provide some relief. On one solid attempt, my partner and I reached the valley floor at 3 pm. Very tired and too late to try Pyramid. Should have started earlier. On another solo attempt with this route I reached the valley floor at 2 pm and started up the steep grassy west flank of Pyramid to reach the northwest ridge above the amphitheater in good time. This route has no trail and is short and sweet and steep. It is a line of sight route and avoids the whole scree field in the amphitheater. I thought I had Pyramid in the bag for sure! But after two hours of searching, I could not find a safe couloir route up to the summit block. The couloirs all bottomed into thin air with no certain exits at the top. My plan was to summit from the northwest ridge and then descend via the standard route off the northeast ridge into the amphitheater, making for an elegant round trip. Mentally and physically exhausted I gave up. A mountain goat on the northwest ridge challenged me on the way down; back to the steep west flank. The trail-less downclimb and hike back to Maroon lake was brutal and defeating.
Back home I did research into the northwest ridge route and found that I was too far south and missed the key couloir (as described by others) by less than 100 yards. This stupid failure haunted me seriously for some years, as you don’t get many chances to pull this off, and I was so close.
Finally, after staring at maps and reading many trip reports, it became clear that the smartest approach would be to get an earlier start (4 am) and hike up to the start of the South Bell and do it first. This avoids the very tiring and tedious South Bell descent. Do the traverse from south to north, which I have never done before, and then descend down the North Bell back to the valley floor, which drops one near the base of Crater Lake, and very close to the start of the standard route up Pyramid. To actually have a chance to get this thing done, I had to give up on the more elegant, and still unknown round trip route on Pyramid. I did do Pyramid once in the winter with a group by an alternate route. Routes can be done in the snow that are not so possible in the summer.
So off to Aspen to try it again. When I got going, there were some issues with the ranger at the gate on Maroon road. He told me I could not sleep at the day parking lot at Maroon lake as I have done before. How could I start at 4 am if I could not sleep at the lake? I found out later that this was not much enforced, but I slept in my van at a pull out a few miles down the road. A sheriff rousted me around 10 pm and I thought for sure he was going to kick me out. I have a long history of this. But he was very cool and just advised me to keep my food safe from bears. Bears were the least of my worries.
I woke at 3:45 and drove to the parking lot. It occurred to me that the Leadville 100 mile trail run was starting at the very same time just a few mountain ranges away. I have completed four of the 100 mile runs and failed around 80 miles in on my last try. I am done with Leadville. This is now the bucket list I need to cross off.
I started hiking at 4:15 am. I began the hike up the trail with a bike lamp light (saving my headlamp for a possible night descent). I hiked for a while with a couple of guys. One of them sounded like he was an accomplished mountaineering guide by his stories. I’m sure they both thought I was crazy. The waning full moon was bright on the trail before it set behind the long section up to the south ridge. I summited South Maroon via the well documented route around 8 am and had a snack. I tried to talk a couple into doing the traverse to North Bell, saying it was easier than the South Bell descent. No takers.
The south to north traverse turned out to be no easier than the other direction, even though the climbs are upward. The route is well cairned, so not much route finding required. There are not many places other than the ridge to go. I had to rope my pack and hiking stick up a few times on the cliffs. I spent about 20 minutes pondering one of the very exposed outside crux moves before I was able to get on the rock. Must remain calm. Was very happy to reach the North Bell summit around 10:00 am and I was starting to think I had this thing in the bag – finally! Then the wheels came off.
I have never done the North Bell descent, as I have always done the traverse south. There was a young couple (I am 59) on the peak that had also done the traverse, so I figured they were savvy. We all headed off the North Bell together but somehow missed some of the route and got going down the north side of the main ridge that overlooks the rock glacier. First big error. The guy thought this route was on his GPS, or something. I have always looked at this route on the way up thinking that there was a shortcut to be had. But the north side of the mountain is wet, and mossy, and the 20 to 50 foot cliff bands of red mudstone are slick as ice to Vibram Soles. This route is Death. We screwed around for about 20 minutes trying to find a way. I took a scary fall near a cliff band and split my shin open on a sharp rock. Blood spattered on the rocks below. Very close call in a place I never should have been. This is how people die on the Bells. I was not happy and yelled to the couple that we had to get the frick out of here and back up to the ridge and down to the sunny dry side where we were supposed to be. That was a half an hour and a ton of physical and emotional energy lost and I felt my chances for Pyramid slipping away.
Back on the correct route, I raced down to where the trail meets the rock glacier. Dead end. I have crossed the rocks before, but always from the other side where it is easy to spot the cliff band target across the rock glacier where you need to go. Not so easy to see across the rock glacier to where the trail comes out of the trees. This was something I should have thought to study in advance. A low risk part of the climb that did not get my attention. I headed across the glacier but wanted to take a short cut out the bottom of the glacier through the forest to make up for lost time. Second really big mistake. The forest hides cliff bands that cannot be climbed. I found a waterfall and filled up my water bottles. I bit the bullet and found a way to the valley floor that involved a tree down climb and plowing through willows in a drainage without my feet touching the ground. Significant damage was done and I lost another hour and more energy. Not even any damn game trails to be found until I was near the valley bottom. I reached the valley floor near Crater Lake at 1:30 pm, bleeding, battered, feeling stupid, and generally pissed off. How could I blow this again on a perfect day??? I was hoping to be here at noon. I started limping down the main trail past Crater Lake toward the big cairn that marks the turn to Pyramid. Folks were lounging and playing in the water at the shore of Crater Lake. Looked very inviting but there was no time to rinse off. No doubt the sight of me scared a few tourist types who were making their way up the trail to the lake. I was in no mood to chat.
I arrived at the Pyramid trailhead at 1:45. I was moving like those folks you see in Everest climbing videos. Just getting one foot in front of the other – like a sloth. I figured I needed 6-7 hours to summit Pyramid and get back down to the car again, under perfect conditions. The conditions were thankfully perfect, but my hiking pace was shot. Had I not made the two unforced errors on the North Bell descent; this would have been a relatively easy day. This is how things go in these mountains. There are no givens and route finding is king.
The start up the Pyramid trail is easy and very well maintained. Had to climb over a few trees that came down in avalanches. Now the stress was time and energy. How late could I summit Pyramid and still be able to get down the hard sections before it got dark. How much route finding would there be? I wanted no part of class 3-4 down climbing with a headlamp. And no part of the amphitheater scree field with a headlamp either. So much to worry about, but I just kept going. There were a few folks coming down after a successful day. I made it to the huge rock pillars where the easy trial ends and the scree starts. There was maybe a half mile ribbon of snow left in the Amphitheatre bottom that provided a break from the scree on the way up, but it was no faster. It was a long slog to the base of the northeast ridge where the real climb starts. I think I got there around 3 pm. So late.
I climbed up the northeast ridge staying in as many solid rocks a possible. A few parties were working their way down the steep lose rock gully from the ridge saddle. Would have been a great place to have those old monster heavy hard leather “Kletter boots” we had as kids, where you could crash and ski down lose rocks with hardly a care. Not much good for going up though. I reached the ridge a little before 4 pm and was a bit nervous to keep going. There would be no one else on the mountain except for me at this point.
Mountain goats are all over this area. I got within 5 feet of terribly scraggly one. They don’t care. They leave trails everywhere, but they are never lost. Their trails do not go to the summit. This leads to the complication of sorting out trails with only hoof tracks to those with boots as well. It is still a long way to the summit from the ridge, but there are enough cairns to follow. There is absolutely no time for another route finding miscue at this point and I am very tired.
Cairns can be funny things. On many Colorado peaks and trails they are redundant and silly testaments only to the rock stackers. On the Bells and Pyramid they are absolutely vital. When you get to one, you immediately start to look up or down the trail for the next one. As you and others explore all routes, you make lots of little trails away from the cairn. Eventually, there can be an entire web of little trails leading away from a cairn. Go too far without finding the next one, and you are off route. Lose track of where the last cairn you saw was, and you are lost. It’s a fine line. These are my thoughts as I work the trail to get a glimpse of the Pyramid summit.
At around 4:30, I round a corner and see the summit and it still seems far away. I am just about to give up and turn back. I tell myself I will go until 5:00. At 5:00 I see a ridge, but I am not sure if it is false. I give myself until 5:30 as a drop-dead cutoff time. Could I really go this far and abandon the effort 100 feet from the top? I am starting to think of the potential to do a forced bivouac. Most of my clothes are wet with sweat and a water bottle leaked in my pack, but I have rain gear. At 5:15 I reach the ridge top and it is the summit!
The view is unimaginable. The weather is perfect. The sun is still bright. I could curl up in a ball and sleep here forever. I drink the warm Coors Light I carried all this way for the occasion and eat some nuts. I take a selfie with the Bells in the background (I look a bit worn) and then a panorama. I doubt many folks get to sit on Pyramid summit at 5:30 on a late summer afternoon.
I head down, wondering how far I will get before it gets dark. No room for any errors. It will be a battle of out of the frying pan and into the fire until I reach to real foot trail. I work the cairns and downclimbs off the summit and back to the saddle of the northeast ridge with only a few pauses. A moment of panic hits as I did not come up through the saddle and there is a huge snow cornice blocking my way that I did not deal with coming up. I am out of water - again. I put snow in my bottle that was leaking and try to fill some more with drips from the ice. I see a cairn in the distance on a rock mound and head for it. It is the ridge saddle. I am off the ‘technical’ part of the mountain!
Now for the super steep scree gully off the northeast ridge. Careful and brutal with lots of zig-zags, but there is still plenty of light. Now back to the scree filled amphitheater. This would be very hard with a headlamp, as you need full depth perception and a quick periphery in the sharp lose rocks. Hiking quickly through scree and rock glaciers is a dance and an art form of motion and balance. I did not have the energy left to be artful, but like riding a bike, you can’t stop moving. I worked back to the snow ribbon and did some glissading. This would normally be great fun but I am too tired to do anything but slide along, using my stick for balance, and staying on my feet as best I can. Now back into the long scree field. I can see the rock towers at the end of the scree field that mark the exit from the amphitheater and the start of the foot trail. I reach the trail around 6:45 pm. The sun has set and thankfulness is sinking in.
I am hustling down the trail. Now the only real challenge is to see if I can get back to Maroon lake before full dark. I do not want to stop dig out my headlamp. I don’t like hiking in headlamp tunnel vision. I have learned that seeing the valley floor does in no way mean you are close to it. I am starting to hallucinate pretty good as dusk sets in. Is that a bear or a bush? Who are those folks ahead of me? More bushes. I experienced a lot of this in the army where they tried to keep us moving for three days without any sleep. I could hallucinate anything I could dream up after two days of maneuvers with no sleep. Not the time for that game here.
I make it back to the main Maroon Creek trail and am always surprised at how long it takes to get to the lake that seemed so close. I am going as fast as I can in the dark. Full use of my “toe eyes”. So tired of walking in rocks. At the lake I run into a guy moving slowly with a climbing helmet. I asked him how his day went. He said he started at 4:30 am to do Pyramid. He was thrilled to summit. He said he saw me going up the northeast ridge rocks as he and his party were coming down the gully scree. He spent 15.5 hours to do Pyramid. I think he was a flatlander, and his buddies went at his pace to make sure he got it done. Pretty cool!
I reached my van in the dark a little after 8 pm. 16 hours of hiking and climbing to get all three peaks. Should have been shorter and easier, but mistakes were made. No way to complain. This is off my bucket list and I will not do this again. I have had enough of that traverse. I will take my son or daughter up Pyramid someday. Just one of the most excellent peaks in Colorado.
The beer in the van is warm. That won’t do. I drove down to Aspen and got some cold beer and checked in with my people via phone. Walked around downtown for a while looking in shop windows. What a silly town. Slept in my van on a quiet side street with no issues. I left Aspen and headed home for Golden around 7 am. I got to Leadville around 8 am and got coffee and food. The last of the Leadville 100 runners (like me with my 29-hour finish times) are still two hours out from the finish. They have been running all night while I was asleep. How could I have done 13 more hours? I say a little prayer being thankful I am alive and well.
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