North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
|There and Back Again - A Bells Tale|
Route: Maroon Bells Traverse. North -> South & South -> North
Who doesn't love the Elk Mountains? Loose and rugged, with a huge splotch of beautifully red rock right in the middle, while offering the highest concentration of difficult 14ers in the state. One of the first things that I was told in my phone interview for Aspen Music Festival in 2010 was "no matter what you do this summer, don't let Nate (my buddy) take you up the Maroon Bells." So, logically, of course, the first thing that we started planning when I arrived in Aspen were ascents of Pyramid and the Bells. My first 14er was North Maroon, quickly followed by Pyramid, Maroon Peak and Capitol. Combined with my introduction to outdoor climbing on Independence pass that summer, I was immediately hooked. Unfortunately Nate is no longer here, but he was my introduction to something that is, by far, one of the biggest parts of my life now. When on the return traverse this trip, I came up with the stupid idea to name it There and Back Again, A Bells Tale as a cheeky LOTR reference. What I didn't realize until weeks later, is that it was obviously spurred on by my thoughts of Nate, as we spent the better part of two decades of our childhood obsessing over everything and anything related to Lord of the Rings before spending two summer together in Aspen. Funny how things come to you like that in such existential moments.
Of course we dreamed of the Bells Traverse that summer and the next, but it seemed completely unrealistic to both of us noobs at the time, and even to the guys that we sport climbed with. I wrote it off as impossible, moved back East, got a job I hated, eventually quit, moved back to where the rocks were, and got into the 14ers and alpine way, WAY more than I ever anticipated.
Fast forward to the past few years and my newly formed partnership with Bruce this year. I realized a couple years back that the Bells Traverse was definitely going to actually happen at some point, it was just a matter of either getting to a point where I knew I would have no problem solo, or finding the right partner who had the skills to help me navigate through the harder stuff. Once I started climbing with Bruce it was a no-brainer that the traverse would happen this summer, it was just a matter of when. We both had similar alpine goals and wanted to push ourselves this season. We had a weekend lined up, but decided to go for Blitzen Ridge first, which was a lot of fun. It was a good warmup for what was to come in the next month.
In between that trip and this one, I got to thinking. Thinking about how much I absolutely HATED Maroon Peak previously. Thinking about how I would give anything to not have to touch Maroon Peak and its 3000 feet of suck at all, except for the traverse. Fortunately, a quick peek on here confirmed my suspicions. It was completely feasible to double up on the traverse. However, our plan was no rope, so there would be some technical downclimbing required. I was super stoked, and as soon as I proposed N>S and then S>N to Bruce, he was as pumped as I was. Double traverse, double the climbing, double the looseness, double the fun. We picked a weekend date for the Bells Traverse, only to have it bumped by weather. We decided we couldn't wait any longer, and blew off work Monday of that weekend to head up to Aspen.
In keeping with our fashion for everything else so far, we decided to do the trip as an out and back from Denver. Quite the drive, but I am so familiar with the route to Leadville and over Indy Pass that it wasn't of concern in the dark. Bruce showed up to my house at 11:45 and we were off by about 11:50. Not technically an "all in one day" push by the clock, but semantics. About a 3-3.5 hour drive give or take. We rolled into the parking lot for the Maroon-Snowmass Trailhead at 3:20AM, and I hit "start" on my watch at 3:23AM. It had begun.
I have spent so much time in the Elks that I could probably do the trail up to Crater Lake with a blindfold. Bruce and I cruised up to the split towards Buckskin Pass at a relatively decent pace, arriving at the split in under 40 minutes. We quickly split to the right without a break and started climbing. What I was not prepared for was the crazy avalanche damaged. Even in the dark, the multiple trails of destruction from numerous slides off of Buckskin was impressive. I couldn't wait to see it in the light on the way back. We hit the stream crossing about 20 minutes later, and I promptly forgot to tag waypoints appropriately, so that is the last accurate time flag I have, besides some rough ideas about each of the summits. Still adjusting to using the watch to its full capabilities.
Grinding our way up to the rock glacier was pretty easy and fast, especially with the new trail up there. I didn't know that it had been reworked so thoroughly and it was a pleasant surprise that it wasn't the old insanely steep, slippery and sometimes muddy slog that was there for so long. We cruised across the rock glacier and started around the corner and finally some daylight started to leak in.
As the sun crested in the east the views were stunning, as always, and we couldn't help but snap some more pics.
This is by far the most pics I have ever put in any TR. There were just too many good ones.
We eventually worked our way around to the ascent gully, and were rewarded with some more views that really brought the excitement to the peak of a long crescendo. There is always something magical about being on the Bells at sunrise. The way that all of the red rock glows just makes me want to charge even harder.
We slogged our way up the gullies, eventually getting out onto the shoulder where the 4th class chimney is on the North side. One thing I can recommend, and I wish I had remembered this: Go as far up the gully as possible. The easiest path out to the shoulder is at the top of the gully. We started trending West too early, due to my bad guidance, and it was a lot of winding in and out of the path of least resistance instead of just a direct line to the shoulder. On the way down we stuck near the ridge for as long as possible and dropped in right at the top of the gully to descend. A lot less time consuming.
Moving around the shoulder to the 4th class chimney finally brings everything into view, and I was immediately reminded why this is some of my favorite terrain and one of the most beautiful ranges in CO.
The grind up North Maroon is real. We certainly did not move too fast, but I was completely ok with that, knowing what lay ahead. We finally got to the summit, coming up a weird route pretty much on the East face that was scary loose. We had stuck too close to the edge after the 4th class chimney and had not contoured West across the remaining snowfields. Definitely a viable route, but not what I had done my previous three trips up North Maroon. It felt good to be done with the laborious part, knowing the fun was about to start.
A little bit of peanut butter, a sip of water, and lids on. Being that we were the first ones up North Maroon that day, I had gone helmetless up to that point. I know still risky, but it was nice to not be downwind in the bombing range of the gully for once. We enjoyed the view looking over at Capitol and Snowmass for an extra couple minutes before we dropped South onto the ridge.
The first few parts of the traverse really were not too bad. There is the first gap you have to step/climb across right past the first tower, but you can drop East and work your way around on a ledge directly into the gap, or downclimb directly into it. There are/were some HUGE loose plates right on the edge, so we traversed in. Probably stayed a bit higher than needed, and had to do some almost low 5th moves into the gap. We realized on the way back that you can get all the way down to the bottom pretty easily, keeping it in the 3rd class range, with maybe one move of 4th.
We moved along pretty quickly and came to the area of the "two 5th class options." The East option is a pretty acute corner, and looked like it would require some hand jamming in the corner to downclimb. Only on the way back, thanks to Bruce, did we realize that this is probably by far the easier option, with plenty of handholds and footholds out on the arete. We chose the West option. Definitely more exposed, but you could clearly see handholds and footholds all the way down, stopping about 6-8 feet short of the bottom. Once we got to that point, Bruce traversed back East about 6 feet before finishing the downclimb. Unfortunately for me, Bruce has the wingspan of a giant, and I wasn't able to comfortably traverse where he had. This lead to a few semi blind stepdowns, but I was able to get down the last 6-8 feet by going directly down.
This spot really didn't present too much of a challenge, thankfully. However, we knew that this wasn't really the tough spot, and the most difficult moves lie ahead. Regardless, we were having a ton of fun. You can pick and choose pretty much whatever route and difficulty you want, and we did so with liberty.
Eventually the ridge started to narrow quite a bit, and I knew that the crux pitch was coming. If you stay directly on the ridge, the beginning of it is very obvious. You come to the end of a section with drops on all sides, and looking East you see a large, loose chimney whose spire on on the other side is almost detached from the ridge itself. Downclimbing the chimney itself was no problem, as you can easily fit inside. Just be careful of people below you, as it is full of loose crap.
The bottom of the chimney is definitely the crux of the whole route, no questions asked. First of all, everything is extremely loose. Second of all, upon reaching the bottom of the chimney, it is immediately apparent that the line down is actually overhung. My heart started going pretty damn good. You really have no choice but to get your hands down real low, try to find some good jams in the loose crack, and back your ass and feet semi-blindly over the edge. Once you get your feet down it isn't over, as you are still overhung with your hands above the lip. You can swing one hand under the lip and back up into the crack for a jam underneath, but the blocks and rocks filling the crack are still loose. A good jam allows you to pull your other hand under the lip and get a decent hold, to allow you to get your feet out and essentially sit on the small ledge you have your feet on. You can then just pick better feet lower, hang from the handholds, and drop down off of the exposed part. Although not super difficult, this part was definitively 5th class, with moves that you would never do in any gym environment, with extreme and most likely deadly exposure to the East. It seemed pretty certain to me that a fall that this point would lead to a long, lethal fall to the East. Regardless, it was fun, and it was over. Well, at least the downclimbing part.
We definitely started taking a more circuitous path the closer we got to Maroon, as everything that was more direct and to the East started to get more exposed, with larger and larger loose blocks. We wound our way West of the last big buttress, cut back East one last time and walked up to the summit of Maroon! About 2 hours on the traverse, nothing too fast. We saw one French guy who was going S>N, but that was it.
We took the obligatory pictures and chatted with everyone on top of Maroon, talking about our love for crack climbing and OW suffering with one couple. Bruce also goes by Doc Offwidth, for those of you with some historical knowledge. He has indoctrinated me well in the ways of wide thrashing this year. Of course we soaked in the view as much as possible. The stark contrast of all of the green valleys in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, compared to the bright red rock of the Bells and the grey granite of Capitol and Snowmass, never fails to take my breath away.
We probably spent 25 minutes on top, eating and letting our significant others know that we were alive, and only half way done! Regardless, we knew that climbing up was certain to be easier than climbing down, and we were almost just as excited for the return trip.
We headed back the way we came, knowing that it would be a bit quicker than the trip across as we were much more certain of the route. There was one group of 3 that took off towards North Maroon ahead of us, but we passed them pretty quickly and were back on our own again in about 15 minutes.
The crux bulge climb still was a bit testy on the way back up. Some blind reaching over the lip in a precariously balanced position led to a marginally good handjam in the loose crack. Fortunately my confidence was high and I was able to find something juggy enough with my right hand that I hauled myself up and over the lip. Bruce followed suit and we cruised back up the chimney and across the ridge.
Upon reaching the other 5th class section, Bruce decided he was going to take the East option, the tight corner. What we thought would be some oozing up the corner with questionable handjams immediately turned into a nice 20-ish foot cruise. You can face due West and use handholds on the arete with good feet facing West as well, with your back solidly against the wall behind you the whole way. I could see how coming down this might be a little more tricky, but going up it felt like it was 5.easy tops.
Just an FYI, maybe because I have too many pictures, but the ability to "caption" went away at this point when I was writing, so the captions are all messed up for the rest of the TR.
Me right at the base of the tight corner about to ooze on up
After this, the difficulties were over, and it was just a cruise back to North Maroon. However, hours at altitude was starting to take its toll, and we were slowing down quite a bit. I would be lying if I said it was easy to get back to the summit of North Maroon.
Bruce rounding the corner near the last tower, and a shot showing the surprisingly large SW face of North Maroon.
We crawled our way back up the last face and plopped on the Summit of North Maroon, 3.5 hours after we had first departed it. Even though we were dead tired, we were both beyond elated. The Bells Traverse in both directions baby! Without any raps, without any gear. This was a big moment for both of us, myself as someone who has just gotten into technical alpine, and Bruce as someone rediscovering his passion for climbing after so many years.
Almost there Bruce!
Unfortunately the selfie camera on my phone is broken, but back on North Maroon!
More food, more water, texts messages to let everyone know we are alive, and let's get the hell off of this mountain. As mentioned in my previous TRs, once the difficulties are done, I am in autopilot "get me back to the truck ASAP" mode. I was thinking it would be a nice cruise back to the truck. I guess my memory had failed me once again, because the descent off of North Maroon seemed almost as endless as descending Maroon Peak, which was the whole reason we had taken this route.
A definite key to the upper part was staying along the ridge as much as possible until you get to the gully, and dropping in as close to the top as possible. It made the first part of our descent in the gully markedly easier than our ascent of the same section. Of course, that soon all goes to sh*t anyways and you are left descending endless slopes of loose, grassy, blocky crap.
Did I mention that I absolutely f-ing hate this part?
Without being too much of autopilot robots, we did manage to take in some more of the views on the way down.
More of Maroon Creek Valley with Crater Lake directly below us and Maroon Lake further out
Bruce stopped to pump water at the Buckskin Pass stream and I took care of some uh, other things haha. I have to say, descending the new trail out of Buckskin Gulch was definitely a bit more suffering, as it is almost 100% on rock, as compared to the dirt path the trail used to take. It felt luxurious to cross the stream and be back on the dirt path down to the Crater Lake junction. We reached the slide paths that I mentioned earlier and I could not believe the damage. Huge trees snapped at the base like twigs, just piled up 30, 40 and 50 feet deep. Other trees completely stripped of all branches and leaves 30 feet up. It was impressive.
Buckskin Gulch trail through one of the slide paths
There is a pile of huge trees down there about 50 feet deep
Finally we were back to the Crate Lake trail, and my favorite part of the day. Being surrounded by an endless amount of people heading up to Crater Lake. Just how I like to end a long, grueling day. Haha. Ha. I have perfected the practice of either looking as angry as possible so people won't talk to me, or pulling my buff up over my face to make it look like I am a bank robber. Either way, it is pretty effective and I manage to avoid conversation with everyone but the most intrusive people.
We cruised down to Maroon Lake and stopped to take the mandatory gratuitous shot of the Bells.
Some shade on this day unfortunately, but as beautiful as ever
Finally we walked back into the parking lot and I hit stop on my watch. Almost exactly 11.5 hours after leaving the parking lot we were back. A little slower than I thought we would be, but I had really forgotten how long the haul both up and down North Maroon is. We changed clothes and hit the road back to Denver as quick as possible, knowing that I had to actually be present at work the next day.
A quick stop at Grateful Deli (one of my favorites) in Aspen and we were on our way back up Independence Pass. I talked about how even though the ascent and descent of North Maroon were a grind, I was beyond happy to not have touch the 3000 feet of suck on Maroon, and how it was my most hated 14er. However, as we crested Indy Pass, my eyes fell once again upon Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata, and my day of suffering and disdain on its undulations was quickly brought back to my memory. As we continued down the pass this rotten memory grew and grew, until I had to remark to Bruce that I had to revise my opinion of which 14er was my most hated experience. Ellingwood Ridge, without a doubt, was the most brutal 14er experience I have endured thus far. I wouldn't recommend the route to anyone, regardless of your penchant for suffering.
We finally rolled back into Denver after dark, elated to be home. I bid Bruce goodnight and a safe drive home, expecting to go inside and immediately pass out. The afterglow was too much, though. I didn't sleep until after midnight. A goal that I had first laid eyes upon almost 10 years ago, and considered pretty much impossible, had been knocked off the list with relative easy and a lot of joy. It really puts things into perspective, and only provides even more drive to go bigger, longer and more difficult.
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