Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
|From Maroon to North Maroon with Serendipity|
Coming close to the end of my personal 14ers list (that is, every one except North Eolus, which I missed in a lightning storm, didn't realize was on the ever-increasing list of 58 and, sadly, am unlikely to return to the Chicago Basin to tag), it was time to tackle the three purportedly "rottenest" of the purportedly "rotten" Elk Range — Maroon, North Maroon and Pyramid.
I drove to Aspen via Independence Pass, giving myself plenty of time to meet my scheduled 3 p.m. shuttle to Maroon Lake on a Tuesday afternoon. A word of advice to those planning to take the shuttle: Make your reservation plenty early and get there at least 45 minutes ahead of time, as instructed. I watched a number of tourists fussing and whining at the attendant because he had given away their reserved seats to standbys when they didn't show up until 10 minutes before scheduled departure.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, given the fame of the Maroon Bells, but there were a ton of people wandering around Maroon Lake when I headed off up the West Maroon Trail. A couple of modest uphill, rocky miles later, I reached Crater Lake, and snagged campsite #8 in the trees above the southern tip of the lake. It rained considerably for much of the night, but I was snug and warm in my Six Moon Designs Skyscape Trekker tent.
Quick note: Due to bear activity, campers are required to have either a hard canister OR may use an Ursack setup. I note this because a couple people told me it was canister or no go, and that USFS personnel had been sending people back to the shuttle if they did not have a hard canister, but this is not the case (thankfully). I've used an Ursack with — critical piece here — a Loksack or Opsack plastic bag inside. Ursack describes the Lok/Opsack as, "This 12 X 20 sealable plastic bag is made from a special film that is 17,000 times more odor-resistant than HDPE. When used properly, the OPSak is 100% water and air tight," and I've been using this combo for years quite successfully. Where allowed, this is a much more user-friendly option than a hard canister.
The skies were clear when I left the campsite at 5:30 a.m., heading south on the West Maroon Trail. No moose, sadly. The trail leading up the east slope of Maroon is quite obvious, and there is some very nice stone work that's been done (I presume) by the Colorado 14ers Initiative on the lower reaches. That said, this is a steep, one-mile slog up a series of, in Roach's words, "broken, Class 3 ledges," and while there is a trail, it becomes quite faint in places. It's easy to get off track, but also was fairly for me to get back on track. In general, I was angling somewhat south as I ascended, until reaching a sort of ridge where the trail is more obvious and fairly well marked with cairns all the way to the south ridge.
Given the crowds on the trails below the day before, I was frankly surprised that I could not see any climbers above or below me until I was perhaps halfway up the east face. That's when I spied three tiny splashes of non-natural movement and color far below, just beginning the most arduous part of the slope ascent.
Once on the south ridge, the route is fairly well marked, but it didn't take long for me to realize that I was going to be popping up and down and skirting around to the west and north in the fairly long, circuitous route to the summit. There is some fun Class 3 scrambling on the way, and a couple of ledges, but also a short stint in a semi-loose gully. While there aren't exactly false summits, it does take quite a long time to work back to the north as you ascend, and at several points I was convinced that I was nearing the top only to have my hopes dashed.
I was thrilled to reach the top, at last, just after 9:30 a.m.; it had taken me longer than I expected, between the long, steep crank up the east slopes and the up-and-down meandering that takes you along/underneath the south ridge to the summit. It was a gorgeous, calm, warm day, but despite predictions of just 10 percent chance of precipitation, I was somewhat concerned by the amount of clouds in the sky.
When I decided to do the Maroons, I thought I'd like to try the traverse. But now I wonder how serious I was. Before attempting the El Diente-Mt. Wilson traverse a few weeks ago, I studied the route in words and photos on 14ers.com and loaded up my phone with photographed pages from the site and Roach. Prior to attempting the Maroons, I studied the route some, but did not load up my phone. One atop Maroon, I scuttled along the vast, red slab just northeast of the summit, trying to see where to even begin , but with the exception of a small, neatly constructed windshield just off the north side, nothing jumped out at me.
It didn't take long for me to realize how utterly insane it would be for me to attempt the traverse by myself. I simply wasn't prepared with the necessary knowledge and it looked pretty hairy from the top of Maroon.
I'm not much of a summit lurker and with few exceptions, have climbed 14ers solo. But remembering that there were three people below me, I hung out on top for about 45 minutes, hoping they might arrive and magically provide accompaniment (and knowledge) to make the south-north traverse. Finally, after trying to get a decent photo of the magical pika who approached within inches then managed to disappear the second I tried to shoot a frame, I resigned myself to descending the way I'd come and tackling North Maroon in the afternoon or next day, depending on weather.
According to the timestamp on my photos, I must have run into the approaching trio after descending for about a half-hour (of fairly slow going). They were Victor, a chemist from Chicago, his 20-year-old daughter Christina, and Mike, a construction guy from Denver. I asked if they planned to do the traverse, and when they said yes, didn't hesitate to ask if I might join them.
"Do you know how to climb?" said Victor, who, if he tagged North Maroon, would be putting final check mark on his 14er list, finishing them all since 2007.
"Yes, definitely," I said. "I just didn't want to try it alone."
Victor said he had studied the route in detail and his phone was loaded with photos and descriptions to help. Thrilled to be getting the opportunity, I was happy to lead them back up to the summit, saving them a bit of route-finding (or at least, cairn-finding).
Judging by my photos, we left the summit of Maroon around 11 or 11:15. We headed straight down the summit slab and off the nose, involving a bit of Class 3 action, then picked our way down toward the saddle at the top of the Bell Cord Couloir. The going was loose, but perfectly manageable and fairly obvious. Just above the saddle, we reached a short Class 4 section — oddly, I remembered this from my reading, but Victor didn't. Feeling comfortable now that I had companions, I swiftly downclimbed, face-out, and lowered myself on a small ledge. I walked the ledge, dropped into the saddle, took a peek down the couloir, then started up the other side to see what I could see of the first vertical bit. Victor asked if I would come back to show them the way I'd come down, which I did, and soon we were all in the saddle.
It's remarkable to me how my confidence soared once I had companions. When I peeked off Maroon, my stomach did flip-flops just thinking about it. But now, I was eager to make progress, particularly with a bit of stormy-ish cloud cover growing in the west. I scrambled up the first vertical, full of you-know-what and vinegar, but to be honest, I don't remember much of that first pitch. Based on the 14er.com description, I'm guessing it's the dihedral pictured below. Definitely Class 4 with exposure, perhaps even Class 4+, for about 40 feet of climbing.
At the top of the cliff band, I started creeping along the top of what I believe was Spire #1. It was fun being on the ridge and noting the extreme exposure on both sides. The second "difficulty" soon arose, and really all I can say (adrenaline erases memory, maybe?) is that I once again took the lead and felt both exhilarated and just a tad freaked by the exposure. I definitely remember scoping a shorter dihedral with a bit of an overhang, then choosing to descend very slightly and chimney my way up a longer dihedral that had the benefit of no overhang. On the top, I scooted right on some narrow ledges, sketchier in my mind than the dihedral, aiming for a bit of webbing and a caribiner I saw in that direction. But once I got above the overhanging dihedral, it seemed to me that the webbing was a misdirection. I talked to Mike below the overhang, thinking it might be possible to squeeze into a very narrow crack to the left of the overhang (looking up), but he decided to go for the longer dihedral, as well. Victor asked me to pop back over to the top of the longer dihedral, where I gave a bit of assistance to Christina (who was very happy not to try the narrow ledges toward the webbing; we ended up going up and left instead). I also helped talk Victor up the dihedral.
"This is Class 4," he said, "but it's at the edge of my abilities."
Note: Victor has promised to send me some traverse photos when he gets home to Chicago, which I will add here!
Apparently, according to 14ers.com, some of this may actually be low Class 5 — who knows? All I know is a) it was fun and b) it got my heart racing.
According to the route description here, "From the top of this section, scramble along another narrow section of ridge to the bottom of the 3rd and final difficulty of the traverse: a 15-20 foot cliff which seems impassable on either side. There are several options here, either traverse slightly around to the west (left) and climb directly to the top of the cliff (low to mid Class 5), or traverse further around west and find a line up a narrow dihedral/crack (low Class 5)."
Fair enough! I believe it. I just don't have much memory of it, except that this final "difficulty" rattled me more than anything that had come before.
Then Victor confidently asserted, to all of our relief, that we need not try to mount Spire #2, and we successfully skirted around the east side. I scurried ahead, sloping slightly downward on mostly flat, solid rock, toward the final small saddle before the summit pitch, feeling giddy: Victor assured us (correctly) that we were now past the "three difficulties," and the last bit would be a snap. It was. I was up first, like an excited kid on Christmas morning, and I was beaming as Christina, then Mike, then Victor appeared on the broken slope and we stood triumphant on the summit of North Maroon ... with bruise-colored clouds continuing to build in the west. I fist-bumped Victor and congratulated him on finishing all 58 in just 13 years.
"Right now," he said, "I'm not feeling like celebrating, except that we are finished with that. That was definitely the hardest thing I've had to do to reach a 14er summit."
With weather threatening, we didn't spend much time on top. I was tired, but thrilled at my good luck in finding such trusty, able companions, and psyched that I was able to be a part of a team that worked incredibly well together for having just met.
And then we started down North Maroon. As I repeated at least three times to Christina on the way down, I am incredibly grateful that I did the traverse, spooky and hairy as it got here and there, because to me, the descent of North Maroon is by far the nastiest descent of the 56 I've done so far (acknowledging I may have some recency bias, but I think my judgment is not far off). And twice as grateful knowing that I did not have to hump down arduous Maroon then wake up the next day and climb N. Maroon. It was steep, loose, crumbly, included a few bits of Class 4 (no problem), some sketchy ledges, a nasty field of glacial boulders and, to top it off, we got hailed/sleeted on significantly from the bottom of the ledges until almost all the way to Minnehaha Creek.
On the other hand, I truly didn't mind the weather (the rock field sucked), and I was very pleased to encounter a cluster of incredibly human-habituated mountain goats. I guess people feed them — but what? One young-looking doe came within 10 feet of me, clearly expecting a handout. All I had was cheese, and I didn't offer it to her. She was followed by a good-looking crew of four adults and/or juveniles and two absurdly cute kids.
The sun was finally out on the lower reaches of the descent, and we regrouped at Minnehaha, tired and grateful that the long descent was over. If my time-stamped photos tell the tale correctly, it took us over three hours from the summit to the creek. Ridiculous. Thank goodness I didn't have to — and never will have to! — climb up that messy route.
We reduced our clothing and made quick work of getting back down to where the Maroon-Snowmass trail to Buckskin Pass peels off of the West Maroon Trail, near Crater Lake. There we said our thank yous and goodbyes, and Victor agreed to send a quick "OK" message to my wife when he got service.
"Oh, man," I said longingly to Christina. "You guys are going back to real food and a hot tub" — MIke was especially excited to partake of that particular pleasure — "and I'm going back to my tent." Had it not promised an extra half hour to an hour of waiting for my traverse "tramily," I would have asked them if they would let me come out with them.
Alas, I still had Pyramid to do the next day. And yes, I did it. And yes, as Victor said, compared to what we'd just done, Pyramid was lung-busting, irritating, and all that, but just so much easier, really, as I discovered fairly early the next morning.
They went left, to their car, back to Snowmass Village, while I went right. I hung my wet stuff on tree branches to dry, vigorously refused to bust out the stove, ate snacks, drank a margarita I had in a small container, and conked out by 7 p.m. Maybe I'm getting too old for this stuff.
As I mentioned, I'll never get closer than 57 of the 58 "14ers," and the Maroon traverse will stand as my toughest day by far on any of them. But my dentist for much of my life was the late, great Cleve McCarty, who in 1960 blew everyone away by climbing the 52 14ers on record in 52 days, an incredible feat and really the first of its kind. Other guys have shaved the record down to less than 9 days (how?), but "Dr. McCarty," as I always knew him, is still the real pioneer.
I mention all this because.... I'm a little irritated with the continual adding of summits to the list, now at 58. There are actual standards, having to do with distance and elevation drop between peak and subsidiary, but it seems there is an appetite for continually growing the list. So be it, but let's not forget that if we wanted, we could probably name countless other obscure points above 14,000 feet to add to the list; I'm a big fan of standards.
Or maybe "58ers" will think I'm just whining because I'm not likely to go back and tag North Eolus. No care, as a French railroad conductor once haughtily told me. I started when I was 18, added peaks and never bothered to think I might do them all until I was into my 40s, when I started to make a more concerted effort. None has been "easy" (Shermie, you come close!), but all have been rewarding.
I might croak of COVID or something else before I get Snowmass next summer, leaving me stranded at 56. So be it. It's been a ride, and the serendipity of finding such an able, supportive, friendly team for the Maroon traverse — not unlike my trail families on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike at 54 — is surely going to remain a peak experience from my forever-inadequate (supposedly) list of 57, should I survive the winter.
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