Pyramid Peak - 14,018 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
Pyramid Peak - 14,018 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,014 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,156 feet
|I had reservations...but I climbed anyways|
I had reservations…but I climbed anyways
At the start of summer 2020, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to climb the 14ers above Maroon Lake. At 55, I was two decades older than my first and only Class 4 14er summit (Crestone Needle) and the last ten years had seen my 14er list grow by only four new summits. My 2018 and 2019 climbing seasons had both ended in unsuccessful attempts on Pyramid Peak. 2020 could be different: retirement meant sufficient time for more cardio training and several early season warmup hikes; more time looking at 14ers.com meant much higher confidence in route finding plus an awareness of new limitations on Maroon Lake access. Before the pandemic, visiting Maroon Lake only required arriving before 8am and finding a parking space. In 2020, further access restrictions were implemented to encourage social distancing.
Despite reservations on my Class 4 mountain abilities, I decided it was time to make parking reservations as soon as the on-line system opened on June 15. With no insight into July’s COVID restrictions, snow-melt or weather, I took my first leap of faith and secured parking reservations for a few Fridays in July and started monitoring the Aspen Highlands webcam every day.
Pyramid Peak: July 10, 2020
I set a goal of summitting Pyramid Peak some time in July and continued my hiking and mountain biking conditioning, not knowing when the snow conditions would be within my ability. A July 10, 2019 conditions report showed very snowy conditions above 12,000’; however, on July 2 and 5, 2020, favorable condition reports showed the snow was completely gone from the 12,000’ to 13,000’ slope and almost all of the southeast facing upper route. Also, the weather forecast showed that the monsoon pattern of afternoon thunderstorms had not yet started. With high optimism, I started the drive to Aspen where last minute hotel reservations were easy to find.
Just before 5am, I pulled into the Maroon Lake day use lot, one of only five cars. In the predawn light, I started up the wide but rocky trail toward Crater Lake. From past trips, I knew the turnoff would be shortly after a slight descent and I remembered that the faint trail through the flats involved more turning left than expected.
I tried to keep moving, but every few minutes, the next switchback and sunrise lighting would offer even better photo opportunities of the Maroon Bells.
Around 7:00, I passed between 4 large cairns marking the entrance to the amphitheater. Here, I put on microspikes and started up a ribbon of snow. Although there was a snow-free trail, the snow was a softer alternative that I followed all the way to the base of the 12,000’ to 13,000’ slope. When I thought about my 2018 turnaround at 11,500’ due to low fitness and high heartrate, I was glad that I had been mountain biking or hiking almost every day since the March lockdown started. Today, I focused on my pace (and photo breaks) to keep my heartrate below 150 beats per minute.
At 8:00, I removed my spikes for a snow-free ascent to the 13,000’ saddle. The trail is initially obvious but becomes more braided from hiker and goat traffic. I knew from last year’s trip that when the slope seemed too steep or loose, I was probably on a goat trail and it was time to stop and look around, usually to the right, to follow an easier, more switchbacked hiker route. In hindsight, I wish I would have also kept this thought in mind when I neared the summit ridge.
My pace to the 13,000’ saddle was again slowed by photo breaks, this time by Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak rising behind Buckskin Pass. When I thought about my 2019 turnaround at 13,000’, mostly due to lack of confidence, I was pleased that I had already done several warmup hikes this season, including a challenging hike up Mt Wilson’s Southwest Slopes. I was also happy with my timing, arriving at 9:00. I sent a Garmin inReach message to my wife and proceeded into unknown territory.
From the saddle, I was relieved to confirm that there was almost no snow on the upper route. Moving on to the 13,100’ saddle, for the first time since leaving the parking lot, I saw other people—two groups of two climbers and a few mountain goats moving back and forth on the ledges above the Green Wall. I hoped I wouldn’t soon be finding myself in a Donkey Kong contest with the Goats of Pitkin County.
The traverse to the base of the Green Wall went quickly and, on balance, was straightforward. My height (6’1”) was an asset for a simple leap of faith. However, my weight (215 lbs) was a liability shuffling across the narrowest parts of the ledge—with my back to the exposure, even on maximum inhale, my belly was getting pushed by protruding rocks. I was glad that I stashed both of my poles on the left side of my pack.
At 10am, I paused at the base of the Green Wall, excited to start the next challenge. The first pair of hikers knocked a few small rocks down as they started the descent. I made note of their entry point and paused for a snack while they completed their downclimb. As I started up the pitch, the climbing was fun and felt easy—similar to other places I’ve climbed, but maybe slightly steeper and more exposed. Was this where Class 3 turns to Class 4? As I progressed up, the second pair of hikers started down to my left. Despite my carefulness, I had knocked down one or two rocks and soon the other group would be directly below me. I made a mental note to be less judgmental on others who knock down rocks and I quickly moved up to a slightly less steep place to wait for the group to cross below me. At this point, adrenaline was flowing and I suspected that I had climbed higher than my planned exit. As I traversed left, my boots barely felt grippy enough, and I wondered if my quick moves had forced me onto Class 4 terrain.
Now, at around 13,600’, I was climbing up red rock ledges. Above this point, 14ers.com route photos get sparse and so do mine. From below, I struggled to see cairns and was always questioning if the route up to the next ledge was too hard to be Class 4 or if I should traverse left along a ledge to look for an easier route. I was having fun, but wished I had a clearer idea of what was Class 3, 4 or 5. I had traversed left so many times that I was sure that Bernie Sanders was just around the corner. Unfortunately, the current ledge ended abruptly with a nice view of a cliff leading up to the summit ridge.
Grateful that no goats were bothering me, I retreated and took a long break on a very wide part of the ledge to consider my options. My watch suggested I was near 13,800’ and backtracking to the right didn’t show any obvious cairns above or below. In front of me was about ten to fifteen feet of steep climbing before the slope appeared to flatten. Should I go up or head down? If I climbed up, could I downclimb this pitch or find an easier way down? The obstacle seemed to have plenty of holds, but would this be Class 4 or even Class 5 climbing? Could I climb this? Only one way to find out—I grabbed my first two handholds, put my boot on the first foothold and pushed up. With a big dose of adrenaline and little memory what happened, all of a sudden I was on the gentler slope and could see an easy route to connect to the ridgeline trail. After the hike was over, I learned that this short climb spiked my heart rate above 180 beats per minute.
At 11:30, I was on the summit and taking pictures again. With no clouds nearby, I enjoyed a leisurely snack and admired the mountains across the valley. My mind wandered as I wondered if summitting Pyramid meant that I was ready for either of the Maroon Bells. I even eyed Capitol Peak in the distance. I left at 12:15 and refocused on the current peak.
Descending was much easier from physical, climbing and route-finding perspectives, but still took about the same time as ascending. Cairns and footprints were much easier to see from above. The hardest down-climb was less than 10 feet—once I was down, I recognized the rocks as one of the places where I had traversed left rather than climbing up to the next ledge. Maybe this will help me define “Class 4”. Climbing this small section would have been much easier than my off-route crux.
Just after the narrow ledge and leap of faith, mountain goats met up with me and I saw them off and on until I was back to the Crater Lake trail. I got back to the parking lot at 6:30pm and was back in town in time for dinner at Pyramid Bistro with my family. I was glad to have navigated both the Pyramid route-finding challenges and the Maroon Lake reservation system and pleased that I had overcome my reservations on trying a Class 4 climb.
Pyramid Peak Resources
Aspen chamber of commerce for parking/bus reservations:
Aspen Highlands webcam time lapse (go to bottom of web page):
Helpful trip reports include:
North Maroon Peak: August 28, 2020
I was pleased with my Pyramid success but concerned that my slow pace wouldn’t allow a Maroon summit during monsoon season which was forecast to kick in soon, I was glued to my computer when another batch of reservations became available on July 15th. With post-monsoon reservation in hand, I cancelled my remaining July reservations to let someone else put them to good use. I continued my hiking and mountain biking conditioning and eventually made a switch from hiking boots to approach shoes.
As my August 28th reservation date approached, the weather report was clear and warm early in the day, but with a cold front rolling in that could bring rain or snow by afternoon. With more confidence in my fitness and knowing this could be my last chance for snow-free hiking this season, I decided it was worth another trip to Aspen. My North Maroon reservations were mostly about the weather, two steep gullies and a Class 4 chimney.
Based on the weather report, I left the Maroon Lake day use parking lot at 4:30am. I had the route to myself all the way to the summit. I was able to turn off my headlamp at Crater Lake and continued on the wide, smooth trail toward Buckskin Pass. After branching off, I was surprised at how many stairsteps had been built by CFI to ease the effort (and erosion) of hiking to the rock glacier. From here, the route finding was still easy to the base of the first gully. I continued to manage my heart rate with photo breaks, appreciating the smoke-free sky and thin clouds.
The first gully felt very “airy”, and my brain kept pushing me to lean inwards, away from the exposure. Still, the terrain didn’t feel as steep as I had imagined from countless Maroon Bells images. The transition point to the second gully also seemed easy to find. I continued my slow vertical progress serenaded by chirping pikas and leaning even further into the slope. The very top of the second gully required some careful cairn spotting and the steepest Class 3 (or 4?) climbing so far to top out on the ridge.
Once on the ridge, I hiked over and around the blocky, red sedimentary rocks on the clearly cairned route to the Class 4 chimney. As I looked up at the challenge, I was glad that I had read many trip reports and watched several videos to prepare me for this section, especially the final handhold crack. I was also glad that I was wearing approach shoes, especially for the beginning and ending small footholds. Once again, an adrenaline burst made the final movements go by quickly. As I looked back down the chimney, I was a bit nervous, because I didn’t remember where my feet were on the final moves—these footholds would be critical for me to locate on my return.
After taking more photos, I continued past the precipice and on to the summit, guided by a continuous set of 14ers.com photos. About 10:30, I had the summit to myself for at least thirty seconds before a group of six clients and five guides completed their Bells Traverse. I helped them take some socially distanced photos and then video-called home to share the view before leaving the summit just after 11:00 as clouds started to build. My approach shoes uneventfully found the footholds at the top of the Class 4 chimney. At 12:30, at the bottom of the second gully, thunder inspired a faster pace and at 1:15, just after I left the first gully, the skies opened up. Rain continued off and on for the remainder of the hike, adding some variety to my list of Crater Lake to Maroon Lake hiking experiences. I got one last dose of adrenaline as I navigated around a moose blocking the trail at Maroon Lake before returning to the parking lot at 4:30pm. Again, my descent time was almost the same as my ascent time.
After another nice meal at Pyramid Bistro and a big sleep in Aspen, I drove back over Independence Pass toward Denver. My tiredness quickly dissipated, and I was already wondering if I might still be able to climb Maroon Peak this season.
North Maroon Peak Resources
Helpful trip reports include:
Helpful Youtube videos include:
Maroon Peak: September 18, 2020
After several inches of snow on September 1st, many people canceled their Maroon Lake reservations, so I was able to snag one for later in the month. I knew that most of the upper route on Maroon Peak faced south so the snow should melt quickly. Once again, I resumed daily monitoring of the Aspen Highlands webcam and daily searching for new conditions reports and I learned how to do a daily review of the snow pack forecast. Everything looked good to try a Maroon Peak climb on my reserved date.
Thanks to a dry, calm weather forecast, my main reservations before the Maroon peak climb were rockfall, route-finding and the cumulative strain of the long slog from 10,400’ to 13,200’ followed by a long time at altitude to reach the summit. After Crater Lake, I was alone on the mountain except for one pair of climbers that summitted just after me and the left the summit just before me. An empty mountain meant limited rockfall concerns, but no one else to show the way. Multiple gullies connected by traverses made for challenging route finding, but whenever I had any doubt, the 14ers.com photos resolved any uncertainty. Based on my Pyramid Peak and North Maroon Peak experiences, I would agree that everything on the Maroon Peak route was Class 3 or lower. The main climbing challenge was to avoid sliding on loose rock and gravel in the many gullies. The long day didn’t generate much adrenaline, just plenty of dopamine.
The hike went very much according to plan, except for my pace: 5:15am departure from Maroon Lake; 7:15 base of 2800’ slope; 10:15 top of 2800’ slope; 1:00 summit; 4:00 top of 2800’ slope. After nearly three hours descending the slope, I approached Crater Lake as daylight was disappearing. Although my pace was slow, I was pleased that I felt strong throughout the hike and didn’t exceed my targeted heartrate and, most importantly, that I hiked on a day with perfect weather. Once again, my downhill time was nearly the same as my uphill time as I returned to the parking lot by headlamp at 8:30pm, too late for a restaurant dinner. The next day, driving back to Denver, I thought about how to write a trip report.
Maroon Peak Resources
Snow pack map and forecasting:
Helpful trip reports include:
Overcoming the 2020 Maroon Lake reservation requirements necessitated some early planning, weekday availability and leaps of faith on weather and schedule. These were by far the three least crowded 14er hikes I have been on in 2020 or any other year. Throughout the summer, I had good fortune in obtaining parking permits, avoiding smoke, dodging the weather and escaping the pandemic. Ultimately, I overcame my personal reservations on fitness, route-finding and climbing abilities. I am thankful for the good luck that allowed me three days of solitude climbing three challenging peaks in a beautiful wilderness.
Besides parking reservations, here were a few strategies that seemed to work for others for 2020 Maroon Lake 14er access:
Keep in mind that access policies changed repeatedly throughout 2020. Policies and capacities will likely continue to evolve in 2021, but the starting point will be April 12th when the Aspen Chamber of Commerce reservation system opens.
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