Maroon Peak, sometimes called South Maroon, is the higher peak of the famous Maroon Bells duo. From Maroon Lake its sits quietly behind its smaller sibling North Maroon, allowing North Maroon to appear higher. Maroon Peak was the final 14er in the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area for Amy and I. The standard route up the peak is only rated at class 3, but reading many reports talking about long and complicated route-finding challenges, we didn’t put much stock in the class 3 rating.
It was up and over Independence Pass to Aspen for the third straight weekend. This time we had to take HWY 285 because traffic on I-70 was horrendous. We have been spoiled recently and haven’t had a ‘Crowdorado’ moment for some time. Guess we were overdue. We pulled onto our familiar side road to car camp off the Maroon Lake Road, which has become our home-away-from-home of late. As we tucked in for the night the skies were overcast and the stars were not going to make an early appearance this night.
During the evening the cloud blanket lifted and we were greeted with starry skies when the alarm at 3:30 a.m. sounded. No dreams about Oprah Winfrey this time (see North Maroon trip report), I guess laying off the crack the day before a big climb is a good idea. After a quick breakfast and a short drive up the road to the Maroon Lake parking area we were hiking by 4:30 a.m.
There was only a sliver of a moon and the canopy of the forest kept the trail quite dark. The miles passed by quickly under the lights of our headlamps and we reached Crater Lake in short order. Around campsites 6 & 7, where the forest is extremely dark, we took a wrong turn at a fork in the trail. After an unpleasant stream crossing and thick bushwhack on the other side we knew we were off-route, turned downhill towards the lake, and regained the correct trail without losing too much time.
Back on route, we passed silently under The Bells lording overhead, trying our best not to disturb and anger the Mountain Gods high above at this early hour. We had scouted out the trail the day before, so we knew where the climber’s trail left the main trail just past the ‘bent tree’ shown below. There is no question about which tree is the ‘bent tree.’
We arrived at the turn-off for the climber’s trail at 10,500 feet at 6 a.m. and stopped to fuel up for the steep slopes to come. At this point we had traveled 66% of the distance to the summit, but had only gained 20% of the elevation, things were about to get steep. After 20 minutes of eating and drinking we began the long, long climb up the to the ridge at 13,300 feet. The trail climbs 2,800 feet up to the ridge and is similar to climbing Mt. Bierstadt, except for you gain all this elevation in 1 mile instead of 3 miles. I read that the trail is devoid of luxurious items such as switchbacks, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trail did indeed have switchbacks. Three, perhaps four of them in the whole 2,800 feet. Several short class 3 sections were easily negotiated on route to the ridge.
We steadily climbed out of the shadowy confines of the valley and finally had the first rays of sun hit our face. We kept plugging away at the steep slopes and after many, many thoughts of “No more cookies for me”. “shouldn’t have ate so many cheeseburgers lately”, and “why did I have that donut at work on Tuesday”, we reached the ridge just before 8:30 a.m. The last 500 vertical feet to the ridge is extremely unpleasant, it is steep and the rock is extremely loose.
From the ridge we had a good preview of the remaining route to the summit, it looked quite long and time consuming. It is a good idea to take some mental notes of the route from this vantage point and identify key features, notably the gully circled below. Note that the route stays well below the ridge crest. We strapped our trekking poles to our packs and took off to the summit, ready to face all the route-finding difficulties we had read about. We started out traversing along the west (left) side of the ridge, gaining little elevation until a set of cairns indicated to climb up into a notch above. We climbed through this notch, then another notch immediately past it and then traversed to the next corner before downclimbing to another set of cairns. I think this up and down climb through these notches was totally unnecessary and we could have taken a lower line to avoid it altogether.
We downclimbed the slopes and traversed around a corner to get a view of the gully between Maroon Peak and Point 13,753. You don’t not want to climb to the top of this gully, so make a note of the area circled below where you will exit this gully on the left. We traversed over to gain this gully where we had to squeeze by a snowfield on the right side to get into the gully.
This section is probably the loosest rock on the route between the ridge and the summit, so I was extremely careful not to send any rocks down on Amy. The rock on the left side was more stable so we opted to climb up this side. We climbed this gully for maybe 200 vertical feet where I began looking in earnest on the left side for an exit. I found a good ledge with some cairns on it so we decided to follow this route.
We did a level traverse for a short distance where we then descended a bit around a corner. This placed us in a wide, sandy gully that wasn’t as steep as the previous gully. We climbed this sandy gully almost to the very top, there were cairns about 30 feet down from the top guiding us around the corner. While I was waiting for Amy to catch up, I went to the very top of the gully and peered down the Southeast Couloir, which was on the other side.
From here it was a steady ascending traverse leftward with well-placed cairns that left little to the imagination. At this point we passed a father and son from Delta, CO coming off the summit and they told us we still had about 30 minutes to the summit. We continued on our ascending traverse, skirting a few lingering snowfields that were easily avoidable. The scrambling was pure joy, the rock was more solid than I expected and there were big blocky steps everywhere to clamber on. I found myself singing, which I do when I’m totally immersed in the moment and having a blast. The route eventually led us to the ridge crest, a couple hundred vertical feet from the summit.
From here I believe we followed the ridge for a bit, then scrambled on the left side for a bit, before regaining the ridge crest again right below the summit. We reached the summit at 10:30 a.m. taking us 2 hours from when we left the ridge and 6 hours total for the ascent. I found the scrambling to be thoroughly enjoyable, the exposure totally mild, and the route-finding for us was completely straightforward. We never once had to backtrack, felt off-route, or even second-guess ourselves. There were definitely cairns all over the place, it seems there was also a higher route above the low route we chose. This is just speculation, but I think parties that might have had route-finding difficulties stayed too high and encountered more difficult climbing than what we encountered along the low route. The low route was completely straightforward for us.
For the third weekend in a row the stunning Elk Range panorama laid out in all directions. The dark maroon and green colors of Fravert Basin to the west were the most fascinating. We looked across to the mighty Capitol Peak, our last 14er to climb in the Elk Range.
We were joined on the summit by a party of three people from Santa Fe, New Mexico who had made the traverse over from North Maroon. It took them 1.5 hours to do the traverse which is good time, most parties take about 2 hours from what I have read. We all talked as we soaked in the views, the New Mexicans were eager to learn all about the terrible, confusing descent they faced down Maroon Peak. I think they were quite surprised that Amy and I told them we immensely enjoyed the ascent and the route-finding back to the ridge would be a snap.
After about 30 minutes we all departed the summit, passing several groups just down the ridge. Amy and I were especially pleased to see one group in particular, Terry and his 70-year-old father. We met them yesterday on our hike to scout out the climber’s trail and found them to be great guys. For Terry’s father to be climbing a mountain like Maroon Peak at 70 years old is inspiring to say the least. When I recognized them coming up the ridge just below the summit my heart filled with joy and a huge smile broke across my face. We exchanged high fives and congratulations before we let them continue on to the summit. I reminded Amy of one of my favorite quotes from Finis Mitchell, ‘We don’t stop hiking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop hiking.’ The descent back down to the sandy gully was straightforward and I would yell directions to the group from New Mexico who had gotten ahead of us while we were talking to Terry and his dad.
We descended down to the sandy gully until it narrows significantly and is full of snow, at this point we exited skier’s left, traversed upwards for a short section, then did a level traverse back into the gully between Maroon Peak and Point 13,753.
The group from New Mexico ignored my advice about descending this gully until the point where you squeeze around the snowfield and exited on a higher ledge with many cairns on it. It all worked out fine for them but they did have to do a bit of downclimbing to regain the lower route. Amy and I descended the gully, squeezed around the snowfield, and exited skier’s left again, traversing the slopes back towards the ridge.
We arrived back at the ridge at 12:30 p.m. to find a couple marmots chewing on some trekking poles left by some of the other climbers. One marmot was quite bold and we had a tug of war with one of the poles before he finally gave up and scampered away. We stood the trekking poles straight up and pile rocks around them to keep the handles out of reach of the marmots before beginning the portion of the descent I was dreading, the steep slope back down to the valley floor.
The 2,800-foot slope back down to the valley was easily the worst part of the day for Amy and I, especially the upper 500 feet of loose rock and steep slopes. We concentrated on every foot placement and tried not to kick rocks loose, or take a wrong step and end up on our butt. We crossed paths with a guy who had English accent, he was on his way up the miserable slopes for a 2nd time. He got off-route on his way up to the ridge and decided to abort the climb. Halfway back down to the valley a group of climbers talked him into re-ascending the slope and giving it another try. I told he could plan on 4 hours from the top of the ridge to the summit and then back to the ridge. I expressed my concerns about the building weather and he said he would keep a close eye on the clouds.
The valley floor never seemed to get any closer as we continued the knee-bashing descent. If it is any consolation, there are nice views of Pyramid Peak during this miserable descent.
The wildflowers on this slope were also spectacular. After an eternity we finally reached the valley floor at 2 p.m. and I made a beeline straight to West Maroon Creek to dunk my head and cool off. After a refreshing 20-minute break we began the easy 3.5-mile walk out.
We passed many backpacking parties doing the 4-pass loop during our descent down to Crater Lake. The miles wore on and at Crater Lake I had to take a short photo break to capture some reflections in the smooth-as-glass waters.
The hike down to Maroon Lake was rather uneventful except for one lady who took a pretty bad spill in front of us. We offered her some water to rinse out her cuts and scrapes but she declined. This is the 2nd touron we’ve seen in as many weeks take a nasty spill on this section of the trail. Man, if they only knew how bad it was up on the peaks. We also noticed that somebody built a monster 5-foot tall cairn marking the cutoff trail from Pyramid Peak. We arrived back at Maroon Lake just after 3:30 p.m. for an 11-hour roundtrip. Maroon Peak could very well have the most miserable descent of any 14er I’ve climbed so far, surpassing the southwest ridge of Little Bear. If you could remove/improve the 2,800-foot slope from the valley to the ridge, I would climb this peak again in a heartbeat. I had to take a couple pictures of the signs about The Bells around the lake. I especially like the photo on the sign below showing the climber front-pointing up the rock with his ice-ax stabbed straight into the rock. Quite humorous.
Amy and I were recognized by fellow 14erworld member Julian who had a successful climb of both of The Bells, doing the traverse from South to North. After talking with Julian for a while Amy and I got cleaned up and began the drive back to Boulder. Although The Bells area is extremely beautiful, three weekends in a row is plenty for me. I’m glad to have ‘The Deadly Bells’ safely behind us. Many people are asked which of The Bells is tougher, Maroon Peak or North Maroon? For me it is a matter of preference. North Maroon is more exposed, has looser rock, and harder scrambling. Maroon Peak is much longer, more effort, has a more miserable descent, and has more potential to get off-route. Take your pick, my answer is both. They are equally beautiful as well in my opinion.