July 23rd, 2005
Another weekend, another foray into Colorado’s Elk Range. The drive to Aspen is becoming routine, I’ll be able to do it in my sleep soon. However, I never get tired of rounding that final corner on the Maroon Lake Road and seeing the Maroon Bells tower over the valley. From Maroon Lake, “The Bells” seem to scrape the sky and beckon climbers like a high-altitude playground. Unfortunately upon closer inspection, climbers soon realize that somebody forgot to tighten all the nuts and bolts on this playground and it seems poised to collapse onto itself with the slightest disturbance. North Maroon is no exception, its loose rock and exposed slopes reaffirm the Elk Range’s reputation of dangerous peaks. Approach this peak with caution and respect. If I gave every trip report a fitting title, the title for this one would be, “When a good plan goes bad.” First things first though, let’s start with the plan. My friend Matt has climbed all the 14ers aside from Culebra and had climbed both of The Bells before, doing the traverse from North Maroon to South Maroon. He was interested in doing the Bells Traverse again this summer so the date was set and the time had arrived. We planned to traverse from North to South Maroon again, like Matt had previously done. We would bring a rope along for the traverse in case we encountered a down climb we didn’t like. This would allow us the option to rappel over any difficulties. Sounded like a great plan.
Another weekend, another foray into Colorado’s Elk Range. The drive to Aspen is becoming routine, I’ll be able to do it in my sleep soon. However, I never get tired of rounding that final corner on the Maroon Lake Road and seeing the Maroon Bells tower over the valley. From Maroon Lake, “The Bells” seem to scrape the sky and beckon climbers like a high-altitude playground. Unfortunately upon closer inspection, climbers soon realize that somebody forgot to tighten all the nuts and bolts on this playground and it seems poised to collapse onto itself with the slightest disturbance. North Maroon is no exception, its loose rock and exposed slopes reaffirm the Elk Range’s reputation of dangerous peaks. Approach this peak with caution and respect.
If I gave every trip report a fitting title, the title for this one would be, “When a good plan goes bad.” First things first though, let’s start with the plan. My friend Matt has climbed all the 14ers aside from Culebra and had climbed both of The Bells before, doing the traverse from North Maroon to South Maroon. He was interested in doing the Bells Traverse again this summer so the date was set and the time had arrived. We planned to traverse from North to South Maroon again, like Matt had previously done. We would bring a rope along for the traverse in case we encountered a down climb we didn’t like. This would allow us the option to rappel over any difficulties. Sounded like a great plan.
Amy and I caravanned from Boulder up to Aspen with Matt and his wife Stephanie. We were surprised by the North Table fire just outside of Golden, with flames within just 100 feet of many homes. We arrived in Aspen around 8:30 p.m., found a nice quiet side road to car camp along Maroon Creek Road, and retired for the evening around 9:30 p.m. Fortunately, we were not visited by the car under-carriage eating porcupine like the previous weekend. I know I got a few hours sleep because I remember dreaming about driving around with Oprah Winfrey, convincing her she shouldn’t feel bad because she’d never be able to climb the Maroon Bells. I told Oprah her life story was an inspiration to millions of people and she didn’t need to climb mountains to inspire people. Our conversation was getting pretty deep when the alarm sounded at 3 a.m. and cut my time with Oprah short. After downing a bagel, a Myoplex RTD, and some Gatorade, I quickly jumped out of the 4runner and threw it all back up on the road. I didn’t tell anybody I threw up, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. We proceeded up the road to the Maroon Lakes parking area and began hiking just after 4 a.m.
Just five minutes into the hike, Matt’s boots didn’t feel quite right so we stopped and he realized that he didn’t have any insoles in his boots. We took Matt’s gear and continued on down the trail while Matt ran back to the vehicles and would catch up to us. About ½ mile up the trail Matt still hadn’t caught up to us and I was worried he missed the Crater Lake trail cutoff from the Scenic Loop trail that goes around Maroon Lake. Stephanie dropped her and Matt’s pack and went back to look for him while Amy and I continued up towards Crater Lake. Looking down a steep hillside we could see a lone headlamp bushwhacking below us through the forest. There is only one person that could be at this hour so I yelled to Matt and he responded. He began working his way up towards our headlamps and intersected the trail just down from Amy and I. With Matt part of the gang again, Amy ran back down the trail to get Stephanie before she went down the loop trail as well. While we waited for Amy and Steph to return Matt and I both laid down along the trail. In the darkness a porcupine didn’t see Matt and almost ran over top of him before Matt shooed him away. Amy and Steph returned after about 20 minutes and we resumed the journey to Crater Lake. I still wasn’t feeling well and threw up again a few times, this time everybody was a witness, sorry about that. Everyone asked if I wanted to go back but I said let’s continue to Crater Lake and reassess the situation from there. The Bells looked stunning, silhouetted against the dark blue skies with the moon hovering overhead.
We arrived at Crater Lake without further incident at 6 a.m., taking us 2 hours to go 1 mile. Wow, at this pace we’ll be on the summit by 10 a.m. 10 a.m. Tuesday morning that is. Taking a break at the lake, I was able to keep some food down but still didn’t feel that great. Since we were way behind schedule already, I was half sick, Matt couldn’t find his boot insoles, and the weather forecast wasn’t favorable for the afternoon, we decided to stash the rope, ice axes (we considered descending the Southeast Couloir of Maroon Peak), and climbing gear and just try for North Maroon. I didn’t think I had any chance getting to the summit of North Maroon but decided to proceed onward and see if I would start to feel better. As we left Crater Lake, The Bells came to life in the early morning sun, giving me hope that things might be looking up.
We headed up the trail towards Buckskin Pass and at 10,700 feet we headed left on a climbers trail. The trail drops down to Minnehaha Creek where Matt and Stephanie decided to cross on some logs. Amy and I crossed over a snowbridge about 100 feet down from the trail. Past the creek, the trail climbs over a small rock field and then heads steeply uphill through the trees and bushes, traversing to the left.
One slope was borderline class 3 mud and not very pleasant at all. We came to a 6-foot rock ledge that was a bit tricky to get over with our boots covered in mud. Continuing onward and upward we broke out of the trees with North Maroon towering over us to the south. As Roach puts it, “The introduction is over and the challenge looms overhead.”
We worked our way through the large rock glacier below the North Maroon’s northeast ridge, guided by the occasional cairn. Amy and I reached the trail again on the other side of the rock glacier and stopped to let Matt and Steph catch up. This was their first time at altitude and they were moving slower than Amy and I. While we waited we put on our helmets figuring we would be glad to have them on from here on up. When they caught up, they told us to go on ahead of them and they would continue up at a slower pace.
Amy and I departed and began the traverse along the exposed east face. There is a good trail through this section but you can’t help notice the cliffs below. A slip here would definitely not be a good proposition.
We worked our way up to a corner where we then entered the first gully on the east face. The trail is still discernable as it weaves upward through ledge after ledge, but is loose dirt so we were careful of our foot placements. Another annoying feature of North Maroon that is often unmentioned is the prickly plants everywhere. Seems like everywhere you wanted to place your hand, there was one of these plants. We continued up this first gully until about 12,600 feet where we noticed a trail heading to the left. Roach says to stay in this first gully until 12,900 feet but this trail looked well traveled. We followed this trail and it traversed the east face towards the second gully.
This puts you in the bottom of the 2nd gully, which is steeper and looser than the first gully. We could see some parties in the upper portions of the gully and heard the occasional rock come flying down the gully. Great, the fun starts here. While I was resting in this gully I witnessed a very careless squirrel send some rock flying down, honestly, it is that loose. The nerve of this squirrel, he didn’t even yell ‘ROCK’. What a squirrel was doing up this high I have no idea. When we reached the top of this gully we noticed a large cairn on the right side, which is probably the crossover point Roach refers to in his guidebook.
We continued leftward below the ridge crest and the scrambling intensifies from this point. Cairns were well placed and keep the difficulty to class 3. The clouds looked like they were beginning to build, but it seemed it would be a few hours before a storm would materialize.
A couple hundred few above the second gully we noticed a party rappelling down a headwall that didn’t appear to have an easy bypass. The class 4 crux Roach mentions is at the top of the 1st gully so I wasn’t quite sure where this headwall came from. The easiest way up this headwall was a class 4 20-foot chimney. There was a steep snowfield to the right of this headwall so maybe when the snow isn’t present this obstacle is easily avoidable??
We reached the base of what we thought at the time was the class 4 crux and I scouted out to climber’s left since there was a cairn along the ridge crest. On the other side of the ridge was a really steep and loose gully and I immediately ruled that out. We went back to the chimney the 2 guys had rappelled down and headed up. The snowfield at the bottom of the chimney, which got your boot soles wet and slick, complicated this class 4 section. I had problems making the final move to get out of the chimney with my pack on, so threw it up on a ledge. Once out of the chimney I had Amy climb up to the difficult exit move, hand me her pack, and pulled her out of the chimney. Neither of us was excited to climb back down this. There were a few rappel slings around a boulder so is there two class 4 cruxes on North Maroon if you ascend all the way up the first gully??
The summit was still about 400 vertical feet away so we decided to drop our packs and make a dash to the summit. With the burden of our packs removed, we made great time up towards the summit. The ridge was straightforward from this point and cairns guided the way through any potentially problematic section.
We reached the summit at 11 a.m., 7 hours from when we departed Maroon Lake, quite possibly the slowest ascent of North Maroon ever. Given how the day had started out though, it was a personal triumph for me to be standing on top. The views of Pyramid Peak, Maroon Peak, and the surrounding Elks were amazing. It was also nice to look down at Maroon Lake and finally know firsthand what the view is like “up there.” Coincidently, Jeff, a guy we meet last weekend on the summit of Pyramid Peak was also on the summit. Amy signed us into the register while I took some photos. We admired the traverse over to Maroon Peak and thought about what might have been. Not much time to revel in the summit moment though, we wanted to get down quickly before any storms might materialize.
We followed Jeff and his friend Kevin down the ridge and quickly were back to our packs. Just down from where we picked up our packs was the class 4 crux chimney and Jeff downclimbed it first. He stayed in the middle of the chimney to help Kevin, myself, and Amy make the initial move to get back into the chimney. There was a key crack that was the critical handhold to get back into the chimney. I had such a problem getting out of the chimney on the way up because my pack was covering up this crack, so I never knew it was there. After that initial move, the chimney was actually easier going back down since you could wedge your body against the walls for friction. Amy and I breathed a big sigh of relief to have that obstacle behind us.
We continued down with Kevin and Jeff, everyone being very careful to not knock rocks loose on each other. As we neared the top of the 2nd gully we passed Matt and Steph who were going to climb up to the ridge and assess the weather before committing to the summit. We wished them well and told them we would meet them back at Maroon Lake. Descending the 2nd gully, Kevin and I decided to traverse completely across the gully and investigate the large cairn we noticed on the ascent at 12,900 feet. We thought this was the potential crossover point back into the first gully in Roach’s guidebook. Looking down into the first gully we could see there was a cliff-band a hundred feet down. Had I read Roach more closely, I would have known that this was “his” class 4 crux, but at this point I thought the tricky chimney we had downclimbed was “the” class 4 crux. We decided just to stick with what we knew for sure and continued down the 2nd gully to our original crossover point, where Jeff is in the photo below.
The descent down the 1st gully was much more pleasant and went pretty quickly. We made sure to mark the exit point of this gully on the ascent and it is shown in the photo below. The rock feature along the gully’s left side circled in the photo makes finding the exit pretty easy, it is just below it.
The traverse back along the east face to the rock glacier went quickly and the exposure didn’t seem nearly as bad as it did earlier in the morning. The weather was still holding so after the rock glacier we stopped to take a break and remove some layers. The descent down to Minnehaha Creek was relatively smooth except for that class 3 mud section. Once down to the creek I stopped to splash my face and neck to cool off. The water was ice cold and refreshing, it felt like heaven.
Refreshed, we descended down to Crater Lake, retrieving all the climbing gear we had stashed earlier in the morning. It was a quick stroll back down to Maroon Lake where we arrived at 3 p.m. for an 11-hour roundtrip. Once again, quite possibly the slowest roundtrip time on North Maroon, but we were just happy we made to the summit despite all the setbacks.
We knew we would be ahead of Matt and Steph by a few hours so we casually got cleaned up, changed clothes, and returned to Maroon Lake to take pictures and soak our feet in the lake. We befriended two teenage girls from Dallas who were waiting for their parents who fell way behind on their return hike from Buckskin Pass. The girls and me had a competition to see who could stand in the cold waters of Maroon Lake the longest. Being from Wyoming and bathing in water this cold at my parent’s cabin, I easily won. The clouds were getting dark and rain was imminent, so Amy and I took a quick drive to Aspen to get gas and something cold to drink. We met up again with Matt and Steph at 5:30 p.m., they had returned to Maroon Lake around 5 p.m. having hiked down from Crater Lake in a pretty bad storm. We were all starving so we went to La Cantina for some well-deserved Mexican food. Over dinner we talked and laughed about all our adventures and misadventures in Colorado’s Elk Range. It was a long and tiring day on the playground known as North Maroon. Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately, the rickety playground is still standing for climbers to play on tomorrow.