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Maroon Bells Traverse, Colorado


Trip Participants: Steve Doorn, Gina Pasquale, Mark Schraad, Sara, Brian, Anna, and Nora Scott, and Tasha the Aging Wolf Dog.

Despite a grim looking weather forecast and even grimmer looking weather, we headed out of White Rock on Friday morning to finally test our fates against the reportedly nasty, crumbly, and deadly rock of the Bells. As we drove through the heavy rain on our way to Aspen, I for one thought it might be a long drive for nothing, but we kept voicing our mantra: "the weather will be clear north of Poncha Pass". Things looked better as we approached the northern end of the San Luis valley, but the Arkansas was socked in with an occasional drizzle too. Once over Independence Pass, however, the views of small blue patches in the sky west of Aspen were encouraging. Our arrival at our campsite in the Silver Bell campground along the road to the Bells was greeted with sunshine and the warmest temperatures of the day. The weather only improved towards sunset. After a short visit to Maroon Lake to scope out our route and admire the huge beavers chewing aspens on the shore, we turned in, expecting to wake up at 3AM to clear skys and a successful climb.

1AM: We're woken by the sound of rain on the tent, making it impossible to get anymore sleep while we dread the possibility of being tent-bound for the rest of the weekend. At our 3AM wakeup, the rain has stopped long enough for us to become optimistic, but then it returns to send us back into our cozy sleeping bags. At 4AM it is again quiet and Brian convinces us to make a go of it. While eating breakfast, the rain returns but we decide we're committed (or should be at least). We reason that at least the day before, the rains never built into thunderstorms, so even if conditions aren't optimal it seems unlikely we'll get hit by lightning. Brian, Mark, and I (Steve) head up the trail at 4:45AM in a light drizzle that ended shortly after.

The route follows the established trail to Crater Lake and branches west towards Buckskin Pass at the northern tip of the lake. Around 10,700 feet a climber's trail is supposed to head south to Minnehaha Gulch. In the dark we got suckered into a trail that appeared lower (10,600) and headed down a nasty slope to an improbable looking crossing, so we bushwhacked further uphill until we found a more convincing place to cross. We then traversed south at the base of some cliffs along a very faint trail that sometimes disappeared and ultimately led to no-where. We backtracked a bit until we found a break in the cliffs that eventually led us upward to the large talus field beneath the main cliffs of North Maroon Peak. (In hindsite, the best route looked like it might go right up some steep grassy slopes near where we crossed the creek. These led to a trail that goes straight to the talus field--obvious from the summit, but not easy to find in twilight.) After crossing the talus field we did an ascending southerly traverse up grassy ledges to reach a point (at about 11,900) where we could cross over into an obvious large gully on the peak's east face. There is a well worn and easy to follow trail up this gulley. At about 12,400 we reached the base of an extensive white band of cliffs. We traversed left (south) at the base of these cliffs and rounded a corner with an exposed 3rd class move to bring us into a second gulley (again with a well worn trail) that led directly up to intersect the NE ridge at about 13,000. We then followed the ridge to the summit, sometimes directly on it, sometimes dropping below, but route finding never seemed to be a difficult problem. The climbing was surprisingly fun, with plenty of 3rd and 4th class moves to keep things interesting. The biggest surprise was that the rock was not nearly as scarey as we had anticipated and was actually plenty solid where you needed it most. Climbing up through the drifting clouds provided plenty of dramatic views down vertical slopes and steep gulleys. We arrived on the summit at 9:15 in the midst of the clouds.

After a quick munchy break we headed S-SW down a short "ridge" to a shallow chimney/gulley that led on to the connecting ridge between North and South Maroon peaks. Once below the chimney the clouds finally broke and we got our first clear glimpse of the traverse and South Maroon Pk. We followed the ridge south, weaving our way onto and off of the crest as the route went along. About 200-300 yards out we did the first of 2 rappels--this one a short 15 feet. (This rappel is not mentioned in any guides and is probably not absolutely necessary.) A short distance further we came to the traditional rappel spot--an abrupt 30 foot drop to the remainder of the ridge. About 100 more yards of traversing and downclimbing brought us to the low point of the traverse at the base of the final ascent to South Maroon. The traverse was a challenging scramble across 3rd and 4th class rock, interesting and a whole lot of fun. The final scramble to the summit was similar and wound up the north face of Maroon peak. Total time on the traverse was 2 hours.

We were able to enjoy a relaxing hour on the summit, given the now non-threatening poofy clouds floating past that never built into anything resembling a thunderhead. Great views of the Elks from Snowmass and Capitol on past Pyramid to Cathedral and Castle, especially fantastic with the low clouds playing among the peaks. After a leisurely lunch we headed south for the long (very long) descent back to the valley floor. The south ridge route off of Maroon Pk. rarely spends much time on the ridge itself, but goes along mainly below the ridge crest on the west side. The wayward intricate route is fairly easy to follow as it is very well cairned. We found the climbing less fun than on North Maroon and the traverse, as the rock seemed much more crumbly and loose, with not as much continuous scrambling. We followed the ridge to about 13,200 and then dropped rapidly on the grassy slopes to the valley floor, which we followed back to Crater and Maroon Lakes. Once back at camp, all thoughts of climbing Pyramid on Sunday quickly evaporated as we started to crave a good breakfast at the bakery/cafe in Aspen instead.

In summary, we thought the north-south traverse of the peaks was challenging, interesting and very enjoyable--probably one of the best (and hardest) 14'er climbs I've experienced. The rock is not quite as scarey as stories would have you believe, but care still needs to be taken to test all holds and make sure your feet are on stable ground--some of the exposure is in the 1000-2000 foot range. We obviously got lucky with the weather. If the clouds hadn't broken, route finding on the traverse and the descent down the south ridge would have been orders of magnitude more difficult. A great climb in a spectacular location!


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