Maroon Peak - 14,163 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,022 feet
Maroon Peak - 14,163 feet
North Maroon Peak - 14,022 feet
|Maroon Bells - South to North|
The Maroon Bells Traverse
11 hours roundtrip (car-to-car)
After a sweet sunset drive over Independence Pass, I arrived at the lower overnight lot around 9:30 PM. I laid my comforter out in the back, used my down sleeping bag as a pillow, and I was out by 10:00.
After a surprisingly solid 5 1/2 hours of sleep, I woke up, drove to the day use lot (gotta shave off those extra couple hundred yards!), and was on the trail by 4:25 AM. I happened to leave right when a group of about 10 others hit the trail. I managed to blend in as much as possible, fooling everyone into thinking I was hiking with them. Silly people. I ended up leaving the two groups around the Pyramid trail cutoff and didn't see another person for the next couple hours.
Being the intelligent person I am, I decided I could skip reading the first few paragraphs in the route descriptions for Maroon and North Maroon. Loose and steep, follow cairns... that's all I need to know - right? If I had just read the entire description, I would have known to not hike all the way to the bent tree. I mean, it's practically screaming at you on the route description if you just read it. Oh well... that's the price for being a slacker. If you do get that far, there is a small sign at the old trail cutoff that directs you back down the trail 1/4 mile. There is a BIG cairn at the new cutoff, so it's hard to miss.
CFI has done an excellent job so far on this newly constructed section of trail. You gain a lot of elevation relatively quickly but on a solid, well graded trail. I'm guessing it might only be 200-300' of vertical before the loose stuff commences, but every little bit helps. For what it's worth, the aptly-named "2,800' of Suck" can now sound ever so slightly less unpleasant as the "2,500' of Suck". I forced myself to push on uphill until I reached the sun basking down on the slope. I chilled for a little bit and ate a bomb breakfast consisting of plain Boulder Canyon potato chips with one of those Justin's Almond Butter pouches. Mmmmm.
By the time I was back on the trail, a group of three guys caught up with me. I more or less followed/hiked with them for the remainder of the route up Maroon Peak. The trail became progressively steeper and more dangerous as one nears the ridge. In the following picture we carefully picked our line on trail segments, constantly on the look out for falling rock. We had a couple small rocks head downhill, but nothing too eventful happened.
It's really refreshing to run into strong hikers/climbers that are all capable, have studied the route, talk together through route finding and decision making, and that simply know what they're doing. It was a pleasure following these guys and having a couple extra sets of eyes and a couple extra brains to help spot cairns, decide where to traverse along ledges, find the easier climbing, etc. This made the technical part along the South Ridge to the summit much more enjoyable and, in my opinion, much quicker. We made it from the saddle to the summit in an hour and 20 minutes.
I found that the main challenge on the South Ridge, at least in my opinion, was route finding. The terrain was never very difficult, and although you definitely need to be wary of rockfall, I didn't perceive the danger to be nearly as bad compared to the upper portions leading to the Ridge. While there was definitely some exposure in places, nothing really stood out to me as too scary. I would recommend carefully studying this portion of the climb and having an extra set of eyes to help with route finding.
We made it to the summit around 9:50 and were rewarded with some awesome views.
The four of us hung out, chatting and eating for about 20 minutes or so. I had a pound of sliced ham and threw back as much water as possible, preparing myself for the traverse. I knew it was a little late to start the traverse, and the light rain clouds to the northwest should have been a sign of things to come. However, I really wanted the traverse. After seeing it on top of Maroon Peak, I just couldn't resist. I mean look at that thing! It looked like way too much fun. I got onto 14ers.com while I still had service on the summit to gloss over a few details from the traverse that I had studied over the past week. Around 10:20 I dropped into the ridge and headed toward the Bell Cord.
I hauled it down to the Bell Cord on a relatively straightforward but broken trail. The only thing that made me slow down was the class 4 downclimb shortly after leaving the summit. I took a couple minutes to get down it, but I think I was psyching myself out more than I needed to. Climbing up this wouldn't be bad at all, but downclimbing was kind of tricky. This probably could have been avoided by hiking around, but I just wanted to take the most obvious route down as quickly as possible.
After climbing down and then back up above the Bell Cord, I rolled around to the left to find the first dihedral on the ascent up to North Maroon. I found this to be pretty easy climbing with surprisingly good foot and hand holds. Up to this point, I was making great time and was kind of surprised at how "easy" it was so far. I almost started getting a little overconfident. That didn't last long.
Somewhere after the first crux I got off route. I skirted around to the left, only to skirt back around a little and up to a wall, only to downclimb and go around to the other side of the ridge, just to come back around and stay closer to the ridge proper. The weather continued to build in the distance and the light rain clouds grew in height and area. Capitol and Snowmass to the north looked like they were about to get hit hard. My sense of urgency grew stronger and I started to get a little worried.
I had seen a single climber leave the South summit around the time I hit the first crux. He was now just below me, so I waited a couple minutes for him to catch up so that I could have someone else help with route finding. We found our way around the first confusing section I got stuck on, and then proceeded to find the third crux. He ascended the crack to the left and I chose the one on the right. This was definitely the most difficult, exposed climbing I've done unroped, but it was completely doable. There was one move in particular that I found pretty scary and difficult, but anyone with at least a little decent roped climbing experience should be fine.
The other lone climber and I didn't talk a lot during the 15 or so minutes we were on the traverse together. However, one thing he said to me has been burned into my head and I keep repeating it to myself. He heard my heavy breathing and I think he could sense my concern on the ridge. (paraphrased, I don't remember the exact wording) "One step at a time - every single step you take right now is the most important step of your life... for the next hour or so."
Most might find this to be a very simple, maybe even cliched line. However, for some reason that sunk in and hit home at that point in time. 'Quit thinking about the summit. Quit thinking about the rest of the ridge. Quit thinking about the weather building all around you. Quit thinking about how dumb it is to be on here right now - solo. Quit thinking about how sketchy this rock is. Quit thinking about finding the next obstacle or landmark ahead. Just concentrate on the step you are taking right now.' That is the only thing that matters, that is what is going to get me (hopefully) to where I want to go in the near future. But if I don't completely concentrate on what I'm doing at this moment - which is the only thing I can control right now - then I may very well die, as many do, with their minds set on something down the road while ignoring what's most important: right now! (yay, run-on sentences!) I tried to keep this in mind on the remainder of the traverse and the descent off North Maroon, and it helped significantly.
Anyway, enough with the touchy-feely stuff and back to reality. We arrived at another area where route finding was rather difficult. At one point we carefully scooted across this super exposed ledge and did a few moves to reach the origin of a steep couloir. ***NOTE*** If you see this ledge, you don't have to cross it!!!! By the time I reached the couloir, homeboy was already up and around the corner, so I didn't get a chance to see how he crossed it. I had to make a couple exposed moves to reach the south wall of the couloir, but there were a few more moves required to cross to the other side. I felt around for hand and footholds and scanned the rock for subsequent holds, but I couldn't figure anything out. The only thing I could imagine doing would be to lower yourself onto the super loose and steep rock at the top of the gully and hope that it didn't collapse on you before you could reach over to the more solid rock on the other side. This was the most sketched out I'd been all day, so I decided I'd just turn around and look for easier terrain. I went back to the ridge proper and found some much easier scree and class 3/4 terrain to ascend.
After this point, most of the remaining route was relatively straightforward. From a distance you could see the dude on North Maroon's summit, probably looking down and laughing at me I scampered onto the summit at 12:40, 2 hours and 20 minutes after departing Maroon Peak.
Right as I walked onto the summit I heard thunder for the first time all day. It sounded very distant, but I still knew I needed to hurry up and get off the mountain. I snapped a few pictures and was off the summit in no time.
Looking down on the trail from above made cairn finding much easier on the descent. There were a few brief class 3 and 4 sections to downclimb, but nothing too technical or scary.
I found the most difficult and dangerous part to be the gullies below the northeast ridge. At one point I stepped down onto a rock I thought wouldn't budge, only to discover otherwise and quickly reposition my foot onto the scree. All it took was that little step onto the rock and it took off downhill. Homeboy from the traverse was well below me so I shouted "ROCK!!!" as loud as possible. The projectile shattered several hundred feet below, but dislodged and sent off a bigger rock. Every couple seconds you could hear the rock bounce off the ground and fly through the air, like some glorified bouncy ball. I kept thinking it would eventually stop, but it just kept going. I shouted "ROCK!" as loud as I could a couple more times. I've seen sketchy rockfall before, but nothing like this. I can't imagine being below something like that, being completely unaware of what a party above you is doing, and all of a sudden having to turn around and locate a falling rock that you need to dodge in a split second. I saw the dude step out from behind a larger boulder, shout something at me, and continue on down the trail.
Not that I wasn't being careful and mindful of the loose rock before, but this little event put everything into perspective for me. Don't take any part of these mountains lightly - they are no joke. I bet that if a mere pebble had hit someone in that gully after gaining that kind of momentum they would have been dead immediately.
While the clouds in almost every direction were looking ugly, the weather actually held out for the entire descent. I heard thunder a few more times, but only once did it not sound like it was many, many miles away. Only a few drops of rain fell on me all day. By the time I made it down and around to the long talus fields, the sun came back out for a little while - just in time for some awesome shots of the remaining wildflowers.
I made it back to the day use lot just before 3:25, almost 11 hours after starting.
This was an amazing climb. Probably one of, if not my favorite, days in the mountains. Yeah, going up and down the scree fields suck. But at least you gain a lot of elevation quickly. Yeah, the rock is loose and dangerous. Yeah, route finding is super challenging. But if you love incredible views, super gnarly looking mountains, fun scrambling and climbing, and are well prepared, these mountains are unreal. As most of yall already know. This was so much fun that all I can think about now are tackling the other three Great Traverses...
I've probably read hundreds of trip reports since I started climbing these mountains, and I love getting different people's takes, opinions, and thoughts on different mountains, different parts of the climb, etc. I've learned sooo much from writers simply putting down these thoughts into words, so maybe my two cents will lend something that you can take away if contemplating these mountains.
A few thoughts and lessons learned:
- I found the most difficult aspect of South Maroon, and especially the traverse, to be route finding. There were a couple times on the traverse where I thought "no way is this the easiest way to get past this point!" but explored that way a little more. If you start thinking it's too difficult and sketchy to be the standard route, it probably is. I'd recommend going back closer to the ridge and looking closer for an easier route if you're uncomfortable on either side below the ridge.
- The rock on the traverse isn't great, but it isn't that bad. I found the rock on the standard trails for Maroon and North Maroon crappier than on most of the traverse. Definitely still test every hold, but from what I remember, the three crux sections of the traverse had pretty decent, relatively solid holds.
- The slopes up Maroon and North Maroon are ridiculous. Not impossible, not entirely miserable, but just ridiculously steep and loose. The ascent up the recently renamed "2,500' of Suck" will probably take up the largest portion of your climb. They also become progressively more dangerous as you get closer to gaining the ridge. Be careful on EVERY step you take onto a rock, even if you swear it looks like it won't move.
- I wouldn't do it from North to South unless you are a Billy Bada$$ ballin' climber. I can't imagine downclimbing the third crux, and there were several times along the way where I thought to myself "man, I'm glad I'm going up that and not down".
- The weather really held out for me, and I got extremely lucky. I absolutely cannot bear to think about how much more scary that climb would be with wet rock. I am cringing right now thinking about it.
- Don't take a single step for granted. Every one is important, even more so on mountains like these.
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