Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Maroon Bells Experience

Maroon Peak 14,156'

North Maroon Peak 14,016'

S > N Traverse,  from Maroon Lake

~14.5 miles, 5500'

This report is dedicated to Lenny Joyner and Derek Kelley, who's lives tragically ended on North Maroon Peak this year. Rest in peace, brothers.

Photo Credits: All photos are property of me, unless noted. Photos owned by Matt Jerousek (MJ) or Scott Lowery (SL) are noted and used with permission.

We started at ~6PM Saturday with a throng of tourists at Maroon Lake. It's an interesting mix of beautiful scenery, loop hikers, peak baggers, and RV dwellers. It's easy to see the impact of the heavy use the area experiences. As we hiked beyond the lake, we still regularly encountered groups of people along the way. Two people stopped us to ask what the helmets were for.

Lots of well-made signs near the parking lots.

Ducks (SL)

The classic view of the Maroon Bells, with the challenging afternoon light

Pyramid Peak from Maroon Lake

Cool looking scenery by Maroon Lake (SL)

Another Bells shot (SL)

The infamous "Deadly Bells" sign

This sign is a little bit ridiculous for a number of reasons

Pyramid Peak's summit peeks out above the amphitheater (SL)

Pyramid Peak and the Bells (SL)

Hiking up from Maroon Lake (MJ)

Headin' on up (MJ)

Fall Colors near Crater Lake
Near (what usually is) Crater Lake, Looking up at N. Maroon. (MJ)
North Maroon Peak was big, bold, and intimidating from this angle. It was hard for us to fathom that our route tomorrow would take us down such a steep and loose-looking face. As the sun went behind the mountains, the temperature rapidly dropped. We hurried along, looking for a place to rack out before it got completely dark. Finally, we settled on a spot close to the S Maroon peak turnoff.

In the dying light, we consumed our Subway sandwhiches and contemplated the climb to come. We racked out around 9PM, setting alarms for 4 AM.

In the morning we got up at 4AM, but took our time getting started for some reason, so we didn't hit the trail until just before 5AM. Still, it was quite chilly and pitch black as we started out. Luckily, we knew where the turn-off was ahead of time.

Hiking in the dark- about 5:15 AM

Sunrise over the Elks

Sunrise higher up
We reached the ridge crest in one hour, 45 minutes (MJ)
Class 3 climbing starts soon afterward (MJ)

Looking back down the same point

A look at the route ahead (MJ)

Lots of great places to stop and enjoy the view

Typical conditions found on traversing sections- not too bad.
Ledgy terrain nearing the summit (MJ)

Steep terrain and loose rocks near the summit (MJ)
Matt tops out in the gulley to check out the view (SL)

Wide open spaces on a ledge


Matt pushing for the summit on the ridge crest (SL)

Scoping out the traverse route on the summit of Maroon Peak
Hagerman, Snowmass Mt., Capitol Peak, Mt. Daley (L to R) (SL)

North Maroon Peak from Maroon Peak
Summit photo on Maroon Peak

Panorama from Maroon Peak Summit
Pano: Snowmass Mt, Capitol Peak, and North Maroon Peak- splendor of the Elks

And here we were, on the summit of Maroon Peak. Wonderful weather, making good time, feeling well. And yet, a sense of unease sat in our stomachs. Looking at the traverse did not ease our tension, it only reaffirmed our anxieties. Matt stated that the traverse was optional, and he would be happy to turn around and head home the way we came. But conditions were perfect and we were prepared, so we decided to go for it.  Thus began the traverse to North Maroon Peak.

Coming down off Maroon Peak, there is immediate exposure and loose rock (MJ)
Climbing down to the saddle

 Downclimb bypass: Looking back up at the entrance.

The class 2 bypass wraps around on some narrow but easy ledges
Getting down to the Bell Cord was a little more challenging than we anticipated. You can downclimb some class 4 or take the loose class 2 bypass. I recommend the bypass, but you can do what you like. The first difficulty starts as soon as you reach the Bell Cord.

Matt Climbing 1st Difficulty (SL)

"First Difficulty", not too bad  (MJ)

The rock was solid and the exposure was moderate

Climbing up immediately following "First Difficulty"
My opinion on the "1st Difficulty": If you've made it this far, it's pretty easy, not a big deal. The exposure isn't extreme here either, which adds to your comfort level.
This crazy pilot buzzed us a couple times as we clung to the catwalk area

Approaching "2nd Difficulty" bypassing the ridge crest to the right (MJ)

Just underneath the crux of the 2nd difficulty (SL)

Looking up from halfway- at least the rock is solid (SL)
My opinion on the 2nd difficulty: There's a section of moderate class 3 that composes the first half of this section. The exposure is there, for sure. About halfway up, there appeared to us to be no "easy" way to progress upwards. I ended up making 1 or 2 moves of low 5th class to pass this section, and then it was class 4 max after that to the top. The one move was fairly tough, and took some contemplation before I attempted it. This section is by far the largest stretch of climbing.

Scott navigating the crux section
Matt climbs above dizzying exposure on the 2nd crux (SL)
Third difficulty (SL)
At the third difficulty we got jammed up. There is no obvious route and the easiest ways at first are overhanging and / or awkward at the top. Several groups passed us. We examined this route from many angles, the possible ways to go. The first chimney had a really awkward overhang near the top. The 2nd was long and incredibly steep. For us, this was the crux of the traverse.  Further time was wasted when someone pushed in front of me to climb the 2nd chimney, forcing my partners to wait at the top. He kicked a bunch of rocks down, and then didn't say anything when he cleared it. Thanks, dude. Thankfully, my partners were patient. Scott climbed the 2nd chimney, and then did an exposed traverse climbers right to the top of the 1st chimney and up- this is the way I went. In hindsight, being able to climb without a backpack would have made it a little easier.

Scott working his way up the 2nd chimney. The beginning was tough. (MJ)

The "leap of faith" (MJ)
After the crux it was mostly easy going. There was a small "leap of faith" and a bypassable wall to contend with. The speed picked up and the anticipation was there. The final slope to the N Maroon summit looked intimidating, but was really simple after the previous climbing.

This was tough, but bypassable to the right (SL)
The final section of the traverse (SL)
Dramatic exposure near the end
Summiting North Maroon (MJ)
Excited, but still nervous, about our progress so far (MJ)

Looking back on the traverse from Maroon Peak

Panorama- Snowmass, Capital, Pyramid

Pyramid Peak- looks intimidating, to say the least.
Blocky class 3 right near the top (MJ)

Descending near the top of N Maroon. The sense of scale was tremendous. (MJ)
Scott on the "diving board" below the summit

This part (2nd Gully) was loose and surprisingly steep
Looking down toward the crossover hundreds of feet below us. (SL)


Crossing over to the first gully- this is easy to see
The crossover is pretty big and obvious once you get there (SL)
Looking back at Maroon Peak

Crossing out of the first gully near the rock glacier (SL)
Looking toward Pyramid from treeline (SL)

Back in the trees below North Maroon (SL)

Finally down from North Maroon, now we have to go back up nearly 2 miles to retreive our tents

Crater mud puddle on the right

Fortunately, it's a nice place to be exhausted


Nice place for a hike!

Early fall splendor

Parting shot of a great place (SL)

Back to the truck, nearly 11 hours after we set out in the morning.
The Maroon Bells / Snowmass wilderness offers amazing and wonderful vistas, challenging climbing, and unique terrain. This is a very special place, the importance of protecting cannot be dismissed.  From the beginning to the end, we were enthralled with the compelling terrain and beautiful weather. We feel fortunate to have completed the traverse safely, but we also want to recongnize the unfortunate and untimely accidents that happened this year on North Maroon Peak.  Rest in peace, Lenny Joyner. Rest in peace, Derek Kelley. May your family and friends find peace and comfort after their tragic loss.

Special thanks to my partners Scott and Matt for being patient, enthusiastic, and perpetually positive on this whole trip. Thank you for being safety concious and looking out for everyone's well being. Fine partners and fine people for any adventure you might have in life.