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The Maroon Bells are the iconic twin 14ers located in the middle of the Elk Mountains and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, between Aspen and Crested Butte. The view from Maroon Lake is world-renowned, highlighting some of the best features Colorado's mountains can offer. We had hoped to do these in 2020, but covid restrictions made getting permits impossible. With more time to prepare, we got permits for 2021 when they first became available in the early part of the year. We reserved three days, one for the Maroon Bells, one for nearby Pyramid Peak, and another in case of a rain delay. The weather would cooperate nicely this trip and we would need only the two days to complete them. Originally, my pal Eric was scheduled to join the three of us for these two days, but his faithful companion, Leroy, had died of cancer complications the previous week and he was unable to meet up with us. I would catch up with him in Steamboat Springs later in the week.
The combination of the Maroon Bells is described by Roach in his guidebook as a "classic" and "one of Colorado's four great 14er traverses," adding, "the rock is rotten and the traverse is dangerous," almost in the same breath. Together with its class 4 rating, it may give one pause to consider this is no walk in the park. We found it both exhilarating and not quite as dangerous as described, perhaps because we were used to the crappy rock that one finds most commonly in the Sierra Nevada. We would spend a bit under 9.5hrs on the 11mi effort with 5,500ft of gain, finding it one of the best outings either of us had yet done in the state.
Rising around 4a, we were at the Maroon Lake TH and starting out by 4:45a. The first half hour or so was by headlamp and we were surprised to see only a few other parties on the popular trail at this time. This was my first time hiking with Scott, and my first impression was that this guy hikes fast. He was out in the lead keeping a strong pace while I struggled and sweated just to keep from being dropped. It turns out this may have been nervousness on Scott's part, as we weren't at it more than about half an hour when Scott slowed dramatically and was soon out of sight behind us. Tom and I pulled up to wait for him, finding him dizzy and struggling to breathe when he finally caught up. The altitude may have played a part - since we were over 10,000ft and Scott had had no time to acclimatize before joining Tom and I. Our plans were suddenly looking very different as we waited to see if Scott could recover. One of the first things we did was ditch the rope and gear he was carrying - this had been primarily for Scott's use, since he had less experience on class 4 terrain, and right now it looked like there was little chance he'd get to South Maroon, let alone the traverse. At the time, I thought it would have been better for Scott to return back to the TH and call it a day, he looked that bad. But Scott is a stubborn one, and he wanted to press on, so we cautiously continued, albeit at a slower, more sustainable pace.
We turned left at a trail junction and reached Crater Lake after the first hour, continuing past it to hike south up the West Maroon Creek drainage. This was the easiest part of the day, gaining elevation only slowly as sunrise took hold on the surrounding mountain faces with nary a cloud in the sky. Half an hour past the lake we reached the unsigned junction for the South Ridge route to Maroon Peak (aka, South Maroon). Tom walked right past a conspicuous cairn marking the junction to which I commented, "Hey, don't we turn here?" We did. The rough trail wasn't all that bad, and not too difficult to follow. We lost it a few times, but would find it again without much trouble. The route is relentlessly steep, leading Tom and I to pause at intervals to let Scott catch up. Though not back to his pack-leading pace, he seemed to have mostly recovered from his early morning bonk, and was in good spirits. The dangerously loose rock we were warned about didn't seem to materialize as we followed the trail to the South Ridge. Various class 3 cliff bands that were to be encountered enroute were either missed or not challenging enough to notice.
Once at the South Ridge, the route becomes more involved, though basically following a cairned route, mostly along the west side of the ridge. There were three crappy scree gullies that needed to be climbed, connected by interesting ledges that traversed between gullies. There was some actual class 3 scrambling, but minimally so, and while the loose rock did materialize here, the dangerously so stuff didn't. It was 9:45a when we arrived atop Maroon South, having taken us 5hrs to do so - not as fast I had hoped, but still reasonable. Clouds had begun to form overhead, and we would need to consider potential weather before continuing further.
I spent only a moment at the highpoint, going over the other side and down a bit to get a good view of the route ahead between the two summits. It certainly looked exciting, but also not unreasonable. We met a young woman here, the only person we'd seen on our route all day. She had started an hour or two before us and said she had been considering the weather for the last 40min while she sat atop South Maroon. She said something like, "I think I need to get to North Maroon by 11a to avoid the weather, but I don't know if I could make that." I didn't think our party would reach it by 11a either, but I wasn't as sure about her hard deadline, so I simply commented, "I don't think you'll make it there by 11a," all the while planning for ourselves to continue. Scott had made it to South Maroon, his primary goal for the day, but without our rope and gear, he would have to consider doing without, same as Tom and I, if he wanted to continued. He asked Tom what he thought, to which Tom replied, "I don't think you should do it." Scott considered only a moment further before agreeing with Tom's assessment. I thought this a very mature decision on his part, actually acting on a more experienced friend's assessment, and my opinion of Scott instantly went up a notch - I would be happy to climb again with him in the future. I had considered inviting the young lady to join Tom and I on the traverse, but thought differently after Scott's decision. Scott was happy to have a companion to return back down the South Ridge route, and he would report later that having two sets of eyes was better than one, even though he had our GPX track on his phone that he could have referred to. We would rib Scott about his new girlfriend, Emily, for the next few days, and he seemed to take it good-naturedly. This wasn't the last we'd see of her, it turned out.
After making sure Scott was secure with his decision and confident he could find his way back, Tom and I set off on the traverse to North Maroon. The initial portion that drops about 350ft to the saddle between the two summit went fairly quickly, taking only about 15min. The slope drops moderately steeply down class 2-3 terrain, as we stuck to the east side of the crest for the quickest travel. There was nothing particularly difficult here, and not long after 10a we passed through the saddle. The route then grows increasingly interesting, and fun, too. We followed ducks along the west side of the crest until they returned us to the steepening ridgeline where the first class 4 section is encountered. There were two short vertical sections with good holds that were dispatched without much trouble. These might have been described as CA class 3. The ducks then lead back to the west side of the ridge where the day's crux is encountered only a few minutes later. We were presented with an intimidating, near-vertical face that stopped us in our tracks. I thought we might be off-route, but Tom quickly produced a picture from his phone that matched what we were looking at. Of three options, the two chimneys seemed the only viable options (for us), and the right chimney looked more difficult than I cared to do solo. The left-hand chimney seemed daunting at first sight too, but after sizing it up more closely, my confidence returned and I started up it. It took but a few minutes and I found the holds decent, but requiring care. I took my time ascending the 30-foot feature, then moved to the side to let Tom take a crack at it. This was not the usual CO class 4 that we could dismiss as CA class 3 - it would easily rate as low fifth class even in CA. Once we were both atop the chimney, we moved right on airy ledges and footing to the top of the right-hand chimney where ducks led us back north along the continuing ridgeline. The rest of the traverse went smoothly and more easily, and 20min past the chimney we were standing atop North Maroon, just after 11a. The clouds had increased overhead during the travese, but as yet potential rains were holding off. We were feeling more secure now that we had simply to get off this last summit.
Our descent route off North Maroon went down the standard Northeast Ridge route, class 4. Our guidebook describes it as "complicated, loose, exposed, and dangerous." Once again, we thought this overly dramatic. Though we were the only ones at the summit, we had seen others standing atop North Maroon during the traverse. We would catch up to one of these parties near the bottom of the route, but for the most part, we seemed to have the Maroon Bells to ourselves once again. We followed ducks down the NE Ridge proper for maybe a third of the distance, then dropped into the first of two broad gullies that we would have to descend. The traversing trail between the two gullies was easily spotted well before we reached it, as was the exit traverse for the lower gully. After about an hour and a half of our descent from the summit, we were surprised to find the good use trail suddenly give out on a huge moraine/boulder field found on the north side of the NE Ridge. Where was the 14er Initiative to make a safer route across this unwelcomed feature? A glance at our saved GPX track of the route told us to continue traversing to a grassy bench on the far side. There, we picked up the trail again, following it down through a lower moraine where crews had built a usable trail through it decades ago (I surmised that the original trail crew left the upper moraine for a future generation, but so far that trail-building effort has not been taken up). We passed by a waiting party in the boulder field (we had passed their flagging companion about five minutes earlier), then crossed the minor creek in Minnehaha Gulch to join the maintained trail descending from Buckskin Pass to Crater Lake. Once at Crater Lake, we still had another 30-40min to return to the TH at Maroon Lake, surprised (but shouldn't have been) to find hundreds of folks hiking the trail between the two lakes. There were so many folks that keeping our pace was a challenge, and we were constantly plotting where to pass others most expediently.
It was after 2p by the time we returned to the parking lot where we found Scott, having arrived about 40min before us. After a suitable break for a celebration beer, we drove back down to our other vehicles, showered, and then headed to Aspen for a meal that we didn't much mind being overpriced - it had been a good day, and we deserved the reward...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Maroon Peak - North Maroon Peak
This page last updated: Sat Aug 27 14:05:37 2022
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