The time had finally arrived to attempt the Maroon Bells 14ers — North Maroon, South Maroon, and Pyramid. North Maroon and Pyramid were on the top of my most dreaded list, mainly due to rotten rock and high exposure. Roach’s description of North Maroon is enough to make my stomach squirm: “The route is complicated, loose, exposed, dangerous, and has often rendered a fatal experience. North Maroon is considered one of Colorado’s toughest Fourteeners, not because it has great technical difficulty, but because it is steep enough that any fall will probably be fatal, and the rock is pathologically rotten.” Not exactly a description that gets you excited for the climb. But that aside, we’ve been climbing hard and consistently the past two years, and I knew we were ready to take this on. Our plan was to ascend North Maroon and traverse to South, pending on weather. The traverse, one of 4 classic Colorado 14er traverses, would be even more difficult than the ascent, but by going from this direction, we would be able to rap the toughest sections and avoid the nasty North Maroon down climb.
Part one: North Maroon
So, on Friday August 16, we departed and made our way to Aspen. We arrived around supper time and hiked in about 1.75 miles to Crater lake and found a campsite right near the trail split to North Maroon. The next morning, we woke up around 4, and we were off by 4:30. We hiked the approach in the dark, and near the gully #1, our first obstacle, the horizon lightened up. Perfect timing.
The sunset was beautiful and we were treated to our first views of Pyramid, just across the valley. I was surprised at how high we already were.
After the gully #1, the most common route is to traverse up to gully #2, a steeper and narrower gully that leads the upper ridge. The traverse over was well marked and not as bad as I expected.
At gully #2, the route really steepened, and it was best just to keep your head down and momentum going up. There was a small trail however and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too bad, as long as I didn’t look down.
We made it up gully #2 quickly also, and before we knew it were near the saddle and ridge, leading to the upper mountain. Things were going smoothly and we were both feeling great. Linnea’s knee was also doing well and seems to be improving.
It felt slight surreal to be up so high and the lakes below looked small. From here, we would traverse some more and then ascend some very steep class 4 blocks.
Getting over the blocks required just a little nerve and was harder for Linnea with her short legs. This section was just a couple moves though and we were over it in no time. One note, although we did not descend this route, there is a rap station above the blocks, that I think would be the way to go. After this, we could see the route almost to the summit, tucked behind some other false, high points. Again, it wasn’t as bad as I expected, and you just had to choose your route carefully with the rotten, loose rock. No room for lackadaisical mistakes.
We finally saw our first mountain goat — standing on the summit. I had heard so many stories about how the goats in these mountains are ruthless and fearless and will run you right off the trail. This one made his way down straight for a collision path with us. I skirted around him, but Linnea wasn’t as lucky and they met right around a blind corner. I didn’t see everything that went down, but I did her Linnea yell really loud and then she appeared around the corner. If I were the goat, I would have been scared too.
At about 7:30a, we made it to the summit — about 3 hours. We were the first two up (a couple groups behind us) and had beat our goal of 8a.
I was relieved to have made it up so flawlessly and quickly, and the first thing on my agenda was to check out the traverse. While the exposure upped the intimidation factor, I could pick out the route and felt confident that weather was not an issue. We had brought all the necessary climbing gear, including a 30m rope for the rappels. There wasn’t much of a decision to be made and we both were all in. About 15 minutes later, we were off.
Part two: The Traverse
Right off the summit was the first, steep down climb. The exposure was high, but the route was obvious scrambling straight down to the Southwest.
Before we knew it, we were on the next exposed, narrow ridge. At this point, the traverse was on and I could look up at both summits looming overhead to my right and to my left.
While narrow, the ridge was easy to follow and we were both eager to get to the rap stations where the real excitement would begin.
We found the first rap station and it was quite obvious to pick out. There was a large, tall boulder for the anchor and webbing in good condition. Linnea set up the rope and took the first descent. I followed, and we both were loving it. This is what we were looking forward to, and it was a blast.
After the rap, we found another ridge leading slightly upward to the second, obvious rap station. From my research, this looked like the main rappel, and we quickly secured webbing around a large boulder for our anchor. You could probably down climb this section without a rope, but we decided it would be much more fun and safe with the rap.
Next, there was more ridge walking and we caught our breathe before the next downclimb.
We were able to stay high on the ridge and then skirted around and down. This was the most challenging part of the climb and required some very steep and exposed down climbs. We may have been able to set up another rap, but both felt confident without the rope and were able to find solid hand and foot holds.
Finally, we had made it through and were at the top of the Bell Chord! I took it all in and looked down the steep, narrow coliour that separates South and North Maroon Peaks.
The remainder of the route was ~300′ climb up to South Maroon Peak. This part was solid, sustained class 3. Not too difficult, but still no time to let your guard down. The route was dry and only once did I see some lingering graupel from an earlier storm.
By this point, I could feel the summit drawing us in and felt elated to have everything go so smoothly.
We topped out on South right at 10a — about 2 hours total on the traverse.
At the top, it was finally time to relax. There were a number of other climbers from the South side topping out also. We quickly wolfed down some Gatorade and gummy bears. Also, we got a text from Bruce letting us know that he was headed down to team up with us for Pyramid tomorrow. I made a very important phone call and asked Bruce to bring some fuel since we forget ours. I really wanted some warm food for supper. You have to love the phone reception on these 14ers.
Part three: South Maroon descent
Whew! by this time, the excitement was wearing off and we both wanted to get down and take a nap. I enjoyed some last views including Snowmass and Capitol.
We followed the ridge line down for a while and then cut down to the right. The route was busy and we quickly scrambled down some steeper areas to circumvent the madness.
I was a little concerned about going down a route that we had not ascended, but it was well marked and obvious. Climbing down the gullys was slightly taxing and we took this slow, making sure not to have any careless mistakes or knock rocks down.
After descending several more gullys, we traversed over to the lower ridge. I hadn’t read as much about this route and wasn’t too thrilled to see that we had a long descent ahead of us, back to the lake.
We opted to just descend directly down the face following an older trail. This turned out to be grueling and miserable, because the only thing I think we both cared about was to lay down and take a nap. We picked our way down though and eventually, the flat land was in sight.
I enjoyed a few last pictures of the Bell Chord from below, and it was hard to think that just a while ago I was standing above it.
Back at Crater Lake, it wasn’t quite time to collapse. We were flat out of water and had to resupply. I was parched and hungry too. What a day. It felt great to knock out both peaks and now we could focus on Pyramid for tomorrow. But for now, it was time to take a nap, saw some zees and relax.
*Special thanks to Bob Dawson for beta on the traverse.