Having failed at achieving the summit of Maroon Peak nearly 5 years ago (due to inexperience/ignorance), I had always vowed to go back with a strong hiking partner and achieve what I couldn't before.
So, with the 4th of July weekend coming up and the great weather forecast, on a whim, I found a last minute room still available in Aspen for the weekend and headed out over Independence Pass. We arrived late, but awoke without issue and were at the trailhead by 4:30a, later than intended, but we were feeling strong and headed out.
The trail was a little harder to follow in the dark than I expected. With all the forks and turn offs for the camp sites, we easily got misled and took some wrong turns. However, if you pay more attention, it is easy to follow the correct trail, we were just chatting and with the headlamps, failed to see the more obvious path at times. When we arrived at Crater Lake the sky started to lighten and we were treated to some beautiful reflections in the Lake, but we were behind schedule and could only appreciate them for a mere moment before continuing on.
My memory served me right after 5 years and we were able to find the faint turn off for the 2,800 foot ascent up to the ridge. The trail, although steep was easy enough to follow, but we lost it when it went under a large patch of snow and we just made a beeline towards the ridge. Unfortunately, we headed too far NW instead of slightly SW and hit the ridge in a bad spot. We headed up a long gully that, from a distance, looked like the easiest way to proceed...it wasn't. The gully was steep and chock full of sharp rotten rock. It was fun at times, but frustrating, painful, and tiring at others. I got so tired of scraping and cutting my legs on the rocks, but I kept my thoughts on my goal and continued to make progress. Occasionally, I thought I was stuck with no where to go...no solid hand holds or foot holds, everything was either loose or breaking off in my hand, but eventually, something would work out for me and I was able to proceed. Finally, all hopes were dashed of making the ridge when we looked up and realized we were boxed in by cliffs and the only option was back down the gully. So, we made the long exit out of the gully and headed South to find a better place to get on the ridge, but it was getting too late in the morning and after much debate, called it quits and headed back to the car.
We had a fine meal in town, soaked in the hot tub provided by our hotel, and called it a night.
After much discussion on what we did wrong, we decided to hit it again 2 days later. So, Tuesday morning (7/5), we were back at the trailhead at 3:40a and headed off. We made far fewer mistakes this time in following the trail in the dark and started up the ridge at the correct locale. This time we did not get boxed in, but the unrelenting slopes, rotten rock, and the frustrating venture from Sunday darkened my mental mood and I slowed down on my ascent.
We made the ridge and our spirits lifted. The views on the other side of the ridge were incredible and were reward enough for the long haul up. The trail was infinitely easier on the ridge...intially, but that soon changed. Route finding (as has been discussed to death on this topic) was challenging. The cairns are there, but some are quite small. We made fairly good time and progress on the ridge, but then we hit snow across a few sections of trail. The snow was deep, on a steep slope, and melting. After hearing of all the slides over the past few weeks, we were nervous about crossing them so, we headed around as much as possible...which wasn't always easy. There were some moves we had to make that challenged my comfort level, but John talked me through it and I eventually made it.
We finally got within 0.16 mi from the summit (as the crow flies or as GPS called it) and we hit significant snow across the trail again. The only route up we saw was off a ledge, up a 9-10' vertical section of rock wall. The wall had plenty of hand and foot holds, but one false move and one was most likely going to bounce off the ledge and slide down a steep section of snow, ending in a bed of sharp rocks. All I kept thinking about was my 8 year old daughter and with my dark mood, decided I wasn't in the mental state to attempt it. So, I stayed behind while John headed off towards the summit. I was disappointed and after a few minutes scrambled to follow, but after making a few moves, I looked down the steep slope, thought of my daughter, and realized I REALLY wasn't in the right spirit.
I hung out on the ledge...with very little to do. I cut my nails, reorganized and memorized the contents of my backpack, and eventually put on all my winter clothes (as I got cold sitting there). I figured it would take John ~1 hour to return, but wondered what I would do if he got injured up there. We didn't have walkie talkies so, given all the time I had to think, I devised a plan. Plan A was to buy walkie talkies next time, plan B was to wait 1 hour, then hike up to a nearby high point and see if I could see John and if not, wait another hour or 2. Not a great plan, but it was the best I could come up with. My ingenius plan was all for not though, John returned with 5 minutes to spare on his hour window and we headed back across the ridge.
When we hit one of the snow sections on the return, I decided to try another route that would require more comfortable maneuvers for my abilities. Turns out I should have followed John. My route got me in a precarious spot...which caused John to have to wait quite awhile, which resulted in some unpleasant exchanges. He had a point, my route finding was slowing us down and the clouds were starting to build. Nonetheless, I asked that he use more tactful language in "suggesting" I follow his lead.... :)
The rest of the journey down was fairly uneventful, we both got scraped up some more, I got bit by a couple of ants that crawled up my shorts, and we both fell a lot.
I learned some valuable lessons on Tuesday about how important a positive attitude can be in these situations. I had the physical stamina, and normally do "ok" on the class 3 rock climbing stuff, but the mental part is what hurt me the most. The occasional wave of anxiety and subtle fear of death can really take its toll and make one question why the heck they're there.
So, as I sit, dabbing Neosporin on my battered legs and writing this trip report, I sorely lament a few aspects of my trek up this mountain...but I still have some good memories of the attempts and visions of returning to make the summit one day...perhaps in August after the snow melts.