Most of the thumbnails accompanying this trip report are recycled from other people's photos. There was no need to post most of my photos from the trip because they're mostly duplicates. If you really want to see the photos I shot you can visit my web site.
When alana (aka Alan) started the summitpost.org message board thread about climbing the Maroon Bells I was really excited. Despite living in Colorado all my life I'd never been to Aspen or the Elk Range. Visiting the Elks at least once during the 2005 season was a priority for me and tackling the challenging Maroon Bells traverse with an experienced partner like Alan sounded like the perfect way to do it. vanny37 (aka Chris) also responded to the thread and the three of us agreed to meet in Aspen Friday evening.
I cut out of work early Friday and Alan swung by to pick me up a little after 14:00. Traffic was horrible on the way into the mountains - it seemed like everyone on the Front Range was heading into the hills too. When we finally pulled off I70 at Copper Mountain the traffic eased and the run over Freemont Pass and Independence Pass into Aspen went smoothly. We pulled into Aspen a little after 19:00 and met Chris for dinner at a barbeque joint called Hickory House. I had a giant plate of shredded barbeque pork which tasted great but didn't sit too well in my stomach. Over dinner we finalized on the south-to-north traverse and thus decided to leave the rope, rack, and harnesses in the car.
After dinner we headed up to the trailhead, sorted out gear, and began the hike up to Crater Lake at about 21:00. An hour later we had located a good place for a bivy and arranged our gear for an early start the next morning. By 22:20 we were all tucked in and off to sleep.
My alarm went off at 3:15 and I snoozed once before rising at 3:30. Chris and Alan were also stirring and we all got our stuff together and ready to head out. After gearing up for the hike we found a place to ditch our bivy stuff and were hiking south by 3:50.
As we hiked south we caught and passed another pair of hikers who were headed for Maroon Peak. We only had one difficulty staying on the trail where it crossed a small stream, but after that it was smooth sailing up the trail to the "bent tree" Alan had told us about. A hundred feet or so past the "bent tree" we found the climbers trail heading up Maroon Peak's South Ridge. During the early morning my stomach wasn't feeling so great and I could feel it churning away on that giant plate of barbeque pork. At times I thought tossing my cookies was imminent, but it never came to that.
The climbers trail climbed steeply away from the valley and soon we were huffing and puffing. We did our best to stay on the trail but lost it only a couple hundred vertical feet above the valley. This caused us a couple of short bouts of severe bushwhacking - once through a patch of chest-deep pine shrubs, and once through a section of chest-deep willows. After clearing the willows we were on tundra and it was simply a matter of gaining elevation. By this time my stomach seemed to have gotten the better of my pork dinner and I didn't fear the imminent hurl anymore. In fact - I felt pretty good.
As we ascended the tundra we debated which way to go. Alan was for angling to the south a bit to attain the ridge at a lower elevation. Chris and I were for continuing straight up to gain the ridge directly over our heads. During one of our rest breaks we decided to break out the maps, GPS, and route descriptions to decide. While we had been ascended the tundra we could see the headlamps of the pair of climbers we had passed earlier. They were a bit to the north of us so I concluded that the trail must be out there somewhere. While Chris and Alan studied maps I wandered a bit to the north. Only about a hundred feet from where we rested I found the faint climbers trail switchbacking its way up the slope.
We gladly got back on the trail and continued upward. It was difficult to judge distance without anything besides rock and tundra to provided perspective and the ascent seemed to take forever. Eventually the climbers trail dissolved into talus and scree. We were left to find the path of least resistance and we finally reached the ridge crest at 8:00.
At over 4 hours from Crater Lake to the ridge crest I was concerned that we were moving way too slowly to have success on the traverse. Our goal was to reach the summit of South Maroon Peak by 10:00 but I wasn't so sure that was possible anymore based on our seemingly slow pace so far. After a quick snack break and a clothing adjustment we continued on. On the west side we were in the shade and thus put on warmer cloths. However, my light polypro thermal underwear top was more than enough to keep me warm. The skies in all directions were 100% clear and it looked like the weather for the day would be optimal.
We had all read multiple route descriptions and multiple trip reports, but nothing we read really prepared us for the route finding on the Maroon Bells (and several route descriptions said as much). We looked for cairns and traversed the ridge on the west side of the crest. Essentially, the route was class three horizontal scrambling across the west side of the ridge broken by short ascents up talus gullies. There was one short section of steep snow that was a bit hairy to traverse without an iceaxe, but otherwise the only challenge was route finding. For each gully we encountered we were faced with the question: "How far to ascend before exiting?" Several route descriptions characterized the gullies as "dangerously loose" and we needed to exit them as soon as possible. There were cairns galore and many, many options so we opted to exit the gullies sooner rather than later.
At about this time we were caught by several groups of climbers. The first was the fellow we had passed on the trail earlier in the morning. He had left his much slower partner at the spot where they had achieved the ridge - apparently she had had enough (which seems like a real shame because the fun only began at the ridge crest). The second was a solo hiker who also passed us at about the same time. The third was a group of three climbers who had ascended the Southeast Couloir. All of these climbers took different paths and it didn't seem to matter much one way or the other. Finally we reached the gully that separates South Maroon Peak from UR 13,753. All the other climbers had taken much higher paths so we ascended straight up the gully and then veered a little to the left to continue upward. Soon we attained the ridge crest and could see that the summit was only a couple hundred feet away. A few minutes later Chris, Alan, and I were on the summit. I looked at my watch to see that it was 10:00 - we were exactly on schedule and my concern about our slowness evaporated. Furthermore the skies where completely cloudless - perfect conditions for the traverse!
We took a well deserved break to eat and enjoy the views. Snowmass and Capitol were especially beautiful and North Maroon Peak looked so close you could almost reach out and touch it. We could easily discern climbers on its summit enjoying their views. We chatted a bit with the other groups of climbers. The group who had come up the Southeast Couloir was going for the traverse and said they had done it before. The solo hiker hadn't planned on making the traverse, but with the six of us doing it he changed his mind.
The group of three who had done the traverse before set off down the north side of South Maroon Peak and we fallowed close behind, leaving the summit at 10:20. The descent of South Maroon Peak was relatively easy - there were only two tricky spots. The first was a short class 5 downclimb with minimal hand and footholds. When the holds ran out I was still a few feet off the ground and had to just drop the rest of the way to ledge below it. Under normal circumstance this would have been no big deal. However, with thousands of feet of exposure it was a bit exciting. I spotted Chris and Alan down this and then we continued down. The next tricky section was 30-foot chimney downclimb. Its difficulty probably never exceeded class 4 but it was pretty sustained. The chimney was probably avoidable with better route finding on the west side of the ridge, but the short drop probably wasn't.
When we got to the bottom of the chimney we were at the low point between the Bells, and at the top of the Bell Cord Couloir. It appeared that the first crux of the traverse occurred immediately after the bottom of the saddle. I hustled to catch up with the group of climbers ahead of us so I could see what path they took. However, once I got close to the apparent crux I found it much easier than I expected. It was mostly class 4 with a short section of easy class 5 moves. The challenging part was less than 15 feet high and not really that bad. There was pair of slings at the top with a rappel ring in them but it seemed kind of silly and definitely not worth the trouble to rappel.
After the first crux we climbed onward and soon achieved the ridge crest. From this point we could see the next crux and it looked significantly more challenging than the first. There was lots of class 3 scrambling between us and the next crux and we stayed mostly on the ridge crest, dropping onto the west side occasionally.
As we neared the crux I made another conscious effort to close the gap between us and the group of climbers we'd been following. Again, I wanted to take careful note of their path up the difficulties. It was clear to me that this section was going to be much more challenging. It was a little more sustained than the previous crux, it was more exposed, and the moves were more difficult. I watched the climbers ahead of me complete it and then it was my turn. The true difficulties were about a 15-foot section of sustained class 5 climbing - I'd say in the 5.3-5.4 range. The section was vertical (if not slightly overhanging) and the moves a bit awkward, especially with a backpack and hiking boots. A fall here would have probably meant game over - SAR would be scraping your body up off the rocks on the valley floor three thousand feet below.
After I completed the difficult section I turned around to snap some photos of Alan completing the moves. When Alan was done I continued upward a few feet onto the ridge crest to get out of his way. On the ridge crest we encountered a trio of climbers working on the north-to-south traverse. One of them recognized Alan and asked if we were from summitpost.org. It must have been all the photo taking that gave us away! We told him we were and asked who he was. He said he was a lurker and didn't provide any additional information. (Later I ascertained that he was either fellow summitpost.org member jjust (aka James Just) or James' partner Mark. It's too bad I didn't know it at the time because I would have liked to introduce myself and chat with James a bit.)
I felt really good after all three of us had successfully completed the crux. We had survived all the major difficulties with flying colors and we were nearing the summit of North Maroon Peak. Although I felt that a rappel was unnecessary on the first crux we encountered, I definitely would have rappelled the second one had we chosen to go north-to-south. We continued along the ridge crest until we caught up with the climbers ahead of us. They became stymied by a narrow ledge on the east side of the ridge. After searching for a way past they concluded they'd made a mistake and we should have been on the ridge crest. This was the only route finding mistake they made the whole traverse - quite impressive. It was really nice to have been able to follow them the whole way and this was definitely the cause of our rapid progress on the traverse.
Back on the ridge crest we closed in on the summit of North Maroon Peak. The ridge ended a couple hundred feet below the summit and after a bit of class 4 scrambling Chris, Alan, and I were on the top of North Maroon Peak at 12:20 - only 2 hours after leaving the summit of South Maroon Peak. Had we not been following the experienced climbers ahead of us I think it might haven taken us as much as another hour to make the traverse. The skies were still nearly cloudless and we took our time resting, snacking, chatting, and enjoying the summit views.
Thoroughly rested, we departed the summit at 12:50. The first section of the descent was pretty straightforward and we stayed on or near the ridge proper as we rapidly lost a few hundred feet in elevation. After a couple of trickier downclimbs and several hundred feet more we found ourselves entering a gully. The nice big rocks we had been descending down turned to scree and dirt. This was steep, very loose, and required even more concentration than descending the rock. The group of climbers that we had been following across the traverse caught and passed us. We followed them and continued the rapid loss of elevation.
The descent really brought home how massive these mountains are and how straight up and down they were. It felt like we were descending straight down, yet it seemed like we were making very little visual progress toward the valley floor. After an hour of descending straight down it looked like we were no closer to the valley than when we had started. It was really quite eye-opening.
Although Roach's description describes two gullies, it felt like one long gully going down and I was never conscious of switching gullies. After a while we reached the 50-foot cliff band and the class 4 downclimb. This was a bit challenging, but not any worse than the other downclimbs we'd already performed. Soon after Alan, Chris and I successfully negotiated the crux of the descent the group of hikers we'd been following dislodged a huge rock. It was probably the size of a big television and it started moving slowly. We watched it roll in slow motion, totally expecting it to slide to a stop at any moment. Instead, it seemed to gain momentum all of a sudden. It rapidly gained speed and began to take 20-foot leaps into the air. It was quite amazing to watch something that had to weigh more than a thousand pounds fly through the air like that. It was really scary to watch, yet thrilling at the same time. The rock dislodged a few other large rocks and we watched them tumble down the gully, bouncing through the air, and finally out of sight. During the process the guy who had dislodged the rock repeatedly yelled "rock" as loud as he could and we all fervently hoped that there was nobody below. Being on the receiving end of that would have been unpleasant.
Upon catching our breath after that experience we continued downward. By this time the arduous descent was taking its toll on our legs. Mine were really tiring and I'm sure Alan's and Chris's were in a similar state. Our pace began to slow and the group of climbers below pulled away. A short while later I became aware that we were being watched - a mountain goat perched on the rib to our south observed our descent. I pointed him out to Chris and we were able to snap a few photos before the goat lost interest and retreated back around the rib.
Eventually we reached the point where the trail exited the gully and traversed below a cliff band to the rock glacier below North Maroon Peak's North Face. We took the opportunity to rest our weary legs and have a snack. The push across the rock glacier went quickly and soon we were on the other side. We stopped beside a small stream and I rinsed my head and arms in the water. It was ice-cold and felt great. After this final break and the rejuvenating affects of the cold water we were ready to press on toward Crater Lake to pick up our bivy supplies.
I assumed that since we were back on a fairly well-worn trail that the rest of the going would be easy, but this wasn't the case. The trail continued to descend steeply. On top of this it was really muddy and we were slipping and sliding all over the place. I was getting really frustrated continually falling on my ass and getting myself all muddy. Finally we arrived down at Minnehaha Creek where we crossed a snow bridge. It was nice to be able to cross the creek on a snow bridge because I imagine that fording the creek without it would be a real nuisance. Back on a well-maintained trail we made quick work back to Crater Lake where we'd stashed our stuff, arriving at 16:40.
We took another short break to enjoy our accomplishment and pack up our stuff for the hike back to the car. It took us another 45 minutes or so to get back to Maroon Lake where we all had to stop and take the standard photo of the Bells. During the last 15 minutes of the hike out it rained on us a bit, but I welcomed the refreshing affect of the raindrops on my smelly, sweaty body.
Back at the parking lot we washed up a bit, changed cloths, and then headed into Aspen for some dinner. Chris had spotted a little tavern while he'd been waiting for us on Friday so we headed there. My steak sandwich and beer tasted great and after a nice dinner Alan and I said our farewells to Chris and headed for Fort Collins. The drive home was uneventful with minimal traffic and I was proud of myself for staying awake to keep Alan company. Alan dropped me off at home at 23:30. I was totally beat but thrilled with my first excursion into the Elks. I saw a new part of the state, notched a couple more 14ers off my list, succeeded on a challenging route, and met two more summitpost.org members. Not a bad way to spend the weekend!