What to Bring/ How to Get There
This classic climb is reached via the Maroon Bells trail head and Crater Lake. There is plenty of camping at Crater Lake, but make sure to get there early since it is first come first serve. To get on the Bell Cord, hike about a half mile past the lake to the talus runout below the couloir, then head straight up toward it. The couloir runs straight up the mountain and should be very easy to find. Climb around 1,800' of steepening snow to the notch between the Maroon Bells and enjoy. The angle is said to reach about 55 degrees in the upper 1/3, however on this trip the angle seemed around 45-50 degrees. Snow conditions will dictate the steepnes of the climb.
From the notch, follow the Maroon Ridge to South Maroon Peak (3rd-4th class) or North Maroon Peak (5.4ish crux) and descend the standard routes. Many claim that you can descend the couloir, but when snow is soft this is very dangerous due to rock fall and potential slides. The best time to hit the Bell Cord is late May - June, and to be on the couloir early in the morning.
An ice axe and some crampons are all that you need for this climb. Make sure to check conditions, but it is highly unlikely that you will need a second tool and it well help cut down some weight if you leave it behind!
For the past few weeks I have been struggling with trying to define the several niches of climbing. What does it really mean to ‘climb’? I am not really sure where this question came from and why it has been bugging me so much. When I started climbing, it all seemed so simple and it was hard for me to imagine how a sport climber could argue with a trad climber, or how an alpinist could argue with a big-wall junkie. When it boils down to it, it is all climbing, right!? Perhaps it was the constant reading of magazines like Rock and Ice that stressed the particulars of sport climbing, bouldering, alpine climbing or trad climbing that seemed to partition the entire sport. I soon began to question which niche was the hardest, which was the most extreme, and which led to the purest form of climbing. I focused all my energy and attention to sport climbing, for I had determined that it was the best way to become strong and was the most intense form of climbing. To me, the relatively short, (compared to multi-pitch trad routes) and powerful sequences with interesting body movement was the most beautiful form and only type of ‘real’ climbing that I wanted to do. Consequently I also ignored if not outright dismissed other forms of climbing as lesser. They all lacked something that sport climbing provided. In my free time I would begin arguments on SP or other mountain websites stating my feelings about ‘climbing’. I started large debates about semantics and undoubtedly fostered the creation of e-enemies. I was happy and infatuated with bolts, and no one could tell me otherwise.
As I was engorging myself with sport climbing, I had the offer to go climb the Maroon Bells with some of my good buds. We were going to go via the Bell Cord Couloir and finish the day with the S-N traverse. Andy, Jeff, and Brian all prefer this sort of climbing; not very technical, but heavy in endurance, altitude, and exposure. Usually some amount of snow is also involved. I had never been to the Elks, and had never seen the Maroon Bells, so I made the decision to go along. The promise of some low class 5 walls high up on the mountain also enticed me go, even though there weren’t any bolts involved! I had called my friend Steve, who I met while on my bolt-binge in Rifle, and the five of us drove to Aspen on the 22nd. After taking a few moments to enjoy the view from the trailhead, we took off and set up camp near Crater Lake and very close to the start of the Bell Cord.
We decided to get up early (3:45 a.m.) to avoid being on the couloir when it got soft in the sun. Some of my previous couloir experiences involved an avalanche and a large fall, so I was still a little hesitant to be on the snow, but knew that the others had a lot of experience and could guide me through any troubles. Even though the slope was not very steep (about 40-45°), I felt quite insecure with only my twenty points and ice axe. I tried some of the techniques that I had learned from Brian on the Emperor Couloir and watched the others carefully as they moved upwards. I gave just as much attention to where I placed my feet on the snow as to where I would place my feet on a sport route, and it seemed to be working fine. While the two where physically different, my mind functioned very similarly in that it had to focus and concentrate on the task at hand. Even at this point, while on a snow slope on the side of the Bells I was still thinking about rock and sport climbing!
The Bell Cord and South Maroon Peak
We made it half way up the couloir and took a water break. Jeff had been lagging behind and told us that he needed to turn around. He had tweaked his knee a few weeks before and it was feeling even worse now. The rest of us continued onward as the sun rose higher and higher. The upper portion of the Cord was much more runneled and scattered with rock debris than the terrain on the lower section. It was clear to me now why this was called the bowling alley and I wanted to be off of it soon before it became dangerous. Still a little freaked by the snow, we got to the top of the Bell Cord which exits in the saddle between the north and the south Bells and I had a sudden burst of energy (8:00 a.m.). That was awesome! I did it! I was excited that we had all made it and were now on rock, but was equally excited that I got such a rush and thrill from being on the couloir. It is true what they say, the times you are most scared in climbing are the times that you learn and grow the most.
After a short break we headed south and made it to the summit of South Maroon Peak in no time (9:00 a.m.). The few hundred feet of scrambling to the South Bell was really fun, although slightly awkward in heavy mountaineering boots. We enjoyed the summit while Andy told us about the traverse to the North Bell which we could now clearly see.
The traverse looked amazing. From afar it seemed that the North Bell was just a stack of loose rocks teetering on each other and about ready to fall over. Andy pointed out the crux wall and I became really excited.
The Traverse to the North Bell
We headed to the north and retraced our steps back to the exit of the Bell Cord. Soon we were on our way to the North Bell. For some reason I felt like a kid in a candy store, a candy store full of rock above 13,000 feet. Although only 4th class with the occasional 5th class move ,(something that I had been bashing because it was not ‘hard’ enough to be considered ‘real’ climbing), the traverse soon became really fascinating and fun. Somehow knowing that I was high up and on potentially unstable rock gave me just as much of a rush as if I were at a crux move on a sport line. The rock was not as bad as it appeared. It was very important to test the rock you were grabbing and placing your foot or hand on because there was a significant amount of loose material, but overall the rock quality was really good.
We continued and soon reached the crux of the traverse, a ~30 foot wall of 5.4ish climbing. I looked up and had to go, so I went first and reached the top. Looking down the climb I could see how a fall could end disastrously. Andy followed next, just as quickly and smoothly. Brian wished to be on belay for the climb, so we set up an anchor and threw down a line. Steve came up last and we all took a break to clean up the gear and get some food and water.
The rest of the traverse was as much exposed and technical as the previous part. After nearly three hours from leaving the summit of South Maroon Peak, we arrived at the slightly shorter North Bell a few minutes before noon. The view was breathtaking. Capitol and Snowmass Peaks were to the west and Pyramid Peak was to the east. There was just enough snow left on the surrounding Elks to highlight the ridges of each peak and give a sense of texture. The feeling of accomplishment was amazing and I could tell that everyone was quite happy to have made it to the top.
Unfortunately the down climb was a significant portion of the overall climb and it took nearly another four hours to navigate the loose talus, chimneys, and rock glacier before we arrived back at camp. [img:304451:aligncenter:medium:Beginning the descent from North Bell. A long way to go and some tricky 4th class downclimbs, but with little snow it went realtivey well.]
When we reached the trail just before the rock glacier I looked at the others, gave a quick thumbs up, and took off. I chugged along on my own, giving me some alone time to enjoy the scenery and contemplate the climb. It was during this time on the way down that I reached some sort of epiphany. I determined and convinced myself that climbing is actually a state of mind. Ok, this sounds a little crazy, and I was quite tired by this point, but think about it for a second. No Zen or hippy-Buddhist philosophy here, just the realization a commonality that all forms of climbing share. No matter what niche of climbing you fill or prefer, there is always a collaboration of body and mind to complete the task at hand. It is the unison of the physical and mental in the purest form. It is simply a connection of your mind, your body, and the rock (or ice.) It is true what they in the magazines; sport, trad, boudlering, and alpine climbing are all very different and require different techniques and gear. If you ask someone what they consider to be ‘climbing’ I am sure that you will get a multitude of responses, but I have a feeling that each climber will be having a similar experience with what they do. [img:304452:aligncenter:medium:The initial downclimb of North Maroon Bell looks like this for a while. Very chossy, make sure you pay attention where you place your feet]
What unifies all of these forms of climbing is how one approaches and handles the movements of the climb. For me there was no difference between being on a 5.11 route at Rifle and being on the Maroon Bells Traverse. Ok, there was a clear physical difference, but I handled both of them the same way, I just used different technique. I still prefer sport climbing and will probably spend a greater amount of time roped up on walls around Colorado, but when my friends are attempting a couloir or ridge somewhere high in the Rockies, I know that they will be feeling the same excitement and connection as I am. Perhaps I will join them occasionally when I become arrogant in order to remind myself that you can get just as much out of traversing a ridge as cranking hard on two crimpers.
[img:304393:aligncenter:medium:Parting shot, a goodbye to the Bells, for now.]