2:45am, an ungodly hour, but it's the Bells Traverse so the time has come to get up. Layne Bracy and Keith show up just after 3am, some quick introductions, a final gear check, and it's time to hit the trail.
We start down the main trail from Maroon Lake at 3:13am into the vast unknown with only the darkness as a guide. I'd never done a hike before where I hiked for hours in the dark so the beginning of this exercise was extremely interesting to me. Being a pre-dawn rookie hiker, I was not the most graceful of people hiking in our group. My next half-hour was spent half-tripping, stumbling, and kicking what seemed to be every rock on the trail.
The intersection with the West Maroon Trail was reached soon enough and our group veered to the left down this smoother(thank goodness!) trail. We quickly passed the Crater Lake campsites and I believe we were quiet enough not to wake a single person. Our outing continued without incident until my headlamp went out. No problem, I'll just walk a foot behind Layne and use his light to guide me. Within five minutes, we venture past this bush. It is 6-7 feet cubed and there is something, maybe something big, inside it because the bush is shaking. While the culprit was probably a squirrel, raccoon, or one of the many deer I saw in the area during the past 12 hours, we decided not the wait around for a bear or mountain lion to present itself. Needless to say, the next 10-15 minutes was a nervous time, especially for the lucky person walking in the back with a burnt out headlight.
At 4:45am, after another half-hour of hiking, we reached the infamous bent tree. It was not what I was expecting to encounter. Here we took a brief rest before beginning our trek skyward.
1 mile and 2800 vertical feet, not a comfortable idea, one made worse by the start of the climb. A short cliff, 5-7 feet high but it made me take notice that, hey, this could really blow. After regrouping, we started upwards, slowly but surely. A few minutes of hiking, a short stop to catch your breath......this was our pattern for the next hour. Slowly but surely we began to make some kind of progress yet the(correct) route Layne was leading us on bothered me because we were getting further and further away from I wanted us to go. Halfway up the slope, the sun came out to greet us. Its warmth was more than welcome. After another half-hour of going up and left, we finally made it to bottom of the south ridge. The change in scenery lifted everyone's spirits. Following a climbers trail we quickly made our way to 13,300 feet where we could see the remainder of the route up Maroon Peak.
Following the cairns, we headed straight up to the ridge crest for some easy scrambling before taking some ledges to the climbers left away from the crest. We soon came across a small chimney which I recognized from one of Kane’s pictures. It was a short, but fun, climb and I was excited thinking that a lot more of the route would be this way. From here, we headed left and the process, up and left…….please repeat. Throughout this process we’d have some fun scrambling moves but this is where the mountain collects its climbing toll and climbing to the ridge crest is not a viable option. After a while, we came to the main Maroon Peak couloir. Its looseness is not understated! However, along the right side of the gully, there are some sections of solid holds mixed in between loose rock. With this option, any group is able to proceed safely up the gully. From the top of the couloir we continued our up and left theme but now it wasn’t mentally challenging as the summit was nearing. Within minutes, I was up on the summit ridge and arrived on Maroon Peak’s summit at 9:38am.
Obtaining Maroon’s summit was satisfying but we came for the traverse. Now was the time to get down to business.
We left Maroon’s summit at 10:14am and started the horribly loose downclimb towards the top of the Bell Cord Couloir. The route went fine with the exception of two fourth-class chimneys to descend. Loose rock and a lack of descent holds made this the hardest part of the day. Once the lowpoint of the traverse was reached, our challenge was laid out before us. The first crux was avoided by traveling to its left. Here we climbed fourth-class rock and moved along. After a couple of ledges, I decided it was time to stop avoiding the obstacles. I was here to climb this ridge. Some easy moves brought me to the top of the ridge where I stayed pulling hard third and easy fourth-class moves.
Before I knew it, we had reached the crux of the traverse. This obstacle can easily be broken into three short segments. From the cliff’s base, I started up the pitch just left of center. Upon reaching the first ledge, I traversed right to the base of a chimney. A couple of fluid moves brought me past this obstacle and was now faced with a final chimney. This challenge was pasted smoothly and brought me to the rappel slings. I tested them as holds and even thought they were solid, I elected to climb up the hole between the rappel tower and the rock face to its left. Here I sat watching one person go up the crux at a time and offering options to those who got stuck or whose confidence wavered. Within 10-15 minutes, everyone had summated and we were ready to proceed. Looking back, I believe the crux to be 5.3
Moving left around the next obstacle, I couldn’t find a way back to the ridge crest and ended climbing an even harder pitch with a little of an overhang at the top. This was probably 5.4-5.5. Layne searched further down and found an easy chimney to climb. Lucky guy. We continued walking along the ridge combine with some climbing moves. This section went fast. Before we knew it North Maroon reared up in front of us and now was the time to finish the traverse. As we climbed to the summit, the challenge increased there was nothing above easy fourth-class which presented itself. At 12:01pm, we completed the Maroon Bells Traverse by arriving on the summit of North Maroon Peak. The traverse had taken us 1:47 and we felt pleased with our accomplishment.
Our summit stay was cut short once clouds started to roll in. After snapping some pictures, we began the descent of the Northeast Ridge. The downclimb was killer on my knees and this forced me to go super slow. Soon we faced the route crux. This was a small challenge for me because the holds seemed to be just out of reach everywhere. Without incident I got down, but it certainly felt like the obstacle was time consuming.
This brought us the upper gully. Steep downhill and loose rock was everywhere and I did not enjoy this section of the route. I was relieved to reach the bottom of the gully but disappointed to see another right around the bend. This lower gully was easier, yet still ate up more time than I would have liked. Beyond that gully, we reached a boulder field. The clouds were really starting to build and I tried to cross this obstacle before the rocks got slippery. Reaching the nice path on the far side of the boulder field, I believed myself to be home free. Oops! The “nice trail” turned into more steep downhill. Even further down the trail there was a small fourth-class wall to descend and this surprise despise being easy, was extremely unwelcomed by my knees. Here the rain began and once I reached Layne and Minnehaha Gulch, it was time to throw the raincoat. Steadily, the rain came down as hiked out towards Crater Lake. The turn for the trailhead came quickly and soon we found ourselves back at Maroon Lake, exhausted but thrilled with the accomplishment. The rain and mist allowed me to snap an interesting “normal” picture of the Bells before departing.