South Maroon Peak
From Maroon Lake TH
Friday September 11, 2009
After working all day Thursday I readied my truck and was on the road by 7:10PM. I drove out of Louisville and south on Route 93 took a right on Route 6 through the canyon to I-70 to Glenwood Sprgs where I exited and took Route 82 to the roundabout in Aspen for Maroon Bells where I drove up the overnight hiker’s parking lot, very dark and most quiet.
I saw plenty of cars but nobody around and could now hear an owl up in one of the trees as the moon was starting to rise………pretty neat. I made the mistake of giving out a hooty-hoot myself and this lone owl proceeded to hoot for the next 30 minutes solid as I tried to nab a few hours of shuteye after turning-in at 11:35PM in the back of my S-10 pickup.
A car pulled in at 3:50AM and three guys started up the trail at about 4:00AM, I then emerged and I wasted no time getting up and preparing a quick cold breakfast of oatmeal bars and a quart of Gatorade. The ½ moon was brilliant and cast shadows as it illuminated well enough where I could make my way to the outhouse without using my headlamp. A planet and the brightest stars also shown above and made for a lovely celestial view in the early morning skies. I readied my daypack, donned my headlamp and started across the parking lot where others were making ready to start hiking and on to the trail leading to the right of Maroon Lake at 4:45AM
Arriving at the lake I was treated to a magnificent view of the surrounding peaks cast in bright moonlight with the Maroon Bells directly ahead and their snowy couloirs most visible. I then met a guy (Tom) studying a map and we proceeded to hike together as I followed and he lead the way across a wooden bridge. The weather was perfect although a bit cool with a chilling breeze from time-to-time. Tom lead the way and we conversed about our individual plans; he was going up North Maroon and intended on doing the traverse to South Maroon, whereas I would be doing the South Ridge route to South Maroon. We crossed another wooden bridge and before long the trail started bearing to the left, above on the right we could see the headlamps of others on another much higher trail.
Perhaps we were each “moonstruck” as it took a few more minutes before we realized that this trail was going to places where neither of us wanted to be. We then backtracked nearly all the way back to Maroon Lake where we then saw the sign for Crater Lake. A good 30-35 minutes had now been wasted but at least we were now heading in the right direction. Tom stopped to remove some outer garments to get more comfortable and we wished each other luck and parted ways here; Tom said we’d probably see each other later somewhere on the trail………..maybe so. It was still plenty dark out here in the woods and I found that reading the wooden signs and my 14’er.com printout was a bit of a challenge with my lousy eyes and my headlamp batteries on their last legs. Before too long I was at a wooden sign pointing to West Maroon Trail and took a left turn.
Dawn was breaking as I hiked to the right of Crater Lake on a solid, well traveled trail which then took me into some heavy overgrowth filled with bushes and willows before breaking out into a talus field and then back into the woods. I stopped and packed away my headlamp and took another good look at my printout which told me to look for a pine tree with a big crook in it. I stayed on course and passed a tent on my right and after a few more yards; whalaa!………there stood the giant crooked pine. The trail then breaks out of the woods and soon comes to a large cairn; here I turned right and proceeded up a short steep rocky cut leading to a trail heading off to the left; I was now on the South Ridge trail.
The trail starts out with a gradual climb and then becomes a steep, narrow, dirty/scree and rock passage that climbs quickly without many switchbacks and simply goes straight up the mountainside and above tree line. I could now see a person a couple hundred yards ahead and three more persons much higher up on this same trail as I struggled with the first real test of the morning as this steepness took me somewhat off guard. After a while I got my breathing and gait down and found the climbing to go much better as I could see the other people stopping often to regain their breathe. I too stopped often but briefly and soon caught-up to the person right ahead where we each stopped to “peel-down” into shorts and short sleeves for more comfort as the climb in the sun was making things rather warm.
His name was Jeff (61 yrs) from North Carolina who has been coming to Colorado for a week each year trying to conquer all the 14’ers. Not unlike myself, Jeff had climbed his first when he was 51 yrs (50 yrs for me) and was in the upper 40’s as far as completions. We would hike together for the next several hours and I found Jeff to be a quiet, welcome companion throughout this endeavor as we spoke some of peaks past and future as we climbed and paused often while gaining the rocky ridge and out of the dirty/scree and on to a more rocky approach. We could see the three guys a bit higher above as we were gaining on them rather quickly and proceeded up the ridge via a steep, rocky/stumbly trail until we came to a high point notch where we could now see the opposite side of South Maroon Peak and the three guys making a traverse along a high ledge system.
Jeff and I took a good rest here and then followed behind the three guys
along the ledge and around a rocky projection and on to a short down-climb along another ledge to another projection. So we would go for the next hour as we gathered with the three guys and tag-teamed it across this long traverse with many down-climbs, rocky projections that blocked any forward looks at what may be ahead and there were also a few rocky cuts to climb up through, long and short gully scrambles on very loose rock and scree as finding the route, viewing the printout and following the cairns became the task at hand. Jeff called cairns “corns” and I found this to be both amusing and assuring as he showed a very keen eye all along the way as we all took turns leading the way at one point or another.
We all climbed up a long, loose rocky gully to a big notch where we were to turn left according to the directions Jeff had and on to a ledge around a rock rib and on up over to the summit. From here would take another solid hour as the route finding was a game of which cairn went which way and which high point might be the true summit. There were lots of mountain goats up here Mommas with their babies and they peered down on us
as we made our way higher to where the cairns became a bit closer together
as they lead us in a zig-zag up one last rocky rise. The three guys (Gabe, Mike & John) were taking goat photos as I took the lead with Jeff right behind and we climbed until there was nothing left to climb and I clambered up and found the summit registry can at 11:31AM. Jeff soon followed and a bit later the last three of our mountain party…we’d finally made it!
Our seemingly endless traverse/ascent brought us to one of the most rewarding summits I’ve ever had the pleasure to rest on as the views were remarkable with more discernable 14’ers all around then I’d ever seen before.
Countless other peaks as far as one could see and ideal weather with scattered clouds and plenty of sunshine with a slight cooling breeze. We all congratulated each other with hand shakes and photos and enjoyed our high perch for a long rest, some food & drink and more photos as Mike had found a wooden sign jammed in the rocks with “14000” printed on it and we all posed “mug shot” fashion with the “plaque” held in front……….fun.
We looked across the traverse to North Maroon Peak and saw a single climber coming over and I could only assume that this was indeed Tom from early this morning……….cool.
Much earlier this morning while hiking in the dark I had miss-stepped and banged my left knee hard on a large rock and let out one loud “OOOWW” and walked it off not thinking much of it but on the down-climbs coming over to the summit I felt some discomfort and as I sat on the summit I could feel it tightening-up. I took three aspirin on the summit for the return trip down and after 30 full minutes on top I figured I’d better “get to going” and the first short sections told me to take short steps and keep from bending my left knee too much. The aspirin kicked-in and the knee was loosening with each step and things went much better from here…………..good thing.
The descent was just as treacherous going down and the route finding was better but not great and time-wise was no different as it took a full two hours to return to the notch where we’d met the three guys earlier. Jeff and I had stayed together as the other three guys left the summit a bit later and brought up the rear. John was wearing a white T-shirt and a white construction helmet and every time I saw him coming around a rock section I though he was a mountain goat………funny; as Jeff stated that after this climb John actually could be rated as a goat!
Jeff and I went down the way we had come up and we separated from the three guys here as we could only assume that they’d decided to go down the trail where the notch was located as they were no longer behind us and I wouldn’t see them again.
The trail back down from the rocky ridge wasn’t good to put it mildly. Jeff and I separated here as he paused to rest his feet and take a good breather; we shook hands and I told him it was a pleasure to make his acquaintance, I was glad to know him. As I left I looked over and saw the person we had seen making the traverse from North Maroon making his was down the route we had assumed the three guys had taken………….perhaps I would see Tom on the trail as he had stated much earlier.
The steep, dirty/scree trail going down couldn’t be described with every negative adjective in an earthly dictionary and I could have added some from my hokey vocabulary as well but to keep things clean I’ll simply call it absolutely miserable. Slipping, skidding, stumbling, cursing as I went and praying to the good Lord above to keep me in one peace physically and between the ears. As much as I’d enjoyed the summit I was hating this trail descent and found that I couldn’t stop to rest without my legs literally shaking; no doubt a sign of stress & fatigue and perhaps other bad things. So……….I didn’t stop until I got all the way down to the giant crooked pine at 3:53PM. Thank God!
I took a long rest, removed stones from my boots, took in some more food & drink and kind of waited around a little to see if Tom would come along…….…didn’t happen. So down the trail I went and it seemed like much more of a grind as I was way tired as the miserable dirty/scree descent had taken its toll on me and all I wanted was to make it back to my truck with no further hindrances. I covered the last of the return trail uneventfully and did stop to take a sunset photo of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake………….beautiful way to close a beautiful day.
I saw a guy and his dog waiting at the bus stop in the parking lot with his backpack and we struck-up a conversation; he had been in the woods hiking for four days and sleeping under the stars he showed up a little late and missed the last bus back to Aspen. I got back to my truck at 5:45PM and gave Phillip and his dog Oscar a ride to his house in Carbondale and was rewarded with a dozen farm fresh eggs from his very own hen house. My 48th 14’er and a few new friends along the way……….sweet!