Mountain(s): Maroon Peak (14,163')
Distance: 12 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,100'
Roundtrip Time: 17 hrs
Maroon Peak is one of Colorado's most famous mountains. Located near the town of Aspen, many visitors, sightseers, and photographers gaze upon this peak from nearby Maroon Lake. Along with its sister peak, North Maroon Peak, this duo is often referred to as the Maroon Bells (hereafter the "Bells"). Although beautiful to the eyes, both of these mountains are notoriously dangerous and have claimed many lives over the last few decades. As a result, the 14ers.com user rankings put these two as the 4th most difficult (North Maroon Peak) 8th most difficult (Maroon Peak) 14ers to hike/climb in Colorado.
Nevertheless, the Bells have a way of beckoning you to climb them. They are steep. They are rugged. They test your ability as a mountaineer. This was what drew me and two friends, Tim and Mike, to the Aspen area over Labor Day weekend in 2014. Our goal that weekend was to summit both of the Bells as well as neighboring 14er Pyramid Peak (ranked as Colorado's 3rd most difficult 14er). Ambitious? Absolutely. Unrealistic? Not if you asked us then. Nuts? In hindsight, probably.
One of the more crazy ideas we had was to summit both of the Bells on the same day, by first nabbing Maroon Peak via the standard class 3 South Ridge route and then getting North Maroon Peak by taking the famous Bells Traverse ridgeline. There are four Great 14er Traverses in Colorado, and this was one of them... perhaps the toughest of the four, depending on who you ask. It's less than a mile long, but includes multiple class 4 and a few low class 5 sections that must be climbed, on rotten rock nonetheless. There is no way around these obstacles. The exposure is great, with thousand-foot dropoffs on both sides of the ridge. At times, the ridge is supposedly only 4-5 feet wide!
Anyway, we had our minds set on attempting to cross this ridge and get both peaks. As we shall see, our plans (fortunately) did not pan out as we had hoped. I say fortunately because, at the time, the three of us did not have a whole lot of experience with class 4, let alone class 5, climbing. As I write this three years later, it is obvious looking back that none of us were actually prepared physically to take on such a task.
Alright, I'd say that's enough context. Let's get on to the good stuff. We arrived in Aspen late in the afternoon on the Friday before Labor Day and set up camp off of CO 82 heading up toward Independence Pass. The plan was to get to bed by sunset and sneak in ~5 hours of shut eye before we had to get up around 1am and head to the Maroon Lake trailhead. Early starts on difficult mountains like this are a must, especially this late in the season, and especially if one hopes to have time to summit both peaks via the class 4/5 traverse. So to bed we went...
...except for me of course. That's right, I didn't get an ounce of sleep that night. No sirree. Maybe it was because I was excited. Or perhaps I just wasn't tired enough to fall asleep before midnight. It could also have had something to do with the noises I kept hearing every now and then, which prevented my mind from relaxing. Whatever it was, I didn't sleep - and that didn't bode well for the following day. Tim and Mike arose around 1am and we packed up and drove to the trailhead. Arriving by 1:30, we organized our packs, put on our hiking footwear, and grabbed a couple obligatory photos at the trailhead sign. We were on our way before 2am if I remember correctly.
Starting at 9,600', the Maroon Lake trail immediately winds around the north side of Maroon Lake and heads up into a beautiful aspen grove to the west. The air was crisp and cool that morning, but it was also a bit cloudy and windy. The forecast wasn't great - mostly cloudy, breezy, and cool. A weak storm system was moving through the Rockies and we were simply hoping that it would clear out sometime later that morning. After about 1.6 miles we reached Crater Lake, at 10,100'. I could tell that I was going to be struggling that day, as my energy was quite low and I simply just wasn't all that comfortable.
We forged on ahead, circling around the northwest side of the lake as the trail turned south. The Bells were now immediately to our right, towering 3,500' above our heads. We were nearing a new moon so it was quite dark, but the clouds blocked our view of the stars. Yet we could faintly make out the silhouette of the peaks as we passed by. They were indeed menacing and oh so close. The trail continued south to a poorly-marked junction at 12,500', about 3.4 miles from the trailhead. Here, one trail continues south toward West Maroon Pass while the other cuts southwest and heads up the steep slope toward Maroon Peak's south ridge. We took the southwest fork and began the long, exhausting journey to the ridge.
We wouldn't make it to the ridge that day. But I'll get to that in just a second. First, let me tell you about this steep slope that the trail ascends. It has a name - the "Wall of Suck" - because going up it absolutely sucks. In only about 9/10 of a mile, you ascend 2,800'! The trail essentially goes straight up, with a few short switchbacks at the beginning. Being so steep, much of the trail is full of loose rock that you can accidentally send down the mountain if you aren't careful. Yeah, it's not fun, and I was having a miserable time! Halfway up, I was so exhausted from lack of sleep that I couldn't go any further. I knew I wasn't summiting that day. Tim and Mike were a few hundred feet above me, out of sight, trying to reach the ridge and gain a view of the remaining route. Then it began to snow. Shortly thereafter, Tim and Mike reappeared above me as they descended back down to my elevation.
Upon reaching me, they informed me that not only was it snowing (lightly) but it was windy as heck up above ~12,600' - still some 600' below where the trail meets the ridge. It was already well after sunrise - probably about 8am - and we were at least 4 hours from the summit. In my condition, I knew I wasn't going to make it. I couldn't even walk 50 ft before I had to stop and rest for 5 minutes. We agreed that, given the conditions and my lack of energy, it was best to turn around and call it a day. So we headed 1,500' back down the slope to the trail junction and then 3.4 miles back to the trailhead. The weather did ease up a bit as the morning went on, although it remained cloudy.
It was about noon when we returned to Aspen, so we had a great BBQ lunch in town and reminisced about our experience that day. Disappointing to say the least. What we ended up deciding to do was grab a room at a nearby hotel later that afternoon and try to get some decent sleep. A good call, for sure. I was passed out by 5pm. Tim and Mike wanted to give Maroon Peak another shot the next day, although I was at the mercy of my body. We agreed to awake around midnight and figure things out from there.
SUMMIT DAY (FOR REAL THIS TIME)
Being able to sleep for 7 hours on a soft, comfortable hotel bed did wonders! We woke at midnight as planned and I decided I was good to give the Bells another go. I felt so much better. We took a little more time getting ready and didn't actually start down the trail at Maroon Lake until about 3:30am. For whatever reason, we felt more relaxed and decided to grab a few Milky Way shots at the lake before we headed off (Photo 1). Yes, what a difference a day makes. Not a cloud in the sky! Wonderful bright stars and crisp early autumn air welcomed us back to the mountain.
We made quick work of the route up to Crater Lake - getting there in under and hour - and stopped again for some star photos. On such a clear night, the silhouette of the Bells just to our west was incredible (Photo 2). Half an hour later, we were to the fork at 12,500'. I was still feeling good! As we rested for a few minutes to prepare for the Wall of Suck, we took our last star photos of the night. I happened to get one with an excellent view of Andromeda (Photo 3).
Ahead we charged, continuing to make great time as we ascended the 2,800' of awfulness. Halfway up, the sun emerged from beneath the eastern horizon and gave us a breathtaking view of the valley back north toward Maroon Lake (Photo 4). Still feeling good! And then, all of a sudden, we were at the ridge at 13,300' (Photos 5, 6, & 7). It was 8:30am. Hardly a cloud in the sky. What a difference a day makes!
Now for the fun part. The remainder of the route followed the ridge north for a while, went up through a short class 3 gap between two rock towers, and then meandered its way along the west (left) side of the mountain to a steep, loose gully. Photo 8 looks back to the south maybe a quarter of the way across. The view to the west into the lush Fravert Basin was jaw dropping (Photo 9). The route then goes up the gully about halfway and exits to the left (Photo 10). The most difficult part of all this was trying not to kick rocks down on fellow climbers behind (below) us. Once out of the gully, we continued north along some steep ledges, following cairns to the next gully (Photo 11).
By this point, we were fairly close to the summit - maybe 400' below it. The trail basically disappears here and you have to work your way up the second gully on loose, crappy rock. So, that's what we did, eventually finding ourselves back on Maroon Peak's south ridge. I'm sure I missed some details there, since it has been almost 3 years to the day since the hike, but you essentially find the easiest way up and go for it. Once on the ridge, the summit is close (Photo 12).
We reached the summit at 11am and took full advantage of the amazing 360-degree views (Photos 13 & 14). The smorgasbord of colors you see from up there, especially to the west and northwest, is especially cool. Lush greens down in the valleys, red/maroon rocks on the peaks and ridges nearby, and white granite on 14ers Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak (Photo 15). What a wonderful summit it was indeed!
Now, I remind the reader of our "plan", which was to also summit North Maroon Peak via the Bells Traverse. That actually had not changed, at least for Mike and I. Tim decided he wanted to head back down the way we came up and call it a day. We were actually on the summit for quite a long time (~90 minutes), relaxing and watching from afar as other groups tackled the gnarly traverse to our north. We didn't want to force Tim to descend alone, so we waited until someone arrived at the summit who was planning to head back down the standard route as well. Now that Tim had someone to accompany him on his descent, Mike and I took off down Maroon Peak's north slope toward the saddle between the two peaks.
It was about 1:30pm by the time we got down close to the saddle, a little late for my comfort. We realized then that we probably spent too much time on the summit of Maroon Peak, as we hadn't even begun any of the class 4/5 climbing yet. It would take at least 2 hours to cross the traverse, and that is if we were fast and efficient. Knowing us and our abilities at the time, it probably would have taken at least 3 hours, maybe 4! It was at this point that Mike began having second thoughts about going for the traverse, suggesting that we turn back, return to the summit of Maroon Peak, and head back down the standard route. Although I still wanted to go for it, it's a very good thing that we didn't, as we found out later. We took some video from near the saddle (see below), an area on the mountain that is - simply put - surreal, and then began making our way back up to Maroon Peak.
It took Mike and I about 3.5 hours to get back to the top of the Wall of Suck, as we found ourselves off-route at one point. We did pass a guy still going up at about 4pm! Wow, and we thought we were late getting off the mountain. Fortunately, he sounded like he was quite experienced, so hopefully he made it out alright. The sun set as we were almost back down into the valley (Photo 16). We knew Tim was going to be waiting for us at the car, so we high-tailed it down the trail. My toes were absolutely killing me, primarily due to the fact that my toenails needed to be trimmed. When they get too long, they push up against the front of my boots while I'm descending steep slopes and really hurt!
We made it back to the trailhead at about 8:30pm if I remember correctly, well after dark and almost too late for Tim. He was rightfully getting worried about us. Walkie talkies would have been handy! We realize now that, if we had gone for the traverse and completed it in a timely manner, we still would likely have not made it back to the trailhead until 10pm... 11pm... maybe even midnight! Who knows obviously, but fortunately we made the right choice and left the traverse for another day, hopefully sometime in the near future. As I write this in August 2017, I feel like we are much better prepared - both physically and mentally - for such a climb. I guess we'll see if we can make it happen!