"A bell's not a bell 'til you ring it" -Oscar Hammerstein
Maroon Bells Traverse Ascent Route: Standard Maroon Peak Descent Route: Standard North Maroon Peak Start Time: 1:55am South Maroon Summit: 8:30am Traverse Time: 2hrs 30min North Maroon Summit: 11:30am End Time: 4:30pm
Round Trip Mileage: 11.1 miles Elevation Gain: 6,100 (approx)
Terry Mathews, Greg Fischer, Rob Jansen, and Dan McCool
(All photos by dmccool unless otherwise noted. Captions on top of photo.)
The plan to attempt the Maroon Bells dates back a few months. The original goal was to climb the Bell Cord and attempt the Traverse, but poor weather forecasts caused us to delay the trip and ultimately abandon the Cord. Instead, Terry, Rob, Greg, and I decided to attempt the Traverse from South to North via the standard ascent of Maroon Peak.
Worthy of Note: This was Terry’s 3rd time completing the Bells Traverse which is unreal. He was the official leader/guide for the trip and his knowledge proved invaluable.
We all met at the overnight parking lot Friday evening – moth balls and chicken wire in hand. Necessary or not, we didn’t hear or see any porcupines through the night. We set alarms for 1:00am with the goal of a 2:00am start.
For the sake of your time, I’ll start the report from about halfway through the “2,800 feet of suck” on the approach to Maroon Peak’s ridge. The majority of the report will focus on the specifics of the Traverse Route.
Once on the ridge, the real climbing begins. For the most part, the ascent to the summit of South Maroon is a mix of Class 2 and 3, but care must be taken to avoid sections of loose rock. No holds are guaranteed. Here are a few highlights of the approach to South Maroon:
Pyramid Peak and the sunrise photo by tmathews
Terry and Rob approach Maroon Peak's saddle
Terry, Rob, and Greg at Maroon Peak saddle near 13,250ft
Thoughtful reflections of the mountaineers
Greg and Terry on the west side of Maroon Peak
Greg. Period. photo by tmathews
Rob and Dan photo by tmathews
Terry making a difficult move
View of some of the exposure on Maroon Peak photo by tmathews
Dan and Greg approaching the summit photo by tmathews
Group photo: Summit of South Maroon photo by tmathews' camera timer
Partial view of the traverse to North Maroon
There are several necessary downclimbs as you descend to the Bell Cord saddle. Most can be kept at Class 3, but all are loose.
Initial descent off of South Maroon
Rob down-climbing a Class 4 section
Around the corner toward the Bell Cord Saddle
At the Bell Cord Saddle looking toward Pyramid
Once at the Bell Cord Saddle, the rest of the route is sustained Class 3 and 4 with some very critical and unavoidable Class 5 sections. The first crux is not long after the Saddle and is basically split into two separate sections. Here is a look at part one of the first crux:
Rob at the 1st Crux - Part 1 (low Class 5)
Looking down the 1st Crux - Part 1 (low Class 5) photo by RJansen77
And part two:
On the ledge of the 1st Crux and heading up Part 2 (low Class 5)
Dan climbing 1st Crux - Part 2 (low Class 5) photo by tmathews
After completing the first of the major difficulties, continue following some faint cairns along the way toward the top of a large spire.
Around the corner toward Spire 1
Greg looking up at Spire 1
Looking back toward South Maroon at the distance covered so far
Looking ahead at the route as you approach the top of the spire
Down-climbing Spire 1
The remaining route after Spire 1. Summit is hidden photo by tmathews
Traverse a narrow ledge system as your come upon the 2nd major difficulty.
The second crux is the lengthiest of the Class 5 pitches and has some very serious exposure. A fall here would most definitely be fatal.
Looking up at the entire line of the 2nd Crux (low Class 5)
Terry climbing Crux 2. Greg is looking down from the top. (low Class 5)
Beyond crux 2, you approach the 3rd and final of the Class 5 sections. This portion of the route proved the most time consuming for us. According to the route description, there are two possibilities to ascend the 20 foot wall that seems “impassible on every side”.
Here was our dilemma: The left option (a dihedral crack) looked to be the best possibility, but seemed to have a couple very loose “bread-loaf-sized” rocks just waiting to fall on a would-be climber. The right-side option required a long stretch to reach the necessary holds (both hand-holds and foot-holds) and was not ideal for climbers of “dmccool and tmathews-like” stature. Even with the ability to make the stretch, the move was extremely committing and a fall here could possibly be fatal.
Terry approaching the 3rd Crux wall
Greg studying the "right-side" option photo by RJansen77
We spent a solid 20 minutes discussing and debating over which route to take. Terry decided to head around to the east (right) side. There is a very narrow and severely exposed ledge that wraps around the common route of the 3rd Crux. Soon after, we heard Terry give the word that he found another possible route.
Dan on the narrow ledge with a fatal fall inches to the right photo by RJansen77
Terry had ascended about a 15-18 foot dihedral that topped out above the 3rd Crux. Here is a look up at Terry from the base of the route we took (low-mid Class 5) photo by RJansen77
Once above the 3rd Crux, feel free to breathe normally. There are significant exposed Class 3 and some 4th Class moves remaining, but the worst of the difficulties are over.
After Crux 3 with the remaining route ahead. Spire 2 can be seen at the far left of the photo
There is one last spire, but it can be circumvented to the right.
The group gathers to choose a line at Spire 2
As we headed around the spire, we encountered the only real snow of the day. Care must be taken here, but there are firm holds along the wall as you step over the soft snow.
Taking great care around Spire 2
Beyond the last spire, the remainder of the route is loose Class 3. Even though the major difficulties are over and the summit of North Maroon is in sight, take care here and finish the route.
Terry moving up the final gully
Terry making the last difficult move of the traverse
Summit in view!
A look back at the Traverse from North Maroon's summit
I know what you're thinking, and yes, that is an Edelrid Climbing Helmet - model 1987-88 - courtesy of the Salvation Army Thrift Store photo by gregory_fischer
An elated RJansen photo by RJansen77's camera
A relieved group summit photo photo by tmathews
The descent was as advertised – steep and very loose. We got to the major difficulty of the descent – a Class 4 downclimb of a 10 foot chimney wall. Greg was able to downclimb it successfully, but based on the snow he found, the rest of us decided to head to the right and search for the Class 3 work-around. If you were to take the Class 4 downclimb and slip on the snow at its base, the resulting fall could be treacherous.
The Class 3 downclimb of the "Chimney"
The remainder of the descent was pretty demoralizing, but the views of the valley below and the sense of what we accomplished kept our spirits high.
Goat photo for my son Miles photo by tmathews
Looking back at the steep, loose ledges of North Maroon photo by RJansen77
Once we crossed the rock glacier and got back into the trees, we came upon what someone thought was the most technical portion of the route. They had tied about a 50 meter rope to a large tree in order to rappel an 8 foot class 2+ wall.
What not to do with a rope someone else placed. Rob giving full disapproval
It was great to finally get back to Maroon Lake. We were all very tired, but we knew that it was all worth it.
It’s strange how the mind works on a route like this. In the moment – faced with some of the most difficult and deadly climbing that I’ve done so far – I wasn’t really thinking about the dangers. That’s not to say we were careless or reckless; we most definitely were not. I just think that the “whole” of the mountain is greater than the sum of its parts. When taken one step or one section at a time (along with reliable, careful, and trustworthy partners) focus can be maintained and you can take the difficulties as they come.
On the other hand, once I was down, I was able to process this route as a whole. Through that lens, I have to say that it is a scary thing. The Class 2 and 3 sections of the route go away and all that’s left are the “a fall here would be fatal” sections. Those are the ones that stand out. I’ve been able to separate these two perspectives on every Class 4/5 section that I’ve done over the past couple years, but I can’t help but think about how not everyone comes away from these climbs unscathed.
Bottom line: This is real climbing at real elevation on a real mountain with real loose rocks. I am convinced we were successful not because of superior strength, experience, or skill – but because of preparation, rational thought, compatibility of group members, and legitimate fear. Much like “The House” in Vegas: We may have gotten to the top(s), but the mountain still wins. It always does.
"Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, And say my glory was I had such friends."
- William Butler Yeats
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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