Stats: ~9.5 mile roundtrip
Elevation gain: ~4,600 ft
Time: 5.30am to 4.15pm with lots of stops for pictures
Party: just me
Following the trend recently popularized by anna & sstratta – hiking more difficult peaks solo – I decided to give North Maroon a try. With the super fun climb of Bell Cord about a month ago and a very pleasant climb of Pyramid last summer, the Red Elks are rapidly becoming my favorite range. Selfishly, I wanted the climb to be perfect & the mountain to myself. With 50+ summits under the belt, one should be able to get up & down the mountain without companions for once, right? I thought so too. Don’t get me wrong – I love hiking with other people, but just wanted to see if a solo trip on an interesting peak would be something I would enjoy. I have entertained the idea of the traverse, but was not ready for another tough day just yet – the traverse would have to wait for another time.
I arrived to the park entrance a few minutes before 7pm on Saturday – perfect timing as the guards were getting ready to leave for the day – and let me in without paying the $10 fee. I got to the overnight parking lot and asked the lot keeper if I could borrow the chicken fence. He assured me that it was not necessary, since his traps (he pointed them out to me) hadn’t been catching porcupines in the last few days. Somehow I was not totally convinced, but was not too worried – I brought mothballs. After parking my Subaru in the line of 4 others and packing the light daypack for the next day, I took a nice stroll back and forth to the Maroon lake (that view never gets old), sprinkled mothballs under the car and settled in for the night around 9pm. The faint stench from the mothballs was seeping into the car though, so I left the window open to allow a little bit of breeze. At 3.30am I was suddenly awoke by a strange sound – a very quite rubbing of metal or plastic very close by. I could not tell right away if this was happening under my car or neighbor’s car, and the sound soon ceased. However, the sleep was gone and I was wide awake for the next hour or so. The nice thing about solo hiking though is that I did not have to be on somebody else’s timeline, and if I was feeling lazy, it was totally ok. I finally started moving at 4.45am and was ready to go at 5.30am, just as the dawn was breaking.
I did not time the sunrise exactly right, so the alpenglow appeared on the peaks as I was making my way through the forest above the Maroon lake. I raced up & managed to snatch the late alpenglow on Pyramid & the Bells. As I was crossing the Minnehaha Creek, I saw some people about 15 minutes ahead of me.
Alpenglow on Pyramid
Bells in the morning
At the turnoff- Trail No. 1975 goes to Buckskin pass & Snowmass
Surveying the route ahead
I chose not to use the rope here - holds are plentiful
Crossing the boulder field as Pyramid looks on
Crossing into the 1st gully
Boulder field does not seem to have a well defined trail, but cairns are plentiful, and soon I found myself in the 1st gully. With people not that far ahead of me, I decided to take a nice long break to build in some distance – since the potential rockfall was a concern. After a break, I caught up with the sole hiker who was staying put. He explained that he was turning around (he hiked S. Maroon the day before and was feeling it), but a couple of people in his group went ahead.
The remaining climb of the 1st gully and traverse over to the 2nd gully was pretty straightforward – the trail is very well marked and the difficulty does not exceed class 2. Second gully is steeper and the terrain is more interesting – with some Class 3 in spots.
Wondering eye is checking the Bell Cord & SE couloir conditions
As I paused to catch a breath, I noticed a sole goat hanging on the ridge. He was not moving much, so I decided to stop & take some shots with my "POS" camera. More goats suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The climb was entirely forgotten as I was watching them for a while.
Closer & closer!
Really close - time to get out of the way
Finally, they got bored and rather unexpectedly, a few of them started moving in my direction. Rather fast. Being gored on N. Maroon – what an interesting concept! It was time to get out of the way and I quickly headed upward.
Soon I realized though that I won’t be able to outrun the mountain goats, so I stopped just in time to notice that they were crossing the gully in the exact spot I was standing a few minutes ago! Apparently, I was in their way and they lost patience.
Narrowly avoiding the collision with the wildlife, soon I was at the top of the 2nd gully, and the scrambling was about to begin. The terrain above the 2nd gully is very similar to the one on Pyramid – more than one path to choose from & cairns are plentiful. There are a few interesting chimneys to be found and I hoped (rather naively) that I might have already passed the crux.
At the top of 2nd gully
Snowmass & Capitol
At some point, I found myself on a narrow plateau with stunning views of Snowmass & Capitol. The trail seemed to run out. As I pulled out the route description, I suddenly realized that I was staring at the crux – Class 4 chimney. I rushed in, ready to tackle it, and clearly heard people’s voices coming from above. I yelled that I was in the chimney & coming up, and got ok to continue. As I was wiggling myself higher up, I was informed that the summit is close by, another group went for the traverse, and they were going down.
Class 4 chimney
Observation deck a.k.a. precipice
Remaining route to the summit - does not seem to be too difficult, but a bit loose - cat feet are a must!
Reaching summit just before 11am
South Maroon + Traverse
Pyramid & friends
The summit itself turned out to be a bit too windy and cold for my taste – and I was too lazy to put extra layers, so I did not stay for too long. I tried to look for people on the traverse, but did not see anybody. After about 30 minutes on the summit, I headed back.
Typical terrain in the upper section
Lakes & the valley
I was not too enthused about downclimbing the crux, and besides, I've read that the chimney becomes impassable with snow & ice sometimes, so I was curious to see what other options might be available. Angling to the left of the chimney on the way down, I soon stumbled upon some cairns and even a piece of webbing, which apparently had been used for a rappel.
Cairns & a webbing
I carefully evaluated the options and chose to down climb the ledges immediately next to the webbing. It was careful & meticulous work exacerbated by some snow, ice & running water, but the difficulty did not exceed Class 3.
Various options available - but descending from ledge to ledge obviously requires caution
and of course I can always trust snow to get me to safety
Reviewing the route just taken
Looking worse than it really was
Typical terrain before entering 2nd gully
Just below that section, some fun climbing on dry rock was to be had. I did not find that the route was “loose & pathologically rotten” as Roach describes, but maybe it was because I did not have other climbers above or below me to worry about and I was very careful not to dislodge many rocks myself.
Start of the 2nd gully
2nd gully - loose, but not that bad
Above the goats
Traffic jam - the cairn is to the left
S. Maroon, SE couloir & Bell Cord
Difficulties are over. Green 1st gully
Still about 2K elevation feet to go
Bluebird day on the Bells
The rest of the climb was uneventful, and going at a comfortable pace, taking as many pictures as I wished, I reached the car soon after 4pm. Interestingly enough, the lot keeper was moving stuff around & blocking some parking spots with orange cones. I did not inquire if this had any connection with porcupine activity. Overall, this was an enjoyable day & I would be up for a return visit to this beautiful area.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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