17 miles, 6600’ gain from Maroon Lake TH (9600’)
Participants: Kevin (papilion), Sarah (wooderson), and Kevin Baker
It’s been awhile since I got out with Kevin and Sarah, so it was time to hookup for a 13er adventure in the Elks. I suggest a relatively unknown traverse in the Maroon Bells Wilderness from Unnamed 13631 to Bellevue south of the Pyramid Group. The stats are daunting on paper, but the contour lines on the map don’t look too tight. John Kirk was the only one on Lists of John who hit all four together, and his words were the ridge made for some “creative routefinding.” One thing that is for certain is if you see some tight contour lines on the map in the Elks, things are about to get interesting! There are no guarantees that something will go! As Forrest Gump would say, "It's like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get next!"
I get off to a false start as Friday night I discover I left my sleeping bag and trekking poles in my truck in the haste to carpool with Kevin and Sarah. Kevin lends me his Charley Brown picnic blanket and I get a little chilly as dawn approaches, but not bad. Thanks, guys! I pray that the porcupines don’t gouge me in my tent, but they have cars to find! Now it’s going to be brutal descending over 6K vertical with no trekking poles, but they get in the way too much on scrambles anyway.
We set off at a not so alpine start of around 6:15am. Surely this traverse won’t take more than 12 hours and we’ll hit up a nice place to eat in Aspen. That turns out to be a pipe dream! We run into Greg (summitlounger) and his brother, who are preparing to do the Bells traverse. We hike with them until the Minnehaha turnoff for North Maroon. It’s going to be a very warm day as it’s already warm enough to break out the shorts. We followed the all too familiar West Maroon Creek trail to the cutoff for Thunder Pyramid just past the creek crossing at 10640’. The familiar steep grunt up to the Len Shoemaker basin goes well as the theme is climb a gully, level out for a bit, and repeat. The weather is looking great and the smoke isn’t too bad because we have a bit of breeze today that stiffens up once we hit the ridge.
13641 at the head of Len Shoemaker Basin:
We enjoy the last bit of mellow hiking up the gorgeous Len Shoemaker basin and are greeted with a stiff 600 feet of scree and small talus to the north ridge of 13631. The slip n slide fest takes it out of us, so we break at the saddle for the scramble fest to follow. The north ridge of 13641 is a short and very enjoyable scramble. The crux is a 4th class step that we attacked on the west side. There probably is an easier way, but it wasn’t worth hunting around for.
Another airy step provides some excitement.
It was a nice warmup for the unknown challenges ahead. It takes us nearly 5 hours to reach the top of 13641. It appears our 12 hour prediction is already shot! Kevin proclaims we can still catch something open in Aspen. I’m already thinking this is going to turn into a death march as the traverse to 13180 hasn’t revealed itself yet. Maybe this is where the “creative routefinding” comes into play! Sweet views of the Pyramid group!
After an initial exposed, loose traverse to the south summit, we descend on easy terrain until we are slowed by a series of ledges and cliff band systems. Time for the bob and weave! We look for the path of reasonable resistance, which is how you stay out of trouble in the Elks.
Kevin and Sarah perfecting the bob and weave
Most of the difficulties are skirted on the west side of the ridge. We think we are in the clear after traversing way right above a cliff band, but a deep notch discourages us. I climb back up to the crest of the ridge and find a steep 4th class gully that looks like it will go down to the notch. I’m the guinea pig and purposely knock down some big blocks to clean up the downclimb a bit. It’s a bit steep at the top, but relents down low and feels pretty comfortable stemming your feet out on the walls.
Sarah about to descend the gully, which is easier than it looks:
Once at the notch, we choose to drop down a nasty gully on the west side with tons of choss in it and move one at a time to safe zones as trying to prevent rockfall is a lost battle. Quick feet are needed when rock slides on top of hard pan, but it's not an exposed gully. We drop down to 12760’ before we’re able to traverse below the cliff walls and sidehill across and finally up to the saddle. It was here that I flipped by camera to low res by mistake, so here's a few good shots from Papi.
The gully descent. Pic by Kevin P:
We break at the saddle as we just took a beat down! The ridge above the saddle to 13180 looks to be steep and very loose, possibly low 5th class. We avoid that mess and drop down the east side and contour underneath the cliffs until we’re on steep grass that leads us back to the ridge. This avoids two very gnarly looking towers. The final ridge run to the summit is very enjoyable with an abrupt finish. Another cool Elk 13er for sure!
13180 summit block, pic by Kevin P:
We check the time and the traverse takes us nearly 3 hours for ¾ mile! I guess we’re getting no real food tonight! The rest of the ridge run is very easy and quick compared to the junk we just endured, but there are many ups and downs that take their toll. The initial descent of 13180 is 3rd class, then we skirt an unnecessary bump on the left and stay true to the ridge the rest of the way.
Traverse to 13140, pic by Kevin P:
13140 has an impressive false summit on the north end of it that we decided to go right over the top of on a narrow ledge. The views on this summit are pretty special and I come to the realization that we’re probably not going to finish this crazy day until midnight!
Cool false summit on 13140, pic by Sarah:
Precarious, pic by Kevin P:
At some point, Papi declares “This traverse would be a classic if it wasn’t for the gully nastiness.” Little did he know what Bellevue had in store. Ups and downs galore await us tired ridge runners to the tune of some 600 feet just to get to West Maroon Pass, and it’s getting pretty old. The ridge still holds plenty of character though as we are totally circling around the head of the lush West Maroon basin.
We slog our way to the pass and arrive a bit before 6pm. We still have 3 hours of daylight on one of the longest days of the year with about 800 feet left and under a mile left, which is too close to pass up! Bellevue is indeed a cool, overlooked 13er. It is actually decently cairned since the West Maroon trail is so close. Nasty towers are avoided on the west side and we regain the ridge via a loose gully.
The ridge holds a few fun surprises that are better left discovered yourself, and it finally mellows out below another discouraging false summit.
Ridge crux, although we found an easier line down.
The summit block looks very intimidating and scary on the south side. A pool of melted snow below looks very enticing as we’ve been rationing our water for quite some time, but the cool waters of West Maroon Creek are close.
The intimidating summit block of Bellevue. Pic by Sarah.
We unlock the mysteries of Bellevue by wrapping around the east side and traversing some loose rock above the south face. Bellevue’s summit block is probably class 2+ with proper routefinding, but it would be one of the tougher 14ers if it was one! We top out at around 7pm. Time to get out of the kitchen and get back to the trail before dark, but we enjoy this special place soaking in a fabulous sunset as we drop down to the pass.
Kevin P enjoying the view, pic by Sarah.
Kevin and Sarah scooting across loose junk above the south face:
Parting shot of mighty Bellevue:
At least the smoke makes for some fine sunset shots:
We’re temped to cut across the east face back to the trail, but it’s hard pan above cliffs. We just endure the gully and finally get back to the fairy trail! Only problem is we still have 6.5 miles to go.
We fill up with water and Kevin’s a bit ticked that his steripen doesn’t work. I bust out the iodine tablets and we have to wait 30 minutes to drink. I knew this was going to be a brutal day, so a little Jaeger is in order! It takes the pressure off the knees for a while. Doctor prescribed, you know! I feel great as we bust through the willows and finally hit the upper stream crossing and guzzle our treated water. Sarah has a look of shock as I wade the creek without looking for a dry line. I don’t think there is one or if there was, it isn’t worth bushwacking to find out!
The lower stream crossing seams to take forever to get to and we once again just wade across. It feels quite refreshing on sore feet. Now all that remains is a trip fest across the boulder field and surviving the tourist trail. I feel like I’m hallucinating the final couple miles. How come this tourist trail feels so hard? Probably because both my faint headlamps are fading. We’re back at the truck at 12:04am and a porcupine is the welcoming committee and is chewing on somebody’s exhaust pipe. Heck of a traverse in the Elks!
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