Date climbed: August 17, 2019
Elevation: 14,156 ft (Maroon Peak) & 14,014 ft (North Maroon)
Climbing Partners: Carlos, Hadi, and Steve
Another night, another trailhead. I arrived around 10 PM, plenty of time to sleep before our 3:30 AM departure the next morning. The skies were clear, the forecast near perfect, and the trail conditions were finally summer. Just 2 months prior, I had attempted South Maroon Peak, moving through steep, exposed snow, crumbling rock, and avalanches running close behind. You might’ve thought it was late winter, but in reality, that adventure had been in early June! Needless to say, the previous winter would change Colorado’s terrain for the next decade, creating new avalanche terrain near Frisco, Aspen, and Silverton. However, on this particular morning, avalanches would no longer be an issue. As I lay in the back of my truck, I pondered what I would do if my partner (whom I had not yet met) didn’t show up. Would I go alone? Probably. Would I do the traverse solo? Not sure. I’d have to decide when I saw it. Thankfully, I wasn’t too nervous and was able to sleep well that night.
My alarm woke me up on schedule, and I sat up in the back of my truck to find the parking lot much more full than when I had arrived. Next to me, the car door opened and a man poked his head out and asked, “Are you Daniel?”
“That’s me!” I felt well rested and ready. I went through my morning routine as per usual; Clif Bar, followed by nearly puking it back up (did I mention I hate Clif Bars?), brush my teeth, down a liter of water and toss the sleeping bag into the truck cab.
We were off at about 3:29 and made incredible time. Two months prior, it had taken me nearly two hours to navigate the snow, avalanche debris and interspersed trail to the turn off. This morning, we were on the upper trail in just 45 minutes. We took a short break, downing water, a little bit of food, and taking in the not so visible view (I knew it was pretty, but the sun hadn’t even shown signs of rising yet. Winter is coming!). I also had a new set up, with a camelback for ease of access to water and so I didn’t have to think about dropping a bottle on the exposed Bells Traverse (one of the four Great Traverses between 14ers of Colorado).
This time, Carlos took the lead, setting a break-neck pace up the sheer 3000 foot slope. Of all the 14ers of Colorado, this is by far the steepest, longest grind, rising directly from 10,500 to 13,300 feet in just under 1.25 miles. To put that in perspective, the Sawatch Range is known for it’s steep grinds at 1,000 feet per mile. I felt in great shape, and had just run the Kelso Ridge on Torrey’s Peak in about an hour and a half, but this had me at the edge of my endurance. I was sweating, despite the cold, and we were going through water fast. I thought about asking Carlos to slow down so we could conserve energy for the traverse, but I thought the better of it. Better to pound it out now, as the last 700 feet to the summit would be a good time to rest as it was just a long traverse.
Just as the sun began to rise out of the east, we crested the south ridge of Maroon Peak. Just as I took the pack off to get out my camera, two other hikers joined us. This was Steve and Hadi. Both had the same intention; to pass the Traverse. After some incredible photos, we began the tedious traverse to the summit of the peak.
Carlos and I had both made it most of the way to the summit on previous trips, so the going at first was extremely quick. We were at the bottom of the gulleys in just 10 minutes. It was here I had turned around last time, due to the unstable snow and exposed terrain. Today, there was very little snow to be seen. Up we went, being careful not to knock rocks down on one another. Soon, we were up the first gulley, traversing our way further north. Ahead, a second gulley rose, and up again. Then a third. Just over an hour later, the last rocks to the summit were ahead, and I dashed up so as to get some pictures of the others as they crested the summit block.
We were overjoyed, high fiving, and fist bumping, encouraging one another and taking in the spectacular views, second only to Snowmass and Chicago Basin thus far. It was 8 AM, still very early on a cloudless Sunday morning. Most would still be in bed! We took a long break on the summit, laughing at the mountain goats on nearby North Maroon and talking with other hikers close behind. At 8:30, we began the Traverse.
In Colorado, there are 4 “Great Traverses” and one unofficial “Traverse”. I had already done one previously (Little Bear-Blanca), which was considered the most exposed and difficult (we were about to test that). Then there is the El Diente-Wilson Traverse, the loosest. Finally, there is the Crestone Peak-to-Needle Traverse, the easiest of the four. A friend of mine had done all four, and he said this would be comparable to the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse, just slightly less exposed and more loose. The last Traverse is the realm of true mountaineers. At 2 miles, the long ridge connecting Snowmass and Capitol Peak has only been completed a handful of times, and requires multiple technical pitches with scant protection, and car sized blocks that often teeter beneath you as you move along the ridge. Known as “Satan’s Ridge,” there is a 5.8-5.10 pitch requiring exposed moves, and it often requires a bivouac (overnight) on the ridge itself. Maybe one day….
But this would not be anywhere close to that level, but it would still be a difficult climb with some unroped 5thclass moves. The descent was intimidating, moving down loose rock and dirt to the small notch which represented the lowest point on the ¼ mil traverse. This was the top of the Bell Cord Couloir, a bucket list climb of mine. The descent was loose, but not too bad, and within 10 minutes, we were at the Bell Cord. Along the ridge there would be 3 difficulties: tower 1, 2, and 3. The first was immediately north of the Bell Cord. The Second tower would be the most difficult, with climbing between a 5.2-5.4. The third would be difficult, but not exposed.
I took the lead up the first tower, taking my time to pick out the path with the best holds and least exposure. It was immediately obvious that this ridge would be much more technical than the Little-Bear Blanca Traverse, but would the exposure be just as bad? The jury was still out on that question. Some 4thclass moves, and one 5thclass move brought me to a small platform. In the distance, I could see a crowd gathering, watching our progress as we made our way across the traverse, my partners about 20 feet below watching my every move. Once on this platform, I found a path to the left and some easy class 3 scrambling brought me to the top of difficulty one. The exposure was not that bad, and the climbing was fun! Soon, my partners joined me, and we moved together across the ledges, occasionally climbing up, sometimes down, but always close to the ridge.
Soon, the second wall was before us, and it was obvious this would be the most exposed climbing on the route. Again, I took the lead, out onto a steep face with thousands of feet of exposure below. Up and to the right, to a small rock just wide enough to stand on, then up an exposed crack to the top of difficulty 2. The climb was exhilarating, but the exposure did not seem to register: months of climbing and preparation had desensitized my mind to exposure and difficult climbing. Rope or not, it was all the same, and I knew I could do it. Once on top, a quick thanksgiving prayer and I called the others up, coaching Steve up each move. Cussing and grunting seemed to be the coping mechanism of choice as each move became more and more difficult and exposed. The last two or three moves required a stem and hand jam, but one-by-one, we grouped at the top. This was the scariest moment for me; I knew I could do it and felt comfortable, but as each one made it to the top, the one behind seemed to be less and less comfortable with the exposure. Our last climber up was clearly very nervous and had not done much if any exposed technical climbing. Experience is worth more than physical shape in moments like these.
Once we were all on top, we celebrated together, knowing the worst was behind. Some of us wanted to take a mental break, but we ultimately decided to keep moving to get past the last difficulty, then we would have space to breath. Immediately ahead lay the last difficulty. This one would require more technique, as there was a small overhang at the top, but the exposure, thankfully, was no more than 20 or 30 feet. I immediately went into the chimney, easily moving up the first ¾ of the climb. Then I encountered the overhang. There were only very small footholds available, and hand-jamming would be required. I squeezed my way into the gap between the overhanging rock and the wall, stemming with both feet. My trekking poles got caught on the overhang, and a brief moment of panic overtook me. I took a deep breath, knelt down, ducked my trekking poles under the rock, and move the last few feet to the platform. The whole instance took no more than 10 seconds, but it was obvious how an accident could easily happen on such terrain.
Then came Hadi. Just below the overhang, he handed me his backpack, and he squeezed through the gap, and joined me on top. He turned around to help the other two while I went ahead the last ten feet to see what was left of the route. Atop this 3rddifficulty, the ridge leveled out, and a large, flat slab lay ahead, bringing us to the final slopes of North Maroon. We had made it! One of the most exciting and technical climbs on the 14ers had allowed us to bag two of the most difficult peaks. Once we were all on top we moved very quickly to the last tower that was easily bypassed. Along the way, we encountered the famous “Leap of Faith” that had crumbled underneath a previous climber on a viral Youtube video. The leap ended up an easy task, and we were soon grunting our way up the 3rdclass finish to the summit. On top, a couple greeted us, shaking our hands and telling us they had watched our journey.
On the summit, we took plenty of pictures, high-fived, and enjoyed the view. In all, we had done the traverse in just an hour and a half. 15 minutes later, we were on our way down, following the couple that had ascended the northeast slopes. Down the 4thclass chimney and into the 2ndgulley, it became obvious we had made the right choice. This gulley was extremely steep and loose, and would’ve been a true grind with the risk of falling rock ever-present.
As if to illustrate the risk, the couple ahead of us moved into a particularly narrow section, and the man kicked down a torso sized rock, which went hurtling at his partner, we all yelled “Rock!” and she attempted to move out of the way as it gained speed, skipping and changing direction as though she were a magnet, aiming straight for her. At the last possible second, she ducked, and it hurtled about a foot to her right and slightly above. We were all frozen there, stunned at what we had just witnessed. We stood there, staring at one another, shaking our heads. I was sure we were about to witness someone die on what should have been the “easy” part of the climb. Not wanting to send any more rocks down, we allowed them to move out of the line of fire before continuing on. We talked in hushed tones as the couple, the woman clearly steaming at her partners carelessness, yelled at each other over the near fatal accident. The terrain had been steep enough that the rock would’ve not only broken bones and organs, but the woman would have likely fallen hundreds of feet before stopping.
It was a reality check. We moved close together so as to not allow the rocks to gain sufficient speed to be a threat. Once we made our excruciatingly slow way down the 2ndgulley, we traversed to the top of the “1stgulley” which was not quite as steep, loose, and much much grassier than the other one. We moved a little quicker, keeping our distance from the couple, sure we had witnessed a miracle. I am not sure if the others saw it the way I did, but I am certain God was watching over us that day. The rock had moved so quickly, she could not have hoped to predict where it would land, nor could she move out of the way. Thankfully it had ricocheted just enough that it missed her by less than a foot. All I could think of was what would I have done if she had been hit? I had already been taking my pack off, sure she would be hit, to pull out the SPOT device and call 911. Thankfully, no rescue was required that day, and we all made a slow arduous descent to the rock morain beneath the north side of the peak.
Carlos, in typical fashion, sprinted ahead, moving through the rock pile as if it were a dirt trail. We followed far behind, trying not to twist an ankle. Once back on the dirt trail, we took a moment to shed layers and drink the last of the water. Although there was a stream nearby, I only had the small capsules to disinfect the water, and this would make the camelback taste awful and take half an hour. Since we were only 45 minutes from the cars at this point, I decided to forgo the water and suffer through the last mile and a half. Once back at Crater Lake, Hadi and Steve parted ways with us to pack up their camp from the night before. We dashed down the trail, Carlos moving far ahead as I became slower and slower. I had not eaten food in a good while, and I had run out of water. Fine by me, the truck was not far and I had finished off the only two peaks that made me truly nervous of all the 14ers.
The descent from here was uneventful, and soon I was back at the truck. I drained the water I had left at the truck, said goodbye to Carlos, and we went our separate ways. I was thankful we had finished so early, having ample time to make it back to Denver before dark. Once home, I ate, and ate, and ate, went to bed, and up early the next day for another day of work. Now only 3 remained: Capitol, Kit Carson, and Wilson Peak.