What a climb! Clearly my most actual "climbing" on
a Colorado 14'er to date. I found the Bells dangerous, challenging
and amazingly satisfying. The Maroon Bells traverse is one of Colorado's
four great fourteeners traverses. I climbed Maroon Peak (South Bell)
then made the traverse to the North Maroon Peak (North Bell) on Saturday,
July 16, 2005.
Patrick, my normal climbing partner was grounded in July awaiting
the Stork so I arranged the climb with two young climbers (Andy and
Chris) via SummitPost.org,
a climbing community on the web. None of us has climbed the Bells but this
was my third trip there and I was determined to stand on top of at
least one of them.
We met up in Aspen on Friday, had a quick bite and made the
short 1.5 mile walk to Crater lake. As we passed the tourist admiring
the Maroon Bells, one of them asked us if we knew it was getting dark!
We arrived at Crater lake, found a nice spot near a designated campsite
and rolled out our bags. Sleeping out in the open air was a nice start
to what was going to be a long day.
Walking in the dark with headlamps lighting up the well worn
trail, we made the 1.8 walk to my infamous "bent tree" at 10,500' that
marks the end of the easy stuff as a faint trail exits right and up
the slopes. The trail was visible and easy to follow for only a few
hundred yards when we lost it all together. We knew it was a mile to
the Southeast ridge at 13,300' - a 2,800 gain.
In a classic battle between navigating, technology and aimless
wandering, we soon found the ridge. At one point, I pulled out my GPS
to use the coordinates for the spot on the ridge we should attain,
meanwhile Chris used his compass to triangulate our position based
on the summit of Pyramid across the valley. But it was Andy who was
still wandering around who said casually "Guys, I think the trail is
The backside of the ridge held all sorts of surprises. While
not difficult climbing - few sections exceeded class 3 - it was challenging
to stay on route. The carins were few and far between. But we meanandered
our way towards the South Bell summit. Climbing mostly in the shadows,
it was a clear and warm day requiring nothing more than a good shirt
for protection. Scramble up, scramble down. Find a couloir, go up,
exit left. Whoops, too low, back in the couloir to go higher, exit
again, go North towards the summit. Finally finding the couloir between
point 13,743' and the South Bell, we climbed the loose scree and made
the summit. This section had taken six hours from our camp.
The views were astounding
from the South Bell. The picture below is of Snowmass (the one with
all the snow on it!). I took a video from the south
After a short break we were ready for the traverse to the
It starts with a brief walk to a 20' drop-off. It was a straight-forward
downclimb that required no ropes. We attained the ridge proper and
began more meandering. It is interesting that the ridge is only four
tenths of a mile in total length but would take us 1:50 hours to complete.
The climbing was not too difficult nor was the route finding
(with a couple of exceptions - see video)
until we reached the base of the North Bell. The climb up the North
Bell held some real surprises as the exposure was terminal and the
climbing requiring some low class 5 moves. See the video of
climbing the North Bell from the traverse. Again not difficult if you
have good rock climbing experience but a couple of times, I cocked
my head watching Andy make some "interesting" moves.
The Maroon Bells have a reputation for "horrible rock", "loose stuff
everywhere", "nothing to feel secure with" and more. While we found
all that true, we all agreed that there were foot-holds and hand-holds
everywhere. In the 5+ areas, you could always find something solid
to push off from on hold onto. So while the Bells are rotten, they
are also dependable when you need her.
The view from the North Bell was fantastic. Snowmass and Capital
were clear as a Bell (ha!) as was the weather. We enjoyed a well deserved
break to refuel and hydrate. I topped off my reservoir was some clean
summit snow. I thought about all those tourists down at Maroon Lake
enjoying the view but not nearly as much as we were. Another summit
video was in order and we were off to start our downclimb.
The route from the North Bell was long and arduous.
It follows the Northeast ridge and is class 4 the majority
of the way. We hit deep snow patches and loose scree. Just as you thought
you were going to break into an easy area, it dropped sharply and steadily.
I was glad we were going down this and not up. The route was
clear and well marked unlike the ascent to the South Bell. Four hours
later were back at camp to pick up our sleeping bags. A half hour later
we were back at the car. A 13 or 14 hour day depending on how you count
it (camp or car).
A few thoughts
on climbing the Maroon Bells. First, I would not suggest going alone.
The route finding was as difficult as advertised. Sometimes it simply
disappears. It is extremely easy to go down instead of up or taking
the wrong couloir. Then there is the actual climbing. I cannot
imagine someone who has not rock climbed attempting
what we did. While not required to summit the South by the SE Ridge
route, it would helpful. It is mandatory for
the traverse and the North upclimb. Even the "easy" downclimbs from
the North required basic moves and handholds. On the traverse, we spotted
one another a few times just to be sure.
The Bells are dangerous. A slip is easy. The exposure is deadly.
You can die on this route. There were a lot of wet rocks up there this
July. Even though we never used ropes, ice axes or our crampons, I
would classify the traverse as a "technical" route in many respects.
The guide books use words such as "complicated, loose, exposed and
dangerous". I agree - and ...
It was amazingly satisfying. The views were out of this world,
the climbing was challenging and stimulating. The sense of looking
over at Pyramid, Snowmass or Capital was exhilarating and motivating.
With the right partners, experience, weather and skills the Maroon
Bell Traverse should be on every climber's list.