Posts Tagged ‘Maroon Bell’

For Whom the Bells Toll

February 28, 2010

Due to a rare alignment of coincidences, Brian and I were able to join up again for a hard 14er traverse; our last big traverse effort together was the successful Crestone traverse just over 1 year ago done to celebrate my 40th birthday.  We both wanted to do the Maroon Bell traverse, but for different reasons.  Brian had attempted the Maroon Bells traverse seven years prior (summited on North Maroon Bell, but not on South Maroon Bell) while I climbed South Maroon Bell (SMB) in 2002 but had not attempted North Maroon Bell (NMB) yet; a successful traverse would check-off a peak for both of us.  Plus, it is one of Roach’s “Great Traverses.”  We had to do it.

A view of the Bells from Pyramid, taken a few days earlier

Our planning discussions led us to plan on a N-S-N traverse with a N-S option if the weather was bad or we were too slow.  I had done the standard SMB route and felt confident I remembered the trail.  Brian felt that the double traverse and descent via NMB would be faster and easier, if we could finish the traverses before the weather came.

Day One

On Thursday night I made my dutiful check on the weather forecast; and it was bad.  The forecast called for “morning thunderstorms and rain and afternoon thunderstorms and rain; chance of precipitation 50%.”  It was the worst forecast I’ve headed into yet; and this effort would have the longest exposure to weather problems of any climb we’d done to date.  Still, we’ve done enough climbing over the years to know just how unpredictable the weather can be…we decided to proceed and hope for luck.

We started toward Aspen on Friday, August 1, 2003, in the late afternoon with a plan to hike up to a campsite near the starting point for NMB.  Our driving speed was good the entire way and we arrived at 8:00pm.  Anxious to make progress before dark, we quickly hiked up from the Maroon Lake Trailhead west before the fading daylight forced us to pull out the headlamps prior to the cutoff for Pyramid.  Now hiking more carefully, we continued up in the dark, past Crater Lake, and watched carefully for the turnoff for Maroon-Snowmass Trail. We found it and took it for approximately 0.5 mile to where we found a previously used campsite, 20 feet off the trail and buried in the trees. We setup camp and turned in with hopes of a restful nights sleep (position #1 on map).

Our N-S-N route up North & South Maroon Bells

Day Two

I didn’t sleep well and so the pre-dawn alarm was not welcome. But with our bad weather forecast, we both jumped up and got ready for our big day on August 2nd in 2003.

The Climb of North Maroon Bell

A beautiful field of flowers below the North Maroon Bell north face

We quickly found the cut-off a short way above our campsite.  We crossed the Minnehaha Creek before we wandered up through trees and rocks to reach a grassy area and then a rock glacier below North Maroon’s North Face as the daylight started to pick up.

Brian had been more of a speed devil than ever; and I kept up until I was ready to puke.  Oddly, I really felt bad and needed a 15 minute rest in the talus field in the basin below NMB’s north face to recollect myself (position #2). I felt bad enough to go home.

Hiking Pace Maxim: Hike at your own pace or slower

Each of us has a sustainable pace based on our conditioning, our physical mechanics, and the situation; going too fast means to risk illness (mountain sickness, deydration, bonking), injury (falls, twisted ankle) and loss of situational awareness (concentrating too much on footing).

Joe heading toward the grassy gully from the rock glacier (Brian says sorry for taking too long to get film developed)

Starting to feel better and anxious not to lose the weather, I started up again.  We completed the traverse of the rock field and found a trail at “a point below the lowest cliffs on the NE ridge”. We used that trail to do an ascending traverse below the cliffs to get to a broad grassy gully.

It was a very cool setting: a thin trail cut into side of the mountain and a magnificent drop down to the valley floor.

The grassy gully that we took to begin our ascent of North Maroon Bell

We followed the trail south under the grassy gully, and then we started up the left side of the gully following a worn trail (position #3).  We climbed about 600’  before exiting on the left side below some white cliffs.  After we exited the grassy gully, we turned a corner and traversed across ledges to reach a 2nd gully (position #4).

Just like South Maroon Bell, the North is a steep pile of rocks just barely hanging on before committing to a suicide plunge to the bottom. Every rock we stepped on was a potential death missile for any below us.

In the 2nd gully, we worked our way higher to reach some challenging ledges below the ridge crest.  We then hiked up the remaining distance to reach the ridge at approximately 13,100’ (position #5). We stayed approximately on the ridge the rest of the way.

The first major obstacle we found on the ridge was the infamous “rock band” at around 13,600’ where we took our first break.

We found some water run-off and stopped to take advantage. I finished my 1st liter to free up some space, and then refilled with the questionable water.  Brian recalls:

When I filled my water bottle at the rock band, it was full of moss specks, and some had six legs.  I used two iodine pills.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be my only refill opportunity up high….I would have to survive on 3 liters until returning to Minnehaha Creek.

Joe on the climb to NMB (photo by Brian)

We passed the rock band using a short Class 4 chimney, and then we navigated around numerous obstacles to stay near the ridge crest all the way to the NMB summit (position #6).

To our delight, the weather was holding. But we didn’t trust it; so we only dared stop for a quick snack before starting the traverse.

Scrambling down an obstacle on the traverse (photo by Brian)

The Traverse to South Maroon Bell

From the NMB summit, we started by following Roach’s instructions to descend southwest from the summit.  It was a surprisingly exposed first move for a 14er, but it was an effective foreshadowing of things to come.  We scrambled down a loose talus slope and then climbed up, over and around various obstacles to reach a 20-foot cliff that we downclimbed without much difficulty.

We continued the obstacle course until above a 35 foot cliff we couldn’t figure out how to downclimb safely (position #7).  We rappelled to the bottom and continued.

This was the only very difficult part of traverse, other than for the constant exposure to terrifically long falls that would provide the victim enough time to regret the error.

We had to downclimb two short cliff sections to reach the low point of the traverse, which was also the top of the Bell Cord Couloir.

From there, we began our ascent to SMB. We started up some ledges and then climbed up a gully to reach additional ledges which led to the east end of the summit ridge.

The last scrambling section was disappearing beneath our hands and feet pretty well when a big commotion behind us caused us to stop and look. It was a group of college-age men who were running up the route and racing each other to the SMB summit.  We stood aside to avoid being trampled.  Once on the summit (position #8), we learned they had run up NMB and over the entire traverse.  As I was breathing hard from my own modest efforts, I was impressed with their physical ability to do it….even as I was annoyed at the lack of courtesy involved in the process.

Brian & Joe on the summit of South Maroon Bell

The weather was holding, but just barely.  We decided we could make it back across the traverse to NMB based on the hope that our familiarity with the terrain would compensate for the slowing of our tired bodies.  We just needed the weather to hold out a couple more hours.

The Traverse Back to North Maroon Bell

North Maroon Bell from the summit of South Maroon Bell

From South Maroon‘s summit, we returned to the north along the summit ridge to the northeast corner of the peak and started for home.

We descended to the west through a series of small cliff bands and then down a loose gully. Once down the gully, we turned to the north and traversed a series of small ledges to reach the top of the Bell Cord couloir.

From the low point in the traverse, we climbed up the first 20 feet of the cliff to a small ledge, from which we scrambled another 20 feet to mount the cliff band.

From the top of this cliff band the ridge flattened out and narrowed to only a few feet (with a big drop-off to either side). We scrambled for a while along the ridge toward a 20 foot tall bump on the ridge.  We climbed up and over the spire and then down climbed another small cliff band.

More scrambling led us to the cliff that forced a rappel earlier; this time we were able to find a climbing route to get past. We continued staying mostly to the ridge until we returned to the last section below the summit.

We climbed up some talus and then some ledges to reach the summit ridge, and finally the summit where we had been a few hour earlier.

I’d have to say that I preferred the South-to-North pattern due to the predominance of climbing up vs. downclimbing.

The Descent from North Maroon Bell

Looking down at the start of the upper gully from the ridge

Everything had gone better than we had a right to expect.  The only real discomfort was my increasing dehydration.  Of course Brian was satisfied with his thimble-full; but I needed more than 3 liters for such work. Plus, I still had a touch of the mountain sickness I caught early in the day, and I was very anxious to begin losing some serious altitude.

I’ll admit to being irritated that nothing looked the same on the descent of the gully. North Maroon Bell is not a friendly mountain. I tried to follow the cairns but once again found myself lost in a sea of loose rocks.  I managed to avoid knocking anything loose, but it was a serious mental strain.

Brian and a fellow we met on the climb of NMB and SMB

About 1/2 way down the gully, it started raining and then stopped.  And that was the last of the weather. We had really gotten lucky in two ways.  One, the weather was good despite a bad forecast, and, two, the bad forecast had kept the crowd to a manageable level.  I would hate to do NMB or the traverse on a good weather forecast weekend day; the rockfall would be deadly.

Exhausted, we slowly made our way to the Minnehaha creek.  While approaching the creek, the idea formed in my mind to soak my feet in the freezing water to cure my “fire toes.”  I had been thinking about this for a long time, but never took the time to try it.  With the willing sacrifice of a few minutes, it felt so good to freeze my feet after filling my water bottles.

But then Brian reminded me that we need to get to camp to break it down and hike back to the car (Brian’s Mustang, “The Mach”) before starting the long drive home. Reluctantly, I put on my socks and boots and starting hiking, only to find that my feet hurt worse than ever!  The cold water treatment had turned on every nerve ending in my feet and turned every callus into soft cheese. Oh, the misery! The 2 mile hike back to Brian’s car was an ordeal….like hiking with broken glass in my boots.

But, once off my feet and with Brian driving home, I was able to reflect on a great trip.  I was pleased to have completed another of Roach’s Great Traverses and bag my 48th 14er.  This trip was one of the great ones:  full of strenuous effort, difficult problem-solving, and mortal danger; and our betting against the weather forecast and winning made the victory all the sweeter.  The church bells need not toll for us, except in celebration.

Brian heading toward Minihaha Creek

And as I thought about having only ten more 14ers to go, I discovered that I was both happy and sad. I had become addicted to the mental, physical and emotional challenges found on the Colorado 14ers.  Before the month’s end, I’d planned for another seven 14ers to fall beneath my Makalus:  Chicago Basin Group (8/14/03) & Wilson Group (8/6/03).  The list of remaining 14ers would soon be very short indeed.

And a big ‘thank-you’ to Brian for thinking of a great trip report title.

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The Long Bell

January 12, 2009

My pace was off.  I had done 8 fourteeners in June and none in July.  Determined to reverse the trend, I set out to climb South Maroon Bell and Castle on July 19-20, 2002.

My original plan was to climb Castle (and Conundrum) as a warm up before climbing my real goal, South Maroon Bell (SMB).  However, the weather forecast was looking questionable, so I decided to go for SMB first to give myself a second day to complete the SMB climb if storms chased me off on the first attempt.

I briefly considered doing the traverse between the two Bells and bagging both summits.  However, I felt wary of the steep, exposed, loose conditions I had heard and read would be encountered, so I settled on an attempt on SMB alone.  Hell, it would be a full day’s work at approximately 10 miles and 4600 feet of elevation gain, according to the guidebook.

Since this would be a solo effort, I prepared better than I normally do.  I studied two guidebooks (Dawson & Roach) and tried to reconcil the information into a single, consistent set of directions.  I copied the topo from Dawson since it was more detailed, transcribed a single set of route directions, and even brought a picture of the southern exposure of SMB with Roach’s route roughly sketched out.  I did everything I could think to prepare for day long day of route-finding.  It wasn’t enough.

I started early, leaving the Maroon Lake trailhead at 5:15am in complete darkness, and headed toward Crater Lake.  On the way out, I met a fellow who was going to climb both peaks – he said it wouldn’t be too difficult.  With a weakened resolve to do only SMB, I started hiking with a fast pace.  I suppose I had a little extra adrenaline as a result of climbing without a partner.  Hell, even my boots felt good at first.  My water planning was also coming off well.  I had had several water shortage mishaps in recent weeks and was determined to drink enough water without carrying too much at any one time.  I brought 3 liter bottles:  one full and two empty.  I drank one liter on the hike in and was able to fill all 3 bottles at the creek just before heading up toward the South Ridge.  This was the last of my overwhelmingly good performances.

At approximately 7am, I reached the climbers trail for the South Ridge of SMB.  It was about twenty yard before the spot where the trail crossed the West Maroon Creek for the first time (there was an earlier crossing of a tributary about 0.5 mile before), and was marked by two cairns.  Since I couldn’t see the Bells from my position, I tried to figure out where I was and where I was going before heading up.  It was very confusing.

My Bell routes seen from Pyramid

My Bell routes seen from Pyramid

Overhead was a steep ridge, while to the left was a broad slope with small gullies, and further to the left was another ridge.  I could see what might be the South Ridge at the very top of the visible mountain, but I could not be sure where the SMB summit was located. More importantly, I could not make out the “SE ridge dropping from the South Ridge” which I was supposed to aim for, at least according to Dawson.  On the other hand, Roach just said to “climb west for 1.0 mile to reach the South Ridge.”  At that point I sure was sorry I wasn’t better prepared.


Rule of Multiple Sources:
always use at least two independent sources of route information;
and if two disagree, then use three


The topo map I had taken from the Dawson guidebook (scale:  1:50,000) displayed a route line that went left and then right up a broad slope between two ridges.  Perhaps it meant between the ridge above me and the ridge I could see to the left.  Roach’s description to “climb west for 1.0 mile to reach South Ridge” seemed to confirm this idea.  So, my best guess was to go to the left a bit and then straight up (west) between the major ridges.  While I did not know exactly what I needed to do, I had no way to gather more information.  I was happy to have a trail to follow that headed in the direction I wanted.

Then the damned trail took hard left and continued due south for an indeterminate distance at the 10,700′ level.  I couldn’t believe that was the way to go.  The key was the “SE Ridge coming down from the South ridge.”  Dawson’s directions said to go to the south side of the SE ridge, and I couldn’t believe that I was supposed to go to the far side of the ridge to my far left; it just didn’t jive with Roach’s “climb west for 1.0 mile to reach South Ridge”. And I was in a hurry to beat the weather, so I didn’t have much time to think.

In my rush to make progress, I decided that the ridge that had been above me at the start of the climbers trail and was now to my right, had to be the SE Ridge (even though it aimed in a northeasterly direction).  This allowed me to follow Dawson’s directions to climb along the south side of the SE Ridge and follow Roach’s “climb west for 1.0 mile….”.  Too bad it was wrong.


Rule of Small Errors:
a small wayfinding mistake
can go a long way in the mountains


So I left the trail and continued westward.  I climbed a 2nd class rocky gully and came though a thicket of willows to a lower angle slope where I studied my positions once again.  The route continued to check out.  I figured that SMB was to my right, but out of sight, and that by climbing the gully to the south of the ridge that was now to my right, I would reach the South Ridge of SMB .

A view from North Maroon Bell of my detour end point

A view from North Maroon Bell of my detour end point

About 2 hours later, at 9:30am, I mounted the crest of the ridge at 12,500 ft that I figured was the Southeast Ridge of SMB and found myself looking across a gulf to North Maroon Bell.  My eyes followed the ridgeline between the Bells to find SMB summit.  My line to SMB summit was blocked by many nasty-looking towers.  It wasn’t impossible, but very improbable that I would find a survivable path.  Crap.


Possibility Razor:
everything is possible,
the question is whether we should risk it


I decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and I had that infrequent, but terrible sinking feeling that I didn’t have time to finish. My original plan was to summit at noon, now I would be lucky to summit by 3pm on a day with a bad weather forecast.  I wondered if I should just call it a day.  But at least I knew where I was, and all I had to do was figure out how to get from where I was to the summit, and quickly.


Law of Disintegration:
large problems are made up of many little questions;
solve large problems by resolving easy questions


I finally had to admit that the original trail that I discarded at the 10,700 ft level was the right trail. But I didn’t think I could go back down 2,000 feet, traverse south to the next ridge (the SE Ridge!), and climb 3,200 feet in loose rock and “obscure route” finding in time to beat the weather.  So my next task was to find a way to get to the SE Ridge, to the south of me, without losing too much altitude.

I descended the steep gully to the 12,000 ft level where I crossed to the crest of a smaller ridge a short way to the south of my current position.  I hoped I could traverse south at this level to reach the proper route, but there were many small ridges and probable steep drop-offs along the way.  And I was still determined to not try to force anything and get myself killed, so I backed off.  But I did managed to spot a trail far below of some quality that led over to the ridge further south which I decided would be my target.   So, I backtracked the route I had come up earlier in the day down to the 11,000 ft level and found a faint traverse that worked.  I managed to save 300 feet.

As the traverse ended and the climb began, my body began to reject the entire notion of mountain climbing.  I felt sick to my stomach and my feet were suffering a preordained tragedy in the Greek tradition.

The various paths

The various paths; developed during analysis of "what went wrong"

Ever since buying a pair of La Sportiva Eigers to replace my aged Makalus, I have suffered terribly.  The boots will not break-in, attempting to force my feet to do so instead, and the excessive rubber in the boot design causes my feet to sweat profusely and skin to chaff like soft cheese.  I performed a bit of foot repair with moleskin and athletic tape, changed my socks for the third time in the day, and made the decided that I would relegate my new boots to winter and spring climbing.

The upper section of Maroon Bell Peak with my approximate route drawn in red

Once I again reached the 12,500 ft level, my highest progress previously, my ability to move returned and was sustained for several hours.  I reached the South Ridge at 12:30pm and drank ½ liter of water leaving me with only 1 liter of water.  At that point it occurred to me that my 3-hour excursion was going to cost me a serious case of dehydration.  After a few hundred feet, I started thinking again about the best way to go; the trail of cairns seemed to go higher than necessary.  (I know, you’re thinking, “uh, oh!”)


Evidence Axiom:
when you know you don’t know how to proceed,
follow the evidence of previous human passage


Fortunately, I had learned my lesson and realized that I didn’t really have any reason to think I knew a better way to go.  I resigned myself to simply follow the cairns and hope they led me to the summit.

A view toward Crater Lake from Maroon Bell. The end of my earlier route finding error is visible.

The South Ridge trail quickly became flat and easy until reaching the slopes of Point 13,753.  At this point, the route seemed to disappear.  Instead of continuing in a traverse, the route seemed to ascend Point 13,753, against the commands of the guidebook know-it-alls.  Still humbled, I simply followed the cairns, linking them together in the most reasonable path.  With a sharp eye for cairns, the route finding went easily.  I was careful to examine and weigh alternatives at each juncture and make no mistakes.  The trail was exposed and terribly loose in several places, but it worked.  It felt like climbing over a pile of land mines; a misstep would be fatal.

Along this path, I met up with the fellow from the Trailhead who was going to do the traverse.  When asked how it went, he indicated that he shouldn’t have attempted it and wouldn’t do it again without a rope.  He seemed a fellow not humbled easily; I was at once glad of my decision to be conservative.

I scrambled up the SW Couloir and up the South Face and further left along the ridgeline to the summit.  I sat down at 2:15pm and drank my last ½ liter of water.  As I rested on the tiny summit among the rocks and swarming flies, I studied the weather.  The clouds had been increasing during the last couple of hours with the wind appearing to be moving west.  From the summit, I could see a massive rain to the North (turned out to be a violent and newsworthy thunderstorm in Glenwood and Basalt), but I couldn’t determine the storm’s path.  The sound of thunder sufficiently settled the question and got me up and moving.  I had to descend a long way over slow terrain to get to tree line; I hoped I’d be lucky with the weather.

But I was in trouble regarding my own water.  I was already dehydrated and had nearly 4,000 feet to descend to the West Maroon Creek.  Despite my need to escape, I scrambled over to a melting snow patch in the SW Couloir to see if I could scrounge some water.  It was dripping, but slowly.  I only waited long enough to fill two liters with cloudy water.  And I needed water right away, so I put them both in my pants pockets to warm them and continually shake them to dissolve the iodine tablets.  I must have been a sight to see.

My view from the summit of Maroon Bell Peak. The stormy weather to the north is clearly visible.

The descent to the creek was endless.  Down SMB, down and across Point 13,753, down the South Ridge, down the SE Ridge, over and down the grassy slope . . . it went on and on and on.  I was so tired that I took to sitting in the dirt every 20 minutes or so.  I finally reached the creek (10,400 ft) at 6pm, nearly 3.5 hours after leaving the summit.  I immediately went to the creek and refilled two liters while finishing the last of the melted snow I carried down from 13,500ft.   The weather had held out for me again.

On the hike out, I started cramping.  A foreshadowing of the difficult night I would have due to electrolyte loss.  I reached the car at 7:15pm and immediately drank a liter I had stashed there.  I drank nine liters of water during the day, including 1 at the car at each end of the trip.  It wasn’t enough; I urinated only once on the hike and not again until after midnight at home.

I had hiked approximately 12 miles and climbed 6,100 feet in 14.5 hours.  I was extremely pleased that I was able to overcome my route finding mishap and finish the South Maroon Bell; but I knew I had to figure out a better way to prepare better for my adventures.

And Castle would have to wait until the next trip.


  • I was alone; no one to help think it through or go for help in case of injury
  • The available route information was indefinite and limited; just the guidebooks, which were inconsistent
  • The weather forecast was iffy and the mountain was hard to escape from; I was in an extra hurry
  • The approach didn’t provide any visibility to the climb; once I could see the route, I was too close to have any perspective


(1) Prepared badly

  • Didn’t bring a detailed topographical map; only brought a copy of map in guidebook
  • Didn’t resolve all discrepancies between the two route descriptions I used; just thought I’d be able to figure it out as I had done many times before

(2) Made bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  • Confirming Evidence Trap:  Based on my study of Roach’s directions, I was convinced that the route went straight west; when the trail turned south, I convinced myself that the ridge above me was the SE Ridge, rather than accept evidence of a different route path
  • Denial Bias:  I refused to think I could be wrong about the path to the South Ridge, despite not finding any trails or cairns and having some evidence to the contrary
  • Optimism Bias:  I was foolishly optimistic about being able to finish before the weather turned dangerous; I figured I could just retreat if the lightning came, but it took 3.5 hours to descend to the trees from the summit.

How I Got Lucky

  • The weather stayed good during the long day
  • My body stayed together long enough to reach water and easy terrain
  • I managed to find water on the trail
  • The cairns I followed actually lead to the summit

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