North Maroon Peak (4271m) is nestled in the heart of the Elk Range, 16 kilometres west of Aspen in Colorado. North Maroon and its slightly higher companion South Maroon form the spectacular Maroon Bells, often referred to as the "Deadly Bells". 4 years after my successful but near-disastrous climb of South Maroon, I returned to these peaks with mixed feelings.
It was a humid morning at the public campground in the Maroon Bells National Park, some few kilometers southwest of Aspen, Colorado. Not due to rain, but rather because of a cold mountain stream barely two metres away from my tent. It was 06:00am in the morning and the sun was still too low to climb above the surrounding mountains and reach the deep and dark valley. The leaves on the Aspen trees had turned into a redish color, and were now on its most beautiful.
Maroon Lake Trailhead
I crawled out of my tent and started immediately to clean the campsite. My fingers almost got frostbitten when I packed together the ice-covered tent. I found shelter in my Jeep shortly after, and turned the heating system on full power as I drove the few kilometers to Maroon Lake Trailhead (2925m). There were a few cars already, and everybody seemed to be in a hurry to get going. I had not eaten breakfast yet, so I patiently took my time to prepare some food.
It was 07:05am when I left my car at the parking lot. I really enjoyed the pleasant hike along the scenic Maroon Lake with the Maroon Bells looming in the background. At the end of the lake, the trail continued into the woods and gained some elevation. Frequently I was looking for the important junction where another but less crowded trail continued to Pyramid Peak, which was my objective for the day. But I didn’t see it and I knew I was far off when I reached the east end of Crater Lake after 2,5 kilometres. The Pyramid Peak trail-junction was supposed to be somewhere in-between Maroon Lake and Crater Lake. Hiking back was not on my mind, it was easier to find a new objective and postpone my Pyramid climb to the next day. Thus I opted for North Maroon instead. I actually attempted this peak in July-2001 but had to abandon the traverse between South Maroon and North Maroon because of the worst electric storm I have ever experienced. Now, 4 years later, I had returned to Aspen in order to get my revenge.
North Maroon Peak
I sat down for a while in order to study my new objective and its route. I found out that I was very close to the trail leading to North Maroon, in fact it was just a couple of hundred metres north of Crater Lake. I easily found the trail, and continued west on the steep trail. This is actually the Snowmass Creek Trail, but I was only supposed to follow it for less than 1 kilometer before I reached a new junction. Luckily I found the junction and continued left (southwest), first down to a small stream, then steep into the bush and finally across a terrible stretch of big boulders. I would say the trail is pretty difficult to find in some places, but at least you know where you are heading as the Northeast Ridge of Maroon gets closer and closer. The boulders are the worst part though and quite a few have ended up with broken legs right here.
It’s an amazing experience to stand below the large and steep North Face, as one gets ready to climb the Northeast Ridge. With my helmet on, I continued on a grassy ledge, around a corner and then steep up a gully. Barely 30 metres higher up in the small gully, the climbers trail switched left out of the gully, around a corner and into a wide gully. I continued up this gully, which occasionally required a class 3 move. From Maroon Lake this gully looks awfully steep and exposed, but I did not feel any exposure at all.
I had expected to stay in this gully to the end, eventually being forced to climb a 15 metres high and near vertical rockband. So I was rather surprised when the climbers trail turned left onto a broad ledge and around a new corner. Beyond the corner was a new wide gully. First then I realized that the old route had been altered in order to avoid the rock band. According to Gerry Roach’s Guidebook one has to climb the rockband. But that doesn’t seem to be the practice anymore.
The new gully (which is not mentioned in Gerry Roach's book) was pretty straightforward in the beginning. Here I also met two climbers from Colorado. We talked enthusiastically about the Alps, Himalayas and Norway as we ascended the gully. Higher up the difficulties increased and at the very end of the gully a couple of class 3-4 moves was required in order to regain the ridge. The Colorado climbers slowed down on the more technical ground, and I continued on my own on top of the ridge. First it was rather easy along the ridge, but then I came to a sudden halt below a new rockband. I was obviously standing beneath the crux of the route, a chimney that started one meter above the ground. The chimney was approx 3-4 metres high and there was a fixed rope hanging down from it. But I told myself that I was not going to use any kind of aid on a class 4 move. To my disadvantage, the chimney was heavily iced up, effectively making it a class 5.4 pitch.
The crux and the summit
I climbed impatiently into the chimney, but shortly after, I slid out of it and fell one meter to the ground. My damned boots found no grip whatsoever on the polished and iced up rocks. I tried a new tactic, pressing my body and limbs against the walls of the chimney and I steadily worked my way up. The final move, however, where I was supposed to pull myself over the top and get out of the chimney did not work very well. It was too slippery and I did not like the prospect of crashing 3-4 metres to the ground. It would certainly not have killed me, but I could not risk any injuries only few weeks before the autumn season in the Himalayas, which was more important to me than a foolish act on the Maroon Bells. Thus I cheated. I grabbed the fixed rope and hauled myself over the top.
There were no more difficulties beyond the crux and I scrambled easily to the summit of North Maroon which I finally reached at 10:50am. There were spectacular views from the summit (4271m) and I could imagine all the tourists standing far below at Maroon Lake and gazing up at the Deadly Bells, a name given after many fatal accidents on these two peaks. North Maroon is regarded as one of the most difficult 14ers in Colorado, and perhaps the most deadly. I also got a strange feeling when looking at North Maroon’s companion peak in the south, and the classic ridge in-between. The electric storm on South Maroon could easily have killed me back in 2001. The dreadful experience has dramatically changed my behavior in the mountains. Nowadays I never climb higher when a thunderstorm is approaching, contrary to what I foolishly did on South Maroon in 2001. Thunderstorms and avalanches are the two single events I fear most in the mountains, and I will never forget that.
Forced to retreat
I spent at least 20 minutes on the summit, before the ice-cold wind forced me to retreat. I met the two other climbers and I happily told them it was only 10 minutes left to the summit. I reached the crux shortly after. I decided that the fixed rope was too short to take me all the way past the crux, so I used my own rope for abseil.
I had no route-findings problems on my way down, and I safely reached Crater Lake 1-2 hours later. I still had one task left however. I had to find the crucial trail junction to Pyramid Peak, so I would not waste any time the next morning, when climbing Pyramid Peak. And I was correct. The trail junction is difficult to find when coming from Maroon Lake, but it’s pretty easy to see when coming from Crater Lake. So Pyramid Peak climbers are hereby warned!
I returned to Maroon Lake at 14:25 and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the shores of the wonderful lake with the breathtaking scenery.
(I’m referring to the YDS class rating system throughout this article)