Saturday, September 12, 2009

Maroon Peak (14,162 ft.)

20 August, 2009: Sometimes, a good one takes two whacks. This one did. On the 5th, we tried Maroon Peak as a day hike, starting from the day use parking lot at 5 am MDT. We failed, having gotten off-route, and had to turn back at about 1:30 pm, having only reached Pt. 13,753. After some reflection, and some more route study, we decided to pack in, camp overnight, and try again.
So, on the 19th, we drove to and through Aspen, and arrived at the entrance to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness at about 4 pm. We payed the FS their $10 fee to park in the "overnight" parking lot, shouldered our expedition packs, and headed up the West Maroon Creek trail as the sun was sinking into the west. We hiked for a couple of hours, and camped near where the standard south ridge route to Maroon leaves the creek trail, near the "bent tree," at about 10,500 ft.
Part 1: The Hill of Death
Good and lazy, we ignored our first alarm, and didn't hit the trail until 6:15 am. One group of climbers, three women, passed by on their way up as we were getting ready. We didn't worry, since this still put us more than an hour ahead of the timing of our previous attempt.
Once you leave the creek trail, the serious climbing begins immediately. The route goes straight up the east slopes of the mountain and it is steep. It's also loose. There is a cairned route, with a visible trail most of the way, but it's basically just an uphill grunt. And it goes on for 2,800 vertical feet. So, even fresh at the beginning of the day, it took us well over two hours to climb this open slope and finally reach the ridge. The climbing isn't over then, as we actually came to the crest of the southeast branch of the south ridge, somewhere around 12,500 ft. But the crest is rocky and lots more solid than the dirt on the east slope, so the going does get easier. We soon clambered over the one significant--and narrow!--ridge point separating us from the small saddle to which we had labored up the slopes two weeks earlier. Our longer route had probably actually taken less time to this point!
Part 2: Blind traversing
This is where the serious rock climbing begins, so this is where we donned helmets. As our previous experience confirmed, a detailed description of this route in words is difficult to produce, and difficult to follow. Suffice it, here, to say that you leave the ridge crest on the west side, and sort of traverse--meaning that there's a lot of up-and-down--for quite a long ways north before clambering up a loose gully and re-gaining the ridge.
The technical crux of the route is a steep chimney encountered early on. The wearying part, however, is the endless, loose rock filling the gullies, and the constant search for the cairns marking the desired route. The real trick of this part of the route is resisting temptation long enough, and finding the right gully to ascend. If you pick the right one, you find yourself just to the north of the minor summit ridge point at 13,753 ft. You are then presented with your first close-up view of the actual summit. Also, you can see that the rest of the ridge is fairly easy to navigate, and offers a basically clear path to the top. (See pictures.) Prior to this point, you really can't see where you're going. All you have are cairns in a fractal landscape.

Part 3: Back on the ridge and glorious views
We scampered up the ridge, now moving at what seemed like supersonic speeds, and hit the summit just after 11 am, and found something like eight other climbers already there. Some had preceded us up the south ridge route, and a few had made the monumental traverse over from North Maroon (14,020 ft.), just happening to arrive there at about the same time. It was a party on the summit!
The views, and the weather, were both astounding. We enjoyed both for nearly 40 minutes, but there was still that long descent ahead of us, so we headed down just before noon.
Part 4: How can going down be this slow?
Off the summit, we both stayed more right on the ridge crest than we had on the way up, now that we could better see where we were going. It's a bit exposed in places, but solid and largely level. Once at the gully separating the summit from Pt. 13,753, however, the easy going was over, and it was back to loose, dangerous rubble. Fortunately, we had little trouble with reverse route-finding. Little, not none: we did go around the opposite side of one rock outcropping. And it took most of an hour to get back to the saddle where we felt comfortable removing our helmets.Then it was time for our re-match with the Hill of Death.
Having done it before, and taking our longer but gentler route, both helped make it seem a bit less intimidating than the first time, but it was still slow going. You just don't dare develop any momentum on steep, loose ground like this! Once we came off the southeast ridge crest, and began the descending traverse in earnest, we found we could see our tent far, far below! Our route aimed us almost right toward it, and it slowly became larger. Still, it was well after 4 pm when we finally reached our campsite.
Part 5: Packing out
We rested briefly, but only briefly, before setting to work to break camp, pack up, and head out. This included taking down our suspended bag of food, a precaution which has pretty much become our standard. Groaning once again under full packs, we headed back down the trail at about 4:45 pm. We lost direct sunlight, regained it, and lost it again before we finally reached Maroon Lake and the parking lot. It was an uneventful march, and the weather still held, but we were both moving rather slowly by the time it was finally over, somewhere around 7 pm. Happy to have knocked off our unfinished business, but also knowing we had at least one more date with this trailhead (for North Maroon), we set off for home as twilight gathered.
Pictures are at:

and pictures from the earlier attempt are at:

Long life and many peaks!

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