Wednesday, August 31, 2011

North Maroon Peak

(14,019 ft.)

28 August, 2011: Many climbers consider North Maroon to be Colorado's most difficult fourteener. Virtually all agree that it at least makes the short list. We'd tried it last year and been turned back by rainy weather.

After staying with our friend Miranda in Buena Vista Saturday night, we were up and on the road over Independence Pass long before dawn on Sunday. We rolled into the Maroon Lake parking lot shortly before sunrise. We hit the trail under clear skies, with very mild temperature and virtually no wind.

In less than an hour, we reached the junction where the Maroon-Snowmass trail turns west from the Maroon Creek trail. Scarcely half an hour later, having crossed Minnehaha Creek—and having started the serious climbing—we were shedding garments. We climbed in short sleeves most of the rest of the day.

The standard route on North Maroon consists largely of climbing two adjacent gullies, both of which top out along the mountain's northeast ridge. After that, the route basically flirts with the crest of that ridge, offering amazing views off the north side and finally approaching the summit from the north. The route is actually fairly well cairned, but it's not always easy to see from below. Just as importantly, it is unrelentingly steep, rough, and loose.

Climbing the second gully, we met a group of three who had abandoned their attempt for the summit because it seemed to them that weather was moving in. Respecting their caution, we nevertheless decided to continue up and evaluate conditions as we went.

Perhaps the most difficult route finding on this route comes at the top of the second gully. We finally found a big vertical step which led out onto the top of a large flat rock where we found two small but distinctive cairns leading out onto the ridge crest.

A short climb from this point leads to what is usually regarded as the crux of the route: a small but vertical cliff band which can be breached either by a 4th class crack, or a 3rd class alternative with more exposure, farther out to the right (northwest). We first tried the crack. Trisha went up with me spotting her from below. And that's when we got our first “wake-up call.” Lightning struck.

That's right: We survived a lightning strike. We both felt the electricity through the rock. From the delay before hearing the thunderclap, I estimate that the strike was about a quarter of a mile away—perhaps right on the summit. We got only a diluted bit of the electrical force, but it was still obvious what had happened. We both decided, right then and there, to turn around.

We retreated about 500 vertical feet, to the top of the second gully, and there sat down to eat, drink, rest, clear our minds, and watch the weather. Watching, we were rewarded for our patience. The clouds, thunder, and rain, all seemed to drift on by to the northeast. I could see bits of blue sky and thinning clouds south and west, and I finally suggested that, instead of abandoning all hope, we should start up again, in hopes that a sunny late afternoon would develop.

Showing great courage and determination, Trisha agreed. We forced our already tired muscles to climb onto the ridge and head for the summit once again. Soon, we actually had shadows. Anticipatory exhilaration began to replace the despair of just a few minutes earlier.

A ways up the ridge, we came again to the crux. This time, we passed it by, looking instead for the Class 3 alternative said to exist farther west (climber's right). In just a few minutes, we had found it. As advertised, it offered more exposure than the chimney, but it was indeed Class 3 instead of 4. Also as advertised, when we got on top of it, we noted that it was difficult to make out from above. So, before giving in to the euphoria of finally being able to see the summit block, we marked the location with one of Trisha's famous red mittens, tied to a prominent rock. This saved a lot of uncertainty on the way down.

A short climb over large, broken rocks led to a final saddle, perched in between the summit block and a spectacular promontory to the east (see photos). We finally hauled out on the small summit at about 2:35 MST—over nine hours after leaving the trailhead! (Had it not been for our retreat delay, the ascent time would have been about 6:45. That's still long, but not outrageous.)

The view from the top of this peak is astounding. The amazing symmetry of Maroon Peak grabs one's eye to the south. All the other Elk Range fourteeners can be clearly seen. I was surprised to see that Snowmass Mountain was actually missing most of its namesake snow. We also took in a stunning view of the unnamed peaks and pinnacles to the north—lower than, but every bit as rugged as, the Bells.

Needless to say, we were the last people on the summit that day, so we had it to ourselves. Even though it was getting late, we spent about half an hour there, as the weather was nearly perfect, with virtually no wind. After that, thoroughly pumped from our nearly-missed success, we set off downhill. We made it back to the trailhead in just over four hours—meaning that we still had to get out our headlamps for the last leg!

Photos are at:

Long life and many peaks!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wilson Peak (14,024 ft.)

16 August, 2011: It's been a long time. Since our last fourteener together, Trisha moved north (to Greeley) and I moved south (to Rio Rancho, NM). After a hiatus of 13 months, we finally worked out the logistics to put together a trip to climb one of our remaining peaks.

Wilson Peak is the lowest of the three fourteeners in the “Wilson” group, but the high point of San Miguel County. Together with neighboring Mt. Wilson, it was named after (by??) A.D. Wilson, the chief surveyor of the Hayden expedition back in the 19th century. The confusion resulting from this oddity of nomenclature is legendary. Access to it has also been seriously disrupted for several years, after the owner of a private mining claim in the Silver Pick Basin blocked the traditional standard route to the peak. Fortunately for us, mere days before our planned trip, the Forest Service and a coalition of private groups finally reached a land-swap and purchase deal which, together with some new road construction by the FS,opened the new Rock of Ages trailhead to the public. This makes for a longer route than starting from the old Silver Pick Basin trailhead, but it is still a considerably shorter route than any of the alternatives. So that's where we started.

We camped about a mile-and-a-quarter below the actual trailhead the night before, at one of the newly-developed campsites which the FS has produced. This is one of those rare occasions in which I have to offer kudos to the FS: It took a long time, but the road to the TH is very good, and there are many available campsites along the way. Even better, their re-worked website provides good, up-to-date information which made our journey very easy.

After the short drive to the TH in the morning, we hit the trail just about sunrise.

It took us less than an hour to pass the trail junction where the Elk Creek trail splits off, and reach the major turn where the trail finally rounds a northern corner on the ridge and enters the Silver Pick Basin. At this point, across the basin, you can see Wilson Peak dominating the eastern horizon.

After traversing south on the west side of the basin, the trail comes to an amazing plateau, invisible from below, where there remain the ruins of a large stone house (see photos). After that, a series of very steep trail sections lead up to the Rock of Ages saddle,named for the Rock of Ages mine which is just on the other side. It had taken us almost four hours to get to this point, so we paused for a rest. We also met climbers who had come up from the other side, in Navajo Basin. We had some food here, donned helmets and prepared for the tough part of the climb. It would turn out to be tougher than we had anticipated.

A very short section of trail leads to a low point on the Gladstone Peak/Wilson Peak ridge. Then the serious stuff begins.

After a short (but potentially frustrating) section where the trail is sketchy and the fall potential is very real, the trail gradually climbs back toward the crest of the ridge. The going here is slow, as the rock is always loose.

After reaching a low point on the ridge, which affords dynamite views out to the northwest, a clearly defined trail drops back off on the southeast side and heads toward the false summit (approx. 13,865 ft.) Here we encountered the true crux of the route.

The actual ridge crest between the false and true summits is utterly unclimbable. It consists of spikes and towers of rock twenty to fifty feet high with huge vertical drops in between, and hundreds of feet of vertical drop on the southeast (climber's right) side. Fortunately, a series of steep steps, well worn by past climbers, leads down on the left side to a small but useable level spot next to this wall of spikes. On the other side, a similar, but longer, series of steps allows a climb up past the wall and, finally, onto the easier terrain just short of the summit.

The rock is so jumbled that the correct route is hard to discern at first. We not only stared at it for several minutes before descending, we waited for another party of climbers to begin descending, and spoke briefly with them about the route.

Thereafter, however, the route ahead was relatively clear. We made the final climb with little trouble, and finally strolled out onto the small summit just after noon.

The return trip was uneventful, although we were rather pleasantly sprinkled upon shortly before reaching the trailhead. At the TH, we met up with a trio of other members who proved to be interested in employing my experience on the El Diente-Mount Wilson ridge next summer. We'll see.

Overall, this was a very satisfying climb, partly because it was harder than expected. We now just have two hard peaks left to do. Photos can be found at:

RT: 8.6 miles

Time: 11 hrs., 17 min. (including nearly 45 min. on the summit)

Vert.: approx. 3,900 ft.

Long life and many peaks!