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Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Deadly Bells: Part 1 - "5600 ft. of Suck"

Date:   July 14th, 2014
Mission:  Summit South Maroon Peak (elevation 14,156') via the South Ridge
Who:  Kirstin and myself
Total Length:  12 miles
Elevation gain: 4800 ft.

Naked and Afraid... or not

For me, meeting someone I've never met for the first time always makes me nervous.  However, I met Kirstin for the first time at 2am, before we were about to spend all day together climbing Maroon Peak, and it almost seemed normal to me.  Kirstin and I had just met through on Sunday afternoon and we were now meeting face to face for the first time at 2am on Monday in Aspen, CO. 

After exchanging greetings, we drove to the Maroon Lake trailhead and began our 17 hour adventure just before 3am at 9,590' in elevation. 

I knew almost immediately I liked Kirstin.  She was very friendly and easy to get along with.  We were exchanging stories and laughs nearly the whole approach to Crater Lake.  I liked the way this day was shaping up already.

"2800 feet of suck"

The moon setting behind the horizon on the east slope.
Kirstin and I had a bright near-full moon accompanying us on our slog in the dark to the turn that takes you up the steep east slope. It is accurately described in many route descriptions as "2800 feet of suck".  It's just about 1 mile from the turn off of the Maroon Lake trail at 10,450' and goes up the east slope to gain the south ridge at 13,250'.  It's steep and it's relentless.

The first part of the east slope heads up but also traverses the ridge on a decent trail until about 11,000'.  From there it gets steeper, with more scree and more loose rock and dirt.

I was grateful that when we started up the east slope it was dark.  It would be a beat down psychologically to see that 2800 ft. up and the route ahead. 

We battled up the slope slowly.  I battled a painful bone spur in my left heel that was acting up due to the steepness of this slope and the never ending problem in my right ankle.  Just as the sun was starting to light the sky, Kirstin was also battling a little tinge of vertigo which may have been caused by the tunnel vision of headlamps in the dark on such a steep slope.

Kirstin climbing the steep trail.

Sunlight finally illuminates Maroon Peak's east slope.

On this slope there are spots where the trail is broken or hard to find, particularly on the way up.  We got to a spot where we missed a switchback and started across a short snow field.  Kirstin was leading here and had a brief scare when she slipped in the snow.  Fortunately though, she did not slide down the slope.  We re-evaluated our route and decided to double back to find the trail again.

Kirstin traversing back towards the trail.

On this traverse back to the trail, I fell when the rock I stepped on just disintegrated into fragments.  I instinctively fell towards the slope / class 3 ledge side and dragged the left side of my body down some rock.  It was quite painful, but after a brief inspection, we discovered only a couple scratches.  We were happy to have found the "trail" again though.

Kirstin making her way up one of many tricky spots on this slope.
Nearing the ridge, the rock is loose and the boulders will bounce all the way down to Maroon Creek if one gets moving.

Kirstin and I were sharing plenty of great conversation on this hike up the slope, and it's this friendship that makes slopes like this bearable.  I can't even imagine how much this part of the route would suck if one were to do it solo. 

The route is very physically demanding and both of us had to battle through a couple physiological walls just to make it to the ridge.  But when you get to the ridge, the views from the ridge will make up for all the "suck". 

We both had smiles from ear to ear when we hit the ridge at about 9am.  We took a 15 minute break here discussing the rest of the route, ate some food, and eyeballed the weather which for now looked to be good with only sparse clouds.

The view to the west from the ridge.  Snowmass and Capitol Peaks can be seen (top right).

The remaining route can be seen. 
It looks deceivingly short, but it'll take a minimum 4 hours round trip from this 13.250' spot.

Kirstin starting up the remaining route.

"900 feet of awesomeness"

The rest of the route is fairly straightforward.  It's just a matter of always actively looking for cairns and being smart about trying to keep the route difficulty at class 3, which should only ever exceed class 3 should you choose it to.  Possibly even more important is to test every hold.  Rocks up here move, they break, they even disintegrate into pieces at times.  Trust no rock!

We did a lot of traversing and then would gain some elevation and traverse some more.  This series of ledges was a blast to climb.  Kirstin did climb up one chimney early in the route which provided some extra fun, but there's a way around it, which I took, should you choose to avoid the chimney.

Me on one of the many exposed ledges. (photo Kirstin)

Kirstin coming up the chimney.

Me above the chimney that Kirstin just climbed up. (photo Kirstin)

Kirstin traversing one of the ledges.

One of two short sections of mostly avoidable snow we saw on route.

We ended up avoiding this section on the way down, but took it on the way up.  It was the crux of our climb.  We basically had to climb between a snowfield and a wall.  The climbing was fun, but also got our attention.

Kirstin coming up the crux.

Another shot of this tricky section, which I assume is easier without snow.

After reaching the top of that gully, it was more of the same.  Route-finding, traversing, checking weather, having fun and enjoying each other's company.  We repeated this enjoyable routine for the rest of the way to the summit.

Kirstin navigating another small section of snow.

Kirstin with a picturesque background.

Hi goat.  I like you.  Say "Hi" to your mother for me.
Kirstin navigating a tricky exposed section.
Me nearing the summit. (photo Kirstin)
Finally, when we reached the last 10 feet before the summit, we were both exhausted.  It was arguably one of the toughest peaks I've done.  9 hours ago, we were total strangers, but now we were standing on the summit of Maroon Peak hugging each other.  It's really sort of cool how you can develop a bond with someone in a single day if you just add a little adventure. 
Summit of Maroon Peak at 14,156'
Summit Views!
Me with North Maroon Peak in the background.  One day I'll be back for the traverse. (photo Kirstin)
Kirstin with Snowmass and Capitol in the background.
We both took in the views, called our loved ones at home since there was a cell single on top of the mountain and prepared ourselves mentally for the descent which would prove to be a challenge.  We reluctantly left the summit to begin our return hike.
Climbing down from the summit to the saddle at 13,250' was still a lot of fun.  Route finding was easier, although Kirstin did keep me from going off route at least twice demonstrating yet another one of the great values of climbing with a good partner.
Kirstin down-climbing the class 3 ledges.
Upon reaching the saddle, we took our last break for the day and ate some food and reminisced about the great times we just had during the last 4 or 5 hours.  We thanked the weather gods for being kind to us since it was already 2:30pm and we were still looking at "2800 feet of suck" to hike down.

"2800 feet of suck.... again."

The route down was treacherous.  Scree was moving, boulders were loose, and legs were fatigued.  We each took a turn inadvertently sending a loose boulder down the mountain which wouldn't stop for over 2000' gaining speed with each bounce.  We of course yelled "ROCK!" to whomever may have been hiking down below that we could not see.  Fortunately there was no one and the racing boulder just made a lot of noise.  This is precisely why climbing this mountain on a weekday rather than a busy weekend is a good idea.
This is about the time that Kirstin aptly named this section the "5600 feet of suck" since you have to do it twice.  I thought it was appropriate enough to use for the title of this post.
We also each took our turn falling on our ass a couple of times.  Cursing the "suck" each time.  I think Kirstin got the worse of the falls and ended up with a significant bruise on her thigh from one of the slips she took.  I fell badly once in some mud and broke a trekking pole in the process.
We were both exhausted.  I had also pulled an all-nighter driving to Aspen the previous night and had no sleep for nearly 36 hours at this point.  The lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me too.  To add to my suffering, I ran out of water at about 11,700'.
It was a slow climb down. We were being very cautious with our fatigued legs, painful feet, and we were trying our best not to send any more rocks flying.  I was also stopping to take pictures of flowers and good scenery like normal.
Flowers near the bottom of the east slope.
Colorado Columbines.
We finally and gratefully reached the Maroon Lake trail again after what seemed like an eternity.
From here we were in zombie mode the rest of hike back to Maroon Lake, stopping only once to intentionally walk through a creek and get our boots soaked just to help the ailing feet.
Crater Lake is a welcome sight.
Upon reaching Maroon Lake, we were treated like celebrities among the tourists that remained at the lake at 8pm.  The look on the face of tourists is priceless when you tell them you've been hiking for the last 17 hours straight.
Maroon Bells at dusk.
The sun was fading and night was closing in.  Our stomachs were desperately craving food and beer, but we had to stop and get one last shot.  This trip produced memories and a friendship that will last a lifetime.
Happy to be back at the trailhead.  (photo random tourist).



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