A Peak Experience
“This climb is not without danger.”- Percy Hagerman, 1908
At 14,014 feet, North Maroon Peak is not one of Colorado’s higher fourteeners. Nor is it one of the toughest. Still, the attraction of the peak, coupled with the element of danger reflected by the above quote, is a warning. The “Deadly Bells” have claimed more than a dozen victims who have taken too lightly the “scramble” up these peaks.
From my perspective of the climb two weeks ago on a beautiful July day, 90 percent of the “trail” to the top is no more difficult physically than Aspen’s Ute Trail. It is steep like the Ute, but there are no trees, nothing to hold to. One misstep, and a cartwheel to the gorges and crevices below would certainly be fatal. Focus is the key to this mountain, as it is to anything in life that bears risk – and reward.A veteran of Castle, Pyramid, Capitol and South Maroon, this was my first time on North Maroon, and it was stellar. The “grassy benches” approach to the summit was a three-hour Stairmaster exercise in a euphoric mountain environment. We started from our camp above Crater Lake at 6:15 a.m. Sunrise was a smear of reds, oranges, yellows and purples, mirroring the wildflowers at our feet. We reached the top at 9:15 with plenty of energy and time to spare. We set off on the trail by ourselves, which is a blessing on a mountain of loose rock. But just as I was exalting in our solitude, I heard someone coming up the trail. I turned to see a lone hiker who suddenly said, “Hi, Paul.” I strained to recognize the face. “It’s Dave Penney,” he said, joining me on a narrow ledge 2,000 feet above Crater Lake.Dave lives in Crested Butte, where he is a top mountain guide and a regular winner or top placer in the annual Grand Traverse ski race. He casually explained on that vertical mountainside that he had just shuttled a car from Crested Butte for some friends who were hiking West Maroon Pass that day. “I’m headed back home and thought I’d go over the peaks,” he said with nonchalance.
According to Lou Dawson’s history of mountaineering in the Elk Range, which will soon appear in a new book “Aspen’s Rugged Splendor,” the first attempt of North Maroon Peak occurred in 1873, a few years before the peak was officially named. The climber, a member of an early geologic survey team, got to within 200 feet of the summit before encountering what Dawson describes as “terrain beyond the ken of an 1800s climber.”
Thirty-five years later, the peak was successfully scaled by pioneering mountaineers of the Elk Range, Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark. Hagerman was the son of J. J. Hagerman, a shareholder in the famous Molly Gibson silver mine in Aspen and the force behind the Colorado Midland Railroad. In 1908, the younger Hagerman and his buddy Clark made the first ascent of North Maroon Peak, as Dawson describes:”Hagerman and Clark ended up on North Maroon’s difficult north face instead of the easier east face, where most of the route climbs steep grassy slopes topped by a series of rubble-covered ledges. As most, if not all, early 1900s climbers sought the easiest routes, the fact they often ended up on harder terrain in the Elks is not without significance – it drives home the point that the Castle and Maroon Creek peaks are unusually broken and convoluted. Route finding is difficult. Vertical rock is too broken and loose for safe climbing. Lower angled ledges and ramps, where most mountains would provide safe travel, are covered with unstable rubble. Accidents are common.”We wanted none of that, especially my climbing partner Graeme, who was taking his 16-year-old son Gaelen on his first ascent of the Bells. Randy, who had assumed the role of guide, admonished us at the onset to “take your time, be careful, pay attention.” For security’s sake, he brought a rope to belay the top cliff band. Even though 90 percent of the climb is about as steep as Ute Trail, the other 10 percent is precarious, uncertain and, as Hagerman pointed out 99 years ago, “not without danger.”
After Dave Penney passed us, we were by ourselves again, methodically working our way up the two main gullies on the east face. A glance below was all it took to sharpen our minds to the task ahead. The mountain drops steeply down a series of ramps in a heady plunge to the West Maroon Valley. Every footfall has to be sure, every handhold carefully tested. We stuck together to minimize the risk of rock fall, and we spoke only to clarify the route. The mood was subdued as we focused on the seemingly vertical ramparts above.And yet the higher we climbed, the more dramatic were the mountain scenes that unfolded. Pyramid Peak loomed to the east, its hulking shape silhouetted against the morning sun. The jagged ramparts of Sievers Mountain looked like a Chinese watercolor. Len Shoemaker Peak stood out like a canine tooth. Far below us, Maroon Lake glinted through the dusky dawn, while the metallic sheen of Crater Lake outlined the shape of a tadpole, complete with tail. The air was calm, the clouds were light, the temperature was cool, and the trail was tacky from recent rains. Conditions were perfect.We moved stealthily through the first cliff band at the top of the first gully, climbing through loose, teetering boulders with the agility of cats, not wanting to dislodge even a pebble. “Everybody feeling good?” asked Randy as we regrouped on a scree slope where he handed out hunks of chocolate. We drank water, snapped a couple pictures, then moved into the second gully by gingerly stepping across a treacherous ravine. A looping section of switchbacked trail led us to a traverse below the last cliff band, not far from the summit.
“Try to keep the soles of your boots dry on this,” cautioned Randy as, one at a time, we climbed the 30 vertical feet through enormous blocks of moist rock. It took only a dozen or so climbing moves, but each one required thought and precision. Once beyond this obstacle, we reached the summit after 10 minutes of loose rock scrambling. From the top, we looked over at 14,156-foot South Maroon and the crumbled ridge connecting the two peaks – the infamous traverse.According to Dawson, Albert R. Ellingwood and his protégé Carl Blaurock were the first to make the Bells traverse. “They had learned to climb with advanced European style and technique, and Ellingwood brought those skills to Colorado. One of the most important climbing routes in the Elks is the half-mile ridge connecting North and South Maroon Peaks. This traverse was pioneered in 1936, by Ellingwood, and if you’ve been there, you know the man was ahead of his time.”
By the time we reached North Maroon Peak, Dave Penney had already navigated the traverse and was nowhere in sight. It was with humble awe that I thought of him doing it solo, with minimal gear, on his commute home. Then my attention was diverted to the grand views in every direction, with familiar summits rising all around. The nearby peaks were like signposts to other hikes and climbs, while the distant peaks to the south called attention to the Gunnison country. Whetstone, Crested Butte Mountain, Mt. Gunnison, Ruby, Teocalli, Whiterock and many others were wreathed in gauzy clouds. I had stood on several of those summits during my years living in Crested Butte, and the Elk Range suddenly came into focus as an array of old friends that have sustained and inspired me for the past 35 years.Still, my modest exploits in these mountains are pedestrian when compared to the first climbers and peak explorers, and especially the first winter mountaineers. Dawson reports that the first winter ascent of North Maroon Peak was made in January 1958 by Peter Hofer, who Dawson describes as “an Aspen ski bum with roots in European mountaineering.” In an interview with Dawson, Hofer described his exploit:”In those days, you were an Aspen old-timer if you hung around for just one off-season. I knew these guys by first name and we just decided to go up there and try it. It was supposed to take a weekend, but we ran into horrible weather and stayed out four days. Two guys quit and went home. The other guy and myself waited out the weather, then climbed the Northwest Ridge. It was tough.”The first ski descent of North Maroon, writes Dawson, took place in June 1972, when Aspen climbing legend Fritz Stammberger “cramponed up the North Face of North Maroon Peak, donned his planks, and skied back down. Even by today’s standards, the descent wasn’t easy: Stammberger fell over a 15-foot cliff and skied narrow slots exceeding 50 degrees. While Stammberger’s Maroon Bells descent was too far from North American ski reality to receive much press, it was an inaugural event of modern ‘extreme’ ski alpinism in the United States. After his Maroon Bells descent, Stammberger endured a frustrating series of failures in the Himalayas. He eventually met his end while solo climbing in 1975, on Tirich Mir in Pakistan.”
Our peak experience on North Maroon was not at all heroic, at least not by historic standards. Our ascent was easy and uneventful. We loitered at the peak for some time, admiring the views for purely esthetic reasons. Then we slowly worked our way back down. Our bonus came on the east face, where we happened upon mountain goats. One mother goat and her kid were compliant enough to pose on a verdant slope speckled with wildflowers, just 30 feet from where we stood. Other goats scampered around the steep slopes and ledges with acrobatic impunity.The mountain suddenly took on the character of a great park, where nature in rugged abundance displays the allure of wilderness. Here, rife with stimulation, is a world apart from our daily rituals and obligations, a place to surmount life’s obstacles amid unforgettable natural beauty.
Hours later, after a long descent, the four of us stood at Maroon Lake among throngs of weekend hikers. We looked out at the Maroon Bells, whose 300 million years of geologic history is expressed in glacial carving and millennia of weathering. We studied the mountain, grateful for what it gave us – a peak experience defined by reverence, awe and a sense of something far greater than ourselves.Paul Andersen is a freelance writer, an Aspen Times columnist, and a proselytizing Druid who worships in cathedral mountains.
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