Falling rock humbles Maroon Bells climbers
The Aspen Times
The Deadly Bells
A sign at the trailhead toward the Maroon Bells peaks reads:
“The beautiful Maroon Bells, and their neighbor Pyramid Peak, have claimed many lives in the past few years. They are not extreme technical climbs, but they are unbelievably deceptive. The rock is downsloping, rotten, loose, and unstable. It kills quickly and without warning. The snowfields are treacherous, poorly consolidated, and no place for a novice climber. The gullies are death traps. Expert climbers who did not know the proper routes have died on these peaks. Don’t repeat their mistakes, for only rarely have these mountains given a second chance.
DO NOT ATTEMPT CLIMB IF NO QUALIFIED”
Nick Courtney has climbed 50 of Colorado’s 58 mountain peaks that soar at elevations of 14,000 feet or higher, but he’s not likely to repeat the Maroon Bells Traverse.
“People get themselves in over their head on this route a lot,” said Courtney, who lives in Denver.
Courtney posted a video on YouTube nearly two weeks ago that shows his climbing buddy Chad Brenner leaping over a gap on the Maroon Bells Traverse, a half-mile route that connects Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. The video shows loose rock crashing down beneath his feet. The jump is known to climbers as “Leap of Faith,” but there are other routes around the area that aren’t as dangerous.
The video shows the rock descending after Brenner’s jump while Courtney runs backward to avoid falling hazards or falling himself.
“You would be hard-pressed to get me to go back up there to repeat that,” Courtney said. “I’m OK with danger, but I’m not OK with the mountain rotting away like that.”
Courtney and Brenner didn’t use climbing ropes or anchors on the traverse because of their unfamiliarity with the route and the lack of reliability in its unstable sedimentary rock, Courtney said.
Aspen-area climbing guides, however, say climbing the traverse without gear isn’t wise — and certainly not at Leap of Faith.
Dirk Bockelman, general manager at Aspen Expeditions, said there’s “probably a lifetime of different ways to go across” the Maroon Bells Traverse. Leaping over a gap where one wrong move could easily equal death is not necessary, he said.
“That’s cowboy kind of stuff,” Bockelman said. “If that guy slipped, he was gone.”
It’s impossible to see the geology of the Bells from Maroon Lake, where most visitors safely get their view of the two peaks. Climbing them shows a different view of loose, brittle rocks ready to crumble and give way. The Maroon Bells peaks have long been referred to as the Deadly Bells (see factbox).
Since 2010, there have been anywhere from seven to 12 search-and-rescue operations per year around the Maroon Bells, with nine so far just this year, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
Aspen Alpine Guides uses climbing ropes, anchors, belay systems, and short-pitch and short-roping techniques while on the Bells Traverse and through technical sections, said owner Stephen Szoradi. One of his guides has been on the traverse since Courtney’s video was shot. The guide determined that the route is passable but “now requires an on-site reassessment of the integrity of the surrounding rocks for both anchor points as well as climber footing.”
“Climbers should be prepared with the knowledge, practice, endurance and the skills needed to asses, climb, descend, modify, backtrack and potentially bivy should the conditions warrant a modification from what might have been considered an accepted standard route,” Szoradi said via email to The Aspen Times.
Because Courtney and Brenner weren’t familiar with the route, aside from research they had done beforehand, Courtney said they felt ropes would provide a false sense of security. He recognizes that many folks would disagree and said there’s been some criticism of their decision on the Internet.
“It’s hard to place anchors in that rock. That rock is so rotten, if you were to take a fall and it would rip out, your safety isn’t guaranteed,” Courtney said, adding that local guides and climbers would obviously know the best locations to set up their gear.
Leap of Faith is a fairly recent moniker, Bockelman said. There’s no history or forklore, and the jump is purely optional, he said. What’s not optional is when or where the sedimentary rocks could crack.
“Every piece of rock up there is to be suspected,” Bockelman said.
As for accidents in the Bells, social media and online forums could be both helping and hurting the situation up there. While videos like Courtney’s could scare potential climbers away — one 14ers.com member commented on Courtney’s blog that he’s now seriously considering never setting foot on the Bells peaks — the access to information about routes is inviting to plenty of other potential climbers.
“We see this more and more and more in the Bells, specifically people who shouldn’t be there or have a little experience and think they have a lot and act a certain way, and accidents are caused,” Bockelman said. “It used to be a mythical thing — don’t go up there unless you know what you’re doing. Now, 300 people are posting GoPro footage of this.”
Courtney hopes his footage will help, not hinder, the safety precautions people take when climbing the traverse. He said he understands some of the concern from those who have criticized their tactics, but he stands by their decisions.
He contends that he and Brenner take their climbing seriously and aren’t simply trying to check fourteeners off their lists.
“It’s a lot of problem-solving — more mental patience than it is physically demanding,” Courtney said. “You think about your moves five or six moves ahead before you start just going up.”