Between the Bells: treacherous traverse | AspenTimes.com

Between the Bells: treacherous traverse

Ron RashAspen, CO Colorado

The traverse from North Maroon Peak to adjoining South Maroon Peak is the most frightening route a Front Range peak-bagger will find among Colorado’s fourteeners.I’ve been asked to compare it to Capitol’s knife-edge ridge; there’s little comparison. The knife edge has solid rock and the route is straightforward. On the Bells traverse, the rocks are rotten and stacked on top of one another like perilously balanced dinner plates waiting to tip over in the slightest breeze. I’ve done the traverse more than 25 times, and I’ve never traveled the same route twice.On both routes you should take ropes. In each case, you are high in the mountains and very exposed to inclement weather.You can imagine my concern a few years back, sitting on the summit of North Maroon hoping for a break in the weather. We were being pelted with rain, and we grappled with winds in excess of 20 mph. The temperature was around 45 degrees.I was guiding three clients, two gentlemen from Oklahoma and a lady from Boulder. The men had only the traverse between them and their goal of climbing all the fourteeners. All three were stricken with a case of summit fever and wanted to cross badly.I was guiding this trip with the architect, the one I’ve mentioned previously who skins and skis Highland Bowl numerous times in a day. She’s one of the toughest mountaineers I’ve ever worked with.A few years back she decided to do the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race as part of her summer fitness program. She won. Not just her division – she beat all the other women, pros included. In the early 1990s she was guiding for an international guiding company in the Himalayas when the monsoons came early from the Bay of Bengal. There were many fatalities; the intense storm dropped up to 5 feet of snow in the high mountains. The architect ended up breaking trail for the Sherpas to reach safety.It did not help my level of consternation on North Maroon when the architect walked over to me and whispered in my ear, “God, you’re really not thinking of doing the traverse today, are you?”Just after her comment, one of the gentlemen from Oklahoma said, “I’ve never turned back on any summit attempts. I really want to bag South Maroon today.”The wind picked up so I had everyone turn their backs. I looked at the fellow who had just challenged me and said, “It would not be in the best interest of our health to make the attempt today.”He raised his voice a little more then warranted by the wind and said, “I’m paying you as a guide to take us across the traverse.” In my guiding career, it was the only time I’ve said to a client, in a very calm voice, “I’m heading back down North Maroon. If you choose to do the traverse you’re no longer under my care as a guide. I’m heading down in 5 minutes.” As we moved off the summit, the intensity of the storm increased just enough for the clients to realize the decision was sound.This summer, if you have the climbing abilities combined with good mountain sense and you make it across from North Maroon to South Maroon, I’ve found the quickest way off the Bells is to go right back across the traverse. The route down South Maroon’s ridge and then the subsequent 2,800-foot drop to West Maroon Creek is one long, arduous day not to be repeated.At present, after accumulating a few more years of climbing to my résumé, I would not even consider the traverse unless it’s the best of weather. When you consider that most parties take two hours for the traverse one way, you’re looking at exposure to possible harsh weather for five to six hours.As with all routes on the Bells, the rockfall is extreme – the Bells are nothing more than slag heaps, as real rock climbers like to say.When traversing, try to stay away from edges as much as possible. You never know when the rock will break away or crumble below your feet.I make it a rule to avoid pulling out on any rock when climbing. I try to use a downward push when moving up.Final advice for the Bells traverse is to start early, between 4 and 5 in the morning, and do the climb with someone who has experience on these peaks.Ron is a local mountain guide who gets nervous on the Bells. Tell him what scares you at ronlrash@aol.com


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