For whom the Maroon Bells toll
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Recently, after months of waiting to get into the backcountry to begin checking out all the routes that I have been reading about all winter long, we finally had a trip planned to go and check out the first fourteener of the season: South Maroon Peak.
Growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley, I remember dreaming that one day I could stand on top of these formidable mountains. Though life has taken many turns over the last 10 years – I have had the opportunity to spend six seasons skiing the epic powder in the Wasatch backcountry and two seasons climbing and skiing in the French, Swiss and Italian Alps – I finally am back in the valley and have a host of goals to accomplish this upcoming spring climbing season.
Though it is only April, because of the season’s lack of snowfall it seemed like the best time to begin our reconnaissance of the peaks that make this state so amazing. The tourists don’t need to leave the Maroon Lake area to be in awe of the Maroon Bells. Many of those same people could never imagine that people not only climb the peaks but ski them as well.
North Maroon Peak, first skied by Fritz Stammberger in 1971, has been a staple in my mind ever since I read about Chris Davenport’s “Ski the Fourteeners” project in 2006 and 2007. Our trip would be a scouting mission to see what the snowpack truly looked like and to attempt to summit 14,156-foot South Maroon via the Bell Chord Couloir. We did not bring the skis on this trip, but after viewing the couloir head-on, I know that I will bring the skis up this weekend and give it a shot. It simultaneously looks as inviting as it does intimidating, both a dream and a nightmare wrapped into one. To even the most avid mountaineers, the peak has an aura of danger that cannot be denied.
It was April 27 at 5 p.m., and, with a 40-pound pack on our backs and a 10-pound dachshund, Midge – our alarm and bear-warning system – in tow, we began the trek to base camp just above Crater Lake. The first view of the Bells revealed an unfriendly mountain that didn’t look much in the mood for our presence. After about an hour of hiking, we reached camp. The Bells from this perspective looked even more daunting and overwhelming than from Maroon Lake.
We set up camp then sat back and played the waiting game. We listened to music and took pulls of off the pint of whiskey we brought to keep us warm in the blowing wind and cold. With 8 fresh inches up high and strong westerly winds blowing, nature was truly putting on a show for us.
We watched the mountain and went over our route a hundred times, examining as steady westerly winds made the ascent of the couloir more and more dangerous. We witnessed a small slide come down one of the couloirs, only to be stopped in its tracks at the base of the couloir and actually be blown back up the slope and be re-deposited on the slope above. In my many years of mountaineering, I have never encountered a slide that continually reloaded itself while sliding for minutes on end.
Our confidence in the safety of the route was quickly diminishing and with the sustained winds showing no sign of slowing, we began to ponder other possible routes we could climb that would not have such high avalanche danger. As we retired for the night to our tents and warm sleeping bags, we listened to the wind howl and wondered what tomorrow would bring. Only time would tell.
Waking up at 3:30 to the alarm the next morning was a shock. The overwhelming aspect is knowing that the moment of truth has finally come and the time for suffering now is at hand. This morning was especially harsh: The temperatures were well below freezing – good for alpine climbing but not for the body.
Frozen and overwhelmed, I slowly left the comfort and safety of the tent and looked directly up at the forbidding mountain above. From the first views in the early-morning alpine glow, it is already looking like we are going to get shut down. Listening to the winds howl all night and then seeing the new snow from a few days before having been deposited on the easterly slope, we began to suspect that this trip might not be the one to get to the summit. Regardless, we packed our gear and begin to hike toward our objective.
Along the way, we saw the wind scarring from the night before and walked into drifts that, though harmless down below, became windslabs that were anywhere from 1 to 2 feet thick. As we got up and into the base of the Bell Chord Couloir, a simple visual test confirmed our previous fears. The decision was made to turn around and retreat back to base camp. This is one of the hardest things about alpine and ski mountaineering: the knowledge that you will not always have the opportunity to be rewarded for your efforts. Sometimes, disappointment and a cold beer are the only consolation that you will take back with you.
We sat and watched the sun warm the slopes and small slough avalanches rip all around us in the upper basin, confirming that we indeed made the correct decision on this particular occasion. After packing up camp, we turned and took one more look at the Bells in all their majesty.
As you read this article today, we will be back up at the Bells for our second attempt. Hopefully, after a good week of proper freeze-thaw cycles, we can perhaps reach our objective, fulfilling a dream that I have had since being born in the shadow of these mountains so long ago.
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