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Sights set on the Bells

Max Vadnais
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Last weekend, my friend Jim Cowley and I set off once more to climb the Bell Chord Couloir to the summit of South Maroon Peak.

After trying the weekend before and getting shut down before we even started because of dangerous conditions, this time we were very excited due to the great freeze-thaw cycle that had taken place all week. The rocks would be frozen in place, lowering the risk of rockfall, and the avalanche danger would be more predictable. We were convinced that this time we would have the advantage and be able to climb with purpose.

Jim and I pulled into the overnight parking lot around 3:30 p.m. After making sure that all the gear was properly together, we began the 2-mile hike up to base camp at Crater Lake. With the 10-pound dachshund Midge, our bear protector, with us again, we slogged up to camp with our 50-pound packs. It was brutal but short, and the looks from tourists by the lake were classic – a combination of amazement and bewilderment.



After setting up camp, we began boiling water for the next day. To make about 8 liters of water at 10,000 feet, 1 1/2 liters at a time is tedious to say the least. Although, when sitting at camp, it does give a purpose that eases the nerves about what will happen in the morning.

The air was calm at camp this time, which gave us a feeling of ease compared to last week’s attempt when the wind was howling all night long. After watching the moon crest over the ridge of Pyramid Peak and light up the valley as if it was the middle of the day, we called it a night. Content and confident, we retired to the tents to sleep as best we could.



The next morning, we were up by 3:30. Jim called out that coffee was ready, and I realized that I was already behind in preparation. It was time. Leaving the comfort of the tent and seeing the objective framed by the hollow glow of the moon, I stretched and grabbed a cup of Joe. I attached my skis onto a pack filled with water, a 30-meter glacier rope, crampons, a few slings and some locking carabiners. The pack was light compared with what we carried to camp. We got Midge in the tent, and off we went.

Searching for falling rocks and being weary of avalanche danger, we reached the base of the climb and put on our crampons and harnesses.

“So it begins again,” I thought to myself while gazing at the 14,000 foot peak. Steadily, we started to put one foot in front of the other as we marched up the steep slope. Jim started pulling away almost instantly, so I had to buckle down to make up the ground.

“Rock!” I heard Jim yell from above. As I looked up, a baseball-sized boulder flew by at an incredible rate of speed, missing me by just a few feet.

“Where did that come from?” I asked Jim.

“Mountain goat right up there,” he responded.

I had forgotten about the goats playing games with us from above. Kicking rocks down while they sit on high, knowing that they are the true masters of the high country; they must think we are so foolish.

After a few hours of climbing up the steep grade in avalanche runnel and debris, we reached the choke point of the upper chute. The ski descent doesn’t look as glorious as I was hoping, but I still can’t wait.

At around 8 a.m., I realized that the 3 liters of water I brought were not enough and I will run out well before the summit. I quickly packed snow into the bladder, hoping the sun would melt it while we climb.

The grade of the couloir was unrelentingly steep; it continued to remind us of how difficult these endeavors are. The sun, by this point, had fully saturated the couloir and drained my strength even further. I fought through it as best I could as Jim pushed me upward.

Around 10 a.m., we were only about 800 feet from the top of the couloir. Exhausted, I put my head down on the snow to take a break and get some air.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” I hear from above.

“Huh?” I respond.

“Huge glide crack about a foot across up here, and I can see all the way to the ground. Don’t like it at all.” Jim shouted back down.

My heart started pounding, and I started sweating almost immediately. We were incredibly exposed up in the couloir, and the only safety zone was about 2,800 feet below us. Jim turned and began his descent almost immediately. As he glissaded back down the slope (an incredibly dangerous endeavor in itself), I pulled off my pack and changed from my crampons to my skis as quickly as I could.

By the time I had my skis on, Jim was already 1,000 feet below me and moving as quickly as he could to get out of the choke of the chute. I got my pack back on and looked down the 50-plus degree chute. I took a deep breath and made my first turn. There was no symmetry to the chute, and there was avalanche debris everywhere, making each turn an adventure. One by one, I linked turns while gasping for air, hoping that the slope wouldn’t release below me.

Gently, but with purpose, I skied the upper section of the couloir, breaking my ski pole in the process. At one point, I caught an edge and began to roll down the steep slope. I rolled over into self-arrest and caught myself before gaining any real momentum.

“Don’t do that again,” I thought to myself.

After about another 15 turns, I emerged from the couloir, my heart still pounding and legs burning. Relieved but still exposed, we skied the lower-grade slope the rest of the way down to the valley and back to the safety of base camp.

Looking back up from the bottom, there was a disappointing sense of failure that we were not able to gain the summit for the second week in a row. At the same time, there was a feeling of major accomplishment. I was able to ski a dangerous and incredibly committing line on one of the tallest mountains in the Lower 48.

Exhausted and dehydrated, I strapped the skis back onto my back and we walked to base camp to pack up the rest of our gear. The walk with our huge packs back to the car is one of the longest 2-mile hikes I have ever undertaken. I was overly dehydrated, and every step felt as if it was the last one I could take on the trip.

After another hour of pure suffering, we were back at the car looking up at the peak that had consumed the last 28 hours of our lives. We will be back – that is for sure. Maybe the next time the mountain will give us passage, but until then we can be content in achieving a new high point on the mountain and the knowledge that I was able to ski a line that I have looked at since I was a young grom growing up here.

mvadnais@aspentimes.com


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