Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ringing Bells

This weekend James, James and I went up to Aspen to have another attempt at climbing the Maroon Bells (We went on my 20th birthday and it rained the whole time, making the 4th and 5th class rock unclimbable). It was quite the adventure! We left Boulder at about 7:15pm, headed for the Maroon Lake Trailhead. At approximately 11:30pm we reached the trailhead, leaned our chairs out of the upright and locked positions, and managed to get painfully awkward sleep for about an hour or so.

At 2:00am we awoke to several alarms and packed our bags and were on our way by 2:30 at the latest. We managed to see several porcupines on the way up, but fortunately they were more interested in the bark off the trees than the soft, non-quill-proof skin of our hands and faces. Danger averted!

After bypassing our pin-cushion friends, we made it to the bottom of the Bell Cord Couloir at about 4:00am. Donning our stylish crampons, or "pointy things" as the tourists called them during several inquiries on the way down, we slowly made our way up into the darkness, and the steep steep snow and ice slope ahead of us. There was a group of 3 skiers who we quickly caught up to in the snow, and made it to about the 2/3 point when the sun finally peeked its head over the flanks of Pyramid Peak. It was dreadfully slow going, but we managed to make it to the top of the couloir at about 8:00am, taking 4 hours to climb nearly 4,000 vertical feet of snow and ice (not too shabby, but there's room for improvement). As the maroon flanks crumbled and descended below us, we took a break to refuel for the traverse to Maroon Peak, the highest of the two on the agenda for that day. We made it to the top of Maroon Peak with some moderate class 3 scrambling at about 9:00am, and had another break on the summit.

The next task was daunting, and was what we thought to be the most difficult part of our ambitious agenda. The traverse from Maroon peak to North Maroon checks in at sturdy 5th class, and from our estimates, it reached 5.4 or 5.5 at its hardest section. Carrying rope and protection, but neglecting to use it, we made our way across the 1/4 ridge up turrets and towers, across ledges and snowfields, and made it to the top of North Maroon at about noon. The most difficult section of the traverse was either the class 5.5 free climb, or the 65 degree snow slope traverse, but we managed to carry on towards our lofty goal.

When we reached the top of N. Maroon, we tried to be relieved, but all three of us knew that the hardest part of the climb was yet to come (reassuring, right?) We signed the summit registry, (it appeared that the last entry was from September of last year, the day after we got rained out) and then began our descent. This was the fun part, the scary part, the adrenalizing part, and the terrifying part. This was to be the most trying and testing descent of my life, and I'll reiterate what I've learned before Never go down a route you haven't come up first. There, I said it. The problem was that we forgot our own rule.

The first part of the descent was covered in snow. We were able to posthole/glissade through a good portion of it, but it was drastically steep, and there were cliff bands on all sides so we had to be very very careful. It took the better part of an hour to descent what looked to be 300 vertical feet. We were not making good time. After some botched routefinding attempts, we decided to keep slogging down the direct part of the ridge, hopefully able to find a route further down. It wasn't too steep yet, so we figured we were in good shape. We continued in that fashion, downclimbing small patches of rock when we reached them, until the snow started to dissipate due to the increased slope. We looked to the south part of the ridge and were able to see some small cairns in the distance! We followed those, through loose and crumbly class 4 terrain, until we had lost about 1500 feet (over 3 hours or so).

We reached a point where we followed a cairn trail, but suddenly it stopped. We couldn't find anymore. We decided to keep descending what looked like a stable and welcoming gully. After sliding and slipping down 500 feet we realized we were surrounded on all sides by cliffs varying from 100 to 500 feet in height. It was an impasse, but we were too exhausted to realize it. James suggested flirting with the ridge again, but after a brief inspection it proved more dangerous than what we were already on. At this point we had been climbing steep, difficult and engaging terrain for over 14 hours, and the worst part of it was, we had no idea how to get down.

After some conscious decision making, we decided instead of risking a rappel over the cliff band, we would climb back up to the last cairn we saw, and look for traces of a trail. We climbed the 500 or so vertical feet back to the last sign of civilization, passage and hope, and were again dumbstruck with an impasse. We searched and searched and unfortunately there was so much snow that any of the cairns that may have been nearby were completely buried. In a last act of desperation, I lied down on a rock and hung my head, admitting defeat. Thoughts of high altitude bivy and helicopters and hypothermia and embarrassment filled my head.

After laying down for quite some time, I look downward and saw the faintest trace of a trail in a patch of melted ground. After further inspection it appeared that it was where we needed to be! I called out to James and James who had gone searching in other directions and told them to come take a look at my hallucination. Sure enough they saw it too, and we headed for the trail. We did a 100ft downclimb in steep snow, and made it to a rock band which we down climbed to get to the trail.

At this point we were able to follow it off and on to the base of the mountain, combining several hundred feet of glissading with class 3 and 4 downclimbing and a little bit of praying. But we still had to find a path down to Crater Lake! The normal creek crossing was flowing at about 10 times the rate it was in September, so we had to glissade through the trees (remember sledding as a kid and trying not to hit all those trees) and bushwhacked our way back down to the lake.

After a long trudge out, purely elated and exhausted, we made it back to the cars at 8:00pm, with a total moving time of 18 hours. Then we drove home.

I love how you love life so much more when you are right on the edge of letting it slip between your fingers. (don't worry mom, thats an embellishment)

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