Thursday, July 11, 2013

Peak of the Week: The Maroon Bells (14,156' or 4315 m)

The Maroon Bells
The Maroon Bells in the Elk Range
The Maroon Bells are two of Colorado's iconic 14,000 foot peaks. They are beautiful, treacherous and infamous. Hardly any mountain in the state has killed as many alpinists as Maroon Peak and its subsidiary North Maroon. Tragedies have been so common on the Bells, in fact, that they have earned the nickname "The Deadly Bells". As someone who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for over 15 years, I can tell you that almost every year at least one mountaineer is killed on either of the Bells or its neighbor Pyramid. Some years there are multiple accidents. These are beautiful peaks, but it is important to stress that they are NOT FOR CASUAL HIKERS!!! These are mountains where experience is crucial, though even that might not always save you. With as numerous of objective hazards as you find on crumbling mountains like these, anybody at any time can become a victim.

I am going to group these two peaks together, as they are part of one massif. North Maroon, though on most people's 14er list, does not qualify as an official peak, as it has only 234 feet of topographical prominence. Anyone who scales this traverse, however, will surely argue that these are two distinct peaks. Just about any aficionado of Colorado mountaineering would raise a suspicious eye if you claimed to have climbed all of Colorado’s 14ers and hadn’t been to the top of North Maroon.

Heading north on Highway 82 from Aspen, find an obvious roundabout and take the turn for Maroon Lake Road. Follow this road for almost 10 miles to the end at the parking lot for Maroon Lake. This is the trailhead.
The backside of the Maroon Bells
The backside of the Maroon Bells from
Frigid Air Pass.

Maroon Peak- South Ridge (class 3)
This 11-mile route is the easiest way to climb Maroon Peak, but it is very loose and route-finding is notoriously challenging. This route has killed several climbers over the years. The primary threats are falls (usually due to loose rocks breaking), and rockfall. The bottom line is, while this route isn't particularly difficult, it is a rotting mess and therefore not to be taken lightly. Don’t climb below anyone, go one at a time through the worst sections, and for sure without question wear a helmet!

Maroon Peak- Bell Cord Couloir (class 4, steep snow/ice)
Bell Cord is an excellent way to climb Maroon Peak and possibly one of the best snow climbs in the Elk Range. The route ascends the obvious couloir—visible from your car and in all of those famous photos—on the east side of the Maroon Peak massif, ascending directly to the saddle between the two mountains. The best time to climb the Bell Cord depends greatly on the year but usually comes in late spring when the snow is stable but still continuous. This steep gully exceeds 40 degrees for its entire length and is prone to avalanching. An ice axe and a helmet is highly recommended, as well as other technical gear depending on the conditions. This couloir is an excellent alternative to the standard route for the more advanced mountaineer.
The Bells from Pyramid Peak. The Bell Cord is visible
in the center

North Maroon Peak- Northeast Ridge (class 4)
The Northeast Ridge of Maroon Peak is the easiest way to climb North Maroon and is generally considered class 4. I have heard some people describe the chimney move at around 13,600 feet as “the hardest single move on any fourteener.” Other people disagree. Regardless, just about everyone agrees that North Maroon is one of the hardest fourteeners. Certainly, this route is considered a classic.

North Face (North Maroon Peak) (class 4, steep snow/ice)
This slightly obscure line is notable because it ascends the middle of the most prominent face of either of the Maroon Bells when viewed from the parking lot (and again, most of the classic photos). It is also the north face, which while doesn’t mean as much in North America as it does in Europe should still count for something. The problem with this route is that it becomes horribly rotten in bad conditions and thus very dangerous. People have sometimes used this route for a winter ascent or a ski descent. There are several variations that tackle the face with varying degrees of directness.

Peak-to-Peak Traverse (class 4-5.2)
The north face of North Maroon Peak
The north face of North Maroon Peak
Classically rated class 4, it seems that by the standards of today this route deserves a slight upgrade, especially if you rate the route with idea of the “single, hardest move.” I do believe that the crux pitch, on the North Maroon side of the ridge traverse proper, has some 5.easy climbing moves. It is not to be taken lightly, especially at elevation and in hiking boots. Traversing from North Maroon to Maroon Peak allows you to rappel over this pitch. Still, there are several other high-end class 4 to 5.easy sections of this traverse. However, the beautiful positions and thrilling exposure are highly rewarding and worth putting on the ticklist of any experienced Colorado mountaineer.

The Maroon Bells are made of some of Colorado's worst rock and the pair of these peaks have wreaked havoc on many mountaineers in the past. Take great care when climbing on these peaks, especially if you are new to class 3 and 4 scrambling. THESE MIGHT NOT BE GOOD PEAKS FOR YOUR FIRST CLASS 3 ROUTE!!!

It is also important to note that if you plan to bivy, there are some campsites available at Crater Lake. You do need to fill out a permit and carry it with you at the trailhead before you start.

(none available at this time. Have an epic Maroon Bells story? Email it to for consideration to be published on this site)

The Maroon Bells on a close look with great photos of the standard routes on both of the Maroon Bells

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