- Date: September 16, 2018
- Partner: Matt Odierna
- Height: 14,156 feet
- Range: Elk
- Route: South Ridge (Class 3)
- Overall Distance: 12.00 miles
- Elevation Gain: 4,800 feet (TH to summit)
- 14ers climbed: 26 separate climbs
- 14ers remaining: 27
- Road Condition to Trailhead: This is a very popular destination spot in the fall in Colorado for tourists and photographers. Hence, the logistics can be a little tricky and you should do some research online and plan ahead to avoid surprises. Just outside of Aspen, we arrived at the ranger station after 5 PM and, after showing a NPS pass, were allowed to drive up the main paved road to the Maroon Lake trailhead. Parking for overnight hikers is only allowed at 48 designated spots. You will also have to fill out a backcountry tag at the check-in box at the trailhead
This post piggybacks off the previous post for Pyramid Peak. After having climbed that mountain in the morning, we continued hiking south on the Crater Lake and West Maroon Creek trails up to (the very dry) Crater Lake. It was getting a touch hot and we fortunately found a creek with some water to fill our bottles. We continued onward and after about another mile, we stopped to rest and make a decision about what we were going to do. Being that there was some daylight left, we decided to try to move as far up Maroon Peak as we could to set ourselves up for an easier summit the next morning.
There was nothing much fun about dragging myself up some 2,800′ up the east slope of Maroon Peak. It was steep, scoured, and I was tired from having already done Pyramid Peak that morning. I was so glad Matt was along because, in addition to being such a strong hiker, there is a psychological strength in numbers. We kept looking for a “flat spot” to lay our sleeping bags out, but there literally wasn’t any.
Up and up and up we climbed until we were at the South Ridge, at 13,250′. The sun was going down. By now, I was legitimately wiped … little appetite, shivering, and wanting nothing more than to lay down. Matt kicked out a semi-flat spot between the rocks for his sleeping bag. My spot was flat but was on top of the summit ridge between a notch completely exposed to the wind. Matt graciously built me a small breastwork with stones to cut the wind a bit. After a quick dinner, I put on a wool hat, gloves, my Patagonia Micro Puff, got into my sleeping bag and died 🙂
Eventually, the Big Dipper sank to the horizon in the west and the sun started coming up in the east. Neither of us had terrific sleep, but we were excited at the opportunity to bag the iconic Maroon Peak summit.
I am not sure why this route is characterized as Class 3. In my opinion, it was as tough, if not tougher in stretches, than Pyramid Peak. If you try to climb this mountain, I would go into this with a Class 4 mindset. The distance from where we slept to the summit was probably only about half a mile as the crow flies; the route curls back around the west side of the summit ridge. However, it was quite steep in spots, with a mixture of ledges, crumbling rock and scree, and ill-defined trail. Early on, we had to climb up through a chimney and some notches. We then continued to traverse across the flank through complex terrain.
Eventually, we came to the infamous, and dangerous, “two gullies”. Matt and I elected to go up the first gully, a steep chute of loose scree and dirt, cut across on a ledge halfway up, and then continue upward in the second gully. From here, it was more exposed ledges and route finding in steep, complex terrain. If you try this climb, the information at 14ers.com will prove to be very valuable.
Finally, we broke out onto the ridge crest and walked up easier terrain to the summit. It’s hard to describe the feeling of what we saw up there. The Maroon Bells, especially in autumn, probably are the most photographed peaks in all of North America. Yet pictures, especially from the valley floor, simply don’t do the views justice. In every sense of the word, the views are breathtaking and sitting on the summit of Maroon Peak in quiet contemplation will be a memory I will reflect on fondly throughout my life.
There is one grim reminder, though, of the dangers of mountain climbing. After we descended to our high camp to retrieve our sleeping bags and other gear, we started back down the east slope. Halfway down, I lost my footing on some steep sand and took a fall. I take full responsibility for this because the simple fact of the matter is I was not mentally focused. I knew the instant it happened to go into a tuck position as I started rolling and bouncing down the mountain after clearing a rock ledge. After about 25 yards, I was able to dig my heels into some bushes and dirt and arrest the fall, a few yards away from going over a second, and much worse, rock ledge. I came into a sitting position and was very lucky — only a dislocated pinky, some bloody scrapes, and bruises. My helmet, now compromised, had done its job; had I not been wearing it, my head would have been split open like a tomato. What did I learn form this? Stay 100% focused! The climb is not over until you have arrived back safely to the trailhead.
I am going to give Maroon Peak a 9 out of 10 in terms of 14er difficulty. Do not be deceived by the Class 3 rating. Take this climb seriously and budget appropriate time and resources. If you have them, bring along Kahtoola microspikes for the grinding ascent/descent on the east slope. Good luck and be safe …