When I truly became interested in summiting all of Colorado’s 14ers, I picked up a copy of Gerry Roach’s book “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs”. As I read through each page I learned about places like Chicago Basin and the Maroon Bells Wilderness area. I remember thinking that these mountains seemed beyond reach. My recollection of this moment remains ever present in my mind as I embark on the final stretch towards completing my goal – to summit all 58 of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet. This past weekend, I took another step closer to the end of what has been an incredible and challenging journey as John and I set out towards Aspen with the goal of hiking both North Maroon Peak and Snowmass Mountain.
John and I arrived in Aspen early enough to grab a quick burger at Little Annie’s before heading up towards Maroon Lake. We planned to spend the night in the parking area in order to be up early enough to begin our adventure. Sleep was scarce as my mind kept wondering what challenges the mountain held for us the next day.
Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak lie just outside of Aspen in the Maroon Bells Wilderness area. The mountains’ perfect shape and structure fully live up to their famous name; the Maroon Bells. The Bells are known for their steep, loose and rugged terrain. From a distance, their summits look inaccessible.
Our alarm clocks sounded at 4am sharp and we managed to start up the trail around 4:30am. The first three miles were uneventful, other than stumbling around in the dark using headlamps to navigate the trail.
After reaching the base of the peak, the trail quickly became more challenging. To reach the peak’s summit, we had to navigate two steep gullies in order to gain access to the northeast ridge that leads to the summit.
We entered the first gully and began our sleep climb. We gained roughly 800 vertical feet in elevation before working our way into the lower part of the second gully that would lead to the northeast ridge. The second gully was steeper than the first and presented plenty of loose rock and steep ledges that we carefully worked our way though as we approached the ridge.
North Maroon’s “crux” (or most difficult section) is considered to be a large rock band at the top of the second gully, right before beginning the ascent of the northwest ridge. The crux of the route entails climbing up a vertical chimney in order to reach the top of the rock band. In true “route finding Rick” fashion, I didn’t believe we’d reached this point when we actually came to it. John ascended the chimney successfully, as I worked my way around the rock band to ascend a less exposed section to reach the ridge.
Once we were through this area, the remaining route also proved to be challenging. We took some time to consider the safest access through the upper cliff bands that would lead to the summit. We’d climb up a section only to retreat and start over in an effort to find safer passage.
After many attempts to navigate our way to the top, we succeeded! John and I stood atop one of the most iconic mountains in the U.S. We were the only two on the summit that morning, and the views in all directions amazed us. We took time to enjoy our accomplishment, but realized that our adventure was only half over; the descent to the valley floor still lay ahead of us.
The descent entailed many of the same obstacles that our ascent held. We took time to discuss options that would lead us safely down the mountain. And, as it turns out, as we approached the rock band of which John ascended the vertical chimney, another party of climbers was coming up the mountain. After a short discussion we learned that this was in fact the “crux” of the mountain. We decided to both down climb this area and we shortly found ourselves at the top of the second gully.
The weather was holding and we took our time as we worked our way down both gullies to more gradual terrain. When we reached a large meadow, below the first gully, we took a break to rest a bit before making our final trek back to the trailhead.
Reaching this peak’s summit was certainly a challenge. Quite honestly, it was the most challenging 14er I’ve tackled thus far on my journey. It would prove to be a solid warm up for the following day on Snowmass Mountain.
On to Snowmass:
John and I packed up and headed towards the trailhead that we would use to access the summit of Snowmass Mountain. The route we decided on is not the standard route used by most hikers. Instead, we both agreed that climbing the “S Ridge” on the west side would prove to be a fun challenge, and we were right. The ridge is aptly named for the perfect “S” shape that it makes as the ridge weaves its way to the summit.
The access to Lead King Basin, where our trailhead began, requires a 5 mile drive up rough road that takes just over an hour to navigate. We decided we’d grab a bite to eat before heading to camp and figured we check out our only option in the small town of Marble, known as Slow Groovin’ BBQ.
Oddly enough, they were closed for a private wedding event. But because they are the only restaurant in town, they hired a band and put on a small venue with live music and tasty BBQ in the middle of town for locals and visitors to enjoy who were not part of the wedding. After enjoying some food and music, John and I headed towards the trailhead.
John and I planned on our climb taking anywhere from 8 to 10 hours the next day. With this in mind, we set our alarm clocks for another early start and went to bed.
We were on the trail at 4:50am and made our way up towards the top of the basin. Our goal was to reach a set of gullies on the west face of the mountain. Once there, we would choose the best gully to ascend to reach the S Ridge.
It took just under three hours for John and I to reach the gullies. We ascended the northern gully, based on some research we’d done prior to our climb. The gully proved to be much steeper than we’d anticipated, but we soon reached the ridge and were rewarded with an amazing view of the terrain that would challenge us for the next two hours.
The ridge held dramatic exposure, mostly solid rock and several sections that took time and focus to navigate. John and I both quietly eyed the weather as we had no easy exit off of the mountain from the ridge, if the weather changed.
Luckily, the weather held and we reached the top, where we were again the only two people on the summit. We took a little extra time to rest before discussing our descent.
We’d reached Snowmass’s summit via the S Ridge, but our descent was going to take us directly down the mountain’s west face, which features steep terrain and loose rock. The east face, rather than the west face, is the standard route on the mountain as it offers more gradual terrain and can be done as an enjoyable overnight backpacking trip due to the fact that it is 21 miles round trip in length. John and I would soon find out why the west face is much more seldom climbed.
After discussing our plan for descending the mountain, we slowly made our way off the summit. The next two hours would be filled with careful route finding, much discussion and a great deal of attention on the weather.
In one of the major gullies on the descent, we took a great deal of care to ensure that we did not create rockfall. The terrain was steep and any dislodged boulders would careen down the gully to the valley floor 2,000 feet below. We moved as quickly as possible, while taking time to ensure we descended the safest route possible.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the bottom of the gully! The weather was rapidly changing for the worse and John and I decided to hustle up and work our way quickly back to the trailhead. The stormy weather moved in and we both got drenched, but we were soon back at our camp.
These mountains definitely lived up to what I had imagined them to be like after first reading Roach’s book on the 14ers. They were challenging, to say the least, but I’ve also come to find out that much can be learned from these experiences, as well. I believe that John and I would both agree that we pushed ourselves both mentally and psychically but in the end, we were both rewarded by our hard work and perseverance.
Hiking and climbing can be a rather funny, even contradictory, experience. While doing it, you often wonder what the hell you were thinking when you set out to concur the mountain you’re struggling to summit. But once you stand on top of a massive peak and take in the surrounding views, you are overcome by an incredibly strong sense of accomplishment, which makes it all worthwhile!
I’ll have more stories to share as I continue to hike and climb for Summits for MS! If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS