Route: Started at the winter closure at ~8100’ near the T-lazy 7 ranch on Maroon Creek Road, climbed the bell cord to Maroon summit. Skied all or part of the cord.
Crew: Sarah, Kevin, Joe and Prakash. We combined forces with Mike, Joe and Kiefer at the base of the bell cord.
Distance and Elevation Gained: ~20.5 miles and ~6050 feet, ~16.5 hours
I had 3 days to climb what I wanted while Divi was away in California for the weekend. After a hectic work week though with later days and no time to plan and research routes I got restless with my free weekend in the bag but no solid plan or available partners. On Wednesday evening I texted Kevin about his plans and he asked “How’s your fitness? Thinking about day-tripping South…” After 2/3 failed 14er attempts this winter I should have said “My butt holds enough blubber to satisfy the annual whale oil requirement of the 19th century United States”. Intent however on not rapidly turning away a prospective partnership I texted back incredulously, “South Maroon??” “Yeah, going up the cord” was the response. I immediately headed to my usual info sources… CAIC, OpenSnow, NOAA and 14ers.com to scout for recent trip reports. I found the avalanche rating at Green throughout Colorado and nice warm / freeze cycles for 13,100’ in the Bells area for the next 3 days. Further consolidation on top of an already green forecast! Besides our climbing day had a nice partly sunny forecast with some breeze to ward away early wet-slide activity. I texted Joe to ask if he’d be interested in a quick day-trip before his baby was born. We’d both not attempted a summit together since Peru last summer. He was just as incredulous about the Bell cord being in condition but excited to get out. He called Jordan for beta and called me back shortly afterwards to say he was in. Sweet! Divi also felt much better when Joe signed up since we’d been out together on a lot of climbs and know each other’s style (or in my case lack thereof) well. We decided to go light and not carry any gear or a rope. We’d heard other parties had rappelled into the notch to descend off the upper ridge but figured it wasn’t worth the weight.
On Friday afternoon Joe showed up at my place and we drove out to Aspen together. We pulled into the Qdoba at Glenwood Springs. As we were about to get out after dinner I saw a familiar figure lurking at one of the tables… “Kiefer!?!?”. “Prakash!?”. As it turned out he and a couple others were also headed up the Cord the next day and were going to attempt the traverse. Brave. We talked for a bit and left. We pulled in at the winter closure on Maroon Creek road at 8PM and began preparing the back of the car for bed as Sarah and Kevin pulled up. We made a quick plan to shoot for a 1AM departure and went to bed.
We arose at 12:15AM,oozed out of the car, inhaled some breakfast and began skinning up Maroon Creek road at around 1:40AM a few minutes behind Sarah and Kevin (Pappersons). The skinning to the summer trailhead went quick and we covered the 6.2 miles in a little over 2 hours. We were passed by snowmobiles a couple times and figured Kiefer’s party was being ferried up to the summer TH for their traverse attempt. At roughly 4AM we caught up with the Pappersons at one of the bus shelters by the summer trailhead, shared some coca tea, ate trail bars and munched on some Cajun spiced sausage I’d brought.
We continued up the trail around Maroon lake and steadily up the drainage towards Crater lake. The Pappersons were able to keep the snowshoes off most of the way and only punched through rarely which was a comforting sign of a decent overnight freeze. In the willows past Crater Lake they stopped to put on the snowshoes because the snow got deeper. Joe and I took a straight traverse to the base of the cord by-passing some of the trail.
Up the Cord:
We skinned as far as we felt it was worth it and stopped for a break to eat and put crampons on. Above us Kiefer’s party was attempting to by-pass a small step of ice in the garbage chute by heading up a short cliff band to the climbers right of it. It turned out to be sketchier than they expected and had delayed them a bit. There was an easier snow gully parallel to the garbage chute that we decided to take instead. We ate some breakfast and cramponed up while Sarah and Kevin caught up. I decided to shoulder carry the skis for a bit longer and Joe planned to carry them to the notch. Sarah and Kevin decided to carry the snowshoes up for a bit longer.
Right above the small gully of snow Sarah and Kevin dropped their snowshoes and we continued up behind Keifer’s group as they headed up the cord.
At roughly 12500’ I plunged my skis into the snow, created a smallish snow-berm uphill of them to keep slough from knocking them down the couloir, and headed up again.
Joe soon caught up to Kiefer’s group and took over setting up the booter. A good couple hours of slogging up the cord put our group up at the notch roughly between 11 and 11:20AM depending on our levels of gas in tank with Joe doing a lion’s share of setting the booter carrying skis… after returning from two weeks at sea level in Japan and not having been out in the high country in a long time… The dude would most likely not consider finishing the winter 14ers a challenge.
I got pretty dehydrated and hungry by the time I was at the notch. The others began heading up to the summit while Joe brewed up some ramen. We ate and drank a bit before taking on the last few hundred feet to the summit which would be the sketchiest part of the day. We dropped a bit to the West of the notch to (not-so-gracefully in the ski boots) get on ledges to the West side of the ridge crest.
The Upper Mountain:
The exposure was unsettling on the way up. This was before the salty ramen we ate actually had time to hit my brain so the effects of altitude likely made the exposure seem worse than it actually was.
The consequences of a fall would have been pretty bad at a couple spots…
The ledge system on the upper mountain seemed no less loose with snow cover than it felt to me when I last climbed it in dry conditions. It was a fun (while also slightly terrifying) scramble to get through the ledge system.
We were soon close to the ridge crest where there was a line of snow to follow rather than the loose Elk range rock ledges. Things got less terrifying and there was a break from the adrenaline rush.
Shortly before hitting the ridge we ran into the rest of the group returning from the summit. Joe asked Sarah and Kevin to wait for us near the base of the cord until we returned to the notch and began our descent. We continued on after the brief exchange and summitted a few minutes later…
We were faced with some of the best Colorado views I’ve seen in months, the kind only afforded by the Elks and SJs.
For me the elation of the summit was quickly replaced by a bit of nervousness over reversing our ascent route down the exposed ledges of the upper mountain.
It turned out to be a bit easier descending than on the way up though since the Ramen Joe brewed at the notch and my remaining coca tea that I drank there took effect and brought me quite a bit of relief from the effects of dehydration-driven hypoxia.
We were shortly back at the notch and while Joe began to get his skis ready I took my crampons off and began plunge-stepping towards my own ski stash. Joe began making short work of the challenging snow conditions as he usually does…
From where I picked up my skis it was an interesting ski down what seemed like a couple inches of icy hard crust sitting on softer snow interspersed frequently by large chunks of frozen avalanche debris of the consistency of a giant squirrels’ feces following a partially digested feast of acorns. Regardless, it was still much more enjoyable and quicker than plunge-stepping or glissading down.
Shortly thereafter we passed Sarah and Kevin. We were very thankful to them for hanging out waiting for us to ski safely out of the upper cord. Thanks were also due to the Bells themselves for sparing us their deathly toll on this beautiful winter day.
The work was certainly not over and we skinned up again to get out of Crater Lake basin. We yo-yoed with the Pappersons for a while as the terrain switched back and forth between uphill and downhill sections.
Soon Joe and I were back to the relative safety of the summer trailhead near Maroon Lake with Sarah and Kevin not far behind. After a short restroom break at the trailhead it took Joe and I all of 18 minutes to ski out the last 6.2 miles of Maroon Creek road down to the winter closure. Close to the end of it we passed (I think, and didn’t realize it until I got home) Dad Mike walking down after his successful completion of the Calendar Winter 14er list on Pyramid. Congrats man! I’m a big fan. It was a tough day with a lot of mileage and the skis were certainly an efficient mode of travel on this route at least… (The red spot in the top right part of the image is our starting point). We saw Kiefer’s group leaving the trailhead as we arrived. The snowmobiles didn’t turn out to be that much faster than the skis for the downhill portion.
I texted Kevin to let us know as soon as they were out and we packed up slowly and headed down the road to find food. We stopped at Fat Belly’s in Carbondale for the post-climb meal. Someone actually suggested we get a falafel or loofa burger or something similar sounding. Sacrilege… to be asked to eat what food eats! We were done with each of our double standards’, fries and chocolate milk when Kevin’s text came in… “Out. Death March…” They planned to sleep at the trailhead and drive back to Denver the next morning. Happy they were out safely we began our drive up I-70 interspersed with one not-so brief stop for a nap at one of the rest areas near Glenwood springs. We were back at my place where Joe had parked at around 1AM. He drove another 40 minutes home to Lyons. It was a solid end to the winter and my first Elk range summit in Calendar Winter. Thanks Joe and others, for tagging along. It wouldn’t have been any fun without y’all.