Not all Fourteeners are created equal.
For the uninitiated, a Fourteener is a mountain over 14,000' in elevation. Colorado has 54 of them (or 53, or 55, depending on whose criteria you subscribe to). I've climbed 47 of them. I'm trying to climb them all.
A couple weeks ago, I flew out to attempt North Maroon Peak, meeting up with my dad, who lives in Michigan, and his friend Dan from Fort Collins, Colorado.
Located in the Elk Mountains near Aspen, Colorado, North Maroon Peak, along with its sister summit, South Maroon Peak, is one of the most photographed and picturesque mountains on the planet, framed perfectly by a symmetrical valley when viewed from the easily-accessible Maroon Lake.
It's easy to photograph, but not so easy to climb.
Its combination of loose, rotten rock, exposed ledges, and difficult, class 4 climbing have put it high on most lists of the most difficult Fourteeners in Colorado.
The Maroon Bells have killed over 50 people over the years. Since we weren't interested in becoming statistics at this particular juncture, we took every precaution possible while preparing for the climb. Every precaution, it turns out, except for bringing adequate snow and ice climbing gear.
Since we were climbing in late September, we figured that any snow we might encounter on the summit ridges would be a mere dusting. Powdery. Easy to navigate.
We were wrong.
After a short, restless night's sleep, we woke up at 2 AM on Sunday morning, and drove to the trailhead, leaving our car by 3:30 AM. We hiked the first two miles of well-established trail by the light of our headlamps, stopping to take pictures of the first rays of sunlight hitting North Maroon's ruddy, towering slopes above.
The standard route up North Maroon, the Northeast Ridge, is one of the most direct routes on any Fourteener. In fact, you can see most of the route from Maroon Lake, as it climbs and traverses the seemingly impossible-looking face rearing up directly above Crater Lake. We knew what we were in for.
A couple of fat, brazen marmots eyeballed me as I climbed by. They looked hungry. I looked delicious. I hurried.
Sunlight hit as we finished crossing a large rock glacier around 11,500'. We traversed a mildly exposed ledge system to reach North Maroon's east face in earnest. We climbed the first of two large gullies on this route, traversed another tiny ledge to reach the second, steeper gully, and began to see patches of snow among the rocks.
We stopped to ponder our future, and drink in the majestic views of Pyramid Peak and Maroon Lake. Oh, and to catch our collective breath.
We reached the top of the second gully, and the snow began in earnest. Simply bringing along crampons and ice axes would have made the rest of the climb a cakewalk. However, we'd placed too much faith in trip and weather reports, and found ourselves unprepared at 13,200' on North Maroon's northeast ridge, with 2,000' of cliffs below us awaiting any missteps.
Mom, if you're reading this, none of this actually happened. We spent the whole day in utter safety, hiking through flowery meadows.
With every step, we dug in our boots to the ice-crusted snow, and tested every handhold on North Maroon's notoriously rotten rock. Soon, we arrived at the crux of the route, a Class 4, 40-foot chimney that allowed access through a large cliff band at 13,600'. This chimney is tough enough as it is when the rock is dry, but since the cleft itself lay in the shade offered by North Maroon's summit, we found that every would-be handhold in the chimney was completely covered with slippery, rock-hard ice. Needless to say, this made climbing it somewhat of an exercise in desperately wriggling up between two rock walls, using chimneying rather than climbing techniques. There was nothing sexy about this part of the climb. The final move at the top of the chimney took each of us over five harrowing minutes to complete, with the gaping maw of North Maroon's north face beneath us beckoning us to slip.
Once safely past the chimney, the difficulties lessened, yet the dangers increased. Slowly, carefully, we made our way up broken Class 3 ledges and snow-covered rocks along the left side of the ridge crest to North Maroon's coveted summit.
We said a prayer of thanks, snapped some pictures, ate some food. I, of course, posed for my requisite shirtless summit shot. Sadly, we couldn't find North Maroon's summit log book.
The way down proved even more time-consuming, as we crab-walked much of the icy ridge, keeping three points of contact with the ground as often as possible. Finally, fifteen hours after we started our climb, we arrived back at tourist-infested Maroon Lake, sweaty, dirty, and exhausted, and paused to snap a few final pictures of the behemoth we'd just summited amidst the hordes of camera-toting sightseers who were oblivious to what we'd just accomplished.
Our climb of North Maroon reminded me of some valuable climbing lessons: Number One, always be prepared for anything. Never trust others' trip reports implicitly. Number Two, when in doubt, see Number One.
Whether you've climbed all of Colorado's Fourteeners or are attempting just a few, it's important to respect each and every mountain you attempt. When approached with the right amount of respect and caution, North Maroon will reward you with incredible views, hair-raising traverses, and a mind-blowing summit.