We drove out to Glenwood Springs on Tuesday night to attempt a one-day ascent of both Bells. This was a very audacious plan and Homie figured it would be around 20 hours. We packed accordingly and started at 3:40 the next morning. We both went in on skis, up the closed road for 6.2 miles and then another 2.5 miles to just past Crater Lake. Here we ditched the skis and switched to climbing boots, crampons, ice axe, harness, and helmets. With the 120+ ounces of liquid and tons of food, that made for a heavy load on our backs and I was glad to be leaving a lot of weight behind.
The weather was stellar, which was the main reason for this attempt. That and the Aspen area hadn't received snow in over a week. We hoped for nicely consolidated snow conditions. We didn't get them. We had to break trail for the last 1.5 miles and the snow we went through, while not deep, was so light and it could have fallen last night. The temperatures up here had just been too cold and the snow hadn't melted and consolidated at all. It was just pure sugary, all the way down to the group. Now when the snow isn't deep, that's okay, though it does make for tricky footing, but when it is deep, it is impassable.
Homie had a route planned for us, one he had done in the summer when he linked Pyramid to the Bells. I worried about the long traverse in the sugary snow and convinced him to try a more direct route up what I thought looked like reasonable terrain because of the snow it held. It was not. After we climbed up a few hundred feet and could see that my proposed route was a bust, Homie spied an enticing break in the first cliff band that was completely dry, in the sun, and looked eminently climbable with lots of blocky holds. It was. The problem was that we could only see 100 feet of our proposed new route to the summit 3000 feet above us. With all the vertical cliff bands on the Bells, this didn't work so well.
Once above the first band, which we belayed. We saw a much more daunting band above us. I thought we were blocked, but Homie swum upwards through the sugary snow and found a climbable break. Later he would say that he thought about just continuing up it, scrambling it while simul-climbing. Instead, he brought me up. Upon closer examination, it was a lot tougher than he originally thought. Still, it had some cracks offering up protection possibilities and I decided to give it a go. What else did we have to do? We figured it was too late to retreat and try another route.
The difficulties started immediately and it took me a big stretch to place a small cam in a crack atop a block. Getting over the block was the problem. I tried to tackle it directly and took a short fall. Thankfully the piece was solid. I went left and after much deliberation, mostly about the opportunities for protection higher up, I committed to the moves. I didn't want to get injured ten miles from the car in January.
Slowly, methodically, timidly I advanced up the cliff band, emptying my rack into the increasingly rare cracks. I ran out the rope and arrived on a ledge that cut across the face below yet another, much less climbable cliff band. Homie had the decency to take a fall of his own, though I didn't even notice it so great was my effort to keep the slack out of the rope, and the good manners to take nearly as long to follow it.
We spent about an hour climbing a hundred vertical feet. And where did it get us? Trapped again. We traversed for a bit, but didn't find a break. We would have eventually got around it, but then just into steep sugar snow. Reluctantly, we turned around, giving up while still with perfect weather and still under 11,000 feet. Homie would say later that he was surprised not to be more disappointed, but felt that was due to us not even getting remotely close to the summit.
Getting down from that cliff was a bit of trick by itself, considering we only had the 100-foot rope with us. Homie did a single rope rappel down and found it was 80 feet to the base of the cliff. I then tied our three long slings together, downclimbed while clipping into each sling and then did a rappel from a loop in the last sling. We retreated back to the skis.
Before heading out we skied further up the valley to check out Homie's proposed route. It looked way more reasonable now, though I still dreaded any sustained movement in that sugary snow. Doing a one-day winter ascent of mountains this difficult requires not only perfect weather, but perfect snow conditions. At least for me. Stronger, better men can pull it off in worse conditions, but I'd be at my limit under ideal conditions.
We skied back out to the road, had a couple of hot chocolates at the shack maintained by the snowmobiles that come up the road and then glided back to the car. We were out 11.5 hours and did 19 miles and about 3500 vertical feet. It turned into a pretty nice ski tour, but would have been a lot nicer without all that weight.