Monday, March 07, 2016

Road to Denali, part 8: Maroon Peak

Not a lot to see here, except for one seriously happy kid that he doesn't have to go up anymore.

Homie and Dan climbed both of the Bells in a 17-hour day from the winter parking last weekend. That is completely badass. Homie said conditions were great and I offered the Bells as a weekend training climb for us to Derek, along with an easier alternative. Derek chose the Bells. I love the ambition, but I doubted he knew what he was committing to. I did. I’d failed on these peaks in winter twice before with Homie. He solved that problem by teaming up with Dan and going big. I don’t think I could have managed their trip. Derek and I needed more winter camping experience anyway, so we opted for a 2-day attempt.

We left home at 5 a.m. Saturday morning and were skiing up the Maroon Bells road at  9:15 a.m. In winter an ascent of the Bells is 13 miles longer, as you have to get up and down this road to reach the summer trailhead. I was in my NNN touring gear and towing a sled with a ton of gear: rope, harnesses, rack, slings, two pairs of crampons, a shovel, XKG blowtorch, cook set, 9-pound 4-season tent, 33-ounce fuel bottle, two sleeping pads, two ice axes, two pairs of snowshoes, too much food, and my mountaineering double-boots. It looked like the Grinch’s sled once he got it atop Mt. Crumpit. I sure could have used a bigger set of lungs and legs to pull that beast. In our packs, Derek and I mostly carried down - sleeping bags, jackets, booties, and two more pads, our helmets, water bottles, and more clothes. 
Saturday was the last nice day to climb the Bells...

Within the first mile I had one of my water bottles fall unnoticed from my pack and Derek lost his sunglasses. Bummer. We ground out the 6.5-mile road leading to the summer trailhead. A mile before we got there I snapped one of the PVC pipes that I use to pull the sled. This is a very gentle road and I was putting minimal force on the pole. It must have been on the verge of breaking before. The pole snapped inside the threaded connector attached to the sled. I pulled the rest of the way to the trailhead with one pole. Once there I rigged up something with the climbing slings I brought, which of course were buried in the bottom of the pack attached to the sled. We took a 45-minute break here to rest, fix the sled, and drink some hot chocolate from the hut that is located here. Derek was also dealing with blisters on the balls of his feet, which he taped up.

We continued on at noon, up the single-track trail, 3+ miles to Crater Lake. Derek was now on snowshoes, leaving his skis here. I continued on skis. Why wasn’t I using my mountaineering boots to ski, like Derek? Because those boots give me nasty blisters when I ski in them. I’ll get them fitted, but haven’t done it yet. Also, my other pair of skis have mountaineering bindings that are in marginal shape. 

The trail to Crater Lake traverses a steep slope and the sled rolled a few times on us. Sleds are great, except when they are not. Sleds to not like to go across hills. Up or down, not across. Derek righted things as necessary and it wasn't too bad. There are some short steep hills on this section and I needed Derek behind me pushing with his poles to get the sled up and over. We got into camp — at the last grove of trees at 10,3000 feet— at 1:30 and immediately set about pitching the tent. This was the same spot that Homie and I used the last time I was in here. This site just barely accommodated our rather large tent. There were lots of logs and trees around to secure all our guy lines. We still haven't erected it in "Denali conditions", meaning no trees or fences nearby. 

While Derek blew up the pads and flaked out the sleeping bags and stove, I put on the snowshoes and went up to 11,100 feet to recon the next day's route. I met three climbers coming down. They had started at 1 a.m. from the parking lot and had climbed Maroon Peak. They originally thought about doing the traverse to North Maroon, but ran out of time and fitness. They all knew who Homie was and I was shamelessly name-dropping him as I always do when it comes to Colorado 14ers. Homie is an absolutely beast. Of course I’m hoping that some of Homie’s credibility will be transferred to me since, “he’s my good friend.”
Back down at the tent after the ascent.
I descended with these guys. They were clearly very fit and ambitious themselves to get even one of these peaks in a single winter day. I told them our plans and they mentioned the storm that was coming in the next day. We knew about it, but elected to try anyway, since it might not amount to much and it looked like it was going to hit in the afternoon, when we hoped to be on our way down. Behind these three were two parties of two - a husband and wife and two guys on skis. One of them skied the entire Bell Cord Couloir. That’s impressive and not just for the skiing, as it maxes out at 42 degrees (according to one of these climbers), but to haul skis all the way up there requires some serious fitness. Unfortunately, his skiing and the vicious winds that night would eliminate all traces of a track.

Derek and I were in the tent for good by 4:20 p.m. when the whole valley was in shade and getting cold. It wasn’t nearly as cold when Homie and I were in there last time and we stayed nice and warm in our -30 and -40-degree bags. My buddy Mark has just shown us the proper way to start our XGK stove and we fired that baby up in our vestibule and melted snow non-stop for the next 100 minutes. We ate and drank and filled every container we had. I cooked us up some Ramen and chicken. We brought in tons of food and ate about half of it, mostly due to the conditions the next day and Derek’s low appetite when camping and climbing.

After some debate, we set the alarm for 3:15. We wanted to be moving at 5 a.m. I wanted to set it later, because we wouldn’t need to melt much snow in the morning and I thought we’d get ready faster. Derek felt if we got ready faster, we could just leave earlier. This is a high school kid arguing to get up earlier...on the weekend! I think he might be true alpinist. 

The night was very windy but our tent is a champ and was very securely erected. I wasn’t too keen about going out in the wind, though. When the alarm went off and it was still super windy, I snoozed it a couple of times and then asked Derek, “What do you think of that wind?” I wanted him to release me from going out into the cold, dark, windy morning by saying he didn’t want any part of it. Instead he responded, “We better bundle up.” Blast!

We were moving at 5:15 a.m., both in snowshoes. Derek wore a borrowed pair that we got from Mark. Unfortunately, one of the bolts on the binding broke before we climbed a five hundred feet. Derek mentioned it but other than that didn’t complain at all. It was a pain though, as the snowshoe turned sideways. Also, those shoes didn’t have nearly the crampon claws that I had on my pair, and we needed the traction on the lower slope, as it was quite firm in spots. We finally left Derek’s snowshoes at the top of the lower apron when the slope above was too hard and icy. He switched into crampons on a small ledge I hacked out with my axe. I continued in snowshoes, just in case we needed floatation. If we did, we'd have shared the shoes - one each. This was never need though, and I left them at the top of the second apron, after the traverse.

Here the snow was softer and all traces of a track were gone. I started kicking steps and continued doing that for the next 2.5 hours. From our camp, we climbed continuously, at grade of 20 degrees to 40 degrees, for 3500 feet. For more than 2000 of that I was kicking steps to mid-calf or my knee. The couloir goes on forever. I could practically see the top from well below, though I don’t know at the time. I wondered how much climbing was above the bend above me, but that bend came closer so slowly. What looked to be 500 feet away was 1800 feet. 

Wind and spindrift hampered our ascent and we both wore our big mitts to keep our hands warm. I was warm except for my face. I had my collar up and my goggles on, but my nose was exposed. Derek was in the same boat. We had balaclavas with us, but were too focused on making the saddle. My breaks, at first spaced by 100 steps, came every 50, 30 and then 20 steps. I led the couloir and at times Derek lagged a bit behind, but he closed up right on me at the top. We pulled over onto the top of the couloir after 4.5 hours, equally wasted. 
Looking down our ascent route.
The wind was blasting here and though I wanted to put on my balaclava, I didn’t want to take off my gloves or hat or hood to do it. It was snowing now and socked in. The traverse to North Maroon was out of the question. Truth be told, I was already rejected that as an option two thousand feet lower when conditions were already tough and I was getting my ass kicked. Nevertheless I carried all our gear up there. Derek was really wasted. If it was anyone but Derek I’d have asked if he was up for continuing to the summit. Even in such terrible weather, I knew Derek would go up. We put on our down jackets and left our packs behind and headed up.

Conditions from here on up made taking photos extremely difficult and I only did it halfway up and on the summit. I only took those so that we'd have something to remember the climb besides our sore muscles. Doing so required me to take off my big mitts and I stupidly didn't have my liner gloves with me, so that exposed my bare hand. My hands are renowned wimps when it comes to cold temperatures so this marked a supreme effort for me.

Derek had never done climbing like that in crampons. He did fine, but he was so tired that it was doubly challenging for him. It is common for climbers to get sloppy when they are tired and take some chances to save energy. I’m guilty of this. It’s a combination of confidence and laziness and it isn’t recommended. I was very encouraged that Derek didn’t take this approach. More so for someone so young. From a very young age Derek had no fear of heights and complete trust in me. He’d lean back on a monster overhanging rappel with zero hesitation. It would be freaky and worrying if he didn’t realize the danger or that he was careless, but he never did or was. We’ve done a number of big adventures now and he always is careful and never reckless. In the Grand Canyon I let him solo up a 5.4 wall, because I knew he’d be solid. Here, high on Maroon Peak with huge exposure in spots and unfamiliarity with the climbing, he was cautious and took the time to be safe. We were unroped up and down and I was mostly behind him to spot him, but no matter how tired he was — and he was completely at his limit — he did not cut corners on safety. 
The frightening traverse to North Maroon - not for us!
When we topped out I was so proud of Derek. His drive, his attitude, his competency, his ability to suffer. He’d never done anything remotely this big in winter before. Heck, it is one of my most significant winter climbs and I did it with my 18-year-old son. He has a HUGE jump on where I was at his age. We stood alone on the summit - the only people in the entire valley. The wind was howling and it was snowing and we had a long way to descend, but we’d done it. It felt great to final get some success in the Bells in winter. I guess I just needed the right partner.

We descended carefully back to the top of the couloir. Still wasted we knew we had to drink and eat. We did a little of both before starting our descent. The wind had completely obliterated our tracks. Fresh snow covered everything. We down-frontpointed for a tiring thousand feet, then another 500 before it was more efficient to face outwards. It was tempting to glissade but I was worried about too much snow coming down with us and a mistake could be fatal. It wasn’t worth it. Derek didn’t dig this decision but he respected my greater experience. 
The last few steps to the summit. Why climb mountains? The views, obviously!
I spent twenty minutes frantically digging for the snowshoes I stashed on the way up. I thought all the snow coming down the couloir had buried or swept them away. I finally gave up and descended, thinking I’d just lost my new snowshoes when Derek spotted them hundreds of feet lower, exactly where I left them. I was so sure I was at the right outcropping, but I was not. Whew. 

We picked up our poles and snowshoes as we descended, but just continued with crampons and ice axe all the way down to camp, getting there at 1:15 p.m. The storm was going nicely now and all our gear was covered in snow and the wind made packing up more difficult. We went straight to the task of breaking down camp, which is time-consuming, but we had everything packed up and on our backs and the sled by 2:30 p.m. We headed out. The tracks we followed on the way in were completely covered but we knew the route and once we got up the crux hill on the other side of Crater Lake we were on a clear trail. The sled tipped over a number of times and Derek handled it expertly each time. Careening down this trail on the very edge of control in my NNN boots with a big pack on my back and a heavy sled is quite a rush.
On the summit of Maroon Peak
I worked very hard getting that sled back to the road and was completely drenched as I did it all in my down jacket. I should have stopped and shed, but it’s such a pain when I’m hooked up to the sled, that I just suffered. I went directly into the hut and stripped down to bare chest. My shirt was completely soaked. Luckily I had a spare dry shirt and I changed into it. Derek got both his skis and mine ready for the road descent and secured the second pair of snowshoes to the sled while I recovered in the hut. 

We left there at 4:15 p.m. for the 6.5-mle slog back to the car. The elevation drops from 9800 feet to 8300 feet, yet having descended it three times now if I were to guess the top along this section I’d say it drops 200 feet. It’s one of those mystery spots where the road is basically flat yet supposedly (I’m not completely trusting these geographers) it drops 1500 feet. Derek easily outdistanced me. My sled felt like and anchor and I pulled and kicked and glided and suffered all the way to the car. My shoulders are so sore from pulling all that weight over the last two days. Derek waited up near the end and we skied together for the last kilometer and a half to the car.

We had the car packed up by 6 p.m. I was so relieved to be sitting down - something I really hadn’t done since leaving the car on Saturday morning. Derek handled all the driving on the way home, while I wrote up our report. We stopped at Qdoba for a giant burrito, which Derek had no trouble inhaling twice as fast as I did, yet I eat twice as fast as him in the tent. We got home just a bit after 10 p.m. - in plenty of time for a better man to head to the gym at 5:40 the next morning. But I’m going to sleep in a bit and then start drying out all our gear, which is soaked!


Jeff Valliere said...

AWESOME!! Congrats to both of you, what an effort!

Stefan said...

Love it!