Derek has a desire to climb all Colorado's 14ers. That's not surprising, since he likes bagging peaks and his parents have done them all. We got Derek started pretty early (he climbed Huron when he was 6 and Longs when he was 10), but he generally didn't get going on them until later when he and his brother got bit by the summit bug and were focused enough to hike for many hours. Derek's been doing a lot of repeats lately, with his cousins, because he loves being with them and he loves climbing mountains, even if he's climbed them before.
For the more difficult mountains, he still likes to have me long. With Sheri out in California visiting Danny for the weekend, we decided to head to Aspen and get some of the Elk Range 14ers. Derek did Castle and Conundrum many years ago and we did Maroon Peak this winter. We were hoping to get at least two over the weekend.
We drove out Friday night, right to the Maroon Lake parking lot and threw down our bags right there in the parking lot, along with quite a few others. One guy had his radio cranked up to some talk show. Strange. The parking lot had a lot of activity starting ridiculously early. I remember checking my watch well after the first people left and it read 4 a.m. Our alarm was set for 4:45 and I ignored it until after 5 a.m. and then I got up and ate some breakfast and readied my pack. Knowing how fast Derek can move, I waited to roust him.
|Headed towards that notch in the ridge|
We didn't leave the lot until nearly 6 a.m. That's ridiculous, especially because we were hoping to climb both Bells and Pyramid. A guy walked by our car at 5:40 a.m. and asked what we were doing I told him our plans and he responded very enthusiastically, "Wow, the Three Pack in one day would be impressive." I shot back, "I'm hoping the afternoon weather will give us a good excuse to quit."
We caught this guy and his party of four just about 50 minutes into our hike. Turns out he was headed for Pyramid as well. My original plan was to go up the regular route on Maroon Peak (as I had not done that route before) and then do the traverse to North Maroon. We would then go up Pyramid if the weather looked good. I told my plan to Homie and he told me to go up Pyramid first, then down the West Face so I could save some vert on my way to Maroon Peak. I adopted his plan because, well, he's the 14er expert. I'd regret this later.
I'd only climbed Pyramid once before, with Sheri. We had done a traverse of the peak then, going up the rarely climbed Northwest Ridge and down the standard Northeast Ridge. I didn't remember that much of it, except that Sheri was a bit afraid, but that we done it unroped. Derek and I didn't take any ropes or helmets with us, as our proposed plan should have kept us away from the masses.
Anyway, We caught the guy, who was from Carbondale and he wished us luck on the link-up. Then he picked up his pace and got on our tail. After ten minutes or so he moved in front of me. One of his partners was pretty close, behind Derek and I, and they continued to chat. He was clearly very fit, as I was moving too fast to have much of a conversation. I'll admit that I picked up my pace as well, when he went by, to keep up with him. This guy's other partners were spread out behind us. It was all good. Maybe they weren't accustomed to being caught by an old guy and a kid...
Our paths diverged shortly thereafter when they headed for the regular route. Derek and I struggled to get secure traction as we inched up the loose slope towards the Northwest Ridge. I didn't see any sign of a trail or any cairns here. We followed one goat path to a mini-ridge and traversed across steep, loose rock to gain the ridge proper.
|Derek contemplating the final scrambling section|
Once on the ridge we did find a faint climber's track and cairns. We followed these to just below the summit before they seemed to disappear. The going up to that point was loose at times, but mostly okay. We traversed steeps slope of loose rock and scrambled up loose gullies. Some of the gullies we could climb solid rock on the sides. Near the top, we just followed our noses, traversing a narrow ledge far to the right and then up a steep, but pretty solid wall to a very exposed ridge on the west. We scrambled up this solid ridge and popped out on the summit!
We stayed 20 minutes on top, taking in the views, eating and drinking. We only brought two 20-ounce bottles with us, but we brought a squeeze filtration system that we planned to use before heading up the Bells. We left shortly after the other team hit the summit. I didn't recognize them, as they had donned an extra layer and helmets and the lone female in their group was now leading them.
|On the summit of Pyramid|
We said hi and goodbye and reversed our route back down to where we hit the Northwest Ridge on our ascent. We then took a hard left, to the west, and started down a steep, miserable looking slope. This descent, back to the trail, would take us longer than the ascent had taken us. It started off okay, but then we made the mistake of getting onto the south side of the prominent gully and got into horrible bushwhacking where we couldn't even see our feet. Then we descended a slippery little creek to avoid the worst of the bushwhacking, but this was worse. Further down we hit a slope of sizable talus, all of which moved dangerously with each step. It was painstaking, tiring, tedious, injury-prone going. It ended with a series of streams crossings.
|This is the West Face of Pyramid...not recommended!|
By the time we hit the trail on the other side, we were drained. It was hot and there were tons of flies buzzing around everything. We took a rest on a rock despite the constant annoyance of the pestering insects. I asked Derek if he still wanted to head up Maroon Peak. It was noon and I was worried about afternoon storms. Maroon Peak wasn't really a goal at all, since we'd already climbed it, though we did want to do the traverse. We decided to head down valley and then decide if we even had the energy to do North Maroon.
|Descending the West Face of Pyramid|
When we got to the junction, I wondered what Derek would decide. It didn't matter much to me, as I had done all these peaks. If we didn't do the Bells on Saturday, we'd just come back on Sunday and do the traverse. Derek pointed uphill and we made the turn and slowly started gaining elevation again.
|This was our route...not a good choice|
A thousand feet higher we crossed a creek when we turned off the main Maroon-Snowmass trail and headed for the Bells. We stopped to squeeze out two fresh bottles of water for both of us. Further up, we encountered parties descending. Each one would be a bit surprised that we were headed up. Being a smart ass, I asked each one, "Are we almost there?" One guy responded, "No. In fact, you have two hours and 45 minutes before you'll top out." I just said okay, but was surprised that he was so confident in predicting our ascent time to such accuracy.
|Even the stream crossings were challenging.|
Throughout the day, I was teaching Derek how to memorize the 112 named-elements (there are 118 elements that have been discovered or synthesized and the first 112 have official names. Most of the rest have temporary names, though 114 and 116 now have official names as well). I learned how to do this on my Pawnee-Buchanan hike the previous weekend with Sheri. I had previously learned all the U.S. Presidents, mostly from Derek, and he re-taught me these as well. So, it wasn't just about the climbing. It was also about memorizing nearly useless information. Fun stuff!
|Happy to be back on a trail, on the ascent of North Maroon.|
We were fading a bit as we entered the first gully, but kept plugging away. We changed leader every 500 vertical feet. We switched over to the second gully and then hit the summit ridge. We soloed confidently through the crux headwall and I found a better way out left on the ridge. Better, at least, for soloists.
We weren't on the summit for five minutes when I heard voices. This was surprising, as I thought we were the last on the mountain. I stood up and looked down to the north and saw two people climbing up. It was a father/daughter team. They had just finished the traverse from Maroon Peak. They had taken three hours to do it, but they did it safely and without a rope. I was impressed. They didn't know the way down North Maroon, but followed us until we got too far ahead. I wasn't worried about them, as they had proven that they can do more difficult route finding already.
|Traversing from the first gully into the second gully high on North Maroon.|
We descended slowly and carefully, knowing how tired we were. When we got to the top of the descent gully Derek didn't like the looks of it and convinced me it wasn't the right gully. I admit that there wasn't much clear sign of a trail below. We continued down the ridge proper and I got confused at the next gully, for I didn't see the point where we'd cross from one gully to the next. I didn't know it at the time, but we were looking down the first gully (first on the way up).
As we picked our way down the final section of the ridge to get into the top of the gully, I heard a loud crashing sound behind me, immediately followed by a cry of danger from Derek. I know that sound. It was the sound of rocks big enough to severely injury me, if not kill me, tumbling towards me. On this angle, I had to move immediately. I dashed hard left, hoping to escape the path of the projectile. Of course, running sideways on the extremely loose terrain that we had been painstakingly down climbing was about as successful as you'd imagine. I dislodged other rocks, one went out below my foot. A large rock hit me in the back and then another hit my foot, but the one that elicited a sharp cry of pain was the one that crashed down directly on my left thumb while it grasped another rock. I stumbled down to another ledge, amazingly staying upright and not tumbling. I fell back into the slope and grabbed my thumb. I thought for sure it was broken. The pain was intense and I rocked back and forth, blowing tremendous amounts of air through my pursed lips trying to endure the pain, waiting for it to subside and trying to recover my heart rate from that incredible spike of stress and effort.
|You've got to be kidding!|
Derek did not descend to me for quite some time. I don't know what was going through his mind. Maybe fear of dislodging something else. Maybe fear of seeing whatever injuries I had up close. He eventually joined me, retrieved my water bottle, which had been in my left hand, and helped me pull a glove onto my hand to protect it. My thumb wouldn't be useful to me the rest of the descent and as I write this the next day all it can do is occasionally hit the space bar. It's stiff and swollen, but I don't think it is broken.
|Happy to atop our second 14er. Pyramid is in the background.|
We continued down after maybe ten minutes. Derek didn't say anything. Didn't ask me anything. I knew he must be feeling bad about dislodging the rock. I told him not to beat himself up over it. It was the first time he'd done something like that. With all the climbing we'd been doing, it was bound to happen at some point. It happens to everyone. It got me thinking about all the times rockfall has come down on me, many times by my partners, all of whom are very safe climbers, safer than I am.
On one of my early climbers with the Loobster, while descending from the Arrowhead Arete in Yosemite Valley, I was creeping down to the rappel anchors at the top of a 150-foot cliff. Just as I got there, the Loobster dislodged a huge rock that would have swept me off the edge. Backed up to the edge I had no where to go. Instinctively I jumped up and over it. When I landed back down on the ledge I slapped my hand on the rock in front of me and the Loobster immediately grabbed my wrist like it was caught in a vise. A year later, while climbing the DNB with the Loobster a basketball-sized rock exploded on the wall twenty feet from our heads.
|Descending down the ridge further than we should have.|
When my partner Tom was descending off Spearhead he dislodged a similar sized-rock that Derek did. In my scramble to escape that rock I sliced open my hand and we had to end our day early and head to the hospital for stitches.
Descending off of Mt. Sill with Loobster, Sheri, and her friend Katy, a neophyte, she dislodged a giant rock that almost crushed me.
I once soloed the Dana Couloir on Mt. Dana, in Yosemite, while Sheri hiked the trail to the summit. We got a late start and I was in the couloir climbing dinner-plating 50-degree ice when I heard a horrible sound above me. I looked up to see a boulder the size of a car coming directly for me. Previously I had been carefully swinging my axes, making sure I had a solid placement, since I was without a partner or a belay. One sight of that rock had me nearly running sideways on the ice to avoid being crushed.
Rappelling a gully in the Grand Canyon, I adjusted my rappel line and dislodged a refrigerator-sized block right above me. Fixed to the rope with my rappel device my options were limited. I barely was able to jump out of the way.
Just last year, while approaching the Diamond I got beamed in the head with a small rock and then a microwave-sized rock landed ten yards to my right. We bailed.
Is my number coming up? Or have I proved that rockfall can't kill me? Mountains are dangerous and if you do this long enough...
|Injured mountain goat.|
We got down the gully and then back across the talus field. Here we found a lame mountain goat. It was moving around on just three legs. It's back right leg or hoof was injured and it could not weight it. I was saddened that our approach had frightened the goat enough to move up the hill, albeit not far. It limped and hopped up the slow to put some distance between us. I wondered if it had been hit with rockfall, like me. I was hobbled as well. I'd be fine, but what were the survival chances of this goat? With any real predators around, the chances would be zero, but what predators do they have up this high? I hoped it would heal before winter...
Derek squeezed a bottle of fresh water for each of us at the creek crossing and we continued down to the parking lot. At Maroon Lake there was a small crowd of hikers watching a young bull moose at lake's edge. We stopped to take a couple of bad photos.
Back at the car, Derek was as tired as I was, but wanted to go for Capitol the next day. I didn't and begged off. He immediately supported my decision and drove the entire way home (with a stop at Qdoba's for some sustenance). I wondered if I was being a wimp, but I think this was probably a good call as my back was limiting my mobility the next day and my thumb wasn't functional. I need to heal fast though. Next weekend we have big plans...