Despite gray skies and a short drizzle as we reached the turnoff from the trail along W. Maroon Creek at 3.5 miles, the weather seemed to be slowly clearing. The turnoff is distinctly marked just beyond a large tree with an S-shaped bend in the trunk. You can't miss the tree as you hike by it. The trail to the South ridge on Maroon cuts sharply away from the W. Maroon Creek trail and heads immediately up a steep bank. If you cross the Creek, you passed the turnoff.
The steep 2,800 foot climb up grassy slopes among broken cliff bands on a faint climbers trail takes you to the South ridge. From the ridge, the trail becomes a series of traverses and short climbs on loose, rotten Elk Range sedimentary rock. The route is a maze of broken ledges and route finding is confused by cairns everywhere. There must be at least 6-8 different routes up and across the face to the summit. We wandered slightly off trail a few times and recovered by scrambling up some short Class 4 pitches. The sometimes 3rd Class climb is long and exhausting but did not require significant exposure. Frank, Kevin, and I completed the 4,600 foot, 5 mile climb and summited after 6 hours. The weather was warm with no threat of thunderstorms, so we enjoyed about 45 minutes on the summit and the heavenly views before returning down the same route. We returned to the TH about 5 hours later.
The Bells and Pyramid are unique climbs with differences in technical climbing difficulty, exposure, route finding, loose rock, and rotten rock. I feel Pyramid is the hardest of the three due to the extremely steep, short climb, challenging route finding, and dangerous loose and rotten rock. The rock on both Bells seemed to be a bit more secure, although N. Maroon (like Pyramid) is covered with loose stuff just waiting for the slightest push to send it flying down the slopes, possibly toward climbers below. N. Maroon is about 2 miles shorter (round trip) than S. Maroon but slightly harder climbing and is rated 4th Class. Helmets are wise on all three Peaks. No rope was required on either of the Bells. We used a short rope on Pyramid to rap down a short, steep pitch that could have been avoided by a short traverse to an easier section of rock. Carrying a rope is wise insurance on all three Peaks since rain would make the rock and exposed dirt on the routes extremely slippery. The Bells and Pyramid are some of the most difficult, dangerous Fourteeners. Summiting these beautiful Peaks (especially in the absence of what seems to be frequent monsoon rains) is Colorado mountaineering at its best.
Steve Bonowski adds:
Doug: congratulations on your successful ascents of all three of the Bells group (you too Kevin!). My past experience on them is that the rainier the spring season, the more loose the three peaks are likely to be. I don't recall the S. Bell being very loose, altho the "movable tundra" going up to the ridge top was a little unnerving. I prefer having "stable grass" underfoot. I also recall seeing on top of S. Maroon what was arguably the most underfed marmot I have ever seen. It sure picked the wrong summit to hang out on! That was back in 1992.
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