North Maroon Bell

8 Oct 2000 - by Steve Bremner

First the good news: You can now drive to the trailhead for the Maroon Bells any time of the day and there is ample parking. Now the not so good news: Loose unconsolidated snow with an icy layer beneath makes for treacherous going.

The NE ridge is the standard route for this peak. It is rated class 4 by Gerry Roach in his "Guide to the Colorado 14er's". However, in the shape it was in today it was much more difficult than class 4. I had hoped to do Capitol tomorrow, but I had had enough after N. Maroon today.

The weather couldn't have been better. I didn't even put on a jacket all day, though it did snow for about five minutes around 3 P.M. as we descended.

At Crater Lake we turned right up the Snowmass trail. After a further half a mile we crossed Minehaha Creek and climbed to the next level--the "rock glacier". Already we had snow to contend with. Sam went about half way across then balked. He hates boulder fields. I continued across hoping he would follow. When he didn't I had to backtrack to retrieve him, encouraging him with the leash. After the boulder field we traversed on an easy climber's trail to the first gully. 300 vertical feet above we went left and into the next gulley, following cairns. Here it got a bit tricky for Sam and again he waited. I backtracked once again to show him the way.

Now in the final gully we climbed class 3 dirt and grass ledges--more like mud and snow ledges today. Then almost at the ridge crest we came on a cliff band. The way up was a class 4 cleft in the band. Here's where Sam really shined. At the bottom of the cleft I commanded "Up!" He surveyed the route, planned his every step, then shot up the 100 feet like he was fired out of a cannon, reaching the top in about 10 seconds. Sam the rock climbing wonder dog!

To reach the ridge we still had to go up a ways of deep snow. I plunged up to above the knee, floundering to the top of the ridge. The rock underneath is downsloping and loose. Beneath the snow was slick ice. In short it was an ordeal to reach the ridge proper. Sam refused to follow. I wasn't about to go back down for him this time, so I continued on my own. I lost an empty water cannister and watched it bounce down the snow to come to rest just above a cliff on the downsloping snow. That water cannister will wait for someone to retrieve it next year!

There remained about 700 feet elevation gain to the summit from the final ridge. Some of it was not easy even in the best of conditions. With a sheen of ice on the rock it was not pleasant. Fortunately I had brought along my ice ax. Though it was useless for self arrest in the loose snow, it served a valuable function to knock ice off rock steps. After 4 hours from the trail head I reached the top. Ten minutes later I started back down. Not five minutes down, there was Sam. He had surmounted all the difficulties and was now on the easy final packed snow climb to the top. What could I do but turn around and escort him to his 49th fourteener. For me it was number 51. Sam will do them all and under his own power. I believe it will be a first for a dog.

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