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North Maroon Bell

July 8, 2002 - Northeast Ridge

The North Bell at looms above Crater Lake at dawn

En route home after climbing all three of the Wilson’s in two days, we took a rest day before heading for the North Bell.  A proper rest of course required a soak in the hot pools at Ouray and then a leisurely trip to Aspen for BBQ before pitching camp for the next day’s climb.  Those tasks were easily accomplished and by night fall we had relocated from the San Juans to the Elks and secured a tent site for the night at the Silver Bell campground on the road to the Maroon Bells.  We set the alarm for 4:15 a.m. and figured to leave the parking lot at five.

An exposed traverse along the cliff band into the second couloir

We hit the trail at five and saw but one headlamp blinking once in a while as an earlier climber or climbers made their way across the high ground below the Pyramid bowl.  We wanted to ensure that we did not miss the cut off to the North Bell, as we did for Pyramid, so our start time was planned to beat both the afternoon weather and put us at the cut off just after daybreak.  We hiked past the lake, up and over the Pyramid debris mound and on up the trail to what turned out to be an easy to find cut off.  The North Bell trail drops to Minehaha Creek, where once again we filled the water bottles and stashed the pump for the return trip.

Looking down the second couloir - a no trip zone

We crossed the creek and climbed up and through the short cliff band that guards the plateau at the base of the red rock glacier below the “sleeping sexton.”  Cairns here and there showed a trace across this rocky slope but for the most part we just traversed across the loose talus, aiming for a visible trail at the base of the Bell’s prominent ridge.  Once on the trail we moved along the base of the Bell, climbing toward the point on the ridge line where the ridge of a far peak descends to visually intersect the ridge of the Bell.  We rounded the corner and entered the green and grassy couloir that would lead us part of the way up the face of the peak.  The couloir is refreshingly vegetated and the trail switches back forth as it unceasingly climbs up this gully to the apparent skyline.

Class 3 climbing leading to the crux cliff band

The grassy couloir did not last forever and at its top, we traversed south around a fin and into the next couloir over.  Up until this point, the exposure on the route was present but one would have had to take a roll or two down the slope to really get into trouble.  Such was no longer the case as the trail cut along a more prominent set of cliffs and then resumed its progress up this sloping trough to the ridge high above.  Back and forth, over and over, the trail climbs until near the ridgeline, whereupon the climbing becomes more of a hand and foot affair with lots of class 3 moves before the crux class 4 is reached.

Gary makes the last move at the top of the crux

The crux was the class 4 dihedral climb whose first and last moves require some amount of skill and the ascent of which would be easier with the aid of a rope if there were any doubts about the climbers who have tagged along.  We completed the pitch sans rope but it is not a climb that one wants to screw up on as the consequences will be painful to say the least.  Once atop the crux, we traversed briefly to the north and then followed a cairned trail for the last 500 feet of vertical before the summit.  We of course had a choice of routes and naturally ended up over and above the Bell Cord couloir.  Naturally of course means that we missed the obvious cairned herd path and took a lesser traveled but equally effective route.  The down side of the choice was that we were able to experience a very airy traverse up to the summit, one we avoided on the way down.

Looking back down our summit pitch, there was a better route, the type we typically miss . . .

Many 14’ers have a 4500 foot gain from base to summit but the North Bell had us climbing from the creek crossing to the summit.  It is relentless and in most all places had the Elk’s classic loose scree under foot and exposures that left no doubt of the consequences of a mis-step or fall.  We snacked on the summit for perhaps 20 minutes before picking up the packs and heading down.  Our route down was a re-trace of the route up with the exception of the final climb to the summit, where we substituted an easier and safer route.  Below the crux and the hand and foot climbing that led to it, we found a trail that appeared to skip the upper couloir and lead right to the top of the grassy couloir but we opted to down climb our route up.  Given that we did not “spot” this other route on our way up, we surmised it might be a viable shortcut or a world class sucker trap.

Snowmass and Capital, dry by the 4th of July

The now not so far off clouds were threatening to wet us down and given the heat of the day, we would have been thankful for the cool off. I’ve never done an alpine start to a 14’er in a tee shirt (no not cotton!) and shorts from the trailhead but this day was a scorcher. Unfortunately, the clouds darkened, threatened, and thundered, but no rain . . .  

Traversing a fin on the way down

Our North Bell climb came in right at ten hours and was probably one of the harder 14’ers of the 50 or so we have done.  We were cautious, took our time, and gave the route the degree of respect it deserves, I would certainly advise others to treat it in a like manner if attempted.





September 13, 2003 - Northeast Ridge in Snow

Some early fall weather on the approach to the rock glacier

My good bud “Reach Around” wanted to add an Elk Range peak to his list of 14’ers and I suggested that we climb the North Bell before the close of the Cottoneering season.  A read of Dawson illustrates that the Bells mean many things to many folks, for some a Class 4 test piece, for others a pile of dangerous scree to be slogged up with consternation due to poor rock conditions.  I suggested the North Bell because I had been on the route before, it would make for a full ten hour day, and I remembered most of the climb to be pretty easy (notice effect of time and additional experience) but for the crux move and some serious exposure crossing ridges and topping out on the couloirs.  Of course, that is my view alone and everyone must take the “deadly bells” for what they present to climbers of differing skill levels.  Enough said.

Momentary sky before starting across the first rib

We left Cheyenne/Denver and made our way to Aspen, knowing that the odds of getting a campsite along Maroon Creek for a nine p.m. arrival were nearly nil.  We stopped in Golden for a gear buy and then made our way west and with the aid of a lousy weather forecast and snow the prior week, we found a campsite in the Silver Bell campground.  We had arrived but that covered only half the group as this was Reach’s trip and he had invited two others to tag along, Reed with 30 something 14’ers and John, a climbing virgin.  Now those of you who have read the innumerable trip reports on my site can easily guess my thoughts on a virgin climber on the Bells.  But . . . things have a way of taking care of themselves and above all, safety was going to be the rule of the day.  John had told Reach that he did not want to hike up some walk-up, instead he wanted to do a real climb first off.  I can’t blame an experienced hiker for wanting a challenge and if everyone is up for the challenge, so be it.  I knew all would work out fine as a climb like the North Bell would sort out any fitness problems early on, before the challenging portion of the route.

Maroon Creek valley from below the grassy couloir

The second half of the party arrived after we were asleep but Reach had passed the word that 4 a.m. was the time to be up and that I planned to get on the trail by 5 at the latest.  I figured this would be the first test of my unknown associates.  The alarm went off all to early but by 5 we had dressed, eaten, broken camp and made our way to the day use parking lot at the Bells trailhead.  I took the lead around the lake and then proceeded to lead our merry band on a wonderful tour of the meadow above Maroon Lake.  It was my first approach using one of the new LED lights and with minimal effort I managed to miss the turnoff that leads up and over the debris dam below Pyramid’s hanging valley.  After we came to the bridge over Maroon Creek, a second time, I realized that the water was flowing up hill and that I had really screwed up.  I had known something was wrong but the bridge was certainly a good point of confirmation.  What a good first impression . . .

Pyramid in clouds and snow

Now on the right track, we gained elevation and took the proper cut off to head up the Miniehaha Creek valley to the North Bell trail cut off.  The clouds were not quite to our elevation but as the sky brightened, I realized they were only a few hundred feet above us.  The snowline appeared at about 11,250 or so, promising to make the traverse of the rock glacier an exercise in compound fracture avoidance techniques.  We made the trail cut and then rested a bit at the creek crossing where I pumped water for all who were interested and stashed the pump in the rocks for the trip out.  We saddled up and started up the high ground leading to the rock glacier, picking our way across the lower talus and then up the now muddy slopes to the short climb before the upper shelf.

Traversing to the rock glacier

Being a virgin on a tough 14’er is a tough row to hoe and nature was playing safety warden this morning.  Her weapon was cardio-pulmonary capacity and though John was in good spirits and doing his best, the altitude was taking its toll.   At our next stop just before the rock glacier, we stopped to await John’s arrival.  I was doing my best not to some kind of ROTC troop leader, you know the sort . . . lead the group on a run and stop to rest but always restart just an instant before the tail end person arrives to preclude their taking a rest stop . . .  As a committed tail end Charlie, I refrain from this irritating stunt but at the same time, climbing is one of those activities that should take a given amount of time and I figured that if we could not pace this one at ten hours, we should turn the group to try another day.  We were already off the mark and the writing was plainly on the wall.

We gathered and traversed the rock glacier, following in the footsteps of what appeared to be two climbers just a few minutes ahead of us.  We did not catch sight of them but they knew the route cold and that did aid our traverse as we were now in 8 to 12 inches of snow, just under the cloud base.  I’d been up the route before but there is a degree of comfort in not having to navigate without absolute precision across an open expanse of rocks just waiting to eat a leg.  We crossed slowly and without falls before starting up the Bell proper.  We traversed around the lower buttress and I met up with the other two climbers above the short climb up the braided trail, leading to the corner below the grassy couloir.  They were turning their climb on account of wet footwear and a concern for the descent conditions.  We talked while the rest of my group caught up, their decision was sound and I mentioned that we too would be turning soon, but that some of our group still needed to arrive at that conclusion.  

Bells in early snow

We made the turn into the grassy couloir and started up this stair stepping route for a ways before calling it a halt one third of the way up at about 12,500 feet.  The climb was done.  John conceded defeat after giving it his best but before the tougher ground and I agreed that the warming temps were more than enough to give me pause about the footing on the way down.  Exposure, its there . . .  We turned and headed on back, talking not of defeat but of the BBQ joint in Aspen that suddenly became the focus of the trip.  The trip out was uneventful and Reach had the opportunity to see the approach and that portion of the climb up to the 12k mark.  John got a good taste of climbing and the lesson that even an easy 14’er would be more than a walk in the woods for a novice.  We reached the trucks a few hours later and yes, the BBQ was worth the walk.  A good climb, good company, and fun for all regardless of the failure to summit.


The next day . . . .a snow climb of Castle's North Face