The Elk mountain range in Colorado is widely considered to be some of the most dangerous mountains in the world to climb. It isn’t their heights or even extreme weather that puts them in that category. It is the terrain. The mountains are made up of metamorphic sedimentary mudstone which easily breaks up into sharp softball to volleyball chunks that make up huge talus fields which cover the entire top 2 to 3 thousand feet of all the mountains, well that and sheer cliffs. The Maroon Bells are the most iconic of these mountains and have long been on my list of 14ers to conquer. Last summer I had the opportunity to do just that with two of my close friends and Adventure Actual athletes, James Youngblood and Jameson Fleck.Hikers are greeted in the day use area around Maroon Lake with a US Forest Service sign on the access trail refers to these mountains as “The Deadly Bells” and warns would-be climbers of “downsloping, loose, rotten and unstable” rock that “kills without warning”.
James is an all-around outdoor sports enthusiast. He is an amazing snowboarder, mountain biker, and mountaineer. Having grown up in Colorado and spending a good deal of time in the mountains he was a natural choice.
Jameson (Jamo) is an avid all year long outdoorsman, from sending cliffs on his snowboard in the winter to climbing cliffs to rig highlines in the summer. His climbing background made him a serious asset on the trip.
When taking on some of the most dangerous peaks you want to be selective. I just happen to be lucky enough to call these guys friends.
We planned our days of attack carefully to line up with a good window of weather. Being a Mountaineer means you are an amateur weather nerd or you will die, period. With conditions looking good we set off towards Aspen. After a few hours on the road, we pulled into the Maroon Bells wilderness area, paid our access fee, parked the car, and threw on our backpacks. We had our overnight essentials and mountaineering equipment. This was my first mountain where I brought a helmet, more on that later. Our plan was to hike up to crater lake that evening and camp overnight before getting up to conquer the Bells the next day.
We hiked the 3+ miles to crater lake and scored a great campsite off the beaten path. You are only allowed to camp in specific spots up there so you have to get in early. We set up camp and hung out for a while. Jamo had brought a slack line with us up to the campsite so we played around on that once we had it set up. We were all nervous I could tell. We were a bit unsure of how difficult the next day was actually going to be. That night we laughed and joked around a small campfire and prepped for the next day.
Being that the weather was so clear we did not rush to wake up early. We got some breakfast in our bellies and headed out. We had thought about trying to shoot to the trail from our campsite but after 30 minutes of bushwhacking we turned around and doubled back to the actual trail. We strolled along and ended up missing the trailhead for the Bells. We had gone too far at the start of the four pass loop trail but we didn’t realize that until later.
We started to veer towards the mountain thinking the trailhead had to be just around the corner. We couldn’t seem to find it so we just started hiking up the side of the mountain. After all, we needed to go up so…we went up. There was bushwhacking and scrambling for about an hour until we found the trail. The bottom of the mountain has a super steep dirt trail leading to a ridge of rock on South Maroon and it was shitty to hike, or um climb. I say that because there were several times we were on all fours to keep moving forward.
After another hour or so we made it to the south ridge and I began to see what the rest of our climb would look like, shitty loose talus and cliffs lots of cliffs. The need for a helmet was starting to dawn on me. We began to follow the trail if you want to call it that. Really there were some spots where the rock had been beaten in by feet but we quickly learned that flowing those trails and Cairns was only going to get us lost. It appeared that many people before us would start stacking rocks thinking they were on a good route to only end up cliffed out. It took us about 3 wrong trails to start figuring this out. So, basically, there was a ton of trial and error up there. As we started to make progress we began to encounter more class 4 terrain and even several class 5 moves. Enough of them that you almost wanted to rope up but in other areas that would have been overkill. Several times one of us leading would knock loose rocks from the cliffs and talus fields yelling “Rock!” To alert those below us. Again, the need for a helmet became ever more clear especially as rocks smashed into my helmet when I didn’t move quick enough.
I would say we got lost 7 or so times heading up that mountain. Many times we were faced with very near death situations. In several areas, if you slipped you would most certainly plummet to your death, NBD. Mountain goats watched us from a distance thinking we were the worst mountain goats they’d seen for sure. This was absolutely type 2 fun. If you are not in shape and an experienced mountaineer do not climb the Bells, I repeat do not.
Reaching the summit is something I can’t describe with words. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the surrounding valleys were laid out like blankets of green and rock laid across the earth. I was happy to be alive and in that moment. There was also a sinking feeling in my stomach because I realized it was 3:30 pm. We had just summited Maroon Peak and there was likely not time to summit North Maroon. I had come all this way to only check one off my list. But we all knew getting down wasn’t going to be easy. One other thing. Only Jamo had a flashlight. We had to be down before dark or we would be in a bad place.
We started back and what made things worse is that we kept getting lost on the way down too. I have to say this was a first for me. I had actually never gotten lost coming down a mountain before. We were encountering the same thing we did on the way up and what was worse is that there was really no way to retrace our steps from when we climbed up the mountain. The rock all started to look the same from staring at it all day long and we were out of water and pretty beat. Eventually, we started to cut our own line down the mountain and past the cliffs and after what seemed an eternity we found our ridge on the south side that allowed us to head down the face and back to camp. It was 7:30 pm then and by the time we got back to camp it was almost 9 pm and dark.
That night we slept like champs. The next morning, we broke camp and headed down to Crater Lake where we saw some moose hanging out. On our way down the trail to the parking lot, we passed several hikers as the area has heavy daily use. As we passed several groups would ask what we climbed and when we responded their faces said, “holy shit” which was funny because I had never experienced that coming off a mountain. Back at the car, we looked at each other with satisfaction in our eyes but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about North Maroon, Capital, and Pyramid…thinking about the next peak. – Martin Upton