Note: The Maroon Bells Traverse is a dangerous, difficult, class 5 route on bad rock. It should be attempted only by those with alpine experience.
The twin summits of the Maroon Bells are breathtakingly gorgeous, especially when viewed from the eastern shore of Maroon Lake. With autumn’s rich palette adorning the aspen forest at their base and a fresh dusting of crystalline white snow nestled into their deep striations, these imposing peaks project a magnificence unmatched in the Rocky Mountains.
Up close, they are ugly things, built of shattered and decomposing rock and mud -- but to the aspiring alpinist, they are not without their charms. The traverse between the two is a classic Colorado mountaineering route, admired as much for its airy climbing as it is for its omnipresent danger.
Standing at 14,156-foot Maroon Peak (also known as South Maroon Peak) is the more accommodating of the two -- and the only officially recognized 14er, as North Maroon Peak is technically a sub-peak of Maroon. It features a dicey class 3 scramble to its summit with a good amount of exposure along the way. While Maroon is tough, it offers a path of low resistance that begrudgingly allows passage to its summit. North Maroon is another story.
14,014-foot North Maroon Peak is more battered and weather beaten than its sister peak. The entire mountain is worn out, steep, loose, and unnervingly unstable. Vigilance for each step is absolutely required for nearly 4,000 vertical feet and the semi-established trail has a habit of disappearing right when you need it most.
However, it is the traverse between these two monsters that offers a well-earned opportunity to explore one of the most exciting and gutsy lines in Colorado. Hidden here are towers of solid rock, secret passages and thrilling catwalks. In the 0.4 miles between summits, the exposure is gaudy and solid rocks can pop from their sockets at any moment. Climbing ranges from 5.2 to 5.5 on the standard route, but always with the threat of decomposing rock failing. Most climbers go south to north on the traverse, even though it means a tedious and unrelenting scramble down North Maroon Peak.
Getting up Maroon Peak is a worthy effort in itself. From the tranquil shores of Maroon Lake, the trail up to South Maroon passes through forests and talus fields before launching into a steep, vertical ascent known pejoratively as the the “2,800 feet of suck.” At 12,800 feet, the slopes meet the south ridge, where the real scrambling begins. After a series of tough scrambles, the top of South Maroon Peak is attained after 6 miles and 4,800 feet of elevation gain.
And yet, the fun is only just beginning.
Confident (or foolhardy?) climbers often skip using a rope on the traverse -- and if you are confident free-climbing the toughest pitches (50 feet with wild exposure and low fifth class moves) the time you save may help beat a rushing storm. However, a 40 meter rope and a light alpine rack with a few small to medium cams is the safest way to go. Helmets are a must, as falling rock is an ever-present threat.
Starting with the scramble off South Maroon, climbers are instantly thrown into tough, steep, loose class 3 rock. A sneaky exit to climber’s left avoids downclimbing an airy pitch into the low point of the traverse, a notch where the Bell Cord couloir tops out. From this low point, the heart of the traverse lays ahead. Route finding is difficult, but there are always lines of low 5th class climbing that offer the easiest way to North Maroon. Notable are the “three great difficulties.”
The first is a high, 45-foot tower that has solid rock and wild exposure and tops out on a thin ribbon of flat, red stone. Maintaining the ridgeline brings you to the second obstacle -- perhaps the hardest part of the traverse. Climber’s right offers an initially counterintuitive option that leads into an airy dihedral. The actual moves are not difficult but the fall potential is enormous -- sort of like being on a 13,000 foot ladder.
The final “great difficulty” is a split chimney that has two distinct lines -- an easier, 5.4 or so 50-foot crack or a slightly shorter 5.7 line that offers some stretchy stems and a pushed-out boulder to work around. After this, one more airy block and tricky scramble into a notch finally give way to moderate, class 3/4 terrain that will lead to the summit of North Maroon Peak.
Surprisingly, the broad, open summit of North Maroon is lovely and spacious -- a momentary reprieve, because the work is far from over.
The descent down North Maroon is loose, broken, and constantly steep. Because of the fall potential, it will be another 3,000 vertical feet before you are off of class 4 terrain -- even though the sections themselves, taken in miniature, are not all that bad. There are several work-arounds that avoid the more difficult aspects of the standard route but the steepness never gives up. Mercifully, the path finally relents (if you can follow it) at 11,800 ft. when it crosses into a slightly less steep gully and eases into true class 2/3 terrain.
But right when you think your feet can relax, there’s a river of rock to cross before reaching the soft, earthen trail so tantalizingly close. It’s tedious to hop from boulder to boulder and even though the major work is done, a fall here would still hurt.
Finally, after many hours, the welcome path back to the parking lot appears. 2.5 miles later, the lush forests return and the entire experience ends as peacefully as it started, like something from a dream. The entire route is about 10.5 miles and takes fit climbers between 11 - 14 hours, sometimes more if they lose the route (which is easy to do on the traverse and on North Maroon). It is odd to see the throngs of tidy tourists, smiling away and rightfully taking photos of the now-once-again-beautiful bells.
The question remains: is it worth it? Given the unpredictable nature of these crumbling mountains, is the traverse even any fun?
My answer is a resounding yes. While there were moments that made my heart race and my palms sweat, my mind was forced to purge the minutiae and burdens of civilized life in order to fully engage in the climbing. I was locked and focused in the moment, bonded with my teammates and entirely committed to movement. All things were experienced more vividly, especially with the very real prospect of fatal falls looming in the dizzying void. The mental aspect of mountaineering is the tough love many of us have come to thrive on -- and the Bells are sure to challenge your reserves of resolve. In their own broken way, the Bells are as beautiful as they are belligerent and even after having climbed them, I still haven’t fully digested the surreal experience. But without a doubt, it was one of the more thrilling adventures Colorado has to offer and one I won’t soon forget.