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My pickup rumbles into Maroon Lake day parking at 3:35 AM, with Louie snoozing in the rear seat and me just barely awake with the help of alien stories on Coast to Coast radio. With a glance at the night dark sky for possible UFOs (blog fodder?), I roust my partner out of his bivvy. “Let’s go,” are the operative words as I yank my ski boots from under Louie’s head. Sorry there buddy… got your shovel? Crampons? Axe? Check.
|Goal for the day is a climb and summit ski of South Maroon Peak, Elk Mountains, Colorado. With this being the first day of Maroon Creek Road being open from winter closure, my main concern was that the peaks would be too crowded. Turned out more than twenty people climbed and skied the Bells this day, but with the variety of routes and caliber of ski alpinists, movement was fluid and crowding not a problem.
We ended up climbing the right hand “Y” couloir (left side of photo above), then skiing the Bellcord Couloir as marked. While the North Face of North Maroon Peak (to right in photo) is perhaps the Elk’s signature ski line, I’ve always felt the Bellcord is the “king line” of the Bells. It’s just so obvious and in your face, but conversely hard to get because it runnels out in early spring due to meltwater and wet snow coming off the cliffs. With this year’s record snowpack, I figured something up there would be good, but was more optimistic about doing one of the Y couloirs (the left tends to be in better condition, while the right is a more tempting climbing route because it ends closer to the summit.)
What made the Bellcord happen was that the other part of our team left a bit behind us (that was the plan, since they were a bit faster) and climbed the Bellcord, thus finding it was in skiable condition. We joined them at the top, and having found the Y would be difficult or impossible to connect from the summit, it was a no-brainer to continue over the summit for some bell ringing. Meanwhile, Jordan White and his buddies had left before us as a separate team, so we met them on the summit as well. I think there were ten skiers on top of South Maroon that morning, a record?
|We reach the actual climbing about an hour into the trip. You swing right, and climb towards the obvious couloirs above. First passage is the Garbage Chute, a slot in the cliffs that’s frequently full of avalanche debris, water holes and ice. No exception today, though the thick snowpack is still bridging the creek so we don’t have to worry about drowning (no joke, that’s sometimes a concern here).|
|The sky brightens as we enter the Garbage Chute. We’ve still got the ice axes packed away, but not for long. Meanwhile, the Black Diamond Whippets prove their worth again as a climbing aid for moderate terrain. Very efficient.|
|But Louie’s been hot to unship that brand new Black Diamond Raven Ultra ice axe — now’s his chance. Even though crampons and firm snow make the climbing feel secure, I’m not forgetting a number of people have fallen down these couloirs and died. With that in mind, you climb with intention. No stabbing your crampon points in your pants and tripping; keep an eye up above for rockfall; use the axe correctly so you’ve got a self belay and you’re also ready to stop a sliding fall. (By the way, Raven Ultra is one of the best lightweight ice axes out there. It has a steel head but is still low mass, so if you’re looking to lighten your load but not go all the way to wimpy aluminum, it’s a terrific option.)|
|We top the col at the head of Y, right branch. I radio Jordan, who’s on the summit. “You’ve got 45 minutes to a half hour,” he says. I don’t remember it taking that long, but reality is this section can be a tedious scramble. Last time I was here for skiing the snowcover was much better, and it was a simple crampon punch to the summit. Today we’ve got typical Maroon Bells rubble interspersed by icy snow patches. Moderate in terms of required climbing skills, but lots of fall potential. Doing this stuff makes a good mixed climber out of you, but it’s not exactly firm, sun warmed granite with a rope for safety. A pack that’s heavy with skis adds to the fun.
Check out our snowcover in the background. Next day (Sunday), Lisa and I would tour West Maroon Creek to the cirque behind Louie. More of that incredibly crowded Colorado backcountry.
|Time to glisse. Spot the tiny skier? This shot shows the scale of the terrain. We made an intimidating move off the summit, then followed this beautiful pitch which entered Bellcord Couloir near its top. In early days of Maroon Bells skiing, people frequently tried to enter the couloir by skiing down the ridge from the peak, often encountering a less than ideal entrance which could even involve rock downclimbing. Over past years it’s become obvious you can almost always make an elegant entrance by skiing north westerly off the summit, then taking one of several entry lines depending on snow conditions. Incidentally, Jordan and his crew skied a direct drop off the summit back down to the lower reaches of the Y Couloir, as did Ted Mahon and Christy Sauer the next day. Just amazing how much these peaks are now getting skied, and by how many lines.|
|Bob. To avoid melt channels and mank we ski the right side as much as possible, but eventually we’re working through sometimes nearly unskiable junk.|
|Ian opens it up.|
|Louie. He’ll be 18 years old tomorrow, so this is a birthday present.|
|Bonus bowl above Garbage Chute.|
|Obligatory trophy shot. That’s me in the Green Machine boots, Louie to my left. Standing, from left to right: Neal, Bob, Pete. Ian took the photo.|
|One of the coolest parts of the day is a major impromptu tailgate party that grows at the trailhead like birds flocking in from the tropics. Nearly everyone skiing the Bells today are friends or acquaintances, so time for some social. In all, a day that shows what it’s all about.|
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.