photos by Kari Knapp, Matt “Halby” Halbakken, and Jarrett
Ah, the Maroon Bells! Who can deny their haunting beauty? The Bell Cord forms a most aesthetic contour; a separation, of North & South. The line is in fact 3,500 vertical feet of sustained snowboarding bliss.
The road to Maroon Lake was still gated, so motorcycle was the best way. We waited as Halby hauled the first load up the road.. After about fifteen minutes we heard the engine again. He came flying around the corner into full view — Halby dressed in full snow gear, goggles and helmet, slobbery cigar sticking out of a mad grin…
It took three laps to get all our gear to the summer parking area and trailhead. With the short approach, we could afford to take a ridiculous amount of junk. I shouldered almost sixty pounds, climbed on the back, steadied, and hung on for dear life as Halby gunned it up the road. At the lake, Kari looks at us like a couple of idiots. She is just here on an outing, and wants nothing to do with the summit bid. Smart.
It’s only a couple miles to Crater Lake, but with the load it was a sweaty slog. We also had an extra pack we took turns carrying in front, like a fat baby that nobody wanted for long. Poor Kari ended up with the fat baby.
Halby sneaked off after dinner to preview conditions. He said we we could get started since the moon and stars were out. I agreed, but needed sleep (still recovering from bar the night before). And hey, I couldn’t just ditch poor Kari in the night woods all alone.
I wake just before dawn, having smothered the little watch alarm during the night. I jab Halby, but he just makes scary sounds about coffee, and rolls over. We are not in the couloir until sunhit, and the snow begins to thaw when we’re about halfway up the chute. The snow had recently avalanched, so only surface hoar is thawing — but point release slides are still something to remember for later in the day.
We need crampons and ice axes for the climb, but only use our rope to exit the top notch of the couloir. The snow is mushy at the top — I’m concerned about patches of concealed ice. Fortunately, high clouds move in and the temperature drops. Halby shouts at his thawing hands after scaling the icy rocks without gloves.
We have made a mistake here. Anticipating a wind scoured ridge, we left our crampons and axes in the col at the top of the chute. But there is still plenty of snow, and at 14,000 feet we are stymied. Retrieving our equipment for another try would have taken too long, as spring snow climbing in Colorado is always a race against the sun. So, still convinced that an entry to the Bell Cord was possible from the exact summit of South Maroon, we turn back Our retreat turned out to be the key to our safe escape.
We rappel into the notch and strapp into our boards. The summit seems arbitrary at that moment. Halby drops in first, while I spot for him.
He cuts to the right, away from the cliff walls, ice, and bergschrund, onto softer snow, links couple dozen beautiful turns, pull out at the first bench on the right side, and plants his axe to spot for me.
The first turn is the hardest — no warm up run in a place like this. I stay centered in the chute with our footprints to stay on the lowest angle. The snow is soft enough to really carve a signature, but a scrape here and there assures me that there is still something firm under the rotten applesauce. I pass Halby, and continue with a chuckle to the next pull out on the right, plant my axe, and wave for him to start.
We don’t say a word to each other, as even sound can trigger rockfall. We continue, without rest, for several identical pitches, through the narrows, to the first apron above the cliffs. The snow there is dirty, sticky, wet and gross! Ugly avalanche rubble with a little breakable crust for fun. A snowboard really shines in these inconsistent conditions. We go left from the debris through another small chute to pass the cliffs, then open up the throttle to West Maroon Creek. “Let’s do it again!” Halby says.
Without even reaching the summit our trip was a success. I was surprised we even made it to the trailhead. We had driven from Gunnison to Denver without an alternator in the van, using the motorcycle to get a new battery when the old one went dead. Halby installed a new alternator in a friend’s driveway, and we were on our way again. We were not even sure the motorcycle would help on the approach, since recon of Maroon Valley is difficult from home in Gunnison. It was an epic trip, but snowboarding the Bell Cord Couloir was worth it!