Skiing Colorado’s Maroon Bells

Some say that the Maroon Bells are the most photographed peaks in all of North America. Many will at least attest to the fact that they are two of the most iconic peaks in Colorado. They are known for their difficult climbing routes, loose rock, and sheer beauty. For the summer 14er crowd, the Bells are one of the more daunting class 4 hike/climbs to the summit. When they are covered in snow, the Bells look nearly vertical, strewn horizontally by steep cliff bands – a most contrived ski descent. Most people can’t even fathom what such a descent would entail. So naturally it was at the top of my list.

My partner and I closely watched the weather and avalanche patterns over the next month. We had a good feel for the snow pack and were headed into a nice high-pressure system-– ideal backcountry conditions. We decided that the north face of North Maroon would go down on the last Sunday in March. The one factor we were unsure of was how filled in the face was. With the pinstripe-like pattern of cliff bands that make up the north face, there lies one particular weakness that poses as a viable ski line. In some years, it never comes into condition. In most average years, you have to hit it just right, otherwise you will be hucking cliff bands on a slope over 50-degrees above even more cliff bands. We were hoping the weakness was filled in enough to ski from the summit, through the notorious “Punk-Rock Band,” and down the face — cliff band free.

Just barely enough snow to be skiable if you can find a line that 'goes.'

Just barely enough snow to be skiable if you can find a line that ‘goes.’

That Sunday morning began at 3:30 am. The weather was perfect. We had a good, hard freeze the night before — perfect booting conditions for the steep face. We put our heads down and began to grind out the six-mile approach, as the road leading up to the summer parking lot was still mostly covered in snow. We made it to the amphitheater at the base of the north face just as the sun was rising, painting the basin in alpenglow. We stared at the route looming above us with both excitement and, to be honest, a bit of fright. This would be a no-fall situation on the descent. I remember looking at each other and sharing these thoughts. Off we went.

The Ascent

Clawing our way up through rock and snow.

Clawing our way up through rock and snow.

For the most part, the ascent went smooth. However, we did not have the firm booting conditions we assumed, but instead had soft, deep pow. It was layer-less for a solid foot, over a consolidated base. So we trudged a vertical trench, up and up. Swerving through and around the cliff bands, painting our perfect ski line from the bottom up. Three-quarters of the way up the face we hit our first roadblock –an impassable cliff band. It was only about 15-20 feet tall, but it was gleaming in a fresh layer of verglas lying over the Elk Mountain’s notoriously loose rock.

With only snow axes and a whippet, we lacked the sharp ice tools we wished we had. Cautiously we chiseled holds for our picks out of what looked like the thickest parts of the ice and firmly kicked in our crampons. One at a time we soloed this sketchy section, breathing a welcome sigh of relief when it was behind us.
As we continued our ascent, we hit several more road blocks – our line was not “in.” We concentrated on what lay ahead and would deal with it on the way down. When we finally summitted — what a feeling that was!

Standing on top of North Maroon was simultaneously one of the most rewarding summits I’ve stood on, and daunting — all I could think about was the descent. I knew we did not bring enough gear to safely rappel through all the rock bands. However, we knew that we could safely down-climb parts of the northwest ridge as a backup plan. So we snapped a few pictures and off we went.

The Descent

The view of the run back down. Not wide open, but navigable with some mountaineering skills and tools.

The view of the run back down. Not wide open, but navigable with some mountaineering skills and tools.

The upper half of the north face was quite the gripped descent. The first obstacle, the “Punk Rock band,” we could not ski through so we down climbed a bit of the northwest ridge. Then skis went back on, and some of the steepest side-stepping I’ve done through the next bottleneck. We linked together some incredibly steep, pow turns for a ways until we reached the our last obstacle. Constructing a contrived lower with a snow picket and my belt made from some webbing, we made it through.

Now it was time to shred! We snaked our way down the face, through glorious, soft snow, carefully executing each turn, until finally we reached the bottom part of the face where it began to open up into the amphitheater. Here we fully let loose, hootin’ and hollering all the way down.

Encore

The feeling of triumph after this mission was immense. We skied the north face of North Maroon. And after any great mission, we went to our local brewery, drank some beers with friends, and decided to go back the next day and ski South Maroon. So after tying on a nice buzz, woke up the next morning at the same time and did it all over again.

© 2016