For Whom the Bell Tolls

…Time Marches On.

A winter link-up of the Bell Cord on Maroon Peak and the Stammberger Face on North Maroon

Da Bells
A few years ago I found myself reading a TR from Jordan White et al on trying to link the Maroon Bells in a day trip. He proposed a sneaky link up between the S/SW couloir on Maroon Peak, exiting to a notch that allows access along the west side of the Bells, then ascending to another notch in the NW ridge of N Maroon and finally up the W face and down the Stammberger (North) Face. They made it close, but ultimately felt it was too warm. The hook was set.

For the past few seasons, linking up the Bells has ranked near the top of my to-do list. Early spring is clearly the optimal time for such an adventure, but that brings with it uncertainty about stability, weather and an extra 6 miles of snowy approach. The approach was workable, but how often do we get early stability that gives enough confidence to venture into a mostly-unknown-to-us range. Enter March 2017, bone dry weather, improving stability, and a trickle of reports of bigger lines being skied in the Elks. And it’s still winter.

Partners bounced various ambitious lines around, but my mind was stubbornly set. I had to convince CB to cut his San Juans trip short and TH to spend another day away from his wife. Luckily my persuasion succeeded cause as TH said in paraphrase: “kinda have to go the elks”. Just to guarantee failure, I said we’d ski Pyramid too (spoiler, we didn’t). To maximize home time, TH decided we should do it all as a day trip from Summit. Ugh. Midnight alarm set…

An hour or two of half-sleep and I was out of bed. Felt decently awake, facilitated by a few frappucinos. Having left breakfast on the counter (so not really that awake), we stopped at the 7-11 in Glenwood or Basalt (I frankly can’t remember which it was). The cashier seemed relatively pleased to have what I imagine were his first sober customers in hours.

We rolled into the trailhead a bit before 3, and as often happens at that time, gearing up took about 3x longer than usual. Skins went on and we hit the road. Then TH said we had to rip and start skating; fuck. Nothing like a little aerobic work to kick off a long day. We skated for a couple miles, then thought better of continuing to burn calories at such a rate. Skins back on.

At Crater lake we ran into a group that were just gearing up to head out. We went over to say hello and found out they were headed to the NW ridge on Pyramid. Another party looked to have had an early start up the west face of Thunder pyramid. Pretty busy for a winter day, but everybody still gets to have their own mountains.

We kept our routes flexible for the day. It seemed like the garbage chute to right-Y would be the easiest ascent option. Approach was beautiful, travel mostly easy (a bit of slabby snow above garbage chute), sunrise spectacular, and weather phenomenal.

We topped out sometime around 9 with a plethora of ski choices. Direct east face and east face to Bell Cord looked to both go clean from summit. S couloir was looking firm and not connected at the top, but it would keep the day a little shorter. There was concern that the Cord would be a big nasty runnel, but it also seemed like a classic that shouldn’t be missed. And besides, when would it ever be better than early march? The snow was excellent for skiing, but not quite the consolidated spring snowpack we anticipated. Down on-sighting the ledge traverse kept the stress up a bit. Then we entered the Cord and were pleasantly surprised to find that the runnel could be completely avoided for NE facing chalky untracked pow. At one point I tried to mention how good the skiing was, but I was told to zip it, lest we jinx our good fortune. Eventually the chalk gave way to corn, which gave way to ripper mellow slopes all the way back to crater lake.

Back at crater lake, the best case scenario was holding up. No ski pen, plenty of stoke. We set our sights on N Maroon.

As we skinned the lower pitch, my skins decided they hated me and would rather glop up every step from hot to cold. A fair amount of cursing while trying to keep up, finally got me to the upper valley and our first full view of the face. Looked cold; actually getting shadier instead of warming. One section looked questionably thin, but we figured something must be there. We reached the access couloir and I asked if we could boot early to avoid more glopping. Thankfully the team was okay with that.

The snow felt great. Cold and soft. Nonetheless, with the opening traverse exponentially increasing the consequences of a mistake, we dug a pit. (Some layers, low quality shear, no propagation). Still felt heady, but what else could we ask for? The whole climb felt fairly stressful. Compounded by finding that the thin section we saw from below really was that thin and thin meant faceted sugar over rocks. This section would weigh over us for the rest of the climb until we passed it again on skis. Above the thinness we were back on track, eventually catching some day old tracks at the NE ridge. Up through punk rock and we were soon on top.

The general feeling was tired, dehydrated and a bit scared of the coming descent (at least that’s how I felt). We could have waited for hours, but it wouldn’t have created any water, nor made the descent seem any mellower. The skiing wouldnt be particularly steep, but the consequence was just so puckering. Luckily, the route gave up just enough to ski clean. Punk rock was pretty easy, but still managed to sacrifice CB’s pole. The lower thin crux had navigable spice with good dry-ski beta from TH. Everything else was great skiing. Getting through the thin crux dropped my stress level massively, completing the final traverse even more so. At the base of the face, stoke was all time.

From there it was just a bit of isothermal mank back to crater where we heard from the folks on Pyramid about their equally enjoyable climb and ski. Then, just a long slog-to-skate back to the car for beers.

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