The pickings have been getting slim and when the pickings get this slim it can be tough to keep the faith. When all that remains is seeming impossibilities, there is nothing left to do but pick one and push to see if any magic doors open. Either that or throw in the towel. And while it oftentimes feels foolish to even be going through the motions, there is a lot to be said for keeping the hope alive. It is in fact a tried-and-true strategy that has served us well in the past. This season North Maroon has drawn the shortest straw. Its prize? The scrutiny of a pack of avalanche-fearing ninnies with crazed eyes for its summit.
The quest for North Maroon began last January during the trip that yielded a successful ascent of neighboring Pyramid Peak. Dominic, Kiefer & I spent a couple of hours trying to make some headway toward North Maroon's standard route from camp at Crater Lake and got essentially nowhere thanks to the terribly loose, sugary, unconsolidated snowpack. Thoughts of climbing the steep and unfriendly east facing slopes above weren't pleasant to begin with and this little episode added to the negativity. No, this just wouldn't do. What would Ken do?
The highly revered sage was consulted upon our return and words of wisdom regarding a possible alternate route up North Maroon's West Face were kindly bestowed upon us. That embryo laid dormant for nearly a year before Dwight took the initiative to start nurturing it this fall. The physical efforts that were expended by the team on this attempt at North Maroon began in mid November and span nearly three months.
While Dominic & I are away playing in the desert Dwight does an overnight trip up the gated Maroon Lake Road to investigate the possibility of reaching the Gunsight and North Maroon's Northwest Ridge from the east. Its a no-hoper. Bummer since this approach is so much easier than the alternative we're considering.
While Dominic & I are still out galavanting in the desert Dwight invests three days in the project and backpacks 10 miles up Snowmass Creek for recon. He manages to summit North Maroon via its West Face and Northwest Ridge in dry fall conditions and returns with high hopes for an early season winter ascent.
Dominic & I pay our dues with an overnight recon and trenching expedition up Snowmass Creek. I'm anxious to see if the valley can even be navigated safely at the moment; I certainly have my doubts since it passes under a fair amount of potentially slidey slopes. We come away from the weekend physically beat and with mixed emotions. The good news is that, as far as we can tell, the approach is currently safe enough for our liking. The bad news is that even though the trailbreaking never approaches epic, we only get 8.65 miles up the Snowmass Creek Trail in 2 days with a total of 10+ hours of hard labor. It seems like a single day approach to high camp is out of the question. We knew beforehand that the route would be loooong, but apparently we hadn't appreciated HOW loooong. As we hike out Sunday evening with light snow falling and a marginal forecast we can't help but work at improving the track even though it seems so unlikely we'll get a real shot at the summit in the foreseeable future. In those few hours I come to terms with the fact that North Maroon just probably isn't in the cards this year. After another big dump the approach would not be safe enough for us to consider. And even now there has been so much settling and collapsing that climbing avy prone slopes of any aspect seems like a scary proposition. I feel so destroyed that I don't think I even WANT to try to come back here again this year! There is always next year.
By some miracle the next expected storm poops out and we're presented with an unusually long weather window that would allow a 4 day expedition. With the track in place we feel obligated to return, at least to get a look at North Maroon's West Face and wrap up the investigation. Arrrgg, my back hurts already. 4 days of supplies and full technical gear this time... and we have to go further?! Not having a clue how much work still lie ahead I tempt a pair of strong youngbloods to join the team and they bite. Luckily the combination of impeccable weather forecast and pre-fabricated track is too much to resist; we're happy to have Derek & Ryan join the party.
Friday finds us staggered along Snowmass Creek according to our varied paces and start times. The track is in superb condition and its unbelievable how much easier the miles roll by despite considerably heavier loads. Dominic & I are the lucky winners to first reach last weekend's dreaded turnaround point 9.4 miles in. We've allotted two full days for the approach but the two of us are still feeling surprisingly strong and the snowpack has consolidated a bit so we soldier on. Shockingly, an appropriate base camp is reached by 3pm. What now? Still feeling good, Dominic sets off to track further up Snowmass Creek for tomorrow's unexpected summit bid while I set up camp. Derek, Ryan and Dwight roll in before too long and the team finally becomes united upon Dominic's return.
It a sub-zero night; Dwight's thermometer reads -4 for our alpine start Saturday morning. We straggle out of camp and plod along the established track in the faint moonlight. As the sky begins to brighten we're greeted by the West Face of the Sleeping Sexton and further along, that of the North Maroon. It does look fierce; there is a significant amount of rock showing but the going looks very tough. Some areas of the face are loaded and there is evidence of a recent slide. Not looking good. Luckily Dwight, having done his homework, knows that if we persist up the valley a small couloir will come into view, the line of least resistance to the Gunsight Notch and North Maroon's Northwest Ridge. The question is, will it be safe enough to climb?
The little couloir teases us as it comes into view. From some angles it looks good, and from others it looks intimidating. There is a line of rock leading up to its north side, a tiny patch of rock in the middle, and a significant amount of exposed rock near the top.
At 11,800 feet we leave the valley floor and climb east and then south toward its base via wide ramps and benches. A few brief tussles with slopes steep enough to slide are required but they don't evoke much unease.
Eventually we run out of exposed rock to comfort us and are forced to confront the 30-35 degree snow in short couloir head on or go home. To start the snow is very shallow and we're easily hitting scree with the shafts of our axes. Life is good. We're lured to the south side of the couloir and all of a sudden the snow deepens. A lot. And there are some several inch thick slabs near the top. The security of exposed rock beckoning from perhaps just 100 feet above, Dominic carefully traverses into the middle of the couloir distributing his weight wisely in order to stay as much atop the slab as possible. A few tense moments and he's home free. The rest of us follow suit one by one.
At the top of the couloir we find ourselves in the Gunsight, a prominent notch at the lowpoint of the ridge between North Maroon and Sleeping Sexton.
The first order of business is overcoming the “Gunsight Tower” to the south. The first 50 feet of scrambly terrain is enough to convince us into crampons for the remainder of the 1000 foot, 1/3 mile long ridge.
We manage to bypass the problematic tower on its west side via an exposed traverse that utilizes narrow ledges obscured by loose snow.
For the first half of the ridge we're often well below the crest on the west side. Some routefinding is required but Dwight's memory of his recent November ascent serves us well. Various ledge systems allow relatively easy passage when presented with any serious difficulties.
Near 13,600 feet or so we aim for the ridge itself and soon encounter the hardest climbing of the day. The ridge certainly has its moments but all of the obstacles seem quite manageable and the team feels secure both up and down without a rope, an unexpected surprise.
Its a surreal moment when the promised “easy finish” I've been waiting for finally appears and I realize the summit is as good as ours. What have we done to deserve such good fortune? Who imagined North Maroon could be so thoroughly enjoyable in January! I'd always imagined it as an absolute horror show, survivable at best.
By 11:45 we reach the summit victorious. South Maroon is visible just over yonder and tantalizingly close but, as expected, the traverse is mighty uninviting today. A modest but bitter breeze keeps our summit stay short and rather unlively, but such is the nature of winter peakbagging. After 15 minutes or so we reverse course and head back down the ridge.
We experience the first real warmth of the day after descending a bit out of the wind and onto the west face which is now baking wonderfully in the early afternoon sun. The return trip to the Gunsight goes smoothly save for Dwight knocking a loose boulder onto his hand while downclimbing and sustaining a minor bruise.
One at a time we descend the couloir, and then frantically tear off layers to avoid heatstroke when we reach our snowshoe cache at its base. The cruise back to camp goes quickly and temperatures plummet into the negatives after sunset once again.
Many thanks to each and every one of my top notch teammates. It was one for the books.