August 20-22, 2009: Two Tough Elk Range Fourteeners

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: May 20, 2010


Last summer I surprised myself by successfully climbing (for the second times), on two successive days, two tough 14,000-foot peaks in the Elk Range near Aspen, Colorado: North Maroon Peak, 14,014', and Pyramid Peak, 14,018'. It was a spectacular outing! And it only took me nine months to finish writing about it... Good thing I'm semi-retired now, or it might have been longer (grin).

The trip leader was Mark Hammer from Avago, who was busy working toward finishing his first round on the Fourteeners despite being older than me. He invited me along even though several years ago on Castle Peak I couldn't keep up with him. He picked a weekend that not only worked well for his schedule, but also promised and delivered very calm weather with a stable high sitting over the region.

August 20, Thursday -- Getting There

I drove down to Loveland and met Mark at his house at about 2 pm. I left my car there and rode with him over Independence Pass to the Difficult campground about five miles east of Aspen.

We had our pick of sites. So we walked around in the twilight, and picked out #30 as being nice, close to the creek, big enough to add more people, and easy enough to find. We got to bed not-too-late, and I slept out with just a tarp.

August 21, Friday -- North Maroon Peak, 14,014'

We awoke to alarms at 5:00 am in the early pre-dawn cold. It took us until 6:25 am to have breakfast/etc, drive a ways through town and out again, and start the hike from the Maroon Lake trailhead at 9580'. Wow, this place had really changed since years ago -- the upper area was closed completely, a huge paved lower parking lot had been added, and so on. It was pretty full already too.

Alan at Maroon Lake

We followed the well-trod valley floor trail up to Crater Lake at 10,100', taking about an hour to get there. We had to stop numerous times to gawk and photograph the sunrise alpenglow on the Maroon Bells, including lake reflections, and also to shed some clothing.

I figured to trek along with Mark towards South Maroon Peak as far as I could before sending him on ahead. He'd already been up North Maroon, and I'd summited each once before. I loaned him a radio so we could keep in touch.

Summits showing my route

Well at Crater Lake it was apparent I was already slowing Mark down. I had a creative notion -- I turned right on the Buckskin Pass trail to hike up North Maroon "a ways," as far as it was comfortable and fun, while Mark continued on the valley floor trail to bag South Maroon. We split up at 7:40 am after a break. Despite the full parking lot, we hadn't encountered anyone on the trail after leaving Maroon Lake, and I didn't myself until much further up my branch. It was very quiet.

Half an hour later I turned left at the marked "exit" for the North Maroon route. It was a pretty, cool, sunny morning. I dropped across a creek and continued walking up, up, out of the valley on a very clear but unimproved trail, trail, albeit with a few very steep and overgrown or cliffy spots. Still with no expectation of summiting, at 9:45 I reached the bottom of the lower "flight" of the "Stairway to Heaven". Somewhere around here I put on my (bicycle) helmet for extra protection against rockfalls.

Looking down valley to lakes

At this point the trail stopped wandering south, mostly around the mountain (although still gaining a lot of elevation), and it turned sharply up a very steep, grassy gully. One of the few fellow climbers I met this day passed me about here. The view sharply down into the Maroon Valley was breathtaking and colorful; green, gray, orange, white, and even blue in Crater Lake.

Mountain goat above

Well I didn't think I'd hike any higher -- I should save myself for Pyramid tomorrow -- but why not seize the moment? Despite a lack of altitude acclimation, I felt pretty good other than a very mild headache, and there was no hurry, so I slowly wandered up the hillside. And then I had a very close encounter with a grazing herd of three white mountain goats! This was fabulous, rare, and memorable.

Mark announced by radio at 10:20 that he'd reached the saddle high on the south ridge of South Maroon. That was our first contact in 1h40m. After that, higher on the mountains, we had better communications.

Flowers closeup

Looking down steep upper gully

I'd forgotten that the "Stairway" had two "flights". At 10:45 I rounded the "corner", crossing from the top of the lower to the bottom of the upper flight. No reason to stop now, so I kept climbing, steeplier and steeplier! The beaten path, can't really call it a trail, was hard to follow at many points. Route-finding and loose-rock avoidance kept me busy.

At 12:05 Mark called on the radio to announce he'd arrived on top of South Maroon. Good job! I told him that if he didn't mind I would continue up the north peak, even though I predicted (correctly) that he'd have to wait for me (hours later) back down below at Crater Lake.

Well I remembered there was a famous, nasty rock chimney above the upper "stairway". And this day, it had ice in it. I'd heard about an alternate route around it, and then I met someone coming down who confirmed it, so I went up that way. It was rather easier and safer, if you didn't mind the huge dropoff just below you to your left as you hoisted yourself up a step or two on a fairly sheer wall. I reached the top of the chimney 10 minutes after Mark summited South Maroon.

Getting to the actual top of "my" mountain, plodding slowly up the very steep, rocky hillside in the thin air and stopping often to breathe deeply, took me another 35 minutes (12:50 pm). But the weather was gorgeous, I was holding out OK, and by then I knew I was going to make it. Whether or not I would be able to walk the next day, never mind climb Pyramid, well, that was another question!

Alan on North Maroon from main peak

Fortunately Mark was willing to hang out and relax on South Maroon until I got to the north peak. Then a rather incredible event occurred... We were each on top of one of the Maroon Bells, we each had our summit all to ourselves, and there was no hurry to descend! We talked on the radios, yelled back and forth (nearly half a mile), took mutual (tele)photographs, and played with signal mirrors. Since Mark's mountain was higher, I was looking up at him, and him down at me. It was incredible.

Down Maroon Valley from North Maroon Peak

As usual after resting a little on top with my boots off, eating and drinking, I felt pretty fine, just a little tired. Mark started down at 1:05 pm while I lingered on my summit until 1:40 pm. Reluctantly I departed, following a couple of guys who came across the ridge from South Maroon and crossed the north peak without spending much time on top.

It took me 40 minutes to get down to the rock chimney again. I elected not to descend it, nor to carry my pack down the alternate route. Instead I lowered my pack (out of sight) down the chimney using a nylon cord, then with better balance and a deep breath, very carefully lowered myself above the airy cliff around the corner.

Uh oh, Mark was making good time. He reported being back at the south saddle at 2:40 pm. I continued my careful and leisurely descent, feeling safe enough now although nearly giddy at the sheer angles below. I reached the corner between the "Stairway" flights at 3:20, rested 25 minutes admiring the view (and a silhouetted mountain goat on a boulder in the distance), and left the lower gully at 4:15 pm.

Mountain goats looking down from uphill

Mountain goat passing by

Well not exactly... The other two mountain goats were coming up the trail! I hung out a while watching them and "chatting with them" as they warily passed right by me on the footpath. I finally started down again at 4:30 pm.

I thought this would work out great since Mark didn't hit the valley floor trail until 4:55, but he still had to wait a while for me. It was a long, slow return down the mountainside to the Buckskin Pass junction at 5:45, while Mark reached the Crater Lake junction below just 5 minutes later. He graciously waited 15 minutes more for me to join him there. Then we slogged back to his car at the trailhead not long before sunset, reaching it at 7:15 pm after 12h45m afoot on the round trip!

Maroon Lake late-day reflections

Maroon Lake was gorgeous, as usual, almost surreal. Walking by it, back to his car, was easy, but it had been a very long day. It was fun passing motor-tourists out for a stroll, who recognized us as the grizzled Conquering Mountaineers we resembled.

Rather than take time for a dinner in town, we drove back through Aspen to the campsite, ate there, and got to bed as early as we could. However I think it was later than 9 pm again, and it was about 10:30 pm (and pitch dark) when Jim and Clark, two of Mark's friends joining us for Pyramid Peak the next day, showed up at the campsite "after work."

August 22, Saturday -- Pyramid Peak, 14,018'

The alarm went off at 5:00 am sharp again. Unlike yesterday, it was really hard to get out the sack and moving. No regrets later, it was a wonderful and successful day on Pyramid Peak. Also a very long day -- I didn't get back to bed, at home, until 2:15 am the next morning!

The (now) four of us departed the Maroon Lake trailhead, 9580', at 6:53 am. Being it was a little later than the previous morning, and now a weekend, the parking lot was nearly full. We were lucky to find a spot at the far end.

Looking down to Maroon Lake

I vaguely recall hiking along, chatting with the others while trying to wake up, wondering how far I might make it before conking out. I wasn't particularly sore or worn out from Friday, but certainly I was far from my best. Well guess what, Jim and/or Clark (I forget which one) wasn't that fast either, and no one was in any hurry given the continuing gorgeous weather, so we just kept going and going all day. My mantra for the day was similar to yesterday: "I don't have the energy to go fast. Do I have the time to go slow?" Yup!

Top of the upper bowl

We found and took the first turnoff, uphill to the left, from the valley floor trail. About 2h45m from the trailhead at 9:38 am, we reached a little sunshine and then the snowy bottom of the upper bowl on Pyramid's north side. We crossed a lot of tedious talus east to the start of the serious vertical section at about 12,000', and after a break there, we headed up again at 10:22.

I trailed the others, but we regrouped on the saddle of the northeast ridge at about 13,000' at 11:16. Huffing up the well-worn, sometimes loose, dirt and gravel incline was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, with frequent short rest breaks. I wore my bike helmet from here to the top and back for a little false security.

Jim heading for the summit

The others left the saddle at 11:25 and I caught up with them after a while. I knew from recollection that the last thousand feet was far and away the worst part, but I'd forgotten just how awful it could be. "Not a good place to pass out for any reason." Still, taking it slow and having plenty of time, it was fun to explore cautiously upwards, looking for the right route (we got off it but kept going), and marveling at the intense steepness of the mountain between the ledges. We could see the true summit far away and above in the distance.

Mountain goat standing above

There was one narrow ledge that required carefully stepping around a projecting boulder above a short sheer drop into a very steep gully. I don't know how the mountain goats passed that point, but later on the hillside we spooked one by accident. He reset himself on a ledge above, and we watched him as we passed by.

Mark standing on Pyramid Peak

To my amazement and somewhat disbelief, we all reached the summit of Pyramid Peak at 1:08 pm, meaning 6h15m on the ascent; no broken records, but not too shabby either. The skies remained blissfully peaceful, and it was just around solar noon, so we took our time relaxing and recuperating. I'd also forgotten just how small and narrow was the otherwise flat summit ridge! There were severe "exits" a few feet away on each side of where we sat.

People descending

I wasn't looking forward to the descent, but I knew that with care and patience it would be OK, and it was. Patience indeed -- it took us over two hours to reach the 13,000' saddle again! We left the summit at 2:00 pm, and after passing by the mountain goat, following the right path down this time -- easier to see from above, and easier to downclimb -- we arrived there at 4:16. Whew!

Flower closeup

There were more gorgeous flowers...

Jim and saddle below

Of course along the way down the view was spectacular...

Mountain goat at saddle

Another mountain goat was now hanging around the saddle. We got a lot of good close-up photos.

The retreat down to 12,000' was tedious but uneventful, strung out along the rock and dirt "trail" trying not to lose our footing. It was hard to believe we didn't arrive at the top of the upper bowl until 5:00 pm! Still no rush though, given the great weather conditions.

People exiting the lower boulderfield

Lookup up from lower bowl to Pyramid Peak

We took a nice 15 minute break, then proceeded down the bowls at a comfortable pace...

Jim on lower trail

It took us nearly two hours more of thoughtful downhill walking to reach the valley trail junction at 6:56 pm. We all missed the "shortcut" side-trail we'd taken on the way up, oh well; and ended up hiking further upstream in Maroon Valley before turning back on the floor.

Maroon Lake late-day reflections

The only remaining concern I had was to get to the trailhead before dark. We cut it close but made it OK at 7:35 pm, for a 12h42m round trip, almost identical to the previous day on the Bells.

For better or worse, we shared a good dinner at the Hickory House Restaurant in Aspen. Worse, because it turned out we "had" to drive home that evening (long story). Oh well, it was a great meal. We also came across a couple of women who'd only made it as far as the 13,000' saddle on Pyramid, with a paid guide, before turning around.

The rest of the evening is somewhat of a caffeine-powered blur in my memory. The four of us departed Aspen and caravaned in two vehicles all the way back to the Front Range. At some point I took over driving from Mark and let him nap. I offloaded my gear at his house in Loveland, drove myself home to Fort Collins from there, and finally fell into bed at 2:15 am, beyond utterly exhausted.

To my surprise, possibly with the help of ibuprofen, I slept pretty well and could walk OK on Sunday! No serious after-damage. I'm really sold now on the notion of hiking as slowly as the weather permits on long, hard mountain climbs.