the greatest accomplishment of my life, to date

I knew that probably one day something would surpass fixing a VCR with dental floss, but I didn’t know that day would be Friday, July 16, 2010.

Meet Lynn.  Lynn’s pretty awesome, and she’s obsessed with climbing fourteeners.  I mean, I like hiking fourteeners but Lynn loves it.  The way I feel about the Olympics is the way Lynn feels about fourteeners.  She’s already done like nine this summer.  So when I told her I could take maybe a day and a half off to go hiking with her, she was all about that.  After much debate about WHERE to go, we settled on the Maroon Bells outside Aspen – so named because they’re reddish-colored.

(Not my picture, btw.  Maroon Peak is the one on the left, and though you can’t tell from this picture angle it’s taller.  The saddle between the peaks does not drop low enough for North Maroon to “officially” be a separate fourteener.)

So we left Boulder around 2:00PM Thursday (running late – not a great start).  Arrived at the trailhead and wrapped the car in chicken wire, as the area has a problem with porcupines who like to chew on brake lines and gaskets.  This is how thorough Lynn is in prepping for fourteeners – things like knowing when we need random chicken wire to fend off porcupines.

I must note my McGuyver-esque skills, though, in my thought to string a length of wire through the front doors, hooked onto the chicken wire to hold it up.  It’s ideas like these that help me fix VCRs with dental floss.  Anyway…

Lynn had mentioned to me that there was a sign on the way up the trail called “The Deadly Bells” talking about how many people die on the mountains.  I’ll admit, it made me a little nervous.  But then again, Aspen is prime vacation territory and they want to make sure random, dumb tourists aren’t struck by the “hey, let’s climb that!” idea.

To make a three-hour story short, we got to Carter Lake, found an open campsite (yay!!!), set up the tent, packed our packs for the hike tomorrow, set alarms for 4:15, and fell asleep at 9:30.  Well, rather we got into the tent.  I think I only slept for maybe three hours.  Maroon Peak (the southern, taller, and officially easier of the two) was on our agenda for Friday.

Started hiking in the dark, which was okay because the beginning of the trail is flat.  From the parking lot to the summit is six miles.  We had hiked in two miles to camp, and the first 3.5 miles total have only 1000 feet of elevation gain.  Then you abruptly leave the creek and see this:

That would be a trail going up a slope that averages 37 percent, with the sunrise starting to hit the top of the slope.  We did realize this was going to happen as we had read all about the hike on 14ers.com.  We started this segment around 6:15 (after stopping at the bottom to eat breakfast and put on sunscreen) and Lynn asked how long I thought it would take us to reach the ridge line.  I guessed three hours.

That’s not the sky at the top of this photo; it’s the part of the mountain the sun is already touching – which my camera washes out.  When Lynn looked at this photo the next day, she captioned it, “Alissa dies… in a field of wildflowers.”  It WAS hard.  And the wildflowers WERE amazing.

The last, oh, probably third up is all on loose rocks and scree – which isn’t too difficult on less steep terrain but was awful here.

Yep, I’ve zipped off my pants and switched to a tank.  The weather was ideal – not a cloud in the sky.  If anything, it was too hot!  Not even a breeze!

Finally, three hours later (yeah, I rock at estimates) at 9:15 we reached the ridge, and had breath-taking views of a brilliant green valley surrounded by red hills to the west, Pyramid Peak (14,018′) to the east, and Snowmass (14,092′) and Capitol (14,130′) to the northwest.  I put my finger on Capitol so I could say I was on the hardest Colorado fourteener to summit.

But we still had the imposing ridge of Maroon to conquer.

I don’t have many pictures from here on out, so I’m going to throw in a few from 14ers.com.

This is the trickier part of the climb (though that scree was NOT fun).  It involves a lot of climbing gullies of loose rock and traversing ledges.  Overall, it’s not that hard.  Lynn and I analyzed EVERY part of the trip on the drive home and agreed that we both estimated the technical aspects of the climb appropriately, but we underestimated the endurance factor.  From the ridge to the summit took us another 2.5 hours, so if you’re keeping track that means we summited at 11:45 – 7:15 after we started.

My favorite part was climbing the two chimneys, which are apparently not difficult enough to bump this mountain to a class 4.  They’re so called because they’re skinny troughs that look like three-sided chimneys.  You need to climb nearly straight up about 15 feet.  Since I love rock-climbing, I loved this part.

But after that came very frustrating deja-vu: traverse across, climb a gully, traverse some more, climb another gully.  It wasn’t beyond our abilities, but we did it over and over and over.  It seemed like the summit wasn’t coming any closer.  At one point we looked at the route photos and saw what Lynn called “choose your gully.”

We were sitting at nearly the exact position this photo was taken when suddenly I became afraid of heights.  The lack of sleep might have had something to do with it, but I was more scared than I had ever been in my life.

There were two guys hiking with us for a good portion of this ridge part – Jeff and Andras, who we called the orange guys because they were both wearing reddish-orange – and we all looked at the mountain and unanimously agreed that the closer gully looked better.  And really, once we got to it, it was not bad at all.  Still though, I reached the top of the gully and sat down next to Lynn (Orange Guys had gone a bit ahead) and literally started crying.  I was terrified.  Lynn mentioned later “when our brains left us” on this hike and mine had NOT at this point because I was very aware that there was a long way still to go AND then we had to go DOWN it all.

But I kept on, and that is what I am most proud of.  Really, I know these photos look scary, but Lynn and I have climbed mountains before and were being very careful.  We made sure every route we took was safe.  Again, this climb was not beyond our technical abilities – just really long.  And the never-ending / deja-vu aspect of it really played with our minds.

At least half a dozen times along the ridge I contemplated sitting down and letting Lynn finish while I waited for her to come back.

Eventually, we gathered on an open-ish area with the Orange Guys as well as three guys from Utah to plan our next move.  We had to walk across a very narrow ledge (photo below) but there were numerous handholds so it worked well.  I actually enjoyed it.  However, Lynn and I agree that this was where we should have paid more attention.  The Utah Guys were in front of us and the Orange Guys behind.  We realized later that for the rest of the way up we were just following instead of watching where we were going.

Less than 100 feet from the summit, I was kind of ready to say, “Close enough.”  But I did make it, and the seven of us hung out at the top for half an hour.  The views were spectacular.  Put my long-sleeved shirt back on due to the slight chill on top of all fourteeners as well as pant legs because my shins got plenty scratched up along the ridge moves – the rocks are SHARP!  Utah guys showed off by taking jumping pictures on the summit, so I pulled out my dance moves and did a leg lift.

Btw, see that perfect blue sky we had all day?  No thunderstorm worries.  Lynn and the Orange Guys (one of whom put a blue overshirt on) looked out towards Maroon Lake and Crater Lake, and wouldn’t this would be an awesome band photo?

The Utah Guys left to do the traverse to North Maroon Peak.  (Class 5 route requiring ropes?  No thank you.)  Lynn and I made sure to leave the summit at 12:15, before the Orange Guys because we wanted someone behind us.

Going back down the ridge was hard.  We knew, given the nature of this mountain, that there are multiple ways to get back.  We knew finding our EXACT route back would be very unlikely, and said out loud to each other that it didn’t necessary matter WHICH routes we took down, as long as we made sure they were safe.

Like I said, we didn’t pay attention during the last push to the summit, and we didn’t know the best way down.  So we kind of picked.  This is when my brain left me.  I say that because I was feeling good, like this wasn’t so bad.

We made it down, but only using about 50% of our original route.  Everything looks completely different from the other direction, plus it was previously in shadow but now in sun.  The sun beat down on our right sides, and as I type this I have an ice pack sitting on a second degree sunburn on my right elbow.

We amused ourselves by pointing out all the pretty rocks – of which there were many.  I found one with polka dots all the same size.  She found on that was striated in different colors, reminding me of a slice of Neapolitan ice cream.  I also found one with a silhouette of a face!

All the ways we found were safe, but we weren’t able to identify the correct “choose your gully” from above.  So we ended up going too far and getting stuck on a cliff.  Going backwards felt out of the question, but there was a chimney below us and we could see the trail below it.  I shimmied down with no problem.  But now it was time for Lynn’s meltdown.  She’s the hiker (who IS afraid of heights), I’m the rock-climber.  And we were both challenged on this mountain.

I sat below her, dodging falling rocks because this was not the correct route so not cleared from random rocks.  (By the way, this is why we’re wearing helmets: falling rocks.)  She cautiously made her way down, and I did the best I could by verbally guiding her to handholds and footholds.  She later called this our “extra credit” chimney, which I think definitely bumped the route WE took up from a class 3 to class 4.

(Our “extra credit” chimney, with a huge rock jammed in the gap.)

While I helped her down, the Orange Guys passed below us.  I asked if they would mind waiting to go over the ridge edge until they could see we were in the clear (and safe) on the final stretch of trail back to the ridge top, and they were happy to do so.  It took 2.5 hours to get back to the ridge, same as it took us to summit.  And even though they didn’t have to, the Orange Guys were there waiting for us.  Thank you, God, for the Orange Guys!  I think they were kind of happy for an excuse to chill, but it was incredibly nice.  And they shared some yummy cookies.

We let them go first over the edge because we were going slowly and they had to go all the way to the parking lot.  Because of the skree, we had to space ourselves out so we wouldn’t kick rocks on each others’ heads.  We reapplied sunscreen while waiting, but the damage of being above 13,000′ for six hours had already been done.  Then, it was over the edge.

The view of Pyramid Peak was beautiful, and we were also happy to know that the sun would soon be behind the ridge giving us shade.

It.  Was.  Hard.  It took us three hours to get from the creek to the ridge, and it took another three to get down.  This is the first time I’ve ever done a hike where it took the same amount of time to get down as up.  I know it’s possible to go down faster, because people do, but the “trail” is so narrow and covered in sharp and unstable rocks and it’s really steep – plus we were exhausted.  We could not have gone any faster.  We both sat down on the trail and whimpered several times before getting up to try to smile for pictures.  After all, it was beautiful.

We talked a lot going down about our frustrations with this mountain.  One of the biggest frustrations was that except for losing the trail for a while across the ridge, nothing went wrong!  No bad weather, no unprepared-for-circumstances, no beyond-our-abilities route, none of that.  We truly were doing the best possible in ideal conditions.  And it was still taking forever.

We finally made it to the creek, and there was much rejoicing.  Now just 1.5 miles back to our campsite, which we reached at 7:30.  So that’s a total of 15 hours of hiking.  Wow.

When we planned this weekend, we had initially planned to do a mountain on Friday, one on Saturday, and maybe-on-a-slim-chance one on Sunday.  Ha ha ha.  Yeah, right, we laughed at that.  “Oh, how naive we were back then.”  (Back then being 24 hours earlier.)  I feel like it truly says something about a friendship when you can go through something like Maroon Peak and not be cross with each other.

The next morning, we stayed in bed until 8:00.  Discovered a gorgeous meadow 100 feet away with a spectacular view of both bells (south looks tiny ‘cuz it’s in the back) and some waterfalls.  And is it just me or does that cloud look like an eye?

But we were very sore and had enough.  Time to pack up camp and head out.

Am I glad I hiked Maroon Peak?  Um…
Am I proud we did it?  Absolutely.
Would I do it again?  No way.

You can read more about (South) Maroon and our route at: http://14ers.com/routemain.php?route=maro1&peak=The+Maroon+Bells 

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2 Responses to the greatest accomplishment of my life, to date

  1. Amy Hadley says:

    Holy gamoley! I don't know what I'm more impressed with: that you hiked/climbed that mountain, or that you can still do a leg lift at 29.

  2. Alissa says:

    HUGE props to Lynn for her shutter work as my leg lift lasted less than a second! I don't think I've done that since college. Need practice.

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