A 0.4-mile-long ridge connects Maroon Peak, Colorado’s 24th highest mountain at 14,156 feet, to 14,014-foot North Maroon Peak. The two peaks together, called the Maroon Bells, form one of the state’s best scenic vistas, especially in late September when golden aspen trees reflect in Maroon Lake. Climbers usually ascend Maroon Peak, rising 12 miles southwest of Aspen, up its South Ridge. Most then traverse over to North Maroon along an exposed and spectacular ridge. The mountain’s first known ascent was in 1908 by Percy Hagerman up the Southwest Face in 11 hours round trip. The mountain is also sometimes called South Maroon Peak.
- The South Ridge is the standard climbing route up Maroon Peak. It’s a long, strenuous ascent with sections of Class 3 scrambling on loose rock. The round-trip, 10-mile ascent, starting from Maroon Lake Trailhead east of the peak, gains 4,600 feet from the trailhead to the summit.
- Maroon Peak and its neighbor North Maroon Peak are dangerous mountains to climb. Use extreme caution on the loose rock and be prepared for emergencies and accidents. A U.S. Forest Service warning sign along the trail says: “The beautiful Maroon Bells have claimed many lives in the past few years. They are unbelievably deceptive. The rock is downsloping, rotten, loose, and unstable. It kills without warning. The snowfields are treacherous, poorly consolidated, and no place for a novice climber. The gullies are death traps. Expert climbers who did not know the proper routes have died on these peaks. Don’t repeat their mistakes, for only rarely have these mountains given a second chance.”
- The traverse between the Maroon Bells is one of Colorado’s best 14er ridge traverses and a great climbing adventure. The ridge is only 0.4-mile long, and the climber loses only 234 feet of elevation but the traverse requires at least two hours to cross. Expect spectacular positions, dramatic exposure, and rotten rock. There is Class 4 climbing and lots of Class 3 scramblingwithout a rope. It’s preferable to traverse south from North Maroon to Maroon Peak since it’s easier to descend the South Ridge of Maroon Peak rather than junk rock on North Maroon.
- The Bell Cord Couloir, scene of many fatal accidents, is the obvious snow gully between the Maroon Bells. The 1,800-foot couloir, with an average angle of 42 degrees, is a demanding and dangerous route. The couloir steepens in places to 45 degrees and is as narrow as 15 feet. It’s best to climb it in June after avalanche danger lessens. By July, the couloir is a technical ice climb. Wear crampons, ice axe or ice tools, and a helmet, and carry a short rope if a belay is needed. Start the route by 2 a.m. unless you’re fast and plan to be at the top by the time the sun hits the face. You want to climb firm snow, not soft mush.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
—Stewart M. Green