Posted on April 25 2017
It's no secret that the sport and industries of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering are exploding right now. Stratospheric improvement rates of gear and proliferation of carefully crafted social media posts by those getting after it are undoubtedly the two main instigators. But there has to be more to it. More to pushing your body to the limit for a 30 minute ski. More to exposing yourself to terrain in which a fall would most likely result in death. And certainly more to doing both of those at incredible rates of speed that allow tackling multiple such descents in a single day. My recent ski of Maroon Peak (or South Maroon) in the Maroon Bells Wilderness outside of Aspen, Colorado seemed to be a case study of sorts in the expansion and growth of our sport.
During the week prior to April 13th, our crew of four began to hatch plans to take advantage of what appeared to be the last week of snowmobile-able coverage on the Maroon Creek road and ski the Maroon Bells. Original talk centered around the iconic North face of North Maroon however it was becoming apparent that northerly aspects were stuck in a transitional phase making for really tricky skiing. Reports from a mostly Utah based crew that had skied the Bell Chord route from the summit of Maroon Peak the day before sounded promising. The Bell Chord is the couloir sandwiched between Maroon and North Maroon Peaks. We settled in on plans to ski Maroon Peak; either its rarely skied south couloir or the east face into the Bell Chord.
Cal, Casey, Drew and I rolled up to the winter gate on Maroon Creek Road at about 5:30 pm and began to transition from shorts and flip-flops to ski gear and sleds- Vail skier trash coming in hot Aspen! After entertaining the gawking and interrogations from the out-of-state visitors, we cruised up the sparsely covered road to Maroon lake, as fast (read slowly) as our overheating sleds would allow. I have lived in Colorado for about 10 years now, yet had never been up to the lake and viewed "Colorado's postcard" first hand. That initial glimpse of the hanging snowfield which we would climb and ski was the first time in my budding ski mountaineering career that I had felt such a humbling and intense respect for an objective. This would represent my own personal progression, and, standing there staring at that line in the dusk, I couldn't have been more pumped. We made camp in one of the small concrete structures (thanks National Park Service!), ate, and pretended to sleep until our 2:30 alarm got the day rolling.
So we're going to ski that huh? Sweet!
We were treated to a nearly full moon and clear skies as we departed camp at 3:15 and headed across Maroon and Crater lakes towards the "garbage chute" at the base of Maroon. Around this time we noticed a couple of sets of headlamps below us. One group appeared to head towards North Maroon, the other towards us. We transitioned to crampons and began the long boot pack up the Bell Chord just before sunrise. Reports of creamy consolidated powder in the Bell Chord were exciting, but mother nature had other plans. The southern aspect of North Maroon had cleaned out due to heat the prior afternoon, runneling and mucking up the couloir and making for a less than straightforward bootpack. Spirits remained high however due to an incredible sunrise breaching just behind Pyramid Peak, which is due east across the West Maroon Creek drainage. What an incredible treat to witness that from such a vantage point. Eventually the sun had made it's full entrance and we were nearing the top of the Bell Chord, watching the twosome behind us gain on us at an impressive rate of speed.
The author takes in the sunrise over Pyramid Peak. Photo @bigmtncreative
After one glance back I heard, "Hey Gary! Stop looking back and keep putting in that booter!" I recognized the voice as my friend Chris Baldwin, who when we last talked, was gunning for the east face of Pyramid that day but backed down when overnight temps didn't dip low enough for their liking. Chris and fellow uber athlete Teague Holmes quickly caught us, exchanged fist bumps and thank yous for the stairway to that point, and plowed ahead towards the summit- punching in the remainder of the steps for us. Chris and Teague had left the road gate on foot 6 miles before our camp at the same time we departed, passed us 3/4 of the way up, and summited about 30 minutes ahead of us. Talk about pushing the limits within the sport!
The crew exiting the Bell Chord and heading towards the summit. Photo @teagueholmes
The Elk mountains are truly incredible, and after reconvening on the summit of Maroon on this bluebird morning, we were fortunate enough to have time to soak them in. Our foursome had decided to ski the east face into the Bell Chord in about an hour, while Teague and Chris were opting to wait and see if the south face would soften. This gave us a unique opportunity to hang out in "church" as Chris would call it with 6 passionate skiers on an incredibly beautiful peak and contemplate life, the ski, and the exposure below us.
Preparing for the drop from the summit. Photo @teagueholmes
A five and a half hour ascent and an hour in church set us up for a 10 a.m. beginning to our descent. The first 500 vertical feet or so of the ski are steep, exposed, and unfortunately for us that day, held some punchy snow. This hanging snowfield rests above another 800 ft of cliffs on the east face of Maroon. We made our way through the tough yet improving snow conditions and then wrapped around towards the Bell Chord. The main shot was pretty beat up, but we were treated to some pretty incredible consolidated powder skiing on more northerly aspects of the right side. We leap frogged each other down the shot, hopping in to the powder pockets, taking photos, and smiling from ear to ear. The super G turns in perfect corn on the apron and down on to Crater Lake capped of an incredible 4,000 ft descent.
Casey arcs a turn in one of the powder stashes on the Bell Chord. Photo @garyalsmith
We pushed back to camp for the customary grub down and beer slugging while staring back at Maroon. In about a beer or three, the speed duo came skating up. After a 3 hour wait it became apparent that the south face wouldn't soften, and they too skied the east face to Bell Chord route, for the second time this season.
In reflection of that ski, I am in awe of where the sport is. That mission represented a current high point in the progression of our crew's skiing, and at a comfortable and respectable 5 1/2 hours up and a fluid ski down. In terms of the speed end of our sport, Teague and Chris' 5 hrs from the winter gate is truly impressive, and they are only two of a growing group capable of such a pace up and strength on the down. Furthermore, when they eventually cruised down the Chord, they were the 10th and 11th skiers that line would see in just two days. 11 skiers from 3 groups climbing and skiing a technical no fall 4,000 ft line comfortably and confidently without issue during those 2 days is just a small sample of what is going on throughout the state, country, continent, and world. So why is this sport seeing such a rise? I think it is one of a few avenues in our increasingly automated and complacent world that really taps into the exploratory and adventurous nature in us all. The gear is allowing the strong to become stronger and those on the outside fringe to dive in. But it is the human spirit of exploring and pushing yourself and your team that is at the core of our sport's growth.
Cripple Creek Vail shop tech and obsessed skier of all things steep and beautiful. Call me at 970-510-0450 ext 2 to chat about gear used on this mission or others!