Descent Route: East Face
February 11, 2006
Today was one of the most intense ski days of my life. Anyone who has ever climbed the Maroon Bells in the summer can attest to their power, beauty, and perhaps danger as well. In the winter, all that is magnified, except the danger part.(the snow keeps rockfall to a minimum) We have been in a relatively stable snow cycle for the past few weeks here in the central Colorado mountains, and my recent experiences skiing other backcountry lines lead me to believe that Maroon Peak might be coming into skiable condition, a rarity in the winter. So with this in mind, two of my close Aspen ski partners, Frank Shine and Patrick Doyle joined me for an epic day on one of Colorado's most famous peaks.
Although the weather was clear, the temperatures were painfully cold, -11 f. at my house and -3 at the trailhead when we started hiking. We snowmobiled up Maroon Creek Road to the summer parking lot and began skinning up to Crater Lake at 9:30 a.m. The reason for this late start was the cold weather. It didn't matter how high the sun got in the sky or how much it hit the face we wanted to ski, with the cold temps and high winds, the snow would stay cold and solid.
I originally planned on trying to ski the "Y Couloirs" or SouthEast Couloirs as they are sometimes known. We climbed up this route, skinning up into the "Garbage Chute", where frequent spindrift avalanches poured down the gully. In fact, spindrift (loose snow) poured off of every cliff that had a gully above it almost all day. Above the Garbage Chute, in a small bowl, the snow was obviously cross loaded and I felt one large settlement, so we cautiously crossed over right to milder terrain and continued skinning our way up into the "Y Couloir" proper. We dug a good snow pit here on the face, and found super bomber, firm snow as deep as I cold dig. The climb went smoothly and quickly. Patrick's toes got the best of him half way up the face, so he pulled the plug and headed down, leaving Frank and I to push upwards. At this point Frank had a four inch icicle hanging from his goatee. As the pitch steepened, we put the skis on our packs and booted the rest of the way up.
At the saddle, the flat spot on the ridge where the summit ridge continues up to the North, Frank stayed behind to film my ski descent. As I said earlier, I originally wanted to ski down to this saddle from the summit, but the South West face from the summit was a rocky mess, and looked unskiable, at least not without taking my skis off many times. So as I climbed alone to the summit with crampons on my feet, I pondered a line I had seen on the climb up the couloir, dropping directly off the summit into the "Y" at two thirds height. I summited at 4 p.m. 6 1/2 hours after setting off. The wind and cold were so brutal that I spent little time there, just enough to snap some pics of Pyramid, North Maroon, myself, and the line I would attempt.
As Frank rolled his video camera from the saddle, I dropped into the super steep upper part of the line. I'm not sure if this line has a name or has ever been skied, but it was one of the most commiting lines I have ever attempted, steep all the way, with several "no fall zones" and even a five foot air in the middle to get across a cliff band. Fortunately the snow was perfect, if even a little sun baked on skier's left. I slowly and deliberately made my way down the line, which I am estimating was about 1400 ft. long. The line (marked in red in three photos) hits the main "Y Couloir" at 12,700 ft. and that's where I met Frank. We high fived after cheking each other for frostbite, and arced big, smooth turns all the way to the bottom of the Couloir at 10,000 ft.
This was an absolutely amazing day, and after 8+ hours, 7 miles, and 4600 vertical, I was very exhausted. We made it back to the sleds at dusk, and caught the full moon rising over Highlands Ridge. A gorgeous end to a spectacular day in the Colorado mountains.
5 down, 49 to go!
p.s. I'm off to Bella Coola, Canada tomorrow with Doug Coombs, Eric Pehota, Shane McConkey, and Seth Morrison for a film shoot on the history of Big Mountain skiing. See you later in Feb.
View a chronological Route List