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Timed Just Right

Posted on: July 9, 2015


Brody Sullivan climbing fun ice three- quarters of the way up the route on North Maroon Peak. [Photo] Ryan Jennings

A gentle breeze drifts over my bright-yellow bivy bag, tickling evergreen boughs just overhead. We doze beneath magnificent trees, poised at the foot of North Maroon Peak (14,014') thousands of feet above Aspen, Colorado. A pyramid of choss just beginning to shed its winter blanket of white looms over us and now seems in condition for an alpine ascent.

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It's April 12, 2015. An understanding of timing mixed with a dash of patience leads to success in the alpine. What can seem impossible, unsafe, illogical or downright stupid can at times be the exact opposite if your timing is right. We're here today because we believe the moment is right to climb a new route.

5 a.m. We sit and brew up under dim skies, two hours after the alarm's first ring. Trees creak in the breeze. I breathe in the fresh morning air. Snow has fallen in rhythmic stages recently, and warm days have combined with cool nights. I envision ice forming up high, ribbons of white snaking down, over constrictions, filling in steep sections of rock. These choss mountains will be safest when ice and snow bind rock together, when the powder and slabs finally blend and sunny faces harden into sheets of neve. Right now, before the gullies become funnels of falling debris, the Colorado alpine is our playground. Unfortunately, I fear our delay means the sun will soon be here, melting out the ice and loosening rock far above. We may be too late.

Clouds, which I pray will be our saving grace, gather overhead. Our light insulation and limited rack make the arrival of the clouds a bit worrisome, but we keep faith, leave camp and ski.

Sullivan taking in the views after gaining the East Ridge of North Maroon Peak. [Photo] Ryan Jennings

We spent hours last night pedaling beater bikes uphill six miles before ditching them at snow line not far from Maroon Lake. The snowdrifts had melted on the road, allowing us to bike within a half mile of the lake and trailhead. Spinning spokes led us to sliding skins then eventually all the way to this bivy at Crater Lake 10 miles from Aspen.

We ski with a rhythmic cadence around the lake to where the angle steepens. An obvious slide path leads up and right to the base of our climb. My worn skins slip backwards as I fight to gain purchase on the slope. Bushes stick out of the softening snow, hinting at warm days coming. Soon we reach the base. I swear I see frozen white ice through the thinning darkness in the amphitheater above. I plug a red Camalot, setting up a belay at the base in a solid crack out left, then sneak another view before my partner, Brody Sullivan, arrives. I'm now confident that ice, unseen until just now, fills the amphitheater. This will be the crux. It appears steep and void of any rock showing through.

Day breaks, illuminating the clear blue ice. Brody leads the steep blue curtain with confidence and ease, quickly finding his pace. The rope, soon stretching tight, forces me to pull the Camalot and follow. I laugh up single-swing axe sticks and crystalline ice glimmering in the morning light. This short, steep section of water ice gives the climb the true alpine feel we have come for. A curving couloir of shimmering neve stretches above. Protection is minimal but the angle eases.

Sun hits the upper slopes, loosening debris, potentially signifying our need to descend. One rock bounces down, ricocheting off parallel walls. We duck and dodge the rock and debris it sends down before clouds quickly put the mountain back in shade.

We coil the rope and solo together, kicking calf-burning steps in the steep slide. Walls of beautiful moss-speckled red stone briefly light up then dull as clouds drift by. As we ascend higher, frosted gargoyles ride ridges out left of our couloir. Winter's white contrasts with the red stone in spectacular fashion. We tiptoe past mixed bands as the couloir closes out; still alone yet together, we take in the majesty. At times we consider roping back in to one another but the thought fades away and we never do.

Another stretch of ice, just barely covering the rock underneath, leads to a new couloir which stretchs to a ridge. As we approach a cornice, the angle becomes almost too much. We scratch and hook up hidden rock lying deep beneath aerated powder. Thousands of feet drop below stemmed-out legs. The crest nears as the snow firms and ice axe shafts jam deep to take us onto the ridge. A few hours after pulling out that first Camalot, we stand with arms outstretched atop our journey. South Maroon Peak glistens to the south in early morning light that beams through storm clouds in the distance. Ski tracks descend from its summit, and we smile knowing someone else has timed it just right. We've been granted a momentary ticket, allowed only this day by this king of a mountain.

Sullivan on the summit of North Maroon Peak (14,014'). [Photo] Ryan Jennings

[Ryan Jennings was a prolific ice climber, husband, father and contributor to Alpinist. "Timed Just Right" is a story he wrote for Alpinist.com six months before his death. To learn more about him, read In Memoriam: Ryan Jennings, from December 31, 2015. To make a donation to the Beck Jennings Family Fund, visit: beckjenningsfamilyfund.org—Ed.]

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