Climbing in the Aspen Fast Lane

Aspen has been a popular party town for the rich and famous for quite some time, and the early 80’s were not an exception. The intense hedonists that were becoming a strong influence in this valley were looking for anything that gave them pleasure and price was not much of an object. Cocaine was a rich man’s drug, and it became very popular. This is the same time period when Cocaine use was featured on the front cover of Time magazine.  It was very fashionable among the rich and successful business folks, and the city of Aspen reduced criminality to a misdemeanor that was rarely enforced for possessing less than 3 grams. It quickly became some what of a status symbol, and the flagrant users would carry fancy silver 3 gram automatic dispensers that could be used on chairlifts and in restaurant bathrooms. The old hippy days of passing joints was considered low life to these decadent connoisseurs! 

I have lots of found memories of living in this awe inspiring valley, and I must admit that this is one place where trickle down economics actually seems to work.

The cocaine also trickled down and I was introduced to this evil drug while working as a trim carpenter on a local restaurant remodel. The owners were extremely anxious to finish by the lucrative Christmas season and bribed us with lines of coke in the walk in cooler. It was my first experience with this so called magic powder, and the initial response was like an extreme caffeine high with happiness and lots of energy. The artificially induced energy allowed us to work 10-14 hour days and the project was finished on time. 

The drug didn’t seem to be extremely addictive, but I did enjoy the high, and started purchasing small amounts for special occasions. But, like most mind altering substances, the highs seemed always harder to achieve, and the use gradually  increased. Coke is also a perfect party drug because it keeps you alert into the late night hours and allows for ridiculous amounts of alcohol consumption. The combined ingredients offer a great high, but the morning penalties can be severe.

My construction company was just getting started and I was building a small addition for a friend in Snowmass Village with my old climbing partner, who had come to visit. Gringo Negro is the source of many legends, and he did like to party, so he quickly adapted. 

It was a good party for a couple of weeks, but the thrill gradually waned, and we started to question our new life style.  

“This is really stupid!” I exclaimed to Dave, in the middle of a late night party. It was about 2 AM and we were both enjoying a good buzz, but I was very discontent. “We really need to change this habit and get back on track. Let’s go climb something good tomorrow. It’s what we really need.”

The “Bell Cord” between North and South Maroon peaks is a classic, somewhat steep snow climb that Dave had never done and I was itching to repeat. I had done it the fall before with blue ice conditions, and it had been one of my all time favorite ascents. But, the current conditions offered perfect snow climbing on an awesome peak. A quick survey of our available food supply revealed 4 ounces of dried beef and 1 avocado, but we still had a gram of the magic powder, so we quickly grabbed some gear and drove to the Maroon Bells parking lot and passed out on the tar next to the car. The sun was warm and bright and the tourists were starting to arrive and were almost stepping on us, when we groggily awoke and started to rally. 

Dave was a desert boy who had learned to climb on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix with a clothesline for a rope. He had never climbed ice or snow, but he was a solid 5.11 rock climber, so I trusted his ability, and the conditions were perfect. His Scott ski boots seemed like the best available option, and I had a spare set of crampons and some extra ice axes, so we quickly packed and scurried away.  Our stamina hadn’t suffered too badly during the recent break in activities, so we snorted a couple of lines and ran down the trail past Crater Lake. It’s been a few decades, but I think I recollect that Dave was running in his flip flop sandals, which were his shoe of choice at that time. 

We quickly arrived at the base of the snow and found a group of out of towners who were carefully setting a belay and climbing with a large array of technical gear including glacier stakes and ropes. They didn’t seem quite ready to start and they were obviously much slower than us, so they politely let us pass.

The Bell chord is steep, but not extreme, and is a fun solo for a competent climber. It does involve about 1800 feet of up to 50 degree snow or ice, so it is still a serious adventure and falling would be extremely dangerous. But, the biggest hazard in this gulley is rock fall, so a swift confident solo climber takes much less risk than a slow party using ropes and exposed belays. 

We thanked the group for letting us pass, snorted some long lines, and jammed for the summit, as I coached my rookie friend.

“OK Dave!

This is it. It’s kinda like rock climbing, but you can get a hold whenever you want with your ice aces and crampons. So, just stay focused, stay balanced, and only move one appendage at a time. The conditions are perfect, but still be aware of ice, thin spots, and rock fall, and DON’T FALL!  Rock fall is a definite hazard, and just stay low and don’t panic. The worst case scenario is to fall because of panicking. I barely dodged a rock here on a late fall ascent a few years ago, but I had enough time to secure my axes and duck when it arrived. It was a baseball size rock that bounced off the walls of the coular and flew by about 10 feet from my head. So, the faster we go, the safer we will be.  

“Oh wow! This is pretty easy and kinda fun too. Maybe I’ll try ice climbing next year.”

The climb definitely kept our attention, and the high mountain air was thin, but we sustained a steady pace and jammed up to about the middle of the route.

“Wow! This is really fun, but I’m getting kind of tired. Is there any more of that magic powder left?” 

“Yup! but it’s too dangerous to stop right here. It looks like a small nook and ledge that will be somewhat safe from rock fall about 50 feet ahead, so let’s stop there.”

We didn’t have one of those fancy silver devices, but the flat surface of the largest ice axe provided an adequate surface and we spread out 2 very generous lines. 

“Yaaa! I feel much better now!” exclaimed Dave as we gained a new sense of energy, and jammed up to the comfortable saddle between the two bells. An exposed, but very enjoyable scramble brought us to the friendly summit of North Maroon Peak. 

The day was still quite young, the weather was fine, and the mountain was empty, so we enjoyed a brief break and savored the spectacular view and the nirvana of finishing a great route. The summit was hard to leave, but we were starting to get a bit hungry and the descent route was easy, so we rushed back to the luxurious mountain town and enjoyed a gourmet dinner with fine wine at the Chart House. 

We awoke refreshed with a great new attitude, and I never did Coke again.   

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