Central Elk Mountains Backcountry Skiing - Chapter 8


Chapter 8 Central Elk Mountains

Chapter 8, Section 2, Maroon Creek

This section covers routes available from Maroon Creek Road.

See chapter intro for Roads and Trailheads

Route 8.2.1 Maroon Creek trail and road

Climb rating: Easy nordic wax or skate Ski rating: Novice, S1 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,236 feet Summit elevation: 9,590 feet Elevation gain: 1,354 feet Round trip distance: 14 miles Day trip? Yes Maps: Aspen West, Elks North West Photo: [in Aspen chapter collection, and one in this chapter collection]

The upper portion of Maroon Creek Road (see section introduction) is not plowed in winter. T-Lazy-7 Guest Ranch runs snowmobile tours in the winter using the unplowed road. Anyone can use their own snowmobile here, and the road is also a utilitarian ski route good for a weekday outing.

An alternative to the road is a trail following the other side of Maroon Creek. Find this trail by skiing up the snowcovered road from the ranch a few hundred feet, then cross a footbridge down and left over Maroon Creek. Once across the creek, the trail travels through a series of open meadows (avalanche runouts) and forests. You can follow this trail about 4 miles to East Maroon Creek. It actually goes all the way to Maroon Lake, but that section is not usually used in winter.

Both these routes up Maroon Creek Valley are threatened by natural releases, the road less so than the trail. Huge slides come down off Highland Ridge on the east side of the valley-several of these regularly cross the road. Farther upvalley, dangerous avalanches run over the road from the southeast side of Sievers Mountain. Only travel Maroon Creek Valley during times of lower avalanche hazard.

Route 8.2.2 East Maroon Creek to East Maroon Pass

Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: Advanced, S3 Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 8,236 feet Summit elevation: 11,820 feet Elevation gain: 3,700 feet One-way distance: 12 miles Day trip? Maps: Aspen West, Elks North West, Elks South West Photo: [one in Aspen chapter collection]

This interesting and tolerably safe trip forms half of a high route between Crested Butte and Aspen (see Chapter 11). From T-Lazy-7 (see section introduction) follow Maroon Creek Road 3 ½ miles to signs indicating East Maroon Creek. Leave the main road, and head east across a footbridge over Maroon Creek. Swing S and follow the trailcut (mostly distinct) leading up East Maroon Valley. Stay on the trail until you intersect a deep gully about 3 miles from the footbridge. Do not cross this gully (a relatively new mud slide). Instead, backtrack a few hundred feet, then drop down and cross East Maroon Creek. Head up the west side of the creek until you arrive at the border of dense conifer forest filling the south end of the valley at 10,200 feet (to arrive here you'll have passed through several other smaller forests).

At the big forest, cross the creek again (this is important), and find the old mule-trailcut (the summer trail) through forest on the east side of the valley. The mule trail follows a gradually climbing traverse around the east side of the valley, eventually leading to a marshy meadow (11,280 feet) just below the pass. At the meadow, head up and slightly left, using small stands of trees and several ribs as islands of safety through avalanche terrain. This route deviates from the summer trail, which cuts across several major avalanche paths. Reverse your route for return, or continue to the Crested Butte Area (Chapter 11).

Note that the first part of the East Maroon Trail is threatened by massive avalanches dropping from Highland Ridge. These can be avoided by starting up East Maroon Valley at the confluence of East Maroon Creek and Maroon Creek. Reach this point by simply following Maroon Creek Road farther up the valley, then crossing meadows to the confluence. Whatever route you chose, only ski East Maroon Creek during times of lower avalanche danger.

Route 8.2.3 Hunter Peak from East Maroon Creek

Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snowclimb Ski rating: Extreme, S5- Recommended seasons: Spring snow season Starting elevation: 8,236 feet Summit elevation: 13,497 feet Elevation gain: 5,261 feet Round trip distance: 20 miles Day trip? No Map: Elks North West, Elks South West Photo: [In Aspen chapter collection]

While remote and problematic, a summit descent from Hunter Peak is nonetheless one of the Elk's finest adventures. This is a long trip. If you're tough, shoulder your pack at T-Lazy-7 and spend a few days making a high camp in East Maroon Creek, then nailing Hunter. With creaky knees, consider waiting for the road to open or use a snowmobile for the approach while the road is still snowcovered.

Whatever your choice in approach mode, travel Maroon Creek Road to East Maroon Creek, then ski up the East Maroon Creek trail (see route 8.2.1) to 9,740 feet. Read your map with care. Leave the valley, then climb an impressive drainage and cirque easterly to Hunter Peak's north summit ridge (a.k.a. Highland Ridge, see route 7.2.5). Follow the ridge to the summit, and when appropriate wander climber's right onto a huge snow face that drops north from the summit. Descend your ascent route, possibly using the summit snow face. Only travel this route during times of lowest avalanche hazard.

Route 8.2.4 West Maroon Creek to Schofield Park

Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots Ski rating: Advanced, S3 Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 8,236 feet Summit elevation: 12,450 feet Elevation gain: 4,214 feet One-way distance: 12 miles Day trip? No Maps: Elks North West, USGS Maroon Bells and Snowmass Mtn. Photo: [ refer to Maroon Creek high angle shot]

This challenging route passes under the Elk's most awe-inspiring mountain walls, at the feet of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells. That also means avalanche danger on this route is severe; thus, it's only recommended as a connection for high routes developed by creative glisse alpinists, or as a spring skiing sojourn with a compacted and safe spring snowpack. Indeed, unlike many of the Elk's wind-scoured passes, West Maroon Pass often sits atop a scary and unavoidable pillow of unstable snow.

Most of this route is obvious, though a bit of map study is always a good idea. Follow Maroon Creek Road to Maroon Lake (see section introduction and route 8.2.1 ). Take the pack trail around the west side of Maroon Lake, then up to Crater Lake. Past Crater Lake it's not necessary to follow the exact pack trail; you'll be in open terrain where you can pick the best over-snow route. Once you break timberline, swing slightly W, then climb the huge basin to West Maroon Pass. The actual pass summit is somewhat prosaic and easily mistaken for other saddles on the rim of the basin. Read your map with care. Only travel this route during times of lowest avalanche hazard.

Route 8.2.5 Willow Creek-Willow Lake

Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: Advanced, S2+ Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 8,236 feet Summit elevation: 11,795 feet Elevation gain: 3,559 Round trip distance: 14 miles Day trip? Depends on goal Maps: Aspen West, Snowmass Resort Photo: [no photo]

Though rarely traveled in winter, Willow Creek is sometimes used as egress from the higher descents off Baldy Ridge behind Snowmass Resort (see route 6.1.10). Doing so is problematic, since much of lower Willow Creek is choked with brush and deadfall, and any passable trail (should it exist) is tough to find. From the bottom, Willow Creek is a challenging tour in its own right, made more so by the best access being shut off by private land at T-Lazy-7 ranch. Whether you take Willow Creek from the top or bottom, the key is to skirt T-Lazy-7's private property. This is best done by staying above the legal wilderness boundary as long as possible by using terrain to the south of Willow Creek down to 8,420 feet elevation. Skirt S around a shoulder here, maintaining your altitude to stay above private land. When it looks appropriate, drop to Maroon Creek Road.