North Maroon Peak Panorama
North Maroon Peak Panorama, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado
One of the great joys of reaching the summit of a Fourteener is the feeling that you can see forever. On some summits, a handful of rugged, neighboring peaks dominate the view. On others it seems like no single photograph, with its conventional 3:2 ratio of width to height, can adequately convey the immense sweep of mountains marching across the skyline. Those summits cry out for a wide, panoramic view stretching across 180, 270, even 360 degrees. North Maroon Peak's location at the epicenter of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness makes it one of the three peaks in Colorado best suited to shooting an ultra-wide panorama. Not coincidentally, North Maroon Peak is also one of the toughest Fourteeners in the state, with a reputation for loose blocks, intricate route-finding, and steep, exposed scrambling. It's also a long haul from the trailhead at Maroon Lake at 9,560 feet. A year earlier, using a monocular from Buckskin Pass, I had spotted what looked like a campsite at 11,500 feet at timberline on North Maroon. I decided to shorten my summit "day" (actually, night) by hiking in and camping there.
After shooting sunrise at Maroon Lake, I labored up the steep, wet, nasty approach route and was delighted to find a tiny but perfect campsite in the highest trees. The mid-July weather was idyllic, so I decided to climb the peak that afternoon, without camera gear, to scout the route. The route proved to be beautiful, with tiny alpine flowers gracing the green patches of tundra. True, the route-finding was intricate and exposed on the summit ridge, but most of the loose blocks had been trundled off the route by generations of passing climbers. I summited in just 2 1/2 hours, descended even faster and was in bed by 6 pm with the alarms set for midnight.
For this climb, I had decided to bring a secret weapon: an old Petzl Zoom headlamp that could throw a usable beam of light for 300 feet. True, it was driven by a six-volt battery that lasted only six hours and weighed nearly a third of a pound all by itself. The weight and short battery life, which made it essential to carry at least one spare battery, had caused me to replace my Zoom years earlier with a lighter, more efficient, but dimmer LED-style headlamp whose beam only penetrated 20 or 30 feet into the surrounding darkness. For this climb, though, I decided that the ability to see farther in difficult terrain was worth the extra weight, so I dug out the Zoom and a couple of old batteries and stowed them in my pack. I did notice that the batteries were several years past expiration, but they seemed bright enough when I tested them in a dark room. I figured I might lose an hour or two of battery life, but no more.
Just half an hour into my midnight adventure, however, the first battery died. I had gotten no more than two hours of light from it. I had figured it could take four hours to climb the peak in the dark with full camera gear. If the second battery lasted no longer than the first, I might still be an hour and a half below the summit when I ran out of light. I would miss sunrise for sure, and all my hard work would be for naught.
I had timed the trip for full moon, but the moon was hidden behind a high ridge. I tried hiking without the headlamp but kept tripping over unseen roots and rocks. I turned the headlamp back on and turned up my pace. The great headlamp race had begun. Now my knowledge of the route and daily training regime paid off. Working hard, I motored up the first gully and traversed on a spectacular catwalk into the second. As the gully steepened, I slowed down and became more methodical. With the headlamp still shining brightly, I was able to re-locate the correct route through the cliff bands at the top of the second gully and was soon on the summit ridge. One more crux remained: the steep exit from a fourth-class chimney, but soon it too was below me. I reached the summit two hours and 50 minutes after leaving camp ‒ just 20 minutes longer than it had taken me in daylight with 17 pounds less camera gear.
I arrived long before sunrise, when only moonlight illuminated the grand spectacle of jagged peaks in every direction. As the sun rose I shot three 360-degree panoramas, then a series of single-frame images of the peaks around me. An hour after sunrise, I reluctantly concluded I had captured all the good images available that morning and headed down. I had won the great headlamp race. Much more importantly, I had experienced ‒ and photographed ‒ sunrise at the apex of one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the nation.