Part of the fun of alpinism comes from knowing its history. Climbing and skiing are both very well-documented, and the stories create a timeline in sport that might be unrivaled by anything except baseball, with its legions of devoted statisticians.
The year 1971 proved to be a landmark year for ski mountaineering in the United States. While skiers in Europe had been pursuing bold descents for over a decade, the U.S. hadn't really seen anything too dramatic. That changed in 1971, with the first ski descents of the Grand Teton by Bill Briggs and North Maroon Peak by Fritz Stammberger.
Stammberger was a German who moved to Aspen in the 1960s. He skied from 24,000 feet on Cho Oyu, an 8000 meter peak, and he started making difficult ski descents in the Elk Mountains soon after arriving. The descent of North Maroon Peak however, was in another league.
The Maroon Bells are one of Colorado's iconic visages. From afar, they are stunning in their beauty. Up close, they more closely resemble Steve Komito's description of Utah's Standing Rock as "layers of Rye Crisp held together by bands of moistened kitty litter." The poor rock can make for extremely difficult climbing and rockfall danger. The North Face of North Maroon Peak is steep, with sections up to 50 degrees, and broken up by three small cliff bands, including the Punk Rock Band near the summit and Miners Ski Jump lower on the face, named after Ted Miners, who fell several hundred feet on an attempted descent of the North Face (he survived).
Stammberger made the first descent on June 24. His line included a 15-foot cliff jump near the summit. He didn't use any ropes on his descent. The line was so bold it was almost too revolutionary for the time.
Even with modern gear, the North Face of North Maroon is a challenging descent. Chris Davenport, in his project of skiing the 14ers in one year, describes it as "a serious undertaking."
The North Face will continue to inspire ski mountaineers for generations. If you give it a go, try to remember Fritz Stammberger, and think about standing at the top in old gear from 1971.
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