Only a Memory Remains

The Maroon Bells near Aspen in Colorado mirror in Maroon Lake at sunrise. The deep red sunlit peaks of the 4,315 m (14,157 feet) and 4,270 m (14,009 feet) high Maroon Bells are only 500 m (1,640 feet) apart.

They consist of reddish mud and sandstones that already formed a high mountain range more than 300 million years ago; the Uncompahgre Mountains. “Uncompahgre” is a Ute Indian word meaning “rocks that color water red” and thus describes these mountains quite literally. The red coloring of the rocks is caused by ferric oxide. Maroon Lake is located at an altitude of 2,920 m (9,580 feet) and was formed as a result of a landslide on the steep mountain slopes which caused a rockfall. This caused the melt water of Maroon Creek to accumulate on the valley floor to form the lake. The valley floor itself was scoured out by the glaciers of the last ice age. These glaciers also formed the distinctive shape of the Maroon Bells. Aspen, spruce and firs surround the lake and on its shores, the impressively large Cow Parsnip (Heracleum sphondylium) is blooming in summer.

The geological history of the rocks that form the Maroon Bells dates back to the Carboniferous more than 350 million years ago. With the closure of the Iapetus Ocean, the vanished ocean where the Atlantic Ocean now extends, a humongous continental collision occurred between the two major continents of Laurentia (combining North America, Europe and Asia) and Gondwana (combining South America, Africa, Australia, India and Antarctica). As a result, all land masses joined together to form a supercontinent called Pangaea. Along the collision suture, endless mountain ranges developed, comparable to today’s Himalayas. The collision compressed the continental crust by more than 100 km (62 miles), thickened it accordingly, shifted whole landscapes sideways against each other, and stacked them on top of each other. In what is now North America, this collision also resulted in the uplifting of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. This mountain range, which has long since been eroded, dissected into numerous mountain chains, one of which formed the Uncompahgre Mountains. These mountains stretched from today’s New Mexico across Colorado to Utah.

The landscape of North America must have been spectacular at that time. While the primordial Pacific Ocean, the Panthalassa, stretched to the west, the Absaroka Shelf Sea covered large parts of the North American continent about 310 million years ago. This shallow inland sea flooded a former karst landscape consisting of limestone and dolomite, which was formed 350 million years ago. Numerous caves, caverns and sinkholes characterized this landscape. The enduring contact of these rocks with the seawater caused a profound weathering into a deep red, muddy sediment. From these red sediments and the underlying sandstones and granites, countless islands and rugged mountain ranges were uplifted out of the sea by the powerful collision that created the supercontinent Pangaea. These varied landscapes of seas, beaches, tidal areas with river deltas, islands and mountains offered a plethora of animal and plant species ideal living conditions. In addition, massive carbonate limestones and salt sediments were formed in the shallow sea as the seawater evaporated in the increasingly tropical-hot climate of the Permian period. Accordingly, the sediments formed a chaotic sequence of limestone, dolomite, coarse to fine-grained sands, mud and unsorted boulders.

During the Permian and Triassic periods 300 to 200 million years ago, coinciding with the rise of the dinosaurs, the Absaroka Sea retreated from the continent due to sinking sea levels, while the Uncompahgre Mountains were slowly eroded. Wind and weather turned the red rock into clay, silt and sandstones, which were deposited as the Cutler Formation with a thickness of up to 3,700 m (12,140 feet). These rock series are the weathering products of feldspar-bearing rocks. In most cases, the feldspars are transformed relatively quickly into clay minerals through chemical weathering. However, if the feldspar remains in the sediment, this indicates a short transportation distance through rivers and a high accumulation rate of the sediment. This indicates erosion of a high mountain range. In addition, the grain size of the sandstone is only moderately sorted and the grains are poorly rounded.

The low percentage of fossils further indicates an increasingly continental deposition in a desert climate, which additionally favors the slow chemical weathering of the feldspars. The long burial of these loose sediments at depth caused them to solidify into the rock of the Cutler Formation. These red rocks, which are very widespread in the southwest of the USA, have been given many different regional names and form many famous rock formations, among them Monument Valley.

When the modern Rocky Mountains were uplifted by the Laramidian orogeny 80 to 40 million years ago, the ancient sediments of the Cutler Formation were tectonically reactivated and folded to form parts of the Rockies. In the area of the Maroon Bells, the deep-red layers of the mudstones were uplifted. In addition, they were partly heated during the contact with granitic magma intrusions and hardened significantly. In contrast, volcanic fluids altered the mudstones chemically. This caused a change in color to a grayish red as well as a destabilization of the rock. This is why the Maroon Bells are notorious among mountaineers for their brittle rocks that can trigger treacherous rockfall.

The red light at sunrise illuminates the rocks of the Maroon Bells for a short moment to revive their original red splendor. The characteristic shape of the Maroon Bells is a unique sight, but who knows how magnificent these rocks were 300 million years ago when they formed the Uncompahgre Mountains.

July 2016
Canon 5DMkII, Canon L 16-35 mm @ 20 mm, f/22, 1/2 to 1/30 seconds, 5792x8688 pixels, 50 megapixels, ISO 100, Manfrotto 055B tripod with Manfrotto 410 3D geared head
Rocky Mountains Gallery » Only a Memory Remains