Sunday, September 07, 2008

Pyramid Peak (14,023 ft.)

28 August, 2008: We’d let two weeks lie fallow since our trip to Chicago Basin, and I was beginning to feel antsy about summer slipping away. I cast diligently about for something on the list of remaining peaks that Trisha and I needed to climb—almost all of them difficult—and decided that a return to the Elk Range would be in order. Beautiful, clear weather was forecast for the middle of the week. Also, Pyramid was as close as anything else, and the round trip mileage from the trailhead was only seven miles. Seven tough miles, but still doable as a day trip.
We left home at 1 am MDT, and arrived at the (paved!) Maroon Lake trailhead parking lot (9,600 ft.) at a quarter to five, just before dawn. The trail heads south along Maroon Creek for a bit over a mile, before reaching the leftward turn-off for Pyramid Peak. It’s not signed, and not prominently cairned either, and we might have missed it but for a neat piece of luck: At the trailhead, we met a young woman, Emmi, who is a professional mountain guide, and has done Pyramid many times. She found the turn-off, even though it was just barely dawn and stars were still visible above. (The moon was old, and a beautiful, slim crescent in the east.)
That was the easy part of the trip. From there, there is still a clear, maintained trail, but it immediately gets steep. It took about an hour and half for us to reach timberline. By that time, the sun had risen, illuminating the Maroon Bells behind us, but we remained in deep shadow.
At about timberline, the maintained trail gives way to a cairned route over rocks. The angle, to begin with, isn’t great, but it gradually increases as the route makes its way up what is known as the amphitheater, a huge concave basin below Pyramid’s impressive north face. Not only does the angle of your climb increase, so does the size of the rocks. It’s serious, ankle-wrenching work to climb east to where bare rock finally gives way to an even steeper scree and dirt slope leading, at long last, to the crest of Pyramid’s northeast ridge.
We finally got to the ridge, and emerged into brilliant sunshine, after 10 am. We stopped here (just about 13,000 ft.), took a rest, ate some food, and shed some clothing.
We had climbed 3,400 feet, and had only a smidgen over 1,000 feet to go, but the climb was far from over. In fact, the serious stuff was just beginning! From our perch on the ridge, you can look right up the northeast ridge and almost see Pyramid’s summit. But it’s no piece of cake: it would take us two more hours of climbing steep ledges, with real and serious exposure, to reach the top.
After bypassing one major ridge point on climber’s right (northwest), we drifted off the ridge crest to our left to make most of the climb on the east face. Various descriptions which I had read left quite a bit of doubt as to just where the simplest route to the summit actually lay, but they all agreed that staying somewhere left of the ridge was the best choice.
After free-lancing our way to the left, we finally consulted with some other climbers who were already descending, and decided that we had drifted too far off the ridge. We did some quick direct climbing, and re-connected with a fairly clear cairned route much closer to the ridge.
Following the cairns, we basically avoided the “green couloir,” but found a succession of good ledges leading steadily up. Finally, perhaps 100 feet below the summit, we actually moved to the right around a corner and found ourselves, once again, out on the northwest side (right side) of the ridge crest, with just one steep and exposed moves left to pop us out onto the actual summit ridge. From there, it was just a walk to the true summit.
We topped out just before 12:30—seven and a half hours after leaving the trailhead! However, the weather was holding, and we spent half an hour in the glorious sunshine at the summit. All five of the Elk Range’s other fourteeners can easily be seen from here, and we took quite a few pictures. In addition, I made a video of Trisha (and me) getting to the summit. It can be seen at:

This peak had lived up to its reputation as one of Colorado’s most difficult fourteeners. We knew it would still take some work to get back down, so we began our descent about 1 pm. We stuck closer to the ridge crest on the way down, and found that this was a sensible choice, well cairned and offering clear paths through all the steep steps which we had to negotiate.
The rocks of the amphitheater were just as annoying going down as going up, but we did have one trick up our collective sleeve: The sun had softened the snow still lingering in the middle of the basin, so we boot skied a good portion of the descent through this section. Not only did this save us a great deal of time, it was a lot easier on the ankles!
Largely as a result of this option, we made it back to the trailhead in just under five hours. This, despite the fact that we somehow missed the junction to our ascent route below the amphitheater and followed the old trail south almost to Crater Lake. This added a half mile or so to our return.
Still, tired and happy, we wandered back to the car just before 6 pm. Fourteener number 39 for me, number 37 for Trisha. Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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