Posted by: joshrduncan | August 25, 2012

2012-07-21 Pyramid Peak

“It is to conquer fear that one becomes a climber. The climber experiences life to its extreme limits. A climber is not a crazy man. He is not trying to get himself killed. He knows what life is worth. He is in love with living.”  – Walter Bonatti

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,018 feet
  • TRAILHEAD: Maroon Lake
  • ROUTE: Northeast Ridge
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 4,500 feet
  • ROUND-TRIP LENGTH: 8.5 miles
  • ROUND-TRIP TIME:  9.0 hours
  • CLIMBING PARTNER(S):  Britton

Pyramid Peak is a truly formidable mountain.  The treacherous mountain is considered the 3rd most difficult 14er to climb.  It is a deceptive peak known for its unforgiving loose rock, its rotten nature, its high exposure, its vertical steepness and its introductory technical moves.  Pyramid Peak demands preparation, experience and respect.  A sign, classic to the climbing community, situated at the beginning of the trail reminds us of the danger that truly lies ahead. This mountain was my greatest undertaking to date.

Situated in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, Pyramid Peak rises slightly above fourteen thousand feet to an elevation of 14,018 feet.  Of Colorado’s 58 14ers, it is ranked as the 51st highest.  What this mountain lacks in its height ranking, it makes up for in its attitude and boldness.  The peak derives its name from the distinguishing profile.

The planned accent to the summit was the Northeast Route, which is the standard route.  To successfully reach the summit, the standard route would require us to travel four miles (eight miles roundtrip) and overcome approximately 4,500 vertical feet of elevation gain.  This was a short, steep hike and climb.  In fact, the peak’s summit rises 4,000 feet above Crater Lake to the northwest in only 1.2 miles, and 4,400 feet above East Maroon Creek to the east of the peak in the same horizontal distance.

The standard route is also given a Class IV designation.  The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) describes Class IV as a climb that involves short steep sections where the use of a rope is recommended, and un-roped falls could be fatal.  There was no avoiding the Class IV route on Pyramid Peak.

Considering Pyramid Peak was the most technical mountain I was about to attempt, I had deep anxiety going into this climb.  I know I have previously talked about the stress of a climb, but this mountain was different.  I was fearful for my safety and ultimately my life.  I state it boldly and bluntly because that was the honest feeling I had.  This mountain was straight up frightening in comparison to my other climbs.  When researching this mountain, my hands would sweat as I looked at the pictures and read the description of the climb.  I don’t know if other climbers feel this emotion before entering into a grueling climb; but I can’t imagine that I am alone.

Now with the worry also came excitement.  It was amazing how polar opposite those emotions were but for some reason I felt them both so strongly going into this climb.  I was excited at the thought of even attempting Pyramid Peak.  I was excited to challenge myself on the most technical and difficult mountain to date. I was excited at the idea of being successful.  The enthusiasm and excitement I felt provided a good countermeasure to the anxiety.

I have known friends and other climbers that have found this peak to be very difficult to overcome because all of the factors have to be just right.  Good weather, good conditioning, good mental preparedness, good experience and a little bit of good luck make this peak attainable.  I went into this climb telling myself that the most important thing was returning to the car safely.  If I didn’t feel comfortable or confident to continue on, I would be willing to call it a day.  I hoped that all the factors would align.

I recruited my friend Britton for this climb.  To be honest, climbing with Britton gave me a greater level of comfort.  He had sound technical climbing experience, was methodical, safe and considerate.  He was the ideal climbing partner.  I had previously climbed the Northwest Ridge of Mount Lindsey with Britton and his amazing wife Jax.  This was a picture from our climb of Mt. Lindsey.

Without going into too much detail, this climb was for Jax.  She taught me how to live, and I mean live, while going through great tribulation.  She exemplified love, perseverance, strength, humor and hope.  She was an example of what it meant to fight and to maintain all of those characteristics so strongly while fighting.  I highly recommend one read about her beautiful life at http://www.mylifeline.org/Jax.  I was grateful to set foot on another mountain with Britton.

Britton and I headed up to Aspen after work on Friday.  We spent more time focused on planning for the climb and studying the route that neither of us really knew what we were going to do once we got to the trailhead. We figured we were going to be spontaneous since we didn’t have a plan.  We just assumed that we would figure out the details once we got there.

We arrived at the trailhead around 10:00 pm.  The lower parking lot available for overnight parking was full due to all of the backpackers who were camping; therefore, the gate was closed.  We drove up to the upper parking lot, which is  available for day parking, and found approximately five other vehicles with climbers.  Each set of climbers were either preparing for the next day ahead of them or getting ready to car camp.   With no other options, we decided to join the party and car camp.  Britton and I assembled our backpacks for the following morning and prepared to car camp.  After my last experience at Castle and Conundrum Peaks, I was hoping for no porcupines!

We woke up at 3:00 am to begin our day.  I actually slept well throughout the entire night. I was pleasantly surprised.  Britton unfortunately didn’t have the same fortunes.  Nonetheless, we began to mobilize for the day ahead.

As we prepared for the hike, I thought I observed lightning to the west of the Maroon Bells.  The weather forecast for the day was not ideal as it predicted a 60% chance of thunderstorms after noon.  The sky above us was clear and so my first inclination was that I was seeing things.  But I witnessed at least three different lightning strikes.  The lightning creating a silhouette of the Bells was amazing; however, freakish.  I knew that it was lightning because all of a sudden the Maroon Bells had clouds over the summit.  Seeing this didn’t instill a lot of hope for success that day.  I figured we would be forced off the mountain before 8:00 am due to the weather.  Although not too far away, it wasn’t going to keep us from at least trying!

We began our ascent at 4:00 am.  The initial portion of the trail was along the Crater Lake trail.  It was a well-defined path.  The beginning portion passes along the right bank of Maroon Lake.  During daylight, this location provide the signature view of the Maroon Bells; it delivers the most photographed view of Colorado.  Britton and I focused on the signs at the beginning of the trail because on a previous climb of the Maroon Bells, Britton accidently found himself on the “Scenic Trail Loop” instead of the “Crater Lake Trail” and he didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.  After a little searching, we found the trail marker and were on our way.

Finding the right trail was the easy part of our start.  Soon we were traveling along the Crater Lake Trail.  According to the trip reports, a large cairn at approximately 10,200 feet identified the trail junction for Pyramid Peak.  Because Pyramid Peak was not climbed as often as the other mountains, the trail leading to it was not as easy to locate in the basin.  Like so many climbers before us, we unknowingly passed the cairn for Pyramid Peak along the trail from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake.  We observed some headlights on our left heading up the trail from the valley but we thought it was too soon.  It wasn’t until we reached the junction with Snowmass Trail that we had realized our mistake and that we had missed the turnoff.  We  had to retrace our path and the mistake cost us about 20 minutes.  Coming from the other way, the cairn was easy to locate.

Now that we were on the path, we headed towards Pyramid Peak along the flat, rocky valley floor of Maroon Creek. We quickly ran into the next common issue on this climb and that was finding the route.  The trail was really difficult to follow in the dark of the night.  At points, it would seem as though there were two or three separate trails.  We would begin down one and then realize it wasn’t a trail.  It took a little bit of patience and perseverance to find the correct path.

Once through the valley floor, the trail again became easy to follow and the need for route finding was eliminated (for now).  The next section was to ascend from the Maroon Creek valley towards the amphitheater and the base of Pyramid Peak.  This segment was a 1,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and the location of where we had seen the two headlights earlier in the morning.  This portion of trail was well intact and traversed back and forth.  According to 14ers.com, this area was where the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) made improvements.  They did an awesome job.  In areas of talus, CFI had strategically placed boulders as steps, almost like a staircase.  Nice work and thank you for your continued protection of the trails we all love.

We arrived at the entrance of the amphitheater (11,400 feet) at approximately 5:45 am.  Light was beginning to awake the valley floor and mountains.  We were starting to see Pyramid Peak come to life.

From the cairns, we continued into the amphitheater along the right side of a large rock glacier.  There really wasn’t a trail along the lower portion of this segment.  We could hear the sound of water flowing underground as we made our way towards the North Face of Pyramid Peak.

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At the base of Pyramid Peaks North Face and within the amphitheater, the mountain was truly menacing.  It literally felt as though it was towering over me.  There was a large snow field still present at the base of Pyramid Peak.  It was littered with rocks that had fallen from the steep North Face.  Later in the day on our descent, we observed rock slides as the mountain thawed in the summer heat.  The rocks would impact the snow and the snow would erupt from the impact.

We headed east over the talus field of sharp rocks below the snow field.  We were now approaching the two climbers whose headlights we observed earlier in the distance.  They were taking a short break at the based on the steep slope that leads up to Pyramid’s Northeast Ridge.  As we approached near them, they continued their ascent.

We also took a short break at the base of the steep slope.  This was a logical place because from this point forward, it was going to be very steep and extremely loose.  We fueled up and strapped on our helmets.

At 6:30 am and approximately an elevation of 11,950 feet we began our ascent up the steep slope towards the Northeast Ridge. There was a trail the entire way up this steep slope.  However, there are areas that were loose and covered with scree.   I felt the beginning portion of this climb to be the worse because it was covered with loose scree.  It appeared that all of the small boulders that have come down the mountain congregated at the base.  I lead us up the left side along some cliff bands because I found this to be the better hiking terrain.  It didn’t take long to ascend the 1,000 vertical feet and reach the saddle of the Northeast Ridge.

From the saddle, portions of the remaining climb were visible, including the terrain near the summit.  From this vantage point, Pyramid Peak was beautiful and intimidating.  I was also delighted in the breathtaking views of the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Peak and Capitol Peak.  The view up high in the Elk Mountains continues to be one of my favorite views.

By the way, the weather was holding.  I had previously mentioned that the weather did not appear to be optimistic.  At this point I found myself pleasantly relieved that the clouds and lightning I witnessed at 3:00 am never affected us and never materialized into something greater.  The skies currently had some small clouds in it and I felt as though the weather was likely going to cooperate for a summit bid. However, although it appeared to be holding, I felt like the weather could eventually materialize into some thunderstorms.

In my opinion, the saddle was the location where one needs to fully assess all of the conditions prior to moving forward.  The summit felt within reaching distance at this point but the remaining portion was arduous and slow moving.  Bill Middlebrooks on 14ers.com states “From this point, the route has plenty of Class 3 and Class 4 climbing.  The hiking is over.”

We decided to move forward.  The time was now 7:25 am and we began our final push.  This was the moment.  This was where the fears and excitement that lead into the climb would come together on the mountain.  Amazingly, I was experiencing both feelings but the excitement was overcoming the fear.

The initial part of the ascent took us along a trail that led around the right side of a gendarme and over to another saddle.  Throughout most of the year a snow cornice tends to exist here but it was completely dry during our climb. At this point we caught up to the two climbers ahead of us and a third climber that we hadn’t seen up to this point (we were not sure where he came from).  The two in front of us were moving a little slower as they navigated the route attempting to discover the correct path.  We had the benefit of following their lead but now we were all together and there didn’t appear to be a clear route.  At this point, I pulled out the printout from 14ers.com and we used it for navigation.  Despite how thorough and complete the description and pictures were, it still was a struggle.  Pyramid Peak and its partners in crime, the Maroon Bells, were well known for how difficult the route finding was.  I was getting a real dosage of it now.

We ended up finding some helpful cairns to now guide us up the mountain.  The standard route actually takes one off of the ridge proper.  Below the ridge, we followed the cairns over a couple of small rock ribs and reached a narrow ledge.  Prior to entering onto the narrow ledge, we had to overcome the “Leap of Faith”.  The “Leap of Faith” consisted of a 3 to 4 foot jump over a gulley and from one ledge to another.  I would describe it as jumping across a crevasse.  To be honest, one could bypass the “Leap of Faith” but what would be the fun in that.  In addition, I am all about faith.  I tend to leap into it head first.  So, Britton lead us across this as I wanted to get a good action shoot.  I estimated the vertical height of a fall was approximately 30 feet.   However, a fall here would not have been good because after the initial 30 vertical feet was an extremely steep slope that one wouldn’t stop for hundreds of additional feet.  I wasn’t planning on testing if my assessment was correct.  We both made it successfully across it and I liked my action shot of Britton jumping it.  The “Leap of Faith” can definitely be overstated but I enjoyed this component of the mountain as it was unlike anything I had ever had to overcome on a mountain.

Successfully crossing the “Leap of Faith”, we now tackled the narrow ledge, often called the “cliff traverse”.  It continues above the steep terrain.  The ledge narrows to only about a foot wide with the rock protruding.  It was not difficult but required caution.

From the ledge, we followed cairns and a defined path.  This was the one segment of the final ascent where route finding didn’t seem to be an issue.  It wasn’t long before we encountered the first major pitch called “The Green Wall”.

The Green Wall was a steep wall of light-colored rock.  The Green Wall was a distinguishable layer of rock leading up the mountain.  Britton and I waited for the two rock climbers that were slightly ahead of us to get the majority of the way up the Green Wall because rock-fall was a concern.  They had actually sent a couple baseball size rocks down the Green Wall so we were thankful that we decided to be patient.

Britton lead the way up the Green Wall. However, I found myself discovering my route and enjoying it.  At first, I was very comfortable with Britton leading us safely up the mountain. Now, I discovered I was confident in my climbing capabilities and enjoying my own route.  We ended up climbing adjacent to one another up the Green Wall.  I found this also to be a safe ascent method in the event we dislodged any rocks.  We avoided sending really anything down the Green Wall.  I really enjoyed this portion of the climb.

We exited the Green Wall once we saw a cairn to our left.  Don’t be deceived by this first cairn.  We actually discovered following this cairn lead us up a more difficult route.  We should have stayed along the Green Wall for about another 50 vertical feet before exiting.

After following the first cairn, the mountain just felt deceiving with all of its trails and what I felt were random cairns.  We would climb from one ledge to the next ledge.  The climb up required careful, methodical steps.  I would test each hold a couple different times before committing. This rock was rotten and required it. Once on the next ledge, we would have to assess it and collectively we would make a decision as to how to keep moving up the mountain.  With each ledge, it felt like we had to do another assessment.

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This portion of the climb also had a tremendous amount of exposure.  To go from one ledge up to the next ledge required solid Class IV climbing.  About 200 vertical feet from the summit I actually stated to worry.  I wasn’t worried about our ascent, I was worried about the descent.  I thought about how difficult it would be going down. The exposure was substantial.  To me, going down had always been harder; especially on steep material.  I vocalized my concern to Britton and he agreed that going down was going to be tough.

Despite the concern, we pushed forward towards the summit because going up was easier in my mind. Once we approached 13,900 feet, the slope eased near the summit.  At this point, we connected with a more defined route.  This was the first indication that we had gotten off track from the standard route.  Nonetheless, the summit was truly within our grasp.  As always, we were going to summit this together.

MAGNIFICENT and GLORIOUS! Those are the two words that I can find to best describe the summit.  We arrived at 8:45 am; approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes after we reached the saddle.  The view from this summit was like no other.  The feeling of this summit was like no other.   I had a sense of accomplishment like no other.  I was so grateful to God for a safe journey.  I once again thanked Him for a successful journey up, praised Him for the beauty He has created, and continued to ask for His protection down the mountain.

Britton and I shared this summit with the two other climbers who were just ahead of us.  This small summit was beautiful.  We were at the point of the pyramid where all the edges come to one point; the summit.  It was incredible.  The view of the Maroon Bells was awe-inspiring.

A signature part of this summit was the “diving board”.  It was a very small rock outcrop that overlooked the Maroon Creek valley.  The overlook is like no other. Although intimidating for someone who fears falling, the diving board was a must see and feel experience.  I happily placed my Fat Tire can on the edge of the diving board for this summit.  I also brought the newly released 16oz Fat Tire can (no the picture was not stretched).  I felt the bigger mountain in difficulty deserved the bigger Fat Tire can.

Since I am typically the one behind the camera, I also was lucky to have Britton photograph me on the diving board as proof of my summit success.  Thanks Britton for capturing this.

Here are a few more photos from the summit:

Although it would have been nice to spend hours on the summit, Britton and I wanted to keep moving as we were only halfway there.  We were still a little unsure of the weather and continued to question the likelihood that it may change soon.  We knew that it would be a slow, methodical descent and so we at least wanted to be back to the saddle.  We also wanted to begin the descent before the two guys we were sharing the summit with so that we didn’t have to worry about rockfall.  We spent less than 15 minutes on the summit and started the descent just before 9:00 am.

Shortly into our descent and just a little below the summit, we found a more defined path on the ridge that was different than the way we ascended.  We decided to take this path in lieu of our ascent route.  It proved to be a good decision. We found this route to be less technical than our ascent route.  There were fewer Class IV downclimb moves and I was able to complete the majority of them facing out.

We ended up arriving back to the saddle at approximately 10:10 am.   We spoke to a couple of climbers getting ready to make a summit push.  They told us of two climbers behind them that were slow moving and struggling.  They discussed how they felt as though the two other climbers may be overconfident in their abilities and not fully prepared for what was to come.  They encouraged us to just be honest with them regarding our experience.  If the two climbers appeared to be struggling as described, we figured we would talk with them.  We decided that we would at least just communicate our knowledge.  It wouldn’t be to dissuade them or tell them they weren’t capable.  I would want someone to just be honest with me.  I wouldn’t want someone to tell me whether I could or couldn’t do it.  Honestly, that decision was one that I would make.  I believe it was being responsible to a fellow climber.

When we ran into the two climbers, they were moving slow just as the other climbers had described.  They were wearing jeans and didn’t have helmets.  Britton and I were just honest with them.  We told them about the difficulty of the climb and the danger that lied ahead.  We also mentioned how thankful we were to have a helmet.  They mentioned they had decided to forgo the summit and just get up to the saddle.  I think they made a wise decision.

From there, the rest of the trip down was uneventful.  We made it back to the trailhead at 1:00 pm, 9 hours after we started from the exact location.  Although we were at the same spot, I had the memories of over 4,500 feet of vertical gain and the view from the summit of Pyramid Peak.  I had felt like I had conquered something great.  To be honest, I wanted more.

On our way home Britton and I had a great conversation.  I won’t recount all of the personal information but I did tell Britton that I was grateful to have climbed with him.  I was thankful he had joined me in the mountains.  I told him I felt Jax’s presence with him and I on the summit.  She was with him.  He told me that Jax was always with him.  He said, there was not a moment on that mountain where she was not the first thought on his mind.  When there was a difficult move that requires his complete focus, he would focus on the task for his safety; however, she was always in his heart.

There is so much more to climbing than just the climb….

The lessons learned from Pyramid Peak:

  • Climbing gives one an emotional complex.  There are not too many experiences in my life where I have felt both fear and excitement, panic and happiness, anxiety and complete exhilaration at the same time.  It was truly a rush.
  • I really enjoyed Class IV climbing.  The fear I had entering the climb was quickly overcome by the pleasure and fun I was having.  I quickly found myself leading us up the mountain and overwhelmed by what I was overcoming.

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