Where's the motivation?
Here in Colorado, we’re a bit spoiled. We have 54+ peaks over the fortnight mark and if that doesn’t quite satiate ones appetite for altitude, there are well over 580 various other peaks and parapets over the 13,000 hurdle. If asked to pick only one, a favorite one might say, among such an overwhelming buffet of granite, sedimentation and basaltic choices, no mean feat mind you, well, it may take a while to narrow those choices down. After years of greedy second helpings and thirds like running amok at Furr’s Cafeteria, distilling down what my favorite would not encompass (I’d skip the mashed potatoes and go for the sirloin), I can solidly say that Pyramid Peak, located in the Elk Mountains of central Colorado holds the preverbal blue ribbon.
I have absolutely no problem with loose rock or choss. Most of the time, I actually enjoy it for all the demanding agility and balance it requires; without twisting an ankle like taffy or sending a cavalcade of dinner-plate rock down on fellow climbers’ heads like some scene out of a Roadrunner/Wiley E. Coyote cartoon. It’s an absolute thrill when all 8-cyl. are firing to be in such unison with the mountain as to dance with it: parquets, leaps & jumps, staccato waltzing, a bow here, a curtsey there and knowing for that particular time and place, hooves are overrated. All one needs are a good pair of Asolo’s.
Even if the marmots nip at one’s laces or the toe covering’s become marked up like a 125,000 mile front bumper of a 1987 Tacoma, tis a small price to pay for a perfect afternoon’s alpine ballet. Plus, without the continuous threat of injury or harm, the nature of the climb is radically changed and diminished. Having the knowledge that at any time, one may be the ‘unwilling and involuntary’ recipient of gravity (as if we had a choice!), somehow makes the climb/scramble that much more enticing.
It’s like going in ‘Breton’ first into a bowl of foie gras vs. braving a crème brule while it’s still good and pissed off. I’d rather brave the tongue to the flame, so to speak! So, since winter has been hanging out up in Alaska and Canada lately, I couldn’t think of a better time to attempt Pyramid Peak and possibly the Maroon Bells. Before that is, winter fixes his calendar and heads our way much to skiers’ delight and commuter’s demise.
I headed up Maroon Lake Road Friday morning at leisure. The road by the way is closed at the Lazy-T Ranch by a conveniently placed snow berm. The road is packed down so that the ranch can run snowmobile tours up to the lake. Surprisingly, there are only a few inches of snow on the road and easily walked in tennis shoes. Note to self, next time; bring an iPod or a midget to keep yourself entertained.
I set up camp near the turnoff for Pyramid Peak (marked by way of a large cairn), stomped out a large UFO landing site and made a few social trails. I proceeded to track straight towards Pyramid’s upper north bowl through dry, thigh deep, unconsolidated powder as quietly and gently as I could muster. The slope did get a little sketch. At one point on the slope that was uncomfortably barren, I managed to set off a good crack in the powder that jarred my eyebrows up into my hat where they almost became irretrievable in the knit.
The same conditions actually, that ‘we’ would find the following afternoon as we trailed up towards North Maroon. Wheezing too much like Hank Williams, I gave up trying to go quietly & gently and just rambled upslope blindly going from tree to tree until I was satisfied with my progress and perch. I decided that the north amphitheater was out as a viable route at that point. Satisfied with my poking around and scouting for the day, I retreated back to camp where I had a hot meal and coffee eventually waiting for me. Tomorrow, I’d snoop around Crater Lake and gander at Pyramid’s West Ribs/Face for what would probably be the safest route anyway. Come winter, my philosophy is leave nothing to chance.
The Next Day...Sarah, Dwight Sunwall and John Prater, Sarah confirmed that indeed, the wind predictions had been elevated overnight. It was a great and happy reunion of friends in what couldn’t have been a better place. So naturally enough, I did 180˚ and hiked right back up towards Crater Lake for a Sunday attempt on Pyramid. So now, where did I leave my motivation again? Oh, yeah, my friends brought it!
To be honest, regarding Pyramid, I had initially made the mountain to be harder than what it was. It turned out to be easier than what I expected. Though John assured all of us last March on his last attempt, when the whole of the West Maroon Valley was under a heavy coating of sugar, it was more difficult. In general, the climb was consistent mixed 3rd class with two-three pitches of mixed 4th class plus one repel for good measure. The snow…wasn’t exactly ideal. Though for early season, I wouldn’t expect anything other (thanks for the harness, Dom!)
We started up a small and tight gully that had avalanched sometime recently cramponing up excellent snow. Of course, our white ribbon would eventually end and much to Sarah’s delight, we opted for the class-2 talus slopes that would eventually lead us to the Northwest Ridge. The narrow couloir acted like a vertical drawbridge providing easy access through the lower cliff bands.
While slugging it out on these class-2 talus slopes, there really isn’t much one can do on this type of terrain except to lower one’s head and place one foot in front of the other; note to self. Next time, bring an iPod or midget to keep oneself entertained. From talking to Steve the previous year about this route, I was half-expecting some good, challenging 3rd class mixed rock ribs; but since John had traversed this before, we all followed the piper.
It was solidly nice to be back on the Northwest Ridge again. It’s a route that in my mind is Pyramid’s best through-fare, only slightly ahead of the connecting ridge to Thunder Pyramid in terms of overall enjoyment.
The Northwest Ridge, similar in stature to its brother, the Northeast Ridge (standard), is a bit of a taxonomic misnomer. While climbing and scrambling this route, one is on the actual ridge for no longer than it takes to shoo away a fly. 98% of this route encompasses traverses and climbs on the west face. The route, not to gainsaid is as loose, though more so than its doppelganger, but is delightfully ill-cairned. The snow on the route added some welcomed spice like salt does to dark chocolate despite its’ overwhelmingly dry consistency. In my book, having to be more aware and adaptable to the environs, rewards the traveler with a greater sense of accomplishment vs. mindless lead-footing.
Dwight and I climbed interspersed. We continued traversing and gingerly climbed loose rock and snow on broken rungs of some amorphous ladder. The scrambling is never really difficult, just consistent with consistent exposure (but manageable). Instead of traversing the whole upper west-face amphitheater to the south end of the summit ridge, John opted for an alternate 4th class mixed chimney which led to some good, small ledges which in turn, granted access to the summit ridge. I really liked this alternate route.
A few minutes later, the five of us stood on the snowy summit, refreshed, relaxed, elated and talking eagerly. We stayed for a respectable 20-30 minutes or so before following Dwight back down. The descent was straight-forward because of our tracks. Back at the headwall, Dominic and Sarah were rappelling. Since I didn’t have a harness, I took my coat and gloves off, stripping to basically down climb.
But then Dominic jugged up his harness for me to use. Sweet! The five of us made way for camp. We elected not to attempt the Maroon Bells in lieu of the snow and overall time commitment plus, try as we may, a good, hot BBQ just can’t be argued or bartered with.
Pyramid Peak was in my opinion, an absolutely wonderful and great winter 14er. It’s a good, solid peak with exceptional 3rd class mixed climbing with nowhere near the exposure found on the Maroon Bells or Capitol Peak.
It’s a winter climb that I wouldn’t mind repeating.