Intro/Stats"Lightning Pyramid" (13722')
10 miles RT, 4400' gain
Via West Couloir
April 29, 2012
Participants: Darin and Kevin Baker (No, we're not brothers)
It's been a strange year for snow climbs in Colorado coming off one of the driest winters in years throughout the state. In general, the snow pack has matured sooner than normal allowing for snow climbs in April, which is usually a bit early. I was looking for my 4th of the month and Darin was game. Late in the week, I found out from my talented cousin Jeremy Collins that he was doing a premier of a new adventure short film at the 5 Points Festival in Carbondale. Darin suggests we take another shot at Lightning Pyramid the next day. I'm game!
Darin and I have a history with Lightning Pyramid. Back in 2007, we took at shot at Thunder and Lightning with our friend Sam. Sam took a nasty fall when both his hands and feet blew out on him on an exposed rock rib just right of the west couloir on Lightning. In 2009, we returned with Pete K and took the wrong fork in the White couloir on Thunder. We ended up on the wrong ridge and had to do some loose low 5th class climbing to gain the summit. Our plan was to run the exposed, loose ridge over to Lightning, but we were a bit frazzled. There is a "chicken exit" on this ridge, but a huge snow bridge was a show stopper. I guess we're 0 for 2, which I don't do too often on 13ers!
We were Thunder Struck! Looking up the south ridge of Thunder 3 years later:
1 for 3?
An April ascent of Lightning is usually a huge effort as the road to Maroon Lake is usually not plowed this early. This year it's as dry as a bone and there's no snow on the trail for a good mile or so! Darin and I arrive at the usual car camping spot at around 11:30. We only have time for a catnap. I feel like I've taken Ambien sleeping pills and sleep hard! We're back up a few hours later and set off at 4:20. I'm pumped, but we're still apprehensive about conditions. I have the AC/DC song "Thunderstruck"
in my head, a fitting song for such imposing looking peaks as Thunder and Lightning. We're hoping the snow will lock up all the loose junk!
We're off a bit later than planned at 4:20am and cruise up the dry Crater Lake trail. We don't encounter snow until a bit below Crater Lake, and it's very firm as expected. We bring snowshoes, but we don't need them at all on the approach as we're encouraged by the firm snow. We make good time up to the familiar stream crossing at 10600' just beyond the turnoff for South Maroon. The first time we did this route, we struggled even finding the first gully, but this time the route is like an old friend. The gullies are easy to pick out and we get out the axe and crampons as they are bulletproof this early in the morning.
Up, Up, and Away!
There are two main gullies back to back, followed by another steeper section to get to the inspiring Len Shoemaker basin where you feel like a small speck in the land of the giants!
Darin dwarfed by the Maroon Bells:
Our couloir comes into view and it looks like we'll have continuous snow, albeit a bit thin at the top.
Lightning(right) and the west couloir (left of center):
The snow on the approach has been great, but we got some recent beta that the conditions up high are variable and winterlike still, even on west facing aspects. We're hoping we can get up and down the couloir before it gets baked in the afternoon sun. The luxury of west facing climbs is you have more time to pull things off. We head up the apron and it's pretty steep and firm, but there are a couple small pockets of wind slab. Not a huge concern yet, but we're afraid it will get worse.
Darin leading up the apron:
The couloir proper begins around 12400 feet as the walls constrict. The snow is not as firm as we would like, but it seems to be fairly cohesive. We decide to give it a shot. I've really never seen conditions in a couloir change so quick. One minute we're front pointing up snow that we can't the shaft of the axe into, the next we punching through nearly knee deep shallow slabs. If this were a climb with early sun hit, it would have been game over early. Today we have the wind and clouds to our advantage. The wind is blowing up the couloir keeping the snow locked up, while the clouds are keeping the snow cool as well.
About halfway up:
As we climb higher, the snow thins out and firms up real well. We've had about 1500 feet of consistent climbing and we're both feeling it as we top out at the windy saddle. The weatherman has missed the bluebird forecast, but we'll take a little battle with the wind to keep the snow cool! We're worried about downclimbing the couloir though, as there are some sections that are very hard. It's kind of a catch 22, but better to go down on hard snow than saturated snow!
Nearing the saddle after a long 1500' snow climb:
We gear up for the wind on the ridge. Luckily, we only have 300 vertical left. The ridge is class 2+ in summer, and goes pretty easily with snow. There are a couple exposed steps to work around, but it's way easier than the saddle to Thunder ridge run.
The Maroon Bells from the saddle!
Darin climbs around an exposed step on Lightning's north ridge:
We top out at around 11:50am. The views over to Pyramid and Thunder are astounding with snow. The little perch on Lightning is one of the best in the Elks as it's situated right in the middle of some gnarly terrain!
Darin tops out:
Pyramid and Thunder:
We hang around briefly to soak in the views, but we need to get down before the snow gets too wet. As variable as the snow was in the couloir, we don't want to still be downclimbing too late. Our fears of a tedious downclimb wash away as it's a straightforward plunge or side step down. I prefer the side step more, but it's hard on the ankles. Only a couple steeper sections require nimble footwork. The snow has softened up just a bit, but there's no water saturation yet, so we felt like we weren't pushing the limit of safety.
Darin downclimbs a short mixed section:
The routefinding down was a piece of cake with snow compared to summer and we were back to our snowshoe stash below the gullies pretty quick. Darin opted to wear his and I was stubborn and didn't, thinking we wouldn't need them for long. The postholing got worse as we descended, but not enough for me to want to put them on, only to scrape through the dry sections! The postholathon was only a minor league production this time, with only a few Nazarene cuss words here and there. Cotton picket! We were back at the truck at 3:20, which went faster than our summer Thunder Pyramid shenanigans! And now, some parting shots. I will be back, hopefully this summer for Sleeping Sexton!
Thunder, Lightning, 13631, and Len Shoemaker Ridge:
Bells and Sleeping Sexton:
Tourist shot, note how low Maroon Lake is!: