After climbing Pinto Peak on Saturday, February 9, I headed down into Death Valley on my way to Pyramid Peak. It was a beautiful warm day and I stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to look at their hiking books. I found a couple that I couldn’t live without and then continued on towards the trailhead. I wanted to climb the standard route from the southeast as described by the Sierra Club Desert Peaks Section. There isn’t much of a parking area at the trailhead and the highway is kind of busy. I wanted to car camp nearby, so I drove east on Hwy 190 about ½ mile east and parked in an old abandoned trailer park that is south of the highway. I ate dinner and prepared my stuff for the hike in the morning. No one hassled me in the old trailer park and I got a good nights sleep.
Early Sunday morning I ate breakfast and drove back to the trailhead, elevation 3,030 ft. Pyramid Peak looked like a great climb. In the early light, I could see the entire route silhouetted against the sky. Wow, this was going to be the best hike on this brief time in Death Valley. I quickly put on my pack and headed northeast straight at the lowest V shaped notch at the base of the mountain. It is a long way across the desert. The footing is good most of the way on packed gravel with sporadic vegetation. The route looks like it is almost flat but you actually gain about 800 ft in elevation before you start up the ridge.
It took me a little over an hour to get into the gap between Pyramid Peak and the unnamed extension of the Funeral Mountains to the east. The V notch that you see and aim for from the trailhead is actually a gap between the mountains. I passed point 3900 and approached the obvious end of the southeast end of the ridge to the summit. It is a black rocky steep slope. I was anxious and excited to get onto the mountain, so I just picked a spot and headed up. I thought it strange that there was no cairn to mark the spot, but it looked climbable so up I went. I quickly climbed about 250 ft to the top of this first obstacle and found out that I probably should have done this differently. If I had to do it again, I would follow the wash about another 300 yards around to the backside of this first hill until I could see the saddle between this first hill and the second obsidian hill. From the backside of the ridge, there is an easy slope up to the saddle.
Once on top of the first hill, there is no choice but to descend down to the saddle before heading up again on the second black rocky hill. This black rock is very abrasive. It is good footing, but it would take your hide off in a hurry if you stumbled and scraped a knee or elbow. The second black rock hill requires some route finding. If you are observant you can follow where other climbers have ventured. Climb straight up the ridge until you can see a way to your right and then up and left and across and over a few things until you can …. well, pick the route you feel most comfortable with until you reach the white colored rock on the upper side of this obstacle. If you find yourself using your hands, you probably picked one of the more difficult routes over this hill. I use trekking poles and used them all the way to the summit and back down. I never put them in my pack, and only touched a rock for balance a couple of times.
When you get past the black rock at the bottom of the ridge the slope lessens and the ridge is nice and wide. The rock color changes to reds and browns and you are at about 4,600 ft elevation. About this time it seemed to be hot on the ridge and I was sweating profusely. My clothes were totally soaked in sweat and I was gasping for air. I felt like crap. Why was I struggling so much? I could see the route ahead and it looked like it was almost straight up. I was panting, sweating, and resting about every four steps. I needed a break big time. I found a nice rock that looked sturdy enough to support my butt and I stopped. I dropped my pack and started gulping down water. I had a camelback that I had been hitting on, but I needed more. I took out my Nalgene and downed at least half of it in one continuous drink I took off my shirt and just sat there in a silk weight T-shirt. I doubted that I could continue. It is a long way back across the desert if you have a problem up here.
Maybe food would help. I brought a little lunch food, but this was serious, I needed chocolate. I dove into my pack and rummaged around in the bottom until I found an old Snickers that was left over from a hike last summer. It looked like it had been through several freeze and melt cycles and hadn’t been in the normal shape of a Snickers in a long time. I tore off the wrapper and determined that it was beautiful anyway. At this point I decided that I would prefer to die from Snickers poisoning than exhaustion on Pyramid Peak. I savored every bite, drank more water and just sat there admiring the scenery. Soon my brain started working again and I determined that I had been so pumped up and excited to be climbing this beautiful mountain, that I was pushing way too fast. I had all day to climb to the summit. Why was I trying to get there in record time? I finally cooled down, got my breathing under control, and got my head back into the climb. I took stock of my progress and found that I was still about 1,800 ft from the summit or a little over half way up. I decided that I would just take my time and slowly make my way further up the ridgeline. I could turn around anywhere and head back down if my energy didn’t return. The weather was perfect and I had another 9 hours of daylight.
I shouldered my backpack that was much lighter without that nasty Snicker Bar and slowly started up to what appeared to be a very steep section of ridge. I was moving slowly determined to control my enthusiasm and not to push too hard again. The further I went the better I felt. I kept climbing slowly. I found an interesting rock formation at about 5,600 ft elevation where 2 caves are located. This is at the top of a little ravine. You can see them from below. The first cave is kind of small, but one person could curl up inside. The second cave is larger and 2 people could lie down inside. These would be a good place for refuge in a thunderstorm or if you had to make an emergency bivy.
I kept going and finally confronted the final obstacle. My directions said that at 6,000 ft there is another black rock cliffy area that has to be climbed or circumvented. The directions said to follow an animal track to the left below the black rocky cliffs for an easy route around the obstacle. I must have gone too low to the left, because soon I was on steep scree slopes that weren’t easy at all. I tried to climb up to find an easier route, but found that I had to continue around until I got to some white colored rocks and climbed up the white rocks to the ridge. I didn’t like this route and would explore a different route coming down.
Once beyond the last black rock obstacle the route was not as steep and I was soon on the summit. What a glorious day. I think I actually went faster by slowing down the last half of the climb. I’m glad I kept going, but it was time to put more energy in my body. I took my time eating lunch and hydrating. I knew it would be much easier going down, but it was warm now and I didn’t want to bonk going down. Did I mention that it was a glorious beautiful day? Wow!! I could see forever!
Heading down, I decided to go straight over the top of the upper black rock obstacle. This was a good move. There is kind of a climbers path that I followed somewhat. It stayed near the top of the ridge. I think the first part I was on the left side of the ridge, then I had to walk a narrow section about 20ft long that was on the very crest of the ridge with impressive drops on both sides, and then I was right side of the ridge. Going directly over the obsidian section was definitely easier than bypassing it on the south side.
I took my time going down enjoying the views in all directions. When I got to the lower black rock area, I struggled over the upper black rock hill trying to find an easy route. It wasn’t technically difficult, it just didn’t flow easily and I had to search for what looked less difficult. At the saddle between the lower black rock hills I bailed off to the north and down to the wash below. I wished I had come up this way.
It felt good to get into the wash again at the base of the ridge. It felt like I was on solid ground again. Walking back across the desert was uneventful. It went quickly and I enjoyed looking at the various clumps of cactus. This climb is not for the faint of heart. My GPS indicated that I had covered 10.5 miles, climbed 3,700 ft and it took me 8.0 hours. This was the end of my long weekend in Death Valley. All I had to do now was drive 700+ miles home to Medford, Oregon.