The East Face of Pyramid

Nearing the end of my 14er list, I finally had to face my fears about Pyramid Peak.  I wanted to fit in an attempt between my previous weekend’s climb of Capitol (with Mark) and my planned North/South Maroon traverse for the up-coming weekend (with Brian).  By “fit in” I mean, squeeze in with enough time to recover from the first and to recover for the second.  The weather report and my schedule cooperated; Wednesday was selected for a Pyramid attempt using the NorthEast Ridge route.

To alleviate my fears of this peak, and to respond to my poor route finding effort on South Maroon Bell 12 months earlier, I prepared a well researched route finding guide with photos, topos and route descriptions from multiple sources….all covered in packing tape.  What could go wrong this time?

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On July 29, 2003, I left Boulder at 12:45pm for Aspen and Maroon Lake.  I arrived at 4:30pm (30 minutes before the Rangers leave) and took a minute to consider my options.  Basically, I could either enter the park now to see if the park had any available camping sites (and pay for the privilege of sleeping and parking) or wait until the Rangers left and find a place to park the 4Runner for a short sleep in the back.  I was not sure of the risks associated with an unauthorized overnight park and decided that if I could sleep and park legally, I would do so.   I ended up paying $20 for a noisy night in Silver Bell campground, but did have the use of a comfortable toilet.

Don’t laugh.  A toilet may seem like a small thing in this reading, but let me be clear about the comforting reassurance that a well-stocked bathroom can bring to a civilized person who enjoys playing at being a backcountry adventurer – it is a tremendous luxury. Perhaps one cannot be a “real” mountaineer until toilets mean nothing.  If so, I will never be a real mountaineer.

I woke up at 4am, packed up and drove to the Maroon Lake parking area.  I was hiking at 5am in total darkness (no moon).  My last trip to Maroon Lake a year ago had prepared me to find the proper trail without signage or other visual clues.  Unfortunately, I had a case of the “Slows” and could not get my speed up past moderate, but I continued to make acceptable progress given my early start.

I found the climber’s trail turnoff in a rocky area at about 10,100’ and turned left up and through the short rocky slope toward the Pyramid hanging basin.  The trail wound around the easy terrain in an absurd fashion like the desperate attempt of 2-inch tall men following the line of least resistence through a range of 2-foot tall mountains.  The trail was at least easy to follow in the morning light, and, once across the moraine, the trail turned upward and made a steep ascent of the slope directly below the Pyramid Hanging Basin.

The approach to Pyramid's hanging basin

The approach to Pyramid's hanging basin (photo taken on the descent)

At 11,600 feet I entered the hanging basin and began a boulder hopping exercise toward the North Face of Pyramid, using a narrow tongue of snow at the centerline whenever possible.

The basin was like a wild sea frozen in time. The cliffs of Pyramid and subsidiary ridges on either side have been depositing tons of rocks atop an ancient glacier, which had settled into ridges and depressions across which I climbed a circuitous route to avoid elevation loss.  I passed by an ice cliff that appeared to be the edge of the glacier that had partially melted leaving a massive depression in the rock area beneath it.  It was an amazing feature for Colorado.

From the ice cliff, I could see my route up to the eastern shoulder of Pyramid.

The climb to Pyramid's shoulder

The climb to Pyramid's eastern shoulder

At 8:30am, I reached the Northeastern ridge of Pyramid using a side gully angling right a few hundred feet from the top of the shoulder.  I took a moment to rest and eat, and I pulled out my climbing notes for a quick refresher.  I had two basic instructions gleaned from guidebooks and trip reports to guide me:  (1) stay on the ridge and go left when necessary and (2) follow the cairns.  It soon became apparent that these instructions were incompatible.

The cairned route stayed near the ridge for a short while working initially to the right side of the ridge and then back to the ridge.  Within a hundred yards, I came to a gully on the left that had cairns 30 feet below me.  I figured this was the “go left when necessary” part, but it was not so.  By leaving the ridge to follow these cairns, I would not again attain the ridge until reaching the summit.

The cairns led to a narrow walking ledge that was reminiscent of the Narrows on Long’s Peak but without the exposure.  At this point, I simply gave up on the NE Ridge and decided to place my trust in the cairns and my “nose” to guide me to the summit.  Faith comes hard, but I have learned some hard lessons.

Looking up at the East Face of Pyramid (The official name for a roughly pyramidal shaped pile of rubble near Aspen)

Looking up at the Upper East Face of Pyramid

The East face of Pyramid can be generally described as a steep rocky incline split down the middle by a great gully.  The climbing occurs on the right hand side of the gully, and eventually exits into the gully near the summit to avoid steep cliffs that cap the top of the right hand portion of the face.   The cairns generally led from the right side of the face upward and left, toward the middle of the face without entering the great gully.

The cairns marked ledges (where else can you stack a pile of rocks), between which any number of climbing options existed for ascent to the next ledge.  I simply followed my nose and found mostly 3rd class climbing.  There were two more difficult sections that required me to use a “face in” down climb method later in the day.  Overall, I was delighted to find the climbing to be straight forward.

I didn't expect to find this atop this pile of rubble

I didn't expect to find this atop this pile of rubble

I reached the summit at 9:45am.  I took a break to rest and locate the 14ers in the area.  In particular, I studied the the approach to N. Maroon Bell and the Maroon Bells ridge and that I planned to do a few days hence.  I did not find a register to sign, but I did find the survey marker.

I also saw a trail coming up from the NE ridge, which I abandoned earlier in the ascent. After my break, I walked over to inspect it and see if it would make a good descent route.  I was torn, but decided I would descend using what I knew to minimize the chance of delays on this cloudy day.  I left the summit at 10:15.

My first good look at the Maroon Bells, seen from the summit of Pyramid

My first good look at the Maroon Bells, seen from the summit of Pyramid

The descent was a bit trickier than the ascent.  Climbing up over gravel covered ledges can be done safely by controlling the weighting of each step.  However, down climbing is more difficult due to lesser control over weight shifts.  By going slowly and taking care to follow my original ascent route, I made it to the saddle without incident.

One of the unique aspects of Pyramid, shared by the Maroon Bells, is how the climbing is still strenuous even after the climb is emotionally done.  I was ready to claim victory after reaching the saddle, but still had to descend much steep and difficult terrain before returning home to my family.  I moved deliberately but purposefully and reached the Crater Lake trail by 1pm, and reached the car by 1:30pm.

It was an enjoyable adventure, but I was glad it was behind me.  Forty-seven down; eleven to go.

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