Ken Akerman and I met via the 'net and in a response to my recent Missouri Mountain trip report, he suggested that we climb a 14er together. Since I would have a climbing partner (unusual for me), one of the climbs I suggested was Pyramid Peak. This steep mountain is only a couple miles from the Maroon Bells and is one of the harder Colorado 14ers to climb. Ken was amenable, so we made plans for a weekend trip to the Maroon Valley.
I drove to Ken's place in Fort Collins on Saturday and we made the drive to the Maroon Bells Campground in his Trooper. We arrived at the upper parking area at around 7:30pm and cooked some dinner. The plan was to sleep in the back of the Trooper and get an early start Sunday morning.
Shortly after arriving, we talked to a pair of climbers that had ascended Pyramid earlier in the day. They had ascended the more difficult northwest ridge route which has a few sections where some people rope up. They had a rope but didn't use it, but they did say that it was tricky and exposed. They were very experienced (at least one of the guys had climbed all the 14ers once and many of them multiple times), and I was pretty sure that I didn't want to try this route. The weather was mediocre with the tops of the Bells in and out of clouds and there were a few early sprinkles. However, there hadn't been any thunderstorms or heavy rain.
Ken's watch alarm went off at 4am. Despite not getting much sleep, I felt pretty good and ready to roll. After getting dressed and having breakfast we hit the trail at 4:48am. The beginning is quite easy as you lose about 120ft heading down towards Maroon Lake. Ken had his headlamp so he led and I followed with my mini-maglite. The pair of climbers we had talked to before told us that the turnoff from the main trail was marked by a large cairn with multi-colored trail-marking tape. Despite knowing this, we almost missed it in the dark.
This very steep trail leads up into an amphitheater below Pyramid's very steep north face. The trail was difficult to follow in places until it got light. Once we got into the amphitheater we got a little confused as to where we were supposed to be heading. We tried to follow the trail, but as we were later to find out, the trail was buried under the snowfield that ran from 11-12000ft. Complicating the route-finding was that everything above 13500ft or so was covered by clouds; if the summit had been visible, it would have been obvious where we were heading. Anyway, we finally figured it out and started hiking up the snowfield. The angle was never more than 20 degrees, but the snow was a little slick (well-consolidated, though).
At about 12000ft, you make the choice between heading left up to the standard northeast ridge route, or right to the northwest ridge. Ken was willing to do either route, but I didn't want to chance the harder route, so we headed left.
After traversing across the snow, we reached the base of the right-hand of two small subgullies leading up to a wider gully. I led up the first part of this gully, kicking steps up a short 30-35 degree snow slope. The rest of the gully was on steep dirt and loose talus, with some places where we could scramble on a rock rib. Near the ridge crest we hit a trail, which led to a 13000ft saddle on the northeast ridge.
This is where the real climbing starts. The route up to the summit is marked by rock cairns with bright blue and pink blazing tape and stays well below the ridge in places. Despite the markers, the route-finding is still not trivial as the markers often aren't easily visible in the jagged terrain, and you do have to be careful to pick the best line up to the next marker. To complicate matters, it was still foggy and we couldn't see the summit. The 1000 vertical feet to the summit requires a lot of hand work - sometimes on very loose rock - with a few tricky spots and there is some exposure. The steepest climbing is on stair-step rock of good quality except for the debris on the steps. Shortly after leaving the saddle, there's a spot where you traverse across a ledge that narrows to about 16 inches at an outward bulge in the rock with a 20-foot cliff below you. Fortunately, the handholds were good here. [You can see a nice photo of this section on Theron Welch's Pyramid Peak page; maybe it's not quite a 20-foot drop, but it's still a doozy.] The only other specific section I remember on the ascent was a short section of stair-step climbing high up that probably contained a couple of the "occasional Class 4 moves" (quoting from Roach's guidebook) that gives the route it's rating. Still, neither of us were having any problems with the climbing, and we were pretty much able to prevent loosing any rocks.
I hadn't reset my altimeter at the parking area and neither had Ken. Thus, we were both surprised to see the terrain level off and a large cairn appear. Sure enough, this was the summit, which we reached at 9:48, exactly 5 hours after starting, and 63 minutes after reaching the ridge. Pretty good time, especially since we lost a fair amount of time on route-finding low on the mountain.
The summit is a flat, narrow (~2-3 meters) ridge with good dropoffs in all directions. Unfortunately, we were still in the clouds and didn't have much of a view. However, when the clouds were at their densest and we couldn't see anything but the immediate summit area, the dropoffs seemed even more dramatic. In the clearest moments we could see all but the top 500ft or so of the Maroon Bells. However, despite the clouds, the weather was still pretty good with no wind and the temperature was in the upper 40s.
Not surprisingly, the 13-month old summit register didn't show a particularly large number of ascents, with the first ascent this year not occurring until mid-July. We pushed the total of registered ascentists this year to about 30. Interestingly, there was also a bible up here, encased in plastic and a wire cage.
We left the summit at 10:35, and carefully picked our way downward. This was a little easier as we generally could see the markers better from above, and we could see the saddle most of the time. After descending a few hundred feet, we encountered a pair of climbers heading up, including one who was about 20 minutes from finishing off his last (54th) Colorado 14er!
The descent back to the saddle took almost exactly as long as the climb. Just above the saddle there's a place where you have the choice of a short jump across a gash or climbing above it [I jumped; it's only a few feet]. The descent down from the saddle was straightforward since we discovered that there's a trail all the way down. We didn't find it on the way up because it starts in the other sub-gully that I mentioned earlier. Partway down the slope we encountered a group of three; we would see no one else on the route the rest of the way down.
At the bottom of the gully there was a short glissade which I took first. Unfortunately, I wasn't too careful with my speed, and managed to (barely) draw blood on the side of my hand on a rock while self-arresting. Needless to say, Ken followed more carefully. The gentle snowfield that would take us back down to the trail was glissadable, but it was also littered with small rocks so we hiked and slid down it on our feet.
The rest of the hike down to the main trail was steep and it's quite overgrown in spots with some significant trail damage. However, in full daylight we were able to follow it all the way down. Once we reached the main trail we stayed on it and hiked right alongside Maroon Lake which was quite scenic, albiet fairly crowded.
We made it back to the parking area at 2:04pm for an elasped time of 9:16. The timing was impeccable; it started raining as we were rearranging stuff in the Trooper for the drive home.
Although this was a challenging climb that requires care, neither of us felt it was terribly dangerous. Although there is a loose-rock problem especially on the last 1000ft, since the route is more of an ascending traverse than anything else, there usually won't be another group directly above or below you. I think the biggest danger here is if the weather turns bad as there is no quick escape off this mountain. If the rock was wet, the downclimbing would get very tricky. However, if you are reasonably experienced and are used to exposure, this is a very interesting climb to do; just make sure you allow plenty of time.
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File last modified: 21 December 2004