|Peak:||Pyramid Peak - 14,018 feet|
This report is a little late but I guess 2 weeks is better than one year or several months. I always get so excited in winter when I see a report pop up from some crazy peak or route just to find out that someone is just now posting from their sunny trip in July two years ago. After Halloween weekend, I can assuredly say that winter conditions are in full swing up there. With a large storm hitting just 2 days before, I was itching to get some alpine action but I was skeptical of a summit. Lucky for me, I don’t consider myself a peak bagger. I am an adventurist at heart. Matt, my usual partner wasn’t available and I wasn’t about to solo something in the given conditions. I thought about the winter Quandary welcomer hike but I have never been big on large groups in the mountains. I’m sure it was a great group of folks but my since of adventure gets kind of lost in the mix. My brother in law, Ben said he was ready for an adventure. We planned for Holy cross if Indy Pass was closed and Pyramid if it was open. As we prepared the week prior, my Asian friend (yes he is actually from Asia), Arslan, who lived in Norway the past several years, said he was missing the arctic circle conditions and wanted to tag along. What a guy. I have had him out rock climbing several times and trust my life to the guy but I also knew he had never done a Colorado 14er before. He has done a couple over 18K around the world but never a Colorado 14er. Ben and I agreed he could come even if it meant no summit due to having a new partner we weren’t used to. I am very selective with my partners in the mountains and even more selective as the conditions worsen. I am by far no mountain expert but I think the right partners are key. You have to not only trust them with your life, I think a personality fit is also key up there.
The Journey Begins
Friday evening finally came and low and behold, Independence pass was by some miracle still open. I went and bought some snow-chains for Pabst, my 1970 VW bus and we set off for our adventure. The drive up was pretty cold seeing as my heat is minimal at best (working on that). We just rocked the propane stove on low the whole way up to give us just a little comfort as I drove in my down booties to keep my feet from freezing. Going over Wilkerson pass, Ben asked if he could drive the bus. I told him absolutely but warned him that it is not an “easy” vehicle to drive and that if he stalls out taking off, it probably won’t start again for several hours and thus jeopardize our mountain adventure. He gave me a hard time saying I didn’t trust him so I let him give it a whirl. Just as I suspected to anyone who isn’t used to driving the beast, he stalled it out trying to put it into reverse and the thing wouldn’t start again. With a little push from the guys, I had it running again and we were once again on our way.
We had fun going over Indy pass as we carefully maneuvered our way around the ice patches as Ben and I in our shallow minds described to Arslan how every woman in Aspen we ever saw was gorgeous. Even the ones that work at the gas stations only to pull up in town and see quite possibly the largest human being I ever think I have seen that happened to also be a woman. We laughed it off in our shallowness as we drove by with Arslan now not buying into our past stories. Our credibility was now gone. By about 9PM we arrived at the Maroon Lakes Trailhead to find dry or mostly dry parking lots. We parked the bus, cooked some dinner, and prepared our bedding in the close quarters for a quick few hours of shut eye. My trusty stove is seen in the picture.
We drove over indy pass on friday night and got a 4AM start Saturday with a 2pm cutoff to get as far as we could. I bet 4 days prior looked much drier but the big storm right before added about 18" average to everything. We started on a snow packed trail that seemed like it went at least to the upper lake. The infamous pyramid cairn was completely covered and we walked right past. It was the first time I had to get out the GPS in a while to find a trail. For the most part, we followed the summer trail as it switchbacks up into the cirque. From about 11'900 standing right below the "pyramid" we had to make a decision to go for the right side ridge or the left side (standard route). The supposed 2+ section making the top of the ridge looked like it was ready to release a slide and was to far across the basin to want to even go look at. 2 of us decided to go for the right/east ridge route and check out conditions. It was a good clean snow climb for a while and then all of the sudden we were up to our chests in a north facing gulley that probably never fully melted out from last year and a 6" slab was easily breaking off the top. I jumped onto the rocks on the left side and did some 4th and low 5th class un-roped so I could make the top of the ridge at around 12,900.
The 3 AM alarm came ever so quick as we woke up and readied ourselves with a goal of being on the trail by 4. And after cooking oatmeal, drinking coffee and finding a place to drop the kids off at we actually got going by about 4:30. Arslan started out very happy.
The trail started out as snowpacked ice so we elected not to bring the snowshoes. Since the snow was so fresh, I felt like we would sink about the same with or without them and really could do without the weight of the “Slow” shoes. The first supposed mile to the pyramid turnoff which is really more like about 2 miles where you turn just before crater lake came pretty quick with a packed trail. Knowing that the turn for Pyramid would be nearly impossible to pass, I carefully watched the GPS until we went about 100 yards past. I turned around to brush off a couple of feet of snow from the giant cairn that we had no idea was there. From this point on, we were on our own to cut trail. I stayed up front all day to preserve the energy levels of the others. I felt great throughout. It must have been those few times recently on the Manitou incline carrying a 65lb pack getting ready for the winter.
A ways after the Pyramid cutoff, we decided to drop some unnecessary weight and take a quick rest. Even with breaking trail, I was having to wait on Arslan. He is not used to the altitude and was kicking his own butt.
At this point it was getting gradually lighter outside and we hardly needed headlamps. After getting tired of trying to find the switchbacks up the ridge with so much snow and drifts we eventually opted to pop straight up the last couple of hundred feet up the scree field to the right. It was a dreadful amount of snow. Enough to cover the abnormalities that you need to see but not enough to make soft steps. It was just enough to sprain your ankle.
This report is being written solely off of Arslan’s and Ben’s Cameras that we all traded off with. Just after the sun was cresting on North Maroon, we arrived at treeline and the ginormous cairns. We popped down there for a rest and a snack. I had been cutting trail the entire way thus far and still feeling great but I was worried about energy levels of my partners who are some hard core dudes for even getting out there and trying a monster like this in these nasty fall/winter conditions.
A self portrait shows the three of us just above treeline with our goal in the background. On the west ridge, you can see the wind spindrifts. We had made the call to pick the ridge that looked the best when we arrived up there. The red line shows the remainder of our route to our highpoint for the day. The green circle is the choss tower that was my highpoint that I almost regretted climbing. More to come on that.
And looking back on North Maroon with Ben and I in the foreground.
Wait a minute, this is way more snow than I usually remember for late October. Another foot of snow and I would have been on my skis up and down.
I just kept chugging upward and cutting trail with the others behind me.
We popup on the ridge where you have to make the decision to go left or right at 11,900’. The snow to the left was unbelievable and a bit scary.
Ben and I studied the choices while we waited for Arslan to catch up. That steep headwall to the ridge section was enough to scare even me knowing the new snow could all just about come down. It was loaded and not at all solid based on what we just came through. If by a miracle we made it up, coming down would not have been cool. I of all people will admit I take abnormally high risks sometimes that would be unacceptable to most. Believe you me that I am constantly assessing and reassessing and making decisions out there. I will also be the first to say that I don't ever want to use my avy gear out there and I would assess conditions and go/no go as if I didn't have it on me. My take is that on avy’s is that while your partner will try their best for a rescue, the beacon is sadly only better for body recovery purposes in most cases. Prior to the trip I was smart enough to study other routes than our plan and made the decision to check out plan b which looked like much less of a risk by looking at the other ridge. I’m not going to just bail without taking a look and seeing for myself. We went for plan B and began assessing as we moved along. The first couple of hundred feet had very stable snow and we hugged the rocks to the left side as best we could and constantly monitored escape avenues in the case of disaster which was not eminent at the time as we kicked pretty decent steps.
By this time, it was already about 11 AM and our chances of a summit were dwindling as we tried to pick a route. I could tell that Arslan was tuckered out and Ben didn’t have too much juice yet either. We decided that it was the last chance someone could turn around alone and still be safe. Any farther and if anyone turns around, we all turn around. Arslan graciously admitted that there was no way he had another 2K in the conditions we were seeing in mind. He turned around with the bus keys and instructions that if we don’t get back by 8pm to drive to get cell service and call somebody for help. By 1130 Ben and I finally took off.
As Arslan made his way down, I kicked step after step leading the way. We were plunging deeper than our knees but not in too bad shape otherwise. Arslan got this of us on our way up.
10 or so minutes into this Ben and I were doubting that we would make a summit and wondered if we should bail. Eventually I explained the reality to Ben that if we don’t commit to giving it everything we have, it will never happen. I convince him to push on but I can see his energy depleting quickly. One last shot of the “other” route.
You can see us in the circles in the following picture. Where the red line takes a sharp left is the couloir we chose to make the first ridge knowing there would be more gulley crossings.
As soon as we turned left we were pushing through north facing slopes up to our chests in snow. There was no way this couloir was going to let us pass. The layers here seemed stable but it was just so deep. At this point, I have realized that a summit is not going to be in our cards but we still have some time to explore so I told Ben to stay put as I pulled some 4th to low 5th class unroped moves up the slippy rocks to the left of the couloirs so I could go check out the ridge or else get turned around due to difficulty or unacceptable conditions. Eventually, Ben got tired of waiting and decided to see how far he could stand the deep conditions or until he found signs of bad snow that he did not like. I carefully picked my way to the top of that ridge and was very disappointed at what I saw. The summit was so close but yet so far. I must have gotten the camera wet for these next few but they do show conditions.
I saw Gulley crossings with what appeared to be steeper snow climbing than we had already done.
I pushed Ben to look at this point and I think it would have been a mistake for us to try and go through there. This very vividly shows how people die in Avalanches in October in Colorado. Maybe it wasn’t steeper, but being that it was already after 2PM, it wasn’t time to try.
This shows at what I thought would be around or near the “safest” line across. It seems like it would have taken about another couple of hours to cross to the other side and then we still had the 4th class summit bid on what appeared to be drier rock.
While I waited for Ben to catch up to see what lay ahead, I climbed the tower that the arrow points to which I consider my only truly iffy decision of the day. I seriously contemplated it knowing my abilities and knowing I had gear on me should I need to bail. It was pretty chossy and I just maintained the 3 points of contact rule and triple checking every hold. Upon topping out, I was in the sun for my first time in the day though. It was amazing.
I hung out up there for a few minutes while Ben just kept trying. Seeing the conditions of what we just came up and seeing that we would have to cross this next giant gulley and climb something even steeper just to get to the actual ridge we were to climb, I knew there was no way we were walking away with a summit without an epic or a casualty and Ben would not have the energy even if we tried.
Eventually Ben decided that he couldn’t make the last 50’ of the couloir and was trusting that what I saw was not going to be in our agenda today. It was now time to get back down to him. Stuff never looks so steep when you go up until you go down. I peep down to see the snowy slushy choss laying about the route down with serious consequences for mistakes. As I stood atop and peered at the summit of pyramid, my stomach had butterflies as I looked at the size of the drop in front of me going from our high point there at about 12,700’ or so back down about a vertical 1000’ to below. I have my 30 m rope that I really would have left any amount of gear to make a safe rappel but I just couldn’t find any place to put gear that would hold to bail on. It was all so chossy. I distinctly remember laughing at the fact that I had won one of the weeks of the American Alpine Club’s Choss Boss photo contest with a picture of my partner Matt this summer.
I said out loud “Here you go Choss Boss,” as I turned to face in and began my descent, “Just like home in Garden of the Gods.” I kept my gloves off for grip as I climbed down. I was comfortable with the 5.6ish climbing but I wasn’t comfortable that there was literally nothing that made me feel super safe. Some of us may call those “Thank you Jesus” holds. I had to man up and get down what I went up. Slowly but surely, I made it down checking, re-checking, and re-re-checking every hold and always holding tightly at least 1 solid thing. I finally made it back down to the ridge. Meanwhile Ben at his highpoint up to his chest. Hmmm I wonder why he couldn’t go up anymore.
I decided to take the couloir back to Ben’s position because he felt good about the pack and I felt ok from my position. Upon arriving at Ben’s position, at my request we began to perform a few snow tests easily getting a 6” slab to break and release off of the top with another questionable layer about 2.5’ down. We quickly tested our Beacons to make sure they worked right at that point in time and there was no problems since the morning. Once they were verified good, it was time to get out before something bad happened. This next picture is just before we started really getting slabs to break off. We didn’t get more pictures until were into more of a safe zone after that. This was one of those situations where you make decisions and take risks.
Unfortunately, our risk taking for pushing ahead was over but the conditions seem to have changed in a short period of time. We aren’t going to sit and wait for things to worsen and Ben wanted to book it out of there. My decision based on our new find was that we already scouted what we thought was the safest line up. I also decided that going down our kicked steps would cause the least stress to the pack than plunging in new steps and possibly creating new fractures that would haunt us. Many mountaineering accidents happen right at this point as people rush out to bail to safety. As our stomach churned about, we cautiously made our way down constantly discussing our outs. We kept cautiously moving along until we reached what we thought was a point of safety and then continued to be cautios.
Getting back from there to the large cairns at tree line was the low point of the day. Again stepping through enough snow to be hard to walk in but still little enough to allow you to roll an ankle from the talus below. We took a quick rest at tree line and made our way back down. For a while we just aimed straight down through the trees until we hit our switch-backing trail and descended. We could see Arslan about hitting the main trail between Maroon and Crater lakes. We just kept trucking as we got lower on the trail to find nasty mud where it had been frozen that morning. Ben and I arrived to the lake just 3 minutes after Arslan. We looked back up in the hills and were just in awe of the beauty of the last of the sunlight tickling the Bells.
We snapped our photo and got the heck out of there. Leading all day, I was finally tired. That was about the longest 7 miles I have ever done. If driving 4.5 hours in the bus, sleeping/laying only 4 hours, mountain climbing all day, and driving back to Colorado Springs wasn’t enough, Ben and I decided to take our wives out for the Colorado Springs Halloween extravaganza. With not a lot of energy, we Dressed as mountaineers. How original. People would touch our ropes and be like… whoa, you bought real ropes just for your costume. I never go out to bars or night clubs except for Halloween every year for the sole reason of people watching. Seeing everyone playing dress up is pretty wild. We ended up going to bed at 2:45 am just 23:45 after waking up that morning. Not a bad day and another great adventure where everyone enjoyed the beauty of the mountains.
As a quick disclaimer, it may seem reckless to go out in these conditions and you may ask why we would even try given the high chance of not summiting. My take is that if you don’t get out there and try, you won’t have those eventual monumental successes such as the Little Bear to Blanca Traverse in Winter like I had the privilege of last year or anything like that. You can study the weather, you can study the conditions, and even study the forums waiting for someone to plow you a trench and bring you pictures of the conditions so you can up your chances for success, but sometimes it is just nice to go prepared for anything. I go up there every time knowing very well my limits of my abilities and those of my partners and knew full well this time that we probably wouldn’t walk away with a summit even when we left the house but we walked away with more knowledge than we had before thus building on our quiver of tools to use in the mountain. What I did know was that I was capable of making good decisions up there. Everything is not a plan, it is a temporary decision and you keep going until you have hit your limit, either mentally or physically or even due to conditions which I guess is also physically. Knowing what you are capable of and having the patience to turn around can create a lot of fun. It allows me to get out there and at least observe some conditions and admire God’s beauty as well as realize how small we really are. My main take away from the disclaimer for you is to know your limits. Know when you can go out and what is safe and acceptable to you and then what is not and go there.
Until next time…
See you at the top!