| Rotten Ridges
A Scrumptious Rotten Ridge Traverse
"Thunder Pyramid" – 13,932
"Lightning Pyramid" – 13,722
From Maroon Lake TH
Pack in: 3.5 mi, 1200 ft; Climb: 5.3 mi, 4100 ft
I've been seriously neglecting the Elks this summer and lately it's been getting to me. Here it is August and I haven't paid them a visit since April! What a disgrace! I really wanted to remedy the situation this weekend, but with the wet weather forecast I wasn't sure it was such a good idea. But I figured Dwight (who cherry-picked and has already finished the centennials, what nerve ) was going to be tied up with family obligations so it seemed like a good opportunity for me to make an attempt at my last Elk centennial: "Thunder Pyramid".
Dominic and I left Boulder Friday afternoon with a basic plan of attack. We'd drive over Independence Pass to the Maroon Lake TH and backpack in to a convenient camping spot well past Crater Lake… if it wasn't raining. If the weather was looking dismal in the Independence Pass area, we'd stop there, car camp, and climb some easier Sawatch 13ers over the weekend. We optimistically had our backpacking packs ready to go and kept our fingers crossed. We passed though many rain showers on the drive, but things weren't looking too bad by the time we reached the pass so we made the decision to continue on. At 8:15 we began the familiar hike up the (dry!) West Maroon Creek trail. We reached Crater Lake around 9:00, donned our headlamps, and continued on up the trail. At around 10,500 ft, shortly past the famous "bent tree", the trail crosses the creek. This is Roach's recommended departure point for "Thunder Pyramid". We began looking for a suitable place to pitch our tent, but the pickings were very slim, especially in the dark. At 10:15 we finally settled on an OK (but not great) spot just east of the trail near 10,680 ft. The night sky was surprisingly clear and I was confident we'd at least have a few dry hours in the morning to make an attempt at "Thunder Pyramid".
I woke up around 3am to the sound of rain hitting the tent and when I looked outside it was incredibly foggy. Darn weather sneaking up on us in the middle of the night like that, killing our climbing dreams while we're sleeping. I tried not to worry about it and go back to sleep, telling myself that it may clear up by morning, but it was difficult.
The batteries in Dominic's cell phone mysteriously died over night so our 4:30 alarm never went off. It didn't matter though because when we woke up around 6:30 it was still raining. Bummer! I looked outside to find that everything was still totally socked in. I knew that attempting to climb "Thunder Pyramid" in the rain and fog wasn't a smart idea, so I tried to accept the fact that we'd lugged our crap all the way up there for nothing and go back to sleep. I considered giving some potentially easier peaks in the area a try instead (UN 13,130, UN 13,180 B or Belleview Mountain), but I just wasn't in the mood for an all day rain hike with no views.
I woke up again shortly before 8 and no longer heard the painful sound of rain beating against the tent. I apprehensively peered outside – the skies were hard to read. It was a lot clearer, but there were still plenty of low clouds hanging around. There was no way of telling what was to come. Dominic and I discussed our options. We both wanted to at least attempt something, but what? Should we go for "Thunder Pyramid" and gamble on the weather holding for a while? Should we attempt some of the easier peaks in case we got caught in the rain? It was a very tough decision, but in the end we both agreed that we wanted to attempt "Thunder Pyramid".
We left camp at 8:15. Rather than descending back to the creek crossing where Roach recommends leaving the trail, we headed directly east from camp and found our way up through the minor cliff bands without any problems. There were a few cairns here and there to reassure us that we were on the right track. Before long, we found ourselves in the small basin east of Len Shoemaker Ridge staring up at the imposing wall formed by the ridge containing "Thunder Pyramid" and "Lightning Pyramid".
Well, I must confess now that I never had plans of climbing JUST "Thunder Pyramid". Of course the reportedly interesting rotten ridge traverse to "Lightning Pyramid" was always on the agenda. If weather cut the trip short I would gladly accept one or the other, but there's no way I could go into it aiming for just one. So… our plan was to first climb "Lightning Pyramid" via the 4th class route Roach describes, traverse to "Thunder Pyramid", and then down climb Roach's standard 3rd class route. Our reasoning was that it would be easier to climb up the 4th class route and down the 3rd class route, especially if it started raining. In addition, Roach describes the traverse in this direction so we figured it would probably be easier to not have to reverse his route description.
OK, so this was the plan from the time we left camp to the time we found ourselves in the basin looking up at "Thunder Pyramid". Now I must make another confession. I have for a long time had a vague dream rolling around in the back of my head about traversing the entire ridge from "Thunder Pyramid" to "Lightning Pyramid" to UN 13,631. Following our intended route today (starting with the middle of the three peaks) would kill that dream (at least in the near term). I was having a hard time reconciling this to myself, even though it seemed that chances of the weather holding long enough for us to attempt the full traverse were slim and the ridge didn't sound like a good place to be when wet. In addition, I had very little beta about the ridge between "Lightning Pyramid" and UN 13,631. The only meager bit of information I had was this: Garratt & Martin recommend climbing "Thunder Pyramid" and "Lightning Pyramid" together and climbing UN 13,631 as a separate trip. However, they state that "some experienced climbers may want to undertake the rugged and challenging ridge traverse between UN 13,631 and Lightning Pyramid". There's that term "experienced" again. How experienced and in what sense? By some stretch of our imaginations we could possibly describe ourselves as experienced scramblers. Experienced technical climbers, no. Unfortunately they give no indication of the class rating.
After unsuccessfully trying to force those evil thoughts out of my head, I had to spill the beans to Dominic. He kind of liked my pie in the sky dream – the idea of an interesting and unknown ridge traverse piqued his interest and he said he was game to give it a try if the weather held. So… we switched things up and made "Thunder Pyramid" our first objective. Although I had no faith that the weather would even allow us to attempt the full traverse, at least it would now be an option if the mountain gods decided to smile upon us today.
From the basin it took a little while but we spotted what appeared to be the magic white gully on Thunder Pyramid's west face that Roach says is the key to this route. There seemed to be several ways to get into the gully from the basin below, and I don't think we took the one Roach describes. We found our way up through 3rd class breaks in the cliff bands and then had to do a short, exposed traverse to the right to reach the gully. From there, route finding was a piece of cake – just keep going up the gully. The climbing was actually a lot easier than I had expected – the gully wasn't especially steep and much of the rock was solid. There was one short section that was pretty loose though and I accidentally sent a couple of big ones sailing down. After a while I got a little antsy to be done with the long gully climb so I prematurely climbed left out of it at a convenient notch and scrambled up a little ridge toward the summit. We topped out on Thunder Pyramid's south ridge not far from the summit and from there it was a straightforward scramble.
Old beat up prayer flags littered the summit. It was a mess. Low clouds were once again beginning to settle on the surrounding high peaks. I was disappointed to find that to the north Pyramid was shrouded in clouds and there was no hope of it rearing its magnificent head. However, Lightning Pyramid to the south was looking quite impressive. Fog was quickly coming and going as moisture was being sucked back up into the sky, but visibility to the south was still reasonable. Dominic admitted that he thought he'd never be standing on this summit. A few years ago when we climbed Pyramid on my 14er quest I had pointed it out him. Apparently he was thinking, "Thank God that isn't a 14er and we don't have to climb it!" How things change!
After a short break, we decided we better get going if we were going to try the traverse to Lightning Pyramid. It looked pretty reasonable. If you reverse Roach's directions they would go something like this: scramble south along the ridge until you come to an obvious notch not too far south of "Thunder Pyramid". From the notch, descend a short distance in a scree gully on the east side of the ridge and then traverse on some ledges to the Thunder Pyramid – Lightning Pyramid saddle. We could clearly see this route and it looked pretty straightforward. We couldn't see anything that looked too nasty on the ridge crest though, so we decided to try the "true" ridge traverse. There were maybe two or three spots that required some short, exposed down climbs, but nothing too serious. I dare say that the difficulty never exceeded 4th class (Dominic concurs). As we stood on a high step in the ridge just before the saddle we saw a mama goat and her baby sleeping directly below us. Unfortunately we had to disturb them because they were lying right across our intended path. The down climb from this ridge step to the saddle was steep, but again I don't think it exceeded 4th class. From there it was a fairly easy climb directly up the ridge to Lightning Pyramid. The traverse took 45 minutes.
The weather continued to hold more or less, even though fog was rolling in and out (but mostly in). Since the "Thunder Pyramid" to "Lightning Pyramid" traverse had seemed easy and quick enough, we both were feeling up to attempting the second half from "Lightning Pyramid" to UN 13,631. It was almost twice as long and we had no idea what to expect, but we were excited to give it a try.
Off we went, keeping our fingers crossed that it didn't start raining. This section of the ridge has quite a few towers and features. It is definitely a much more serious undertaking than the "Thunder Pyramid" to "Lightning Pyramid" section. We kept to the ridge crest, both because it was our intention of doing as much of a "real" ridge traverse as possible and because we knew we'd find the most solid rock there. Route finding wasn't horribly difficult, although we had to do some scouting around. The first third of the ridge is composed of large, gnarly, rotten towers. We thought there were two cruxes in this section. Both were lengthy, steep, loose down climbs off the backside of towers. The second one looked impossible from the top as most of the tower was terribly loose and overhanging. Our only hope was a really questionable looking, steep little gully, the bottom portion of which we couldn't see from the top. It looked like if we couldn't down climb it we'd be turning back. Fortunately the further down we climbed the more reasonable it looked. Its hard to rate climbing like this on loose rock, but we agreed that a 5.0 – 5.2 rating was probably appropriate for both of these cruxes. No single move was really all that difficult, but great care had to be taken to test holds religiously and to concentrate on the task at hand one step at a time. We down climbed these two cruxes one at a time, the second person waiting until the first was well out of harms way, as our descent paths in both cases were total shooting galleries. Every time I looked back I thought "Man, we just climbed down that?!" Using a rope for either one would be very dangerous and I would definitely not recommend it.
After the giant rotten tower section we came to a very narrow section (still rotten of course). I guess it's about as close it gets to a "knife edge" with this kind of trash rock. The loose rock got our full attention here. It was in this second section that we came to the 3rd and final crux – a very short down climb around a little step in the narrow ridge. This was only a couple of moves, but it was quite exposed and more difficult than the previous two cruxes – I'm going to take a shot in the dark and say it was at least 5.4, maybe even 5.6. It took me a while to figure it out because I didn't want to trust ANY hold with my full body weight. Dominic spotted me as I did it. This move could have been avoided if we had cut out this second section of the traverse completely and bypassed the ridge on loose scree and talus on the west side. Bypassing this crux once committed to this section of the ridge though is not possible. The climbing on the rest of this narrow ridge section wasn't especially difficult, just loose. Again, I kept looking back and thinking, "We came over that pile of junk? It doesn't even look like it should be still standing!"
As we neared the "Lightning Pyramid" – UN 13,631 saddle the difficulty eased and we felt our first few drops of rain. The last third of the traverse was much easier. We knew from Garratt & Martin that remainder of the climb to UN 13,631 wasn't going to be all that difficult and were absolutely ecstatic when we realized that we were going to be able to complete our wild goal on this sketchy weather day. For some reason we got suckered into climbing ledges on the east face instead of sticking directly to the ridge. At first it seemed like it would be a little quicker, but in fact it was annoying loose and slow. Finally we topped out on the summit – one and a half hours after we'd left "Lightning Pyramid". We were really relieved the rain had held off because doing this traverse when wet would be a nightmare.
After only a short stay, we headed back to the UN 13,631 – "Lightning Pyramid" saddle, this time sticking to the ridge proper. This seemed much faster and easier – it was mostly 3rd class with maybe one or two 4th class moves required. From the saddle we bailed northwest down annoying scree and loose talus. It was easy but a pain in the butt. The rain started in earnest as we made our way down so we stopped to put on our rain gear. Once back in the basin east of Len Shoemaker Ridge, we retraced our steps back to camp. It rained lightly off and on. The steep descent was not enjoyable and the mix of grass and talus sections made for a bad combination. The wet grass buttered our shoes perfectly so that at the start of each talus section we slipped around on the loose rocks. Trekking poles would have helped but unfortunately we'd left them at camp so they wouldn't interfere with all of the scrambling we did. We finished the hike around 3:30 and spent the rest of the afternoon in the tent listening to the rain. Fortunately, there were no signs of thunder or lightning all day.
Doing this traverse in reverse would be a more sensible option as all of the cruxes could be up climbed instead of down climbed.