| Rugged and Loose: Elk Centennials
I wanted to post this earlier in the week, but have been too busy with work, hopefully the beta is useful for people heading up this way this coming holiday weekend...
Saturday June 27, 2009
"Thunder Pyramid" - 13,932' (65th)
"Lightning Pyramid" - 13,722' (137th)
Appx 10 1/2 miles and 5000' vertical
Sunday June 28, 2009
Cathedral Peak - 13,943' (62nd)
Appx 9 miles and 4100' vertical
Partners: Scot (Floyd), Colin (Astrobassman), Craig (Cheeseburglar) and Amanda
I woke up in my car at the Maroon Lake trailhead at 4.30am and started hiking up along the parking lots and around the lake to the trail. So far I was the only one around - its eerily peaceful to be at this crowed tourist attraction this early in the day!
The trail was easy to follow by headlamp in the dark, but it was wetter than I remember it being in the past. Must be due to high runoff and recent rains. Soon I was passing the cairn to Pyramid and reaching the shores of Crater Lake. Again, some high water was flooding parts of the trail. I continued on past the famous "bent tree" and the turn off for South Maroon and reached the creek crossing. Crap. I was expecting the high water based on earlier, but this was nuts. Luckily a quarter mile up the trail there was a nice snow bridge:
This was one of those "the introduction is over" moments you read about in Roach's book. The summit is a little over a mile away, but its 3400' above you! The good news was the white gully was well snow covered and loose rock would (hopefully) be less of a problem today.
(Image taken from descent - Thunder is the left of center, summit is just on the edge of the blue sky to the left of the center cloud. Lightning is to the right of the same cloud)
I bushwhacked through some willows, found the trail, crossed it, and followed more willows to the base of some talus at the bottom of the first cliff. From here, climb through the talus towards the left side of the cliff where a small talus gully (snow filled this day) leads through the first cliff. Above is more talus, another cliff, and another talus gully on the left side to get you through (again snow filled this day). So far 2 for 2 on steep loose talus being snow filled, nice 8)
Another steep bench, this one a mix of talus, dirt, grass and snow put me at the base of Len Shoemaker Basin and the first (and only!) flat reprieve of the relentless pursuit of elevation that is the West Face of Thunder Pyramid. This was a great place to have a break and put on my helmet (even solo, I wanted a helmet... I don't trust this mountain or the goats that live on it to not drop rocks on me). From here the white gully was clearly visible as was the bench below it that avoids the waterfall. You basically climb up the broken slope to the left of the little tiny snow patch and traverse the grass bench to reach the base of the white gully, which was very happily snow.
(Image taken on descent)
From here its normally a steep slog up ridiculously loose talus, basically Maroon Peak - steeper, longer, and with more loose rock. Yeah, I was happy it was snow... a few images from this part of the ascent
Snow basically all the way to the col at 13740...
From here the fun begins, not being sarcastic, really... The route loosely follows the ridge or to its left and follows a series of loose ledges/steps/gullies (whichever you feel like) as it makes its way to the summit. This section is like the summit pitch on Maroon or Pyramid, but with no cairns and more loose rock. It really was the most enjoyable part of the climb, but keep in mind this is Thunder Pyramid and enjoyable is a relative term! It felt good to summit, but it was too foggy to enjoy the views. The sun hadn't yet burned off the moisture of last night, so it was foggy and had a light dusting of snow, but it wasn't too bad, just had to be careful where you put your feet.
While exhaustingly steep, the snow made this a much better ascent than it ordinarily is, and I was pleased to have gone up this time of year. I knew that the "easiest" way to gain the summit of "Lightning Pyramid" was to do so while I was already up here. The problem is the route isn't the easiest to follow - its either a) climb the loose 4th class ridge directly or b) try and find the class 2 gully/ledge system to bypass it. With the wet rock, "a" was out, and with the fog, "b" was difficult. The class 2 gully was right at the same col I had come up from the west face. It was snow filled and steep. I downclimbed it facing in until I got to a branch. Seeing a ledge, I figured this was a good place to exit and traverse it in the fog. I wasn't low enough yet. I was only 1/2 to 2/3 of the way to the saddle and still had to descend the lowest 4th class step on the ridge route. Oh well, it wasn't that bad, the part above me looked worse, so at least I had successfully avoided the crux.
(The smaller red tower is the one I had to downclimb, you can see the lower part of the snow beyond, the upper part is not visible. I traversed the ledge across the top of the cliff that follows below the big tower)
From the saddle "Lightning Pyramid" is pretty much just a second class ascent of loose rock. This relatively easy summit pitch is just really difficult to get to, but its a nice break when you do.
For the descent I decided not to deal with the 4th class route that goes up in between Thunder and Lightning, and instead traversed the lower ledges back towards Thunder, up the lower snowfield, and then re-ascend my earlier kick steps back to the 13,740' col. This extra 350' to me was worth it to avoid nasty down climbing in the gully. From there I descended the West Face route back to the trail. Along the way the clouds broke up and the view of the Bells, with Snowmass and Capitol beyond, was delightful.
The trail descent was uneventful, a little drier, and a lot more people. When I got back to the car I was happy to have Thunder and Lightning under my belt and to have been able to minimize the loose rock by taking advantage of the lingering snow. It was off to Aspen for lunch and then to head over and meet the crew for Sunday's climb at the Cathedral Lakes TH.
Saturday night we just hung around the parking lot chatting before crashing there for the night. We woke up around 5 and started up the steep trail around 5.30am. The trail is steep in places, but does have some reprieve through some slightly flatter sections. The first peak you see on the way up is Malamute
As we neared the lake, we decided instead of crossing the creek twice, why not stay along the side creek, cross it, and then contour talus up to the basin below Cathedral. There was some willow whacking involved, but it wasn't for too long:
(Craig and Amanda navigate the willows)
To our delight, we found a climbers trail as we got onto the talus and followed that all the way to the back side of Cathedral Lake:
And then continued to follow it as it leads to the base of Cathedral where it eventually turned to all snow as we neared the base of the gully. The crux of this route is a 500' or so gully that when snow filled offers a moderate snow climb, but when dry is probably a nightmare of loose dirt and scree.
(Route goes up snow gully to notch at base of south ridge)
(Looking back down the gully from the ascent)
At the top of the col we chatted with some other climbers and then set off up the ridge. There is a broken climbers trail most of the way, at least through the easier terrain. Most of the ridge is class 2, with some steeper sections and some optional 3rd class (or more) in some places if you stay more to the ridge crest.
(Image taken from descent)
The views up top are great, especially off towards the Bells and Pyramid:
We reversed our route, which meant downclimbing the snow gully. It was too full of debris (and too steep in my opinion) to glissade, and a little too firm still to get a good heel plunge up high. We took turns face in downclimbing the top, then turned around and plunge stepped back to the bottom and walked out along the climbers trail back to the main trail and later the trailhead. It was good climbing with these guys, I think after finishing all the 14ers we are all interested in exploring some other options that are not necessarily tied to specific lists and goals, just getting up good peaks with good company. That is what Sunday was all about - I look forward to our next adventure!!
Overall it was an exhausting weekend of loose rugged Elk Range centennials, but it was great to get two of them done. These are not easy peaks, but with snow you can mitigate some of the rockfall danger and have a relatively enjoyable day of suffering
Parting shot... Pyramid from Maroon Creek Road near Aspen Highlands
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):