| Across Pyramids Northeast Ridge
For me, the idea of climbing Pyramid had always been somewhat daunting. I love scrambling in exposed areas more then any other activity on a mountain… but the stories the emanate from this peak, as well as the others surrounding it are rife with tales of severe exposure and rock that pulls away at the slightest touch. I have always struggled some with very loose rock which made these reports and descriptions disconcerting to say the very least..
In May, I started my planning for the mountains that I felt like I had to climb this year… and Pyramid found a prominent place in my calendar quickly. I don't like feeling fear, so my inclination is to confront my fears head on. As a result I would not be letting this mountain slide past me for another year.
Jason agreed to climb with me, and after everything was figured out, we would also be climbing with Cliff (Ascent88 ). I had never climbed with Cliff before, but I had met him at camp earlier in the month in the San Juans, and respected his tenaciousness after he knocked out 3 mountains in 1 day… arriving at the summit of the 3rd as I was leaving it (my first and only mountain that day… while he had already done Redcloud, Sunshine and was about to hit Handies).
Jason and I met up in Denver on Friday after work and headed up to Aspen. We were meeting between 3 and 330am in the morning, and knew we would not be getting much sleep as we pulled into the parking lot at 11:45. 3:00am always comes too early. The 3 of us were on the trail by 330am, our headlamps lighting the way along the Crater Lake trail. The large unmarked cairn marking the start of the Pyramid Trail was in front of us before we knew it. The trail steepened as it switch backed through the trees towards the amphitheater. In the dark, flickering stars lit the way, and with the surrounding landscape obscured the distance passed by quickly. The warm night ensured that I never put on anything more then a t-shirt. Shortly after making the transition to the amphitheater we found a long thin tongue of snow creating a wide flat path that had been softened by the warm night. We exited the snow by scrambling up a loose hill. My stomach forced a break on us, giving us the time we needed for first light to light up the path to the saddle. The light also gave us our first view of Pyramids imposing face.
Looking out across the amphitheater in the darkness - extended exposure photos
We decided that the base of the steep scree slope would be a perfect time to put on our helmets. There was an obvious path winding up the thin gully. The lower 100 feet of the gully was by far the loosest, but as the path became slightly more solid it became reminiscent of the hike up Broken Hand Pass in the Sangres.
Cliff previewing the hike up to the saddle
Cliff switchbacking up the slope
Jason looking out over the first view of the Maroon Bells over the Northwest ridge
From the saddle, we could see the Bells, and Capital in the distance, lit by the newly risen sun. We took a break, and talked about the plan moving forward as our eyes were drawn to the summit.
A small pinnacle at the saddle
Alpen Glow on the Bells
Pyramid from the Saddle
Cliff taking a break at the saddle
Jason coming up one of the early class 3 moves on the ridge
From the saddle there is an obvious trail, which quickly gives way to cairns. The route at first was very solid, and as long as we were sure to look for the cairns and follow them religiously it stayed that way. The jump we had anticipated was a bit anticlimactic, spanning 2-3 feet at most with a solid platform on either side. The jump itself could be avoided by scrambling along the wall on loose rock, but that would have been more dangerous and much less sporting. The jump gave way to the ledge system that was like a walkway on as flat as a city sidewalk… just a bit less wide with a tiny bit more exposure. Facing the wall was mandatory, and there is one move that was interesting, but it was probably the easiest part of the climb.
Cliff and Jason making the leap, and then a photo of cliff taking film of the gap for jasons jump
Cliff and Jason making their way across the ledges
We joked about how simple the climb was up to this point, but found ourselves lacking any wood to knock on at this altitude. I was insistent that I would not be waying in on the route until we were done with the crux, the green gully that lay immediately in front of us.
We missed the cairn that would have placed us in the gully about 20 feet higher, so we started the climb on slightly steeper rock then we had to. Despite this, the rock was solid and exciting. The rock that was loose, was easily avoided by making sure that all holds were tested, that you climbed with your legs not your arms, and by maintaining 3 points of contact just in case you found a less then ideal hold. As I came to the top of the green rock, I heard Cliff excitedly shout down that there was a really solid dihedral rock formation up ahead that was short but completely climbable. When I saw it, with cliff looking down I just had to climb it. Jason opted for the standard route.
Cliff making his way up the green rock, then looking down at me as I climbed up
Jason starting up the green rock
From here, it appeared that the route continued up the green rock, and without looking too much beyond, we started up the resumption of the green rock. The rock quickly became very loose, and I found myself very concerned about the climb down this on our return trip. After Cliff had made it about 30 or 40 feet further up, and I was maybe 20 feet up, Jason noticed that there were cairns in the other direction. I was very relieved to know that we would not have to continue up what was becoming an overly loose route. Cliff was able to traverse over to the actual route, while I decided my best option would be to down climb to where Jason was before resuming my progress on the correct route. Downclimbing that rock was not confidence inspiring. In fact, the gross looseness of the massive rocks I had already climbed really shook my nerves in a horrible way. Climbing the rock was substantially easier then moving down it. Jason and I found ourselves warning an approaching group below us to drop back behind some rocks until I was clear of the massive rocks that seemed poised and ready to tumble down the slope. Luckily, none came loose, but I really feel like that was as much luck as any skill on my part.
As we crossed to the ledge system that we had now found, I had to re-center my thoughts. It didn't take too long, however it did take just long enough. As soon as Cliff was able to show us what he could of the route from his perch up above I was back on my game. The ledges placed us back on the now familiar rock that we had been on that led us over a system that mixed class 3 moves with periodic class 4 moves. The last 2 class 4 moves were fairly exposed, but were on solid rock that were caped by the cairns that were our beacon to the final, and short walk to the summit.
Jason hiking up the ridge line at the summit
Cliff on the summit
me on the summit
looking along the summit into the distance
The Bells from the summit with Snowmass in the Distance
We didn't spend too much time on the top of the mountain before pulling our packs on to begin the second half of the climb, the way down. Before leaving the summit we talked about the descent. Some of the moves we had encountered on the way up seemed as though they might be a bit more difficult on the way down. The 20+ foot downclimb of the horrible off-route section we had encountered on the way up was very fresh in my mind as we tackled the first set of moves. It proved to be no problem, and as we made our way down to the saddle, our confidence grew until we were once again laughing and joking as we had on the way up. I think a big part of this was the fact that we knew what was ahead, and were fueled by the excitement created by having accomplished a goal.
Jason making one of the first tougher downclimb moves will Cliff looking down
Jason contemplating another downclimb
Cliff coming off the proper exit for the green rock gully
On the hike out through the rock glacier that builds the amphitheater, we had the opportunity to see the sights that had been obscured by the early morning darkness that accompanied our hike in. As Cliff and I sat on one of the very few stable rocks on the scree slope that connects the amphitheater and the saddle waiting for Jason to catch up on our descent I spotted a waterfall pouring down the face of Pyramid and it looked down on us. It felt like the mountain was telling that since she had blessed us with a successful trip to her summit, we needed to see her for more than a thing to be conquered. Instead, it was showing us a collection of beautiful features that should be noticed, and appreciated in their fullness. This made the hike out seem as though we were moving through terrain we had not been in before. Immediately after the climb, I questioned my willingness to climb it again, while the anxiety created by the uncertainty of the ascent was still fresh in my mind. Now, with a day to think about how amazing this climb really was I think I would jump at the chance to visit this majestic mountain again.
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