Peak(s):  "Thunder Pyramid"  -  13,932 feet
Date Posted:  06/01/2016
Date Climbed:   05/30/2016
Author:  Nathan Hale
 Thunderstruck -- West Face Direct Finish  

After finishing the 14ers, I wasn't sure if I'd ever complete the centennials, and one of the big reasons was that the choss-pile known as Thunder Pyramid scared me. Once I got more committed to the centennials list it still made me nervous, so I resolved to climb it while it was covered in snow, which was what I did to make Little Bear safer.

After a few years of trying to get scheduling and conditions aligned with my friend Brian, this Memorial Day finally brought everything together. The west face was covered in enough snow to make it a complete snow climb, things were stable, and we were ready to go.

The route we took worked out perfectly in that we barely even touched any rocks, and saw not a single one move. We traded the uncertainty of loose rocks and exposure for the known quantity of extremely steep snow on nearly a direct summit finish.

A look at Thunder showing our route in red and the place where the standard route branches off in green

We got to Maroon Lake around 4:40 and were hiking by 4:50 or so, seeing a few headlamps high up on Maroon Peak just as we started. We made quick time to Crater Lake, and shortly thereafter had a very brief snow squall move through, despite the otherwise clear skies.

Looking up towards the Bells as the brief snow squall develops overhead

The trail was mostly snow-covered past crater lake, so we got off track a few times and experienced the ceremonial first posthole of the year, but managed to stay more or less on route until about 10,700 feet at the base of the access gullies for Len Shoemaker Basin and Thunder's West Face lying beyond. Since it would be all snow from here on we put on crampons and started up.

Previous reports mentioned that the snow on this face tended to be hard, and that was true for us as well. We'd actually gotten a later start than originally planned after talking to some people who had been up recently who said it would be a good idea.

The only snow-free portion after putting on crampons was the ledge that you use to traverse over to the white gully just above Len Shoemaker Basin. Other than that it was totally snow.

Len Shoemaker Basin as seen from the last dry ground we would touch until the step onto the summit

We climbed up the snow, noting that there was a large wet-slide path in the middle of the gully, but the debris of it actually made for better climbing because it was easier to step on.

Partway up the White Gully, with our route in red, and the standard route indicated in green

As we got to the point where the standard route cuts off to the right to meet the ridge, we confirmed what appeared to be true from below: there was a path of snow that led almost directly to the summit.

We decided to take this up, and as we got within the last 400 feet or so of the summit the slope angle got dramatically steeper and the snow got harder, so Brian had to be very meticulous kicking steps ahead of me and we slowed down quite a lot. I don't know what the slope angle was, but it was steeper than any snow I've climbed before, including the hourglass on Little Bear.

Brian's picture of one of the steeper sections, though not the very steepest

The reward was that it dropped us off within just a few feet of the summit, and the ridge had enough snow that we only had one or two steps on rock. We were very careful to stick as close to the rocks as possible though since there were lots of cornices and we didn't want them to collapse.

I took this from where we topped out on the ridge, and that's the summit there behind Brian

Looking towards Lightning

We waited on the summit for close to two hours for the snow to soften up to make the descent easier. The sun had hit the last portions of the west face just after we summited, so we had to wait a bit. The weather held out nicely; though storms developed around Sopris and also around Castle, we stayed nice and sunny.

Relaxing on the summit waiting for the snow to soften

As we descended, the steep snow near the top seemed even steeper and I had to keep dark thoughts of what would happen if I slipped at bay by focusing on the pure mechanics of moving down a step, moving the axe, and repeating the process. I would have quite liked some sort of protection on this section and it would have made it much more comfortable, rather than looking down to see where the next step was and seeing the valley 3,000 feet below between your feet every time you look down to find the next step.

Carefully descending some of the steep sections

The first 400' of descent on the steepest part took perhaps an hour, but after that there was a short section of relatively quick climbing while facing in, then a short section of climbing facing out, and then finally the glissade could start, which meant that the second ~2500' of descent took about the same amount of time as first 400 feet. The plan of waiting for snow to soften up was definitely a good one.

From there it was just a matter of trying to avoid postholing and then dealing with the crowds past Crater Lake. Though we witnessed a loud and seemingly large ice fall that perhaps had some water mixed in pouring down some of the waterfall chutes on North Maroon's face.

We looked up when we thought we heard thunder, but discovered this large snow slide cascading down the waterfalls on the face of N. Maroon.

We got back to the car a bit before 4, feeling sore but glad to have one of the scariest centennials finished safely in good conditions.

I'll agree with other TR writers that snow-cover is the best way to do Thunder, but the route that we took will probably not generally be possible due to snow coverage. Even when it is possible, it's a very steep snow climb and an even tougher descent.

I also think it would have been very difficult to do the standard route on the day we climbed just because of the cornices and snowcover along the ridge making it a bit treacherous to traverse from where the standard route hits the ridge up to the summit.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions

well done
06/02/2016 08:52
nice work to both of you!

Jon Frohlich

06/02/2016 11:33
This is really helpful. Still debating between going 6/11 or 6/25. Your comment about the cornices makes me think 6/25 might make more sense given the angle of your finish looks a bit spicy.


solid effort
06/02/2016 12:13
Beautiful pics, I love the non-standard angles on the bells and pyramid


Nice Report!
06/03/2016 11:11
Regarding your first pic, with the green and red...I had never seen a pic from that angle before. Brings back a lot of memories, answers a few questions, and should be required viewing for anyone going after that peak. When up there, the most obvious landmark is that gully to the obvious saddle to the climber's left of the red line...should really help orient climbers. Thanks and congrats!


06/03/2016 13:28
Great report and pics. Congrats on getting that tough/scary peak.

Brad Snider

06/09/2016 05:24
Thanks for sharing, great current beta and pics. I'm going to give this one a try on the 11th.

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