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Peak(s):  "Lightning Pyramid"  -  13,729 feet
Date Posted:  07/29/2019
Date Climbed:   07/23/2019
Author:  bergsteigen
Additional Members:   TakeMeToYourSummit
 Struck by Lightning   

"Lightning Pyramid"

  • mileage: 11.55
  • elevation gain: 4573'
  • trailhead: Maroon Lake
  • partner: Brad

With the snow that will never melt, Brad and I figured we could squeeze one more snow climb in the Elks. A video from the summit of Maroon, showed the Lightning Couloir "thin but in". Or she ain't pretty, but she goes. Well, she was dirty and loose, but got the job done.

I drove up the night before and camped near the Snowmass trailhead, so I could pick Brad up at his place in the AM. With the summer snow, we didn't need to get up stupid early, so at least that's a bonus of late season snow! We were the second car in the lot, but soon a few more showed up. Likely all there just for the sunrise in a little while. None looked like hikers.

Started up the trail in my light boots, since we had the rocky but good approach all the way to the cut off to the Maroon trail (which I no longer remember!). We caught sunrise on our arrival to Crater Lake, which is always a treat!

Moon and Pyramid
Bells and Sleeping Sexton

Log filled reflection
13,631 sun hit reflection, maybe we'll see you today?

Had an easy stream crossing, followed by a bushwhacking tricky crossing before we got to the major one.

Brad trying not to fall in
First view of Lightning Pyramid and waterfall. Is that the snow we're climbing?

A major swath of avalanche debris is at the base of the route above the cliffs for Thunder, Lightning and 13,631. But first you have to swack through the bushes and a mini stream crossing to get to the log crossing.

Avalanche debris below Lightning
Brad on the morning log crossing

Once across the stream, its a jumble of logs, marshes and streams before you get on open solid ground. Since Brad remembers hiking 13,631, he knows where to find the weakness in the cliffs. It was so long ago when I skied Thunder, I don't remember the way off hand. But up and right/south to the small waterfalls.

Morning view to Buckskin

We chose a sporting class 4 route up the cliffs, but later found an easier route one notch south. Though it does have snow in it currently. And broken trekking poles.

Class 4 route up cliffs
Me getting around the crux

Once above, it's a small snow field and another bench to go before getting to the base of the snow climb

Will the ptarmigan loose their white feathers this year?

First close up view of the couloir, shows it patchy, even at the base. Good thing I brought my old sabertooths, so I can walk over talus if need be.

Lightning Couloir, not quite as spring like as desired
13,631 behind Brad

The Bells
Moon behind Len Shoemaker peak

Brad decided to boot up the rocks directly to the base of the couloir, while I wanted to climb the snow to the left and then contour to the base. It's been almost a decade since I've snow climbed without ski boots, so I wanted to work out the kinks with my mountaineering boots and crampons before I got to the steep stuff. Good thing, since one of my crampons was set too loose and needed adjustment with my LaSportiva Glaciers.

Base of the steep snow
Me starting up the couloir

Once beyond the base apron of the couloir, it narrows significantly and has a nice runnel to follow up through the winding crack in the face of the route. At the narrowest point, was a 50+ degree snow pitch that was quite exhilarating. So much so, we talked about running the ridge to another peak, instead of having to down climb that pitch again!

Brad in the start of the narrows
Brad below the crux of the couloir, a 50+ degree step
Me happy to have two ice tools!

Above the snow crux, the angle eases back down to a manageable level, and widens for a bit as well. But soon the snow ends, and a dry patch has to be crossed before the snow splits into a few thin fingers, clawing their way up the cliffy face of Lightning.

Brad above the crux
Brad with the Treasure peaks behind

Once the snow ends for good, the rock is loose, steep and just shitty. We split when we can, to avoid sending the unavoidable rocks down. I'm good on loose terrain, but this was next level bad. How and WHY do people climb this dry? WHY?!?!?!?! Tres stupide!

I made my way to the saddle by the most solid route I could find, which was only solid on occasion, though got better the closer to the saddle I got. Brad veered a bit further south, but got cliffed out and had to backtrack closer to where I was ascending.

Loose rock and semi solid to scramble to the saddle
Brad hidden in the jumble of crappy loose rock

Once on the saddle, things improved greatly, and it was a short and easy jaunt up to the summit.

Thunder Pyramid from the saddle

What's a good way to tell you are on a summit in the Elks? Take a 360 pano ;)

Lightning pano 1

Lightning Pano 2

Me on the summit with my 3 pair of footwear and 2 axes. So prepared.
Bells from the summit

We both took a few minutes looking at the traverse over to 13,631. It looked less than simple. A look over to Thunder Pyramid took less time, as we could directly see the difficulties involved in that traverse.

13,631.... another day!
Thunder Pyramid... nope

Dang, we'll have to go down the couloir. While I have snow climbed plenty of steep routes, and even topped over stupid steep cornices before, I've never had to down climb the steep. We've always exited a different way on Ice, Pacific, Conundrum, etc. And that was almost a decade ago for those snow climbs pre skimo. Skiing down is a completely different ballgame. I'm a much better skier than down climber.

So we got back to the saddle and split up best we could to get back to the snow. We both started plunge stepping on the snow, but it was just a wee bit too steep for such travel. Ugg facing in, down climbing. How exhausting!

Oh sweet glorious SNOW
Upper narrow section of sloppy snow

Brad down climbing
Me facing in

We had some discussions about how we'd get over the snow crux. Brad had some webbing and we could use my longer ax as an anchor, if needed. But when we got to the crux, Brad just zipped down it. I took the webbing and slung a frozen rock, just in case I slipped, but never ended up using it. Still a nice insurance plan.

Me bellow the snow crux once again, very happy!
Brad down climbing with a nice view of the Bells behind

Once below the crux, it was just one step below the other, till we could start glissading the lower snow! Butt skiing!!!

Upper glissade, double axes WEEEEEEEE
Second and best glissade

We took a nice break below the main climb, so I could switch out of my mountaineering boots and into something more comfortable.

The route in the afternoon. Ie not backlit
Leaving the easier peak for another day

From there, we just back tracked to our scramble on the cliff face.

Brad making his way down to the cliffs
One last glissade, single ax this time.
Wee waterfall

Brad Downclimbing the pricker infested slope

Cliff side view
Me trying not to impale my hands with prickers

Flower break

We made our way down through the avalanche debris and got back to the log crossing. Did it without poles this time. Had to remember my balance beam routines from my childhood.

Balance beams don't have rampaging streams below them

We took a nice break once back on the easy groomed trail, since from there it was just an easy jaunt back to my truck. We only saw one person on the trail, and that was some guy wanting to see Crater Lake for sunset, carrying nothing. We hoped at least a cell phone, for light!

I would have much rather climbed this peak/route when there was more snow, but can't win all the time! Still a rewarding but tough day in the mountains!

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Stunning pics!
7/29/2019 2:52pm

Very nice!
7/29/2019 8:00pm
Loved the report, thank you.

Well done!
8/20/2019 9:30pm
I was there that day you skied Thunder several years back.

Bittersweet memories from that location. Still haven€„¢t been able to go back yet. Maybe someday I€„¢ll go for Lightning...we€„¢ll see.

Thanks for sharing.

8/21/2019 3:36pm
12ersRule & painless4u2 - Tough to take bad photos here!

Britt - I remember that day on Thunder, and your history with that peak. It's tough not to! I thought about Steve's spirit in that basin, as I passed by it. Hopefully your soul can be cleansed of that tragedy and you can return and visit your friend!

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