Pyramid Peak, NE Route

8 Jul 2000 - by Doug Cook

Pyramid is definitely one of the hardest, most challenging Fourteeners. The three mile hike/climb/scramble to the summit includes 4400 vertical feet, often on difficult steep dirt slopes, the two-steps forward one-slip backward type climbing. Although reputed as loose and dangerous, we found the 3rd and 4th Class climbing not appreciably harder than Capital Peak and Little Bear, other Class 4 Fourteeners. Care was required to not knock off the loose gravel and scree, which was everywhere. All hand and footholds had to be tested since many were, indeed, loose. The exposure was not extreme if you stayed on route, and most of the ridge climb was primarily a traverse which helped reduce the danger of rockfall from climbers ahead on the route. A lot of the route, with talus and boulders among the alpine grasses, reminded me (Doug) of climbing in the Crestones (sans Chickenheads!). Friday, July 7th Kevin Craig and I headed out for Pyramid, leaving Denver at 3 PM. The four hour drive to Aspen put us at the Silver Bell, Silver Bar, and Silver Queen campgrounds around 7:30 PM. These are the only campgrounds close to the Maroon Lake trailhead, and we were lucky to reserve the last tent campsite (out of a total of only 14 sites). Access to the Maroon Lake trailhead is $10 (good for four days), and the camp site fee was $14. The next closest campgrounds are SE of Aspen toward Independence Pass. The Maroon Lake campground was closed several years ago due to a mudslide, and overnight camping at the trailhead is prohibited. A host lives in a trailer at the TH, and we suspect the he polices the TH to enforce the no overnight camping policy. The access road is closed in the summer (mid-June through September) from 8:30 AM to 5PM and shuttle buses are operated out of Aspen. Time your arrival to the area accordingly.

We rolled up our bivys in the dark Saturday morning, drove the 4-5 miles to the TH, and began hiking around the crystal clear Maroon Lake at 5:20 AM, shortly after daylight. (We both remarked on the hike out how we had never seen such perfectly clear water. It was almost as though the water is treated!) As we neared Crater Lake, we were fooled by a small two-rock cairn and took a faint trail toward Pyramid. The correct trail is well defined by a couple of 2-3 foot tall cairns and is well traveled. Eventually the faint trail crossed the standard trail and we began the first steep climb on dirt and loose gravel up through some Pines toward the amphitheater below Pyramid.

After ascending into the narrow, north-facing amphitheater, traversing endless talus and boulders along the moraine, we began the long grunt up the 1100 foot steep dirt slope on an obvious trail to gain the 13000 foot saddle on the Northeast Ridge route. The snow along the west edge of the moraine was nearly melted out and our ice axes were never needed, although helpful later in descending the steep, dirt trails. Because of the narrowness of the amphitheater and its northerly aspect, we climbed in the shadow until well after 9AM.

From the saddle, the route traverses S then SW along Pyramid's NE Ridge toward the summit. There is a fairly distinct trail along the right side of the ridge at the beginning until you reach a major notch between the saddle and the NE ridge proper where the route switches to the left side of the ridge on Pyramid's E face. Although the routes are well cairned, many with colored plastic tape, careful routefinding was required to stay on the most direct and solid rock route. The great number of cairns indicated several routes which could be followed. The route includes traversing narrow ledges and then ascending 3rd/4th Class sections of rock. As careful as we were, some rock was still knocked loose. With careful route-finding and testing holds, we found reasonably solid climbing, especially in a section of pale-colored rock about halfway to the summit. No question though, helmets should be mandatory for Pyramid. Just climbing along, we bumped our heads several times on overhanging sections of rock. Despite our early start, seven climbers were above us, but rockfall was never a serious hazard probably because everyone was being careful and due to the diagonally-traversing route. Some of them had camped at Crater Lake which put them about a half-hour ahead of us.

After some terrific 4th Class scrambling, we finally arrived at the summit at 10:40 AM, 5 hours and 20 minutes of steep, tiring climbing.

We were blessed with relatively clear skies, although some clouds began to build and a couple of sprinkles encouraged us to only spend a short time on the summit, grabbing a quick bite to eat, some photos, and exchanging the nearly full summit register for a fresh one. The descent required endless downclimbing, often facing in, on 4th Class rock. We descended a route slightly different from where we ascended, but it was well traveled and cairned. Our descent back down the extremely steep, loose trails from the ridge to the amphitheater and from the amphitheater to the valley floor was slow, and we eventually arrived back at the TH at 3:30 as a steady downpour began. On the hike back out of the valley, we met two fellow CMCers from the Ft. Collins group who (through email postings) we knew were planning to traverse the Bells. Instead, due to the unsettled weather around dawn (probably a wise choice given the thunderstorms in the area that accompanied our descent to the valley), they also climbed Pyramid. Somehow, we had passed each other on Pyramid without meeting up. We celebrated the 10 hour, exhausting day with a great sense of mountaineering accomplishment. Pyramid is a tough climb. Although we carried 100 feet of 5mm kernmantle and webbing for diaper slings, we never encountered any situation where a belay or rappel was needed. Actually, ropes on the loose slopes would likely unleash a rain of gravel and scree on anyone below. Pyramid is definitely one of the finest Fourteeners with excellent routefinding and climbing challenges. I (Doug) rank Pyramid and Capitol as the two hardest Fourteeners (having experienced most of the Fourteeners, with the exception of the Maroon Bells which is planned for next weekend). From the descriptions we can find, we expect the Bells to be as difficult and dangerous as Pyramid.

Doug Cook, Kevin Craig


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