Thunder Pyramid

3-5 Jul 2002 - by Gary Swing

Trip Dates: July 3-5, 2002
USGS Quad: Maroon Bells
Elevation Gain: 8,800 feet
Distance: 20 miles total
Participants: Gary Swing and Tindi Akpem
On a three day trip, my girlfriend Tindi and I set out to climb three difficult high thirteeners along the ridge extending south from Pyramid Peak. Gerry and Jennifer Roachs guidebook Colorados Thirteeners: From Hikes to Climbs indicates that the road to the Maroon Bells Trailhead is only open to cars before 8:30 am or after 5:00 pm. We arrived early in the morning to find no attendant at the entrance station, but there was a sign posted indicating that there is now a $10 per day fee for cars. We didnt see any kind of self-service payment system, so we proceeded to the designated overnight parking area that was full. We made our own space and loaded up our packs for the hike in to Crater Lake.

The campground at the Maroon Lake Trailhead is now closed, but there is a nice new multi-million dollar restroom facility at the end of the road.

From the Maroon Lake Trailhead, we hiked 1.5 miles west on a good but rocky trail to a register at the junction of the Buckskin Pass Trail and the West Maroon Creek Trail. We turned left on the West Maroon Creek Trail to Crater Lakes northeast end and took the first path on the right to designated campsites, where we set up our tent for two nights.

After we set up camp, we continued up the West Maroon Creek Trail with our daypacks for 1.8 miles to a crossing of the creek. There were several different marginal ways of crossing the creek on rocks and logs, requiring excellent balance to keep ones feet dry. Slightly uphill from the creek crossing, we started bushwhacking up through wet willows, downed trees and nasty thorns to reach the first of several cliff bands. The bushwhack left us soaking wet.

We climbed east and then southeast up a series of nifty ramps breaching cliff bands to reach a hanging basin. Some of the ramps were grassy while others were filled with talus, which was sometimes loose. The bottom of the cliff band route starts directly above a boulder big enough to crush even the most substantial SUV. This boulder is situated below a slope of much smaller rocks. The route up the ramps was marked by a series of cairns.

At the top of the cliff bands, we headed up to the south end of the hanging basin on varied terrain, including grassy meadows, scree, loose talus and snowfields. The route became steeper at the head of the basin, turning into a monotonous, unpleasant trudge up unstable talus and scree to climb the long slope to the 13,300 foot saddle north of Unnamed 13,631. Tindi was having a difficult time climbing this slope and threatening clouds were moving in. She suggested that I continue on alone, and I did.

From the saddle, it was only a short distance to the summit of Unnamed 13,631, but the route became more difficult with crumbing, exposed rock blocks. In their guidebook, Colorados High Thirteeners, Garratt and Martin suggest that ridge steps can be climbed directly or bypassed on the east side. The east side looked impractical to me. I bypassed some obstacles on the west and climbed others. There were two tricky spots where I did some fourth class climbing moves.

I signed the summit register, rested for a few minutes, and turned around to race the clouds. I met up with Tindi halfway down the steep slope between the saddle and the hanging basin, and we followed the route back down through the cliff bands. We made it almost to treeline before the thunder, lightning and light rain started. From the huge boulder at the bottom of the rock field below the cliffs, we found a clearing that allowed access back to the West Maroon Creek Trail without rough bushwhacking.

The second days climb followed the same route up to the start of the hanging basin. From 11,800 feet in the basin, we climbed east-southeast up steep, unstable talus to the bottom of the couloir leading to the 13,420 foot saddle left of the 13,722 foot summit. Tindi left me at the base of the couloir to do a more pedestrian hike on the West Maroon Creek Trail.

Both guidebooks say to stay on the right side of the couloir to avoid cliffs. The Roach guidebook says to climb steep, loose fourth class blocks on the right side of the couloir. I started up the couloir to a point where it was choked by hard-packed snow. Because of the drought conditions and near absence of snow, I had not brought an ice axe or crampons. I was able to squeeze between the snow and the rock on the right side for a short distance, but soon found it prudent to start climbing up loose, broken rock to the right of the couloir. I moved out of the couloir entirely to do a long, sustained climb up steep, broken third and fourth class rock with some questionable holds further to the south. I didnt re-enter the couloir until about 200 feet below the saddle, to finish on scree. I set my pack down at the saddle and hiked up the ridge to the right 0.15 miles to the summit of Unnamed 13,722.

Back at the 13,420 foot saddle, the route to Thunder Pyramid looked dubious. More to the point, it didnt look like anything at all. Garratt and Martin say to contour on steep grassy slopes on the right side of the ridge at the elevation of the saddle to reach the obvious talus-filled couloir climbing back to the ridge. The Roaches say to contour along narrow ledges. I think this terrain is better described as steep, grassy slopes, as there is hardly anything there thats wide enough to describe as ledges. I started across the traverse slowly and with some uncertainty about the prospect, but it went fairly well. I dropped a little bit of elevation as I worked my over to the couloir.

The couloir was a steep route filled with loose talus and scree, just like everything else in the area, but it wasnt particularly difficult. At the top, I turned right to finish the climb north up the ridge. There were some clever third class passages on the left side to circumvent obstacles on the ridge.

For the descent, I climbed down the west face of Thunder Pyramid. The Roach book say to do the third class climb south down the two ridge steps that I had passed on the way up. I started down from the west side of the second ridge step and worked my way down to the left (south) side of the white rock gully described in both guidebooks. The guidebooks say to climb down the white rock gully to 12,000 feet, with the Roaches recommending the north edge of the gully. I didnt care for the gully and descended loose talus south of it instead. At the 12,000 foot level above a cliff band, I angled south, following goat tracks down grassy slopes and a convenient scree ramp to reach the loose talus at the base of the couloir that I had started up for the climb of Unnamed 13,722. While the descent route was technically easier, I found the ascent route to be more enjoyable.

Tindi and I had planned to spend the last day of our trip driving to another trailhead to climb an additional peak. Instead, we chose to remain at our Crater Lake campsite to do some easy trail hiking and splash around in the lake. We drove out from the trailhead around 5:30 pm and found no attendant at the entrance station to ask for our use fee.

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