Peak(s):  "Thunder Pyramid"  -  13,932 feet
Date Posted:  10/29/2012
Date Climbed:   10/28/2012
Author:  I Man
Additional Members:   sstratta
 Days of Thunder   

Days of Thunder
Thunder Pyramid (13,932')
10.5 miles, 4450' Gain
Route: White Gully (standard) to South Ridge Variation
Climbing Team: Sarah (sstratta) & Matt (I Man)
Start: 7:30am
End: 7:30pm

The Bells seen from the Trailhead

I have had my eyes set on Thunder Pyramid for some time now, but after twice making plans, I had yet to attempt it. I had told myself I would not be going after any of the harder Centennials once fall really set in, but with a good forecast in Aspen for Sunday and successfully securing a partner, all bets were off.

After (sort of) attending the Winter Welcomer on Quandry, I met up with Sarah in East Vail and we made the drive to the Bells Park. We arrived around 10pm to a desolate parking lot. We slept in the car and planned to wake at 6am.

Having spoken to many friends who had done Thunder in various conditions, I was really unsure what to expect. With last year's accident and Roach's description, it is clear that one must approach this peak with respect and humility. However, several of my friends had said the peak was fairly easy and nothing worse than Pyramid. I decided that given the fall conditions and its reputation that I was in for a tough day. Sarah made fun of me on several occasions as I sounded "very pessimistic" about our chances.

We woke up around 6am and drifted in and out for a while before getting up and heading out around 7:30am. Having been to the Park twice during the peak season recently, the isolation and snow was a welcome change. As usual, the approach hike seemed to take longer than expected. We were pleasantly surprised to find the trail completely boot packed though.

Sarah shortly after the Crater Lake Turnoff. The Bells display their glory.

The initial approach on a well packed trail

Thunder has a reputation for being hard to pick out, and besides the one time on top of Pyramid, I hadn't ever picked out the summit. As we passed Crater Lake we enjoyed guessing which was our summit, and where the "standard route" lie. Sarah had done a ton of research and her route-finding proved to be the key to our success. We crossed the stream shortly after the South Maroon turnoff and easily located the cairn about 100 yards past the crossing.

Cairn marking the turn off for Thunder - approx. 100 yards past the stream crossing

Looking down the key gully to access the upper slopes below Thunder's West Face. We climbed the right side on Class 3 cli

West Face of Thunder Pyramid

From this point, things get interesting. With the snow, the boulder hopping and side slope-ing proved pretty tedious. On more than one occasion I was pulling on vegetation to avoid sliding down the hill. The entrance to the first gully is very obvious and puts you above the cliff bands. We stayed on the left side and climbed 20-30ft of Class 3 rock instead of going up the loose gully. While going up the gully certainly would have been an option, we chose to warm up and take the "more fun" route. There are a few cairns here and there and the route is fairly obvious as you connect gullies to reach a large talus field below the West face of Thunder Pyramid.

Lower access to the West Face

Walking along the ridge before the "fun" began

After following Sarah through a small jungle, we came onto the large open talus field. There are many small gullies on Thunder's lower West face, all of which cliff out at the bottom. We accessed the lowest portion of the White Gully via some broken ledges to the right of it. I believe this is the standard route and went very smoothly. Once in the gully, it was clear that this climb was going to take a while. Fresh, loose powder on top of horribly loose rock made the route selection very easy; we would try and link rock ribs and stay out of the gullies. Through the early goings this worked out well and we experienced plenty of 2+ scampering with the occasional Class 3 or 4 cliff band. Progress went at a moderate pace as Sarah picked the best lines. As we gained altitude, we spread out a bit more and had fun go at "Choose Your Own Adventure."

The Lower White Gully

Climbing one of the many exposed Class 4 cliff bands

Half-way up, the route becomes more obvious. There is a large prominent saddle to the North of Thunder, and due to a mistake made by one of Sarah's frequent partners, we knew that, while enticing, this route would lead to the more difficult North Ridge. As we continued up, we were ever mindful of not falling into that trap. We continued our rock rib ascent and the climbing gradually became more committing. At this point I took the lead.

Taking a break around 12,250 ft

We climbed about 40ft of loose and near vertical class 4 rock before finding ourselves above a 100ft cliff to our left. We knew we wanted to get into that gully, and without a rope, rappelling was not an option. The thought of down climbing the Class 4 head wall did not really excite me, so I made the decision to push the route upwards in the hopes that it would link up with the gully. A few moves later and I let out a sigh of relief as I saw the way.

The secret exit that we found after thinking we had clibmed into a trap

At this point the rest of the route became clear, though we were still almost 1,000 feet below the summit. The views around us were outstanding. The Bells displayed their full glory and we each took some moments to enjoy this rarely seen view. The face is steep and unrelenting. It seemed as if we were never gaining any altitude. Slowly but surely, the ridge grew nearer. Roughly 400ft below the ridge, we agreed that we would push a line directly up and intersect the ridge, and then head left and approach the summit. Our progress was very slow, but eventually we topped out on the ridge.

Just after topping out on the ridge - fianlly off of the face

Sarah climbing on one of the Cliff Bands on the rock rib

Sarah 4th Classin' it in boots and glvoes!

Just after climbing off of the face and onto the ridge

More tough climbing

And more climbing


Looking into Len Shoemaker basin, gives a general diea of the slope of the face

Okay - so I have heard from multiple sources that the ridge isn't that bad, and I guess I fell into the trap of expecting something easy. I was floored. I was not fully prepared for what we were about to experience. It turns out we gained the ridge about 100ft further South than we had planned, and the initial traverse required 4th class ledge traverses. The ledges were covered in snow, the hand holds were rotten and the climbing was slightly overhung above fatal exposure. It took a minute to calm my nerves, but I started the sequence. We were at 13,900ft and we still had yet to see the summit. After traversing for 100ft or so, I climbed directly up some steep 4th class and topped out on what I was hoping would be the summit. No dice -we still had some ridge to work with.

Sufferfest - final face climb

The climbing got progressively worse and I took my time. Sarah followed behind me and I called out to make sure she was still on the mountain on more than one occasion. The ridge was heavily corniced to the East and the exposure was very, very real. Within 20ft of the summit I came to a narrow crossing...the worst I've ever seen. Heavily corniced on the East over the worst exposure of the day, and sloping steeply down to the west, I was dumbfounded. I seriously considered bailing as I was not sure that we could safely make the summit. Sometimes the mountain says no - but today was not going to be that day.

Hiking along the South Ridge

One of the sketchiest moves I've ever made

Sarah on Class 2+ terrain during the ascent

After some internal coaching, I stepped gingerly onto the loose rock on the West face and willed myself across the notch. I was now within striking distance of the summit of Thunder Pyramid. I traversed around to the West face and made a 10ft 5th class sequence before collapsing on the summit. Sarah soon followed. We had made the summit, but the toughest part of the day still lie ahead.

Sarah makes the final approach to the summit of Thunder Pyramid

Sarah on the Summit...Way to go, congrats!!!!

The Bells as seen from high on Thunder

I spent one of the most nervous summits of my short climbing career and dozed off for a few minutes. I came to and turned to Sarah "I don't know how we are getting down off this summit - I'm mentally drained from leading - care to take control?" She thanked me for my efforts on the final 1500 feet of the climb and happily took the lead for the descent. It was a tremendous relief to find the down climbs not as bad as we were expecting and within 30 minutes we were casually descending 2+ terrain. We entered a snow filled gully around 500ft below the summit and were able to plunge step and glissade by linking gullies for 2,000 feet or so.

Sarah confidently leads us off of the exposed summit block

Plunge Stepping on the Descent

The final exit off the face took some route finding and scrambling, but 3 hours after leaving the summit we found ourselves on the trail. We arrived back at the car in the pitch dark, 12 hours after leaving.

Descending the first gully

This climb tested every skill in my alpine tool box. Without Sarah's support, I am certain that this summit would not have yielded itself. Of the 55 Centennials I have climbed, this was by far the most challenging. Thanks again to Sarah for being a stellar partner and letting me hear all about her international adventures!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Ahh.. C'mon
10/29/2012 18:46
Way to go Matt and Sarah! Impressive work.

Should've done the traverse to Pyramid or Lightning since you were already up there!

Awesome Day!
10/29/2012 18:53
Great write-up, Matt!! You forgot to warn people about the killer bird that lives up in the trees by Maroon Lake and makes strange noises before the sun comes up...haha

10/29/2012 19:04
Nice job you two. Seems like you had a great day and congrats on getting the summit of Thunder in the shoulder season. The views of the Bells and Pyramid are something else!

Hell of a productive weekend, Matt, way to get after it.

10/29/2012 22:25
Congrats to both! Definitely some sketch to be had off-route on that peak. The lower gullies below treeline are pretty annoying too.

I'm not entirely sure one needs to let Sarah take control. She can outclimb 99% of the people on this site

10/29/2012 23:18
Nice work Cole Trickle.

Really good stuff, Matt
10/29/2012 23:43
Way to persevere man. Like I told ya, these early winter conditions are the toughest kind of conditions out there and will test the heartiest of mountaineers! Well done!

Wyoming Bob
Nice report and good climb
10/30/2012 00:58
This is definitely a snow climb peak but I think you put those of us who tagged it in the Spring on the back bench ... Well done.

Great Job!
10/30/2012 02:15
Awesome climb! Way to go You two Thanks for the trip report and pictures

nice work, Matt & Sarah!
10/30/2012 04:10
I enjoyed the TR. Yes, the conditions look miserable between the loose rock and sketchy snow, and I'm glad I didn't go with you, but hells yeah, I respect you both for summiting that junk!!

Kevin Baker
10/30/2012 04:16
Nice job, Matt and Sarah! I hope you played a little ACDC for some pregame warmup, Matt. Snow always spices things up in the Elks for sure. Glad my TR going up the wrong fork on the White Gully was of some use.

10/30/2012 23:13
Congrats Mr. Man & Sarah on the difficult Elk.

I wonder: do you think the snow makes it more dangerous or safer (less rockfall)?

What an achievement
10/31/2012 03:19
This peak it the one I fear the most to climb of the centennials. Well done on getting it in the side season!

I'm impressed, would you think it would be easier to climb with more snow?

I Man
10/31/2012 17:30
Thank you everyone for the kind words and support. This was a wonderful climb with a great partner 8)

I do not think the snow really held too much rock in place and overall I found this climb to be quite dangerous.

Rubbin', son, is racin'
10/31/2012 18:23
Nice climb in sketchy conditions, but more importantly, I now hold you in higher esteem for the Days of Thunder reference. Most of that movie was filmed in beautiful, iconic North Carolina, homeland of all things awesome. I'M DROPPIN' THE HAMMER!

"The climbing got progressively worse..."
11/02/2012 15:16
Sometimes I wonder why we do this to ourselves.

Way to keep your head on and get the goal in tough conditions.

Nice avatar, btw.

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