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Pyramid Peak Winter Attempt
West Face/Ridge Route
Climbers: Abe (FireOnTheMountain) and Luke (Cool Hand Luke)
Most days this winter I have stared at Pyramid Peak from up high on Ajax or Highlands; the view near the roundabout from the valley is absolutely breathtaking. From these vantages Pyramid looms over the valley and is impressive enough to steal my attention away from the Bells. To say the desire to climb it in winter had crossed my mind a few times would be an understatement.
Abe and I talked about attempting Pyramid all winter, but work schedules paired with snow conditions and avy concerns never allowed the trip to happen. Finally we found an ideal weekend to make an attempt; all was going well until Abe called me the night before saying he had a cold and did not feel like making it worse with a weekend out in the cold. The next morning I woke up to a phone call from Abe saying he was going to fight through the illness and was on his way, what a trooper. I would learn how sick Abe was really feeling when at the TH he discovered I had packed two Avery Maharajahs for us to have on the hike out and he declined them even if I would carry!
Abe hiking in
Deadly Bells sign under heavy snow
To minimize the avy risk involved Abe and I planned to try the West Face to the West Ridge, the traditional summer route is one massive slide waiting to happen, per usual in winter. We met at the winter closure gate near T-Lazy 7 and began the 10K road hike. I opted to pack light and carry all my gear, while Abe pulled a sled. We made it to Maroon Lake at a leisurely pace in 3.5 hours. The hike from Maroon to Crater is not completely straightforward and the trail is much harder to follow on the way up vs. down. We made it to Crater Lake in 1.5 hours with considerable trail breaking. Abe said he had the perfect camping spot that he used for the Bells in December and we began to look for it. After rounding a few trees we discovered a massive slide took out the proposed campsite a few weeks earlier. A little spooked we opted for a site in the trees on the north side of Crater that was much safer from other potential slides.
Bells in winter
Abe about to discover the missing campsite
We raced to set up camp and worked together to break trail for an early start the next day. Abe found running water about 200 yards past Crater Lake, a nice treat but certainly less than dependable every year.
The next morning we were out of the tent at 5:20 and moving well. The trench from the previous night was extremely helpful in the dark and cold and within 20 minutes we were breaking trail again. We chose to go up a rib with more tree exposure to minimize the risk of setting off a slide, the west gully that bares rocks in normal years was solid snow on a dangerous angle.
Taking a breather, Photo by Abe Things about to get real
We continued up the rib to about 11,700 feet and switched to crampons and entered the right chute of the gulley. The left side is the normal route, but looked a little more slide prone. At this point we hit full stride and were a at the 12,600' saddle in no time. From the saddle we followed cairns through ridge maze that involved some scrambling. The cairns slowly disappeared and we found ourselves at a narrow chute, which we opted to climb. The chute was easy with snow, judging from other photos it is usually more rock than snow.
Snow getting steeper, Photo by Abe Things just got real
At the top of the chute we encountered a headwall that was low 5th class. Other reports sometimes list the headwall at 4th class, but I felt the poor holds at times stepped up the grade. Abe and I contemplated to climb the headwall or try to ascend an extremely exposed snow climb on a questionable slope to the north. A fall or slide on the snow slope would lead to a certain fate flying over the cliff band below, whereas a fall on the headwall would probably lead to a slow ending with multiple broken bones. Abe started on the headwall after deeming it the safer option and made topped out after a few tricky moves. He noted a rappel anchor at the top and I opted for the rope. We had debated bringing harnesses, webbing and a rope, but quickly decided it was best knowing we could rappel the section on the way down.
Moving through the rocks, Photo by Abe Start of the narrow chute leading to the headwall, Photo by Abe
After the headwall we continued to a flat plateau area and took a quick water break. Up until this point the wind had been relentless, but it began to fade as we crossed into a protected rockband area, which required some mixed scrambling. After the rockband we came to a set of three bowls that had to be crossed above a rockband, with a visible cairn mocking us at the other end. We were approximately 200' below the summit and debated if once we reached the ridge we were in the clear. Remembering pictures from others' trip reports we both noted how much more snow was in the bowls, which usually had visible rocks. Abe started to lead across the traverse and came to the first bowl. After a few steps in the bowl we both saw a fracture line instantly shoot across and a 75' section of wind slab began to slide over the cliff band below us. Abe instantly leaped up to safer ground and we watched the slide go over the 20' cliff band and set off a smaller slide below. The crown ranged from 4-5" and we both took a few moment to collect ourselves.
Heading up some tight gullies after the crux Beginning to cross the bowl sections
The area above the fracture seemed relatively stable, and Abe volunteered to venture to the ledge before the next bowl crossing to see what it looked like. We made the mutual decision that the risk was too high to cross another bowl 200' wide on the same aspect that just slid, along with the fact that a traverse on a fairly loaded north aspect was the icing on the cake. Abe checked his GPS and we were a little above 13,800'. Upon returning home we confirmed if we would have gained the ridge with the visible cairn it was a moderate scramble to the summit. We made the right decision, but it was disappointing to turn around so close to the summit of one of the more difficult winter 14ers.
Abe next to his work of art. Final traverse in the background Slide from Abe's perspective, photo by Abe Abe smiling after a well-earned lunch break Capitol and Snowmass from around 13K Abe rappelling the crux he free climbed
We made quick time on the descent and were grateful to have the gear to rappel the crux headwall. Upon reaching the base we raced to camp and packed up in record time. Even though we did not summit and the sight of the summit within grasp still haunts us, we had a great weekend out and I would not change anything. Good times with a good friend just cannot be beat.
*I hope this TR helps others plan winter trips for Pyramid. While many other TR's show this route with exposed talus and rock bands the snowpack in the Elks this year is 125-135% of normal. Abe and I were expecting to be on rock much more than we actually were, which made the climb much more demanding when everything is covered in white. Both of us were extremely glad we brought harnesses and rope, if not the climb may have ended with a disappointing retreat at the headwall. Also, SarahT's picture report was of great help for us routefinding and a fun comparison on the varying snow levels in winter.Sarah's Excellent Report
Catchy parting shot
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Good decision to abort, smart. I could be wrong but I'm pretty sure a climber was killed in winter in that same spot about 20 or so years ago. Maybe it'd be better as an earlier season winter climb before the heavy snow sets in; hard to say. Great report, thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Tom. Now that you mention the accident I seem to remember an excerpt from CMC: Roof of the Rockies about the same or similar slide. If my memory serves correct it happened on the last bowl traverse and involved either the first winter finishers, Tom Mereness, Jim Bock and one other partner or Lou Dawson. All survived, but it was a very close call. If you are able to find a link for the accident please share, I tried several searches with no results.
Agree with you on it usually being better early winter. We had a lot of snow in the Elks early this year, so this just may not have been the year for it.
The rappel picture is awesome. I'm not familiar with pyramid but I figure 13,800 must be pretty damn close. I bet if you could have timed it for Saturday you would have had better conditions, Sunday was pretty warm. Damn those pesky jobs...
loved the photos as well. Mountains are beautiful.
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