Peak(s):  Pyramid Peak  -  14,018 feet
Castle Peak  -  14,265 feet
Maroon Peak  -  14,156 feet
Date Posted:  05/10/2019
Date Climbed:   04/19/2019
Author:  lodgling
 A solo tour de Pyramid   

Intro:

Heading into the Elks solo wasn't novel for me, but that was prior to marriage and children ... (so literally two lifetimes ago).

2005 -- A First 14er Ski:

In any event that's how this journey of mine began in late June 2005, as a "training day" for the frisbee season and a new way to check out a new 14er, Castle Peak. I managed to get my Ford Focus across the creek, hit snow drifts soon after that and crashed in the back for a bit. At Dawson's advice, I got my first of many alpine ski starts and stumbled around by headlamp as I reached treeline and lost the roadway. The sun rose, I decided which one was Castle and headed up the N couloir.

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Castle?

When I topped out, other than Capitol in the distance, I had no real idea what I was looking at, but I was in awe. Who knew then that the barely snow-touched peaks I saw would often occupy my dreams day and night for the next decade(s)?

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Elks!

I skied summer snow down the E face off the summit, made a left turn down the narrow N. couloir and made hippie turns all the way out to treeline.

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Thin but in
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In from the top!

I was hooked.

2008 -- Wallowing on Maroon:

The next inspiration for an Elks solo once again came from Lou, when I saw his TR on Wildsnow from skiing Maroon with his son Louie in 2008 as his 18th birthday present. On June 7, 2008, I made my way from the summer TH and, after wallowing in the willows on the N side of the lake for awhile, found my way to the top of the garbage chute just as my headlamp became moot. My camera promptly died in my first attempt to capture the ambient light. The bell cord was a messy mixture of conditions that made setting the bootpack tough. What took me eight hours took the next party only four. That party turned out to include doumall on his way out for a pretty impressive Elks tour. We exchanged a few words at my re-entry to the cord from the S face as they expressed displeasure with my slough and appreciation for the booter.

2019 -- Gettin Pyramid While the Getting's Good:

So when I recognized a good weather window for Pyramid in mid-April of this year before our annual trip to Florida for "sea-level training" (building sandcastles at the beach), the fact that I couldn't talk anyone into joining me gave me some pause. But an Elks solo was not without some personal history. And I had some experience solo on big lines. And given that last season was rendered a total loss (other than some good practice descending on one ski) when I broke my ankle on a May powder day at MJ, I really wanted to check a box before leaving town in order to get some momentum going again. OK, let's do this. If nothing else, it will be good training in a far better setting than skinning up Sleeper.

The plan was to spend Thursday, April 18 on the approach in order to camp in a high position for an early attempt on Pyramid on Friday. Age hasn't significantly impacted my endurance yet, but the days of fast and light seem to have passed. Once I did the math it was clear that the plan would require an alpine car start from Denver on Thursday morning. After a local dog walker informed me that I had done it wrong, I re-parked across from the goats and such at the T Lazy 7 and began the long skin up the road to the summer TH nine miles away at about 9am.

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Getting closer

I encountered two big slide paths that had reached the road from climbers right. The second one at the eight mile mark was quite the sight.

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Whoa

I reached the summer TH in time for lunch ...

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Solo is nice

and then headed out toward the bells ...

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utilizing a gpx track from Rick and Ben to time my left turn towards the N. Amphitheater. The goal was to bivy at the base of the bootpack to the NE ridge so that I could be certain to top out on the ridge at first light.

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I made it to the intended camp spot and I had enough time to build a wall from the wind, melt snow for Friday's water and cook dinner before darkness fell. I guessed incorrectly that my 2/3 sleeping bag and two nano puffs would be warm enough. Oops. Well, at least the freeze was solid and the alarm was a welcome sound indicative that I should start moving upward instead of just shivering in place.

The booting was solid and I made it to the ridge for sunrise.

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Most TRs describe topping out as an intimidating moment, and the hiking on the NE ridge had been occupying my thoughts for years. But in spite of the lack of sleep and given the fat conditions, that didn't come for me. My patience in waiting for the right conditions had finally paid off. Also, on the ridge I found the first evidence of parties past as the rough outlines of a booter was visible and certainly palpable underfoot. Is a poacher truly solo?

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NE Ridge and cache

Whether to ski off the summit with a full overnight pack or how to avoid it was a crux planning issue. Others have avoided it by camping in E. Maroon Creek and then climbing the route. I decided on a modified loop. After talking about the NE ridge with Gueza, I decided to carry my load to about 13,700 and drop off the overnight gear by digging a hole in the snow at a spot on the ridge that I could easily hit up on the way down. I found just such a hole already dug at the spot circled above. Great minds and all that.

I made steady progress up the line in phenomenal climbing conditions. The exposure was there, but the beauty of the Elks at sunrise on solid snow really takes the edge off. The sky was clear and the sun was cooking, but it was cold enough that I felt pretty confident that the ski conditions on the summit would hold up for me and I really set aside thinking about timing and enjoyed the perfect moments of the climb. As I climbed the last 500 ft. or so I made note of my intended line and generally felt pretty strong. Snow conditions looked variable but malleable. Prior parties clearly had the pow day of their lives for the first 1000 ft. or so.

I made a few turns directly off of the top and then began the process of repeatedly working around the rock bands with descending left traverses and interspersed turns. My skiing up high was far from perfect, but it got the job done. I skied right to my overnight gear, loaded up and continued down the line with heavy pack on board.

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Booter on the right, tracks on the left

In general, after about the first 1200 ft. or so, conditions turned into a bit of a mess from my slough finding the runnels of those that had been there in the prior weeks. At least one group had timed things a bit late and had left behind refrozen death cookie tracks. Conditions were tricky enough that I was unable to really let the skis run as much as I had expected once past the overhanging portion of the route and in the comfortable confines of the main line.

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At the bottom of the line I encountered four miles of intermittent slide debris in the East Maroon Creek drainage before reaching the Maroon Creek Rd. that challenged my patience and endurance and may or may not have included the ever-present chance of encountering the bear whose tracks I was following. After another 7 miles on the road I was back to my vehicle and ready for a trip to beach.

Here's the video, which has been edited for form and content:

Thanks for reading!





A few words in a really small italicized font and different color that some close to me may overlook as some sort of disclaimer and not bother to read it (note that comments about this section below may interfere with that intent so please feel free to pm me with any questions): If you actually watched the edit, you'll note that I cut it off above the choke. The choke was filled in well and far from the crux it usually presents. I chose a skier's right line that required squeezing between two prominent rock features. As I did so, I lost an edge and dropped down. I ultimately managed to arrest, but in the process I irreparably damaged the toe on my left binding. From there, instead of having (in Carl's words) only 1/2 a binding, I now had 1/4 a binding. Rather than fix it there, I carefully and deliberately descended on one ski for another 1000 ft. to where I could find cover from potential wet slough behind a rock buttress on skier's left. My fix kit permitted me to descend on two skis from there, but it was far from graceful and required frequent adjustment. To be certain, this was a close call. The arrest I managed was far from certain and involved some substantial component of luck. I only mention my mistake because I have given it much thought that I'll share here: 1) I spent most of my preparation for the line studying the climb and the top 500 ft. of skiing. Given the snowpack this year, I didn't give the choke much thought. Because of the constant dredging of the choke from slough, the consistency of snow and ice in the choke was harder than that immediately above it. Getting off the line as soon as possible is a constant refrain of prior parties. My timing was good for the line proper, but since I had the peak to myself I should have spent some time relaxing on a spine to give the snow in the choke some more time to ripen. 2) Most of my angst about the line was also associated with the climb and the top 500 ft. of the ski. Once I got past those hurdles and shouldered my heavy pack, I relaxed and let my guard down. Instead of retaining an adrenaline amp and focus through the whole line, I suffered a bit of a let-down when I encountered the crappy conditions in the middle of the line. I was too nonchalant heading into the choke and was sloppy. This line requires constant attention for its entirety. 3) Some consideration to getting a proper axe in hand as one approaches the choke should be given. A self belay would have rendered my lost edge a non-issue.




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Gueza
User
Extra Spicy
05/10/2019 15:46
Hell of a solo effort Rob


Don Eberl
User
Tele
05/10/2019 16:28
I love watching you tele videos. You are one hell-u-va skier. Congrats...tele skiing is a thing of beauty and you demonstrate that it truly can be done (albeit very few) on extreme mountains such as these.


jmanner
User
Awesome!
05/11/2019 19:30
Amazing job and great write up!! I feel like that bushwhack out deserves itâs own trip report; I heard through a friend it was pretty heinous.

+1 to Sleeper as a great training hill, not great on the views though.


JulianSmith
User
Much Thanks For Sharing!
05/12/2019 12:23
Awesome job; many thanks for the beta and the candid thoughts about how the descent went. I haven't shared it with many people, but I climbed this line last year, and was way too late in getting to the summit. In fact I got within 10' of the summit and had to turn around due to the snow being way to warm, to the point I thought everything was going to slide right off the side of the mountain. I turned around and climbed back down the NE ridge (which was really sketchy in the warm, rotten snow), and then skied down into the amphitheater. It's been haunting me ever since. I definitely have some respect for the choke too, having climbed up through it. Many thanks for the inspiration and renewing my confidence that I could/should get back up there for another go at it.


SchralpTheGnar
User
solid
05/13/2019 09:25
solid effort and great job on the logistics of doing that line before the road opens.


JtheChemE
User
Great TR
05/14/2019 10:14
Thanks for sharing, especially the candid bit on the descent. If you are out there often enough doing these type of things, you'll end up in some touchy situations. How those situations play out (outside of luck) all comes down to managing the situation, which comes down to being cool and having the skills and/or gear to handle it. On reflection we can always identify what we could have done differently, but in the moment it is all about making judgement calls in a timely manner. It sounds like you did that. I always respect when people show the real side of things, in addition to the #stoke side of things.

One interesting point you bring up on the ethics of solo: "Is a poacher truly solo?" Theres a "Merriam Webster" definition of solo, but with regards to these type of endeavors solo tends to imply that being alone meaningfully enhances the effort, or skill required to do something. In your case there's no question that this was a solo effort. I think the idea of solo is better defined with skiing than it is with hill walking or peakbagging. More broadly speaking, there's many people anymore that wait until stronger or more able people/groups put in a trench / booter and wait for public beta, only then will they go up "solo" and claim the solo effort. By dictionary definition they are indeed "solo" but there is an enormous disparity in terms of physical effort between cutting a 24" trench by yourself, or simply poaching it after another group has done it. From a skills perspective, it can be relatively mindless to follow a skin track / trench across varied terrain, boot up an avy prone couloir, when you know (hope) that the previous parties evaluated slope angle / route finding / etc. This ambiguity can apply to a winter 14er summit, or to a lesser degree even some soloable mixed climbs. Then there's the idea of "soloing" a well defined summer trail up Quandary in conga line, which would seem improbable at best (I digress).

I guess the idea of "Solo" doesn't really matter all that much, but there are some people that are looking to claim accolades for "soloing" things (particularly the snowflake game), but really they are riding the coattails on other peoples efforts with the intent of claiming some sort of special distinction. Sorry to add this rant to your TR, but your point on "solo" was thought provoking (perhaps moreso than you intended).

Again, nice work. Well beyond anything I'll ever hope to do.


mtnfiend
User
Beast mode Rob!!
05/15/2019 08:07
I guess all these years heli-skiing have really paid off!!


Carl
User
1/4 binding, full send
05/15/2019 15:27
Congrats again on the descent. Just got a chance to come check out the TR. I was just trying to explain to our friend Dan what the exposure is like at the top when you're skiing left with those cliffs screaming at you from immediately below. Needless to say this video sums it up well. Nice work, especially having only a 1/4 to 1/2 a binding.



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