Monday, September 10, 2012

PEAK OF THE WEEK: Pyramid Peak


Climbing Pyramid Peak in the Elk Range in Colorado
Pyramid Peak is the lesser-known sibling to the Maroon Bells. Lacking the classic view with the U-shaped valley and lakefront foreground that has made the Bells so famous, Pyramid is a more reclusive mountain, though no less proud. Many mountain climbers find Pyramid to be one of Colorado’s most difficult and dangerous 14ers. While more experienced parties often argue that Pyramid’s difficulty is overrated, nobody denies that the quality of its rock is as terrible as they come. Here lies the principal danger: the objective hazard of rockfall and rock collapse. Take care to move only one limb at a time in more difficult sections and never climb directly above or below other climbers. Pyramid and the Bells have claimed many lives over the years. Approach this mountain with humility, ability and respect.

 On the positive side, Pyramid is an exciting scramble to a spectacular and renowned summit with some of the best views in the range. Pyramid is not as busy as many Colorado mountains and the approach is relatively short.


Find Maroon Creek Rd. off Highway 82 at a roundabout a few miles north of Aspen. Head towards and eventually past the Aspen Highlands Ski Area. Continue up this road for 9.5 miles past several campgrounds and trailheads to the end at the Maroon Lake trailhead. Day climbers continue to the end to the bigger lot and backpackers need to use the overnight lot a little farther from the lake.

Warning sign at an Elk Mountain Range trailheadSPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS

There is a $10 day use fee to park at Maroon Lake. Overnight fee is $15. The rock of the Elk Range is notorious as some of Colorado’s worst. The formations that constitute Pyramid and the Maroon Bells are the worst in the range. In essence, this is a worst of the worst scenario. This combined with all three mountains’ steep profiles has led to trouble for many people in the past.


Northeast Ridge (II, 4th class)
The standard and easiest route on Pyramid PeakThe standard route on Pyramid Peak. The Northeast Ridge is the easiest and fastest way to do Pyramid but it is still loose, difficult and dangerous. From the trailhead, follow the Maroon Creek trail past Maroon Lake towards Crater Lake. At a flat area just before Crater Lake, turn left (south) at a cairn and follow a long trail as it climbs toward a gully and Pyramid Peak. Enter the scree not far after treeline and follow a rock glacier into a huge basin at the foot of Pyramid's North Face at around 12,000'. Climb a treacherous screefield for 1,000' to reach the northeast ridge proper at a 13,000' saddle. From here the view is intimidating. The last 1,000' includes much class 3 scrambling and even some class 4. The rock is very loose and the there is exposure. This is not a place you want to be in a bad thunderstorm. Be very careful where you place your limbs. In the harder sections only move one limb at a time and carefully test your holds. Don't climb above or below anyone. For one long section in the Green Couloir, my partner and I moved one climber at a time. Taking care like this will minimize the chances that anything bad will happen. Pyramid's summit is small and spectacular. Without question the Elk's are one of Colorado's most beautiful, though also most treacherous, ranges.

Northwest Ridge (II, 4th class)
Pyramid Peak
The Northwest Ridge on the right skyline
The Northwest Ridge of Pyramid is more adventurous way to climb Pyramid Peak. It is more sustained, more difficult, and more exposed than the standard northeast ridge route. From the 12,000' basin at the bottom of Pyramid's North Face, turn away from the standard route and ascend a large couloir/gully to a saddle at 12,700'. There is some loose scrambling in the gully. From here the route gets more difficult and once again this is a bad place to be in a storm. This route is just as loose as the northeast route if not more loose, and the rock is more difficult. Climb the ridge for a few hundred feet before traversing over to a steep gully with a branch at the top. Take the right branch and encounter the class 4 crux. More tricky routefinding and traversing brings you to the summit a few hundred feet later.

West Couloir (II, 4th class)
A seldom-climbed route that takes on Pyramid from a whole new angle. Follow the Maroon Creek trail for two and a half miles past Maroon Lake and past Crater Lake to 10,300'. Now's the business.... Leave the trail, cross West Maroon Creek, and start to take on Pyramid's West Face funneling into the left of the couloirs that form around 12,500'. This couloir will be treacherous without snow and exceeds 50 degrees, Enjoy!

Pyramid Peak: Are We Just Mountain Goats?- A successful climb of Pyramid Peak in September of 2012. Includes many great photos and a detailed narrative.

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