When I climbed the Maroon Bells several years ago, Pyramid Peak was always in my sights. It stood large and proud just a few miles from the Bells - the route to the top a mystery. Over the years, I read comments such as Bill Middlebrook's on 14er.com that "the standard route on Pyramid ... difficult and dangerous." But my favorite was from Gerry Roach - "The potential falls from this route's last 1,000 feet are almost always fatal drops."
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With the easy climb to tag Conundrum ealier that day complete, I drove the few miles to the Maroon Lake parking lot and start of the trail to Crater Lake. The 1.5 miles went by quickly as I passed families enjoying the magnificent views of the Maroon Bells, few noticing Pyramid looming to their south. I found a suitable campsite near the lake and went back to the trail to meet up with Robert.
Our goal was to leave camp at 6:00 AM the following morning so after a quick dinner we crawled in the tents for a comfortable night. Climbers leaving for the Bells and Pyramid starting stirring about 4 so our wake up call came a little early but we were ready and soon we were on the trail.
There are three sections to climbing Pyramid: through the forest, up the scree and to the top. The first 1,000' section is surprisingly steep as the well maintained (thanks CFI) switch backed trail through the deep pine forest. It flattens onto a boulder field that then moves into a low angle gully almost always filled with snow. We moved across the hard packed snow then onto another larger boulder field approaching the base of the next section - the 1,000' steep scree climb.
As Robert and I paused to get our bearings we recognized the route with a jaw dropping acknowledgement. But upon seeing a snake-like line of climbers halfway up the scree trail, we agreed it was time to get up there with them. As we made steady progress we both commented that this was going to be "fun" coming back down! It was right up there with some of the worst scree climbs including on Columbia.
In spite of our grousing, we made good time to the saddle at 13,000' and took a long break to survey the route ahead. It was interesting to put it mildly. We could clearly see the summit of Pyramid looming a full 1,000' higher and nothing but rocky ridges and outcroppings standing in the way.The crowds had congregated on the saddle but left in bunches thus making the route finding somewhat easier. Plus there were many carins marking the route.
We started the climb on a relatively flat section of rock marked with the occasional ledge with interesting exposure. After a few minutes we were a little high on the route and downclimbed to reach what is often called the "leap of faith". A small four foot gap that requires a, well, leap of faith. Both Robert and I made the leap just fine and found ourselves on the "cliff traverse" - a short but narrow rock ledge with more significant exposure. The climb was becoming more interesting by the step.
Next up was a relatively steep section aptly named the Green Wall for the greenish rocks. It was a straight forward climb but two guided teams were now roped up and moving with slow purpose. Once on top of the wall, the climbing became very interesting with multiple routes that ranged from high class 3 to low class 5 if you took the wrong turn. In spite of the crowds, we found ourselves at times alone on the route but looking carefully for the next carin. Slowly we made progress and paused to comment on how much we were enjoying the climb.
The last 500 vertical feet were challenging in that it was sustained low class 4 moves which means if you fall, you will definitely mess up your hair :) so we took it methodically and made sure our foot and hand holds were secure. More than once the infamous "rotten rock" of the Elk range showed itself. However in spite of the crowds, the rockfall was minimal - thanks to the other careful climbers.
On the last section to the summit, we took arguably the most difficult route involving some full body action and high class 4 moves to gain the summit ridge. However once there, we made the short 50' walk to the summit proper and joined 15 other climbers all in various states of repose. It felt good.
The summit of Pyramid offers an impressive view of the nearby Maroon Bells, Castle/Conundrum, Sneffels, Wilson Group and to the north Snowmass and Capital - in other words simply perfect. And so was the day - not a cloud in the sky and mild temps as we all relaxed and gathered our breath.
As we got ready to leave we took in the view one last time and began a equally slow and methodical down climb following the same route. No drama as we took about the same time to return to the saddle as it took to climb to the summit.
But there was one last obstacle - the 1,000 feet of steep and slippery scree. With several mountain goats saying goodbye we left the saddle and scratched and clawed our way down and soon found ourselves back in the forest for another 1,000' for switchbacks. I readily admit, I was tired at the end of this climb.
But what a satisfying experience. The approach to the saddle was challenging in and of itself but nothing compared to the true climbing Pyramid offered. While the route finding was simplified by the crowds, it was not as difficult as I had imagined. The rock was loose, the exposure real and the climbing first rate. I really don't think ropes were necessary but careful attention to footwork was mandatory.
As I looked at Pyramid in 2005, I imagined standing on top one day and this was the day. A goal set, a goal accomplished - on a worthy climb with a worthy partner.