Pyramid Peak (4273m) is often regarded as the most beautiful of the 14’ers in Colorado. It is not as famous as its two neighbors, Maroon Bells, but the foreshortened view of the North Face is neck-binding and unlike anything else in Colorado. I personally “discovered” the peak in 2001, but had to wait 4 long years for the opportunity to climb it.
I spent a rather cold night in my rented Jeep at the Maroon Lake Trailhead (2925m). I had failed in all my efforts to get a campsite for the night, because sites are pretty scarce in the park and everybody else had booked in advance. I was tempted to spend the night in a warm and comfortable bed in Aspen, but hotels are rather expensive in this town and definitely not worth it when one has to wake up in the wee hours, leave the hotel and head out into the mountains. Instead I decided to sleep in my car.
Maroon Lake Trailhead
It was still fairly dark outside when I woke up in my car at 05:45am. I turned on the engine and the heating system before I got out of my warm and comfy sleeping bag. I ate a plain breakfast while I listened to the nice morning music on a local radio station. I started to walk at 06:20, somewhat earlier than yesterday when I successfully climbed North Maroon Peak. Thanks to yesterday’s research, I easily found the trail junction after 2 km and turned left. I met 3 young climbers heading in the same direction as me. The trail seemed to be “under construction” and the laborious work was done by the same organization that I have heard of so many times before in these mountains (CFI – Colorado Fourteeners Initiative).
I reached the steep part of the trail, shortly after, and had to increase my pace in order to keep the 3 young and fit people behind me. After the steep incline, the trail continued gently into a basin, first across some big boulders and then onto a snowfield on the right side of the basin. The snow was hard as ice, and frequently I opted to skirt it on rocks, because the snow was frustratingly slippery. The 3 climbers were now far behind me, and I had switch my objective to a couple of climbers ahead of me. They were moving rather slow, so I easily bypassed them at the end of the snowfield.
The North Face of Pyramid Peak towered above my head as I turned left across a big area of boulders in the upper part of the basin (elevation 3600m). The intimidating and near vertical wall was approx 600 metres high and I wondered if somebody had ever climbed it. Probably yes, but surely not many. The loads of debris coming down from the face would certainly scare most candidates from even attempting it. I continued east up some steep scree gullies and wisely decided to put on my helmet because of the loose rocks. I did not see any climbers in front of me, still I felt there was a potential danger of falling rocks above me, dislodged by humans or not. The progress was fairly slow (3 steps forward and 2 steps back) on loose scree, but eventually I reached the 3900 metres high saddle on Pyramid’s northeast ridge. The scenery from here was awesome. The northeast ridge was rising sharply into the blue sky, and the North Face was even more impressive from this angle.
Northeast ridge "direct"
I continued up the ridge, to begin with on easy ground. There were a myriad of vague trails on the left side of the ridge but I lost them all after a while. I was really frustrated about the time-consuming task of trail-finding so I eventually decided to stick to the ridge and find my own way. The difficulties soon increased and I was forced down from the ridge several times (always on the left side), in order to avoid exposed class 5 climbing. The climb reminded me very much of my Matterhorn ascent in 2003. I always kept close to the ridge, and I was surprised to see so few traces and cairns enroute. Later I would discover that the normal route is far left of the ridge, contrary to what I had interpreted from Gerry Roach’s description of the route.
Further up I reached a gap on the ridge, and from there I continued on some white distinct rocks on the left side of the ridge. The white rocks ended in slabs just left of the ridge and very close to the terrifying North Face. It was steep and exposed class 4 climbing on the partly broken slabs. The sand particles on top of the slabs did not make it easier, nor did the ice higher up. But I managed to cross the 20 metres long pitch, and that also put an end to all the difficulties. I had not counted all the class 4-5 pitches enroute, but my direct approach had surely made it more difficult than necessary. The remaining part of the route, however, was easy scrambling and I almost “ran” the last few hundred metres to the very top of Pyramid Peak (4273m).
I reached the summit at 10:05am but I found it very annoying to see a higher peak directly south of Pyramid Peak. I estimated that the peak was at least 1-2 hours away, and that the saddle in-between was dropping at least 100 metres. I studied the map, measured the GPS-position and came to the conclusion that I was on the true summit of Pyramid Peak, and that the other peak must be slightly lower one. Later I found out that the other peak was Thunder Pyramid, which is almost 100 feet less than Pyramid Peak.
Descending the normal route
I started to descend from Pyramid Peak, after a 15 minutes rest on the summit, and decided to stick to the climbers trail instead of my route of ascent. The trail was surprisingly easy to follow and it was far away from the northeast ridge. Further down I met some other climbers (3 boys and 1 girl), which I did not recognize from earlier in the morning. They were moving incredible fast and 3 of them even wore jogging shoes, which I though was impropriate for a scramble like this. The other thing I noticed was that the girl was strikingly beautiful (like a Miss Universe), surely not a common sight at this elevation.
Further down I had to walk on a very narrow ledge 3 metres above the ground. Easy but somewhat exposed. My backpack almost got me off-balance on the ledge, because of a rocky outcrop, but I managed to regain control. Later the trail traversed back to the ridge and to the saddle above the scree gully. The descent route had been very easy indeed; I would say maximum class 3 but mainly class 2 on a very good climbers trail, in contrary to my route of ascent. Therefore I think it’s about time to downgrade Pyramid Peak from a class 4 to a class 3 climb by its easiest route.
In the saddle I met two middle-aged climbers, on their way down. I asked them why they had turned around. Instead they told me that they had been on the summit. I was slightly embarrassed of my stupid question/conclusion, but to my defence, I had really not seen them during the entire day. We had simply climbed totally different routes. I had climbed the direct approach on the ridge while they had ascended and descended the normal route, which is far away from the ridge. Secondly they had started from Maroon Lake at 03:45am more than 2,5 hours in front of me. I continued down the steep scree-gully, retraced my steps across the upper basin and then slid down the snowfield, which had now been softened by the sun. Further down I met two young people doing some construction work on the trail. This was Sunday, and they actually spent their leisure time doing such a boring task. I thanked them and told them how much I appreciated their work for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
I arrived Maroon Lake at 13:05 and the entire climb had taken me less than 6,5 hours to complete. I spent some time at the lake, before it was time to leave. I had completed my 14’ers mission in this area, South Maroon in 2001, and North Maroon and Pyramid Peak in 2005. Among all the mountainous areas I have visited in Colorado so far, this place is definitely one of my favorites.
(I’m referring to the YDS class rating system throughout this article)