Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hike like an Egyptian: Pyramid Peak

The Aspen forecast called for rain most of Sunday, clearing out by 9 or 10 pm. Monday looked like a perfect day for a climb up one of Colorado's shorter (but more challenging) 14ers.

Mark had been to Pyramid Peak before, soloing to 13,600 feet or so before turning back. But this wasn't a grudge match. There's no room for vendettas when you love the mountains this much. It was just an opportunity to get out with some friends and enjoy a day or two of late summer hiking in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Several people were invited to come along for another attempt, but for various reasons I was the only one able to make it out with him.

Either we were operating under outdated information, or the guy working the entrance gate was new. We arrived at the gate around 4:30, and he told us that, even though we were overnighting, we needed to wait until the last busload of day visitors had run before he could let us drive through. So we parked on the side of the road and spent a few minutes in bafflement. But before too long we were allowed to pay our ten dollars and cruise up to the overnight lot.

The Maroon Bells from the main parking lot
I was amazed to see that the location where so many people photograph the Maroon Bells, their burgundy peaks reflecting alpenglow on the still waters of Maroon Lake, was less than one of my meager stone's throws away from the parking lot. Surely you're supposed to hike at least fifteen minutes to catch a glimpse of such rugged natural beauty.

The light wasn't going to yield any postcard-quality photos this day.
The hike to Crater Lake, our destination for the evening, was uneventful. Low-hanging clouds clung to the peaks that surrounded us in all directions. The rain we were promised sometimes sprinkled but never poured down. We took note of the location where the trail to Pyramid intersects with the main path, anticipating that we may have to find it in the dark the next morning.

Looking back at Maroon Lake
There are eleven camp sites near Crater Lake. Arriving late on a Sunday would have given us dibs on any one of them. Mark had read good things about the last two, so we bypassed the others without any inspection beyond a glance at the signs marking their various turn-offs. By the time we reached our spot, we had gone well beyond the lake and were as far from the Pyramid trail as the main trailhead is.

Campsite 10 above Crater Lake

A view from our campsite
For once I didn't feel like I had over-packed for our one-night trip. In fact, I under-packed due to some carelessness before leaving the house. When we met at his place, Mark lent me a puffy jacket. My own was still on the back of my chair at the kitchen table and would have been sorely missed once we got up above 12k feet. I had enough food, but my spork had gotten misplaced and I left my cup with the spare camp stove in the back of my truck. A spoon carved out of deadfall pine and a Ziplock freezer bag converted into a bowl would make up for those oversights.

The weather held out as we went about the business of settling in, and it didn't begin raining in earnest until after we were ready to turn in for the night. But it kept up through the time our alarm woke us at 4:30 the next morning. Fortunately, it was just a gentle rain, without so much as a distant grumble of thunder. Laying in our sleeping bags for an extra few minutes, we briefly discussed the potential complications to our climb that would arise if the rain persisted. But it soon abated, and we ate breakfast and made ourselves ready for the hike.

We left camp at 6:00, the sun just beginning to brighten the horizon to the northeast. The cloud cover above us remained low, but the weather looked otherwise promising. We decided to get at least as far as the Amphitheater, where we would discover whether the night's rain had turned the trail up to Pyramid's northeast ridge into an impassible mudslide, or if we would be able to proceed.

Crater Lake at dawn
Pyramid's peak was never fully visible during the approach. A wisp of cloud draped around its angular shoulders as we clambered up the talus field.

Pyramid peak from the talus field below the Amphitheater
The 1000-foot climb out of the Amphitheater was in good condition, but brutal nonetheless. My heart raced and my calves burnt. Every few minutes I paused to allow my biometrics to return to more normal levels before pushing on. If such an effort had to be maintained for much longer than it did, I wasn't sure I would be in shape to attempt the summit.

But the ridge was gained without a full physical failure, and we took a break there at 13,000 feet to rest and contemplate the gloomy ceiling of cloud that now fully enshrouded the peak.

Heavier cloud cover obscuring Pyramid's summit
A mountain goat was nearby. For some time she just sat at her leisure, but after a while curiosity got the better of her and she came over to see what we were about.

We weren't certain how the reduced visibility would impact our summit bid, but we decided to move on and find out. We went around the corner, made the leap of faith, and edged along the ledges toward the white rock. We were well into the mists by that time. Mark asked how I felt about the conditions. "The view sucks, but it doesn't seem to be impeding our progress." So we pressed on.

Going into the clouds. Photo: Mark K
On the ledges (on the way out). Photo: Mark K
The term "goat path" is often used in a figurative sense to describe circuitous and questionable routes, but at the top of the white rock we found ourselves very literally in a maze of goat paths. And it seems that every hapless soul that has made its way along any one of these saw fit to build a cairn marking the route that surely is the correct path up the mountain. Fortunately, it doesn't really matter exactly which way you choose - the only wrong way to the summit is down.

We arrived at the top of Pyramid Peak on the north end of the summit around 10:30, where a cairn of a more reliable variety stood faintly visible through the fog. The air was unusually still and there was an unsettling feeling that the world below us had altogether ceased to be. A misstep over the precipitous edge could send a person falling forever into a bottomless void.

Mark at Pyramid's summit
On the edge of nothingness. Photo: Mark K
Refueling on the summit. Photo: Mark K
On top of Pyramid Peak
As we shed our packs and engaged in the time-honored tradition of breaking bread where stone and sky meet, a white shape materialized - something more solid in the sea of vapor that surrounded us. The mountain goat from the ridge had followed us up to the summit. I like to think that she was there to ensure we made it safely up the slopes that are her home.

In time we departed the top of Pyramid, leaving our ghost-like guardian to her unyielding solitude as we made our way back down the various winding goat paths to where the route becomes more certain.

The life of a mountain goat must, at times, be very lonely
We retraced our steps down from the ridge, across the Amphitheater, and down the trail to reconnect with the one which would lead us back to camp. At some point along the way we caught our first clear glimpse of Pyramid's summit. The cloud cover had lifted some time during our descent.

Pyramid peak, now clear of its mantle of cloud

A pika on the cairn marking the trail junction
On this trail we also encountered the first people we had seen all day. While we toiled in the upper elevations, the more accessible areas of the wilderness had been filling up with other visitors. Some were just out for an afternoon of light hiking. Some were embarking on, or returning from, adventures of their own. All of us were in awe of the majesty of the mountains that surrounded us.