A strong appetite, average palate, and weak writing, mixed with outdoor adventure.

A strong appetite, average palate, and weak writing, mixed with outdoor adventure.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pyramid Peak


  • Route: Northeast Ridge (standard)
  • Distance: ~8.0 miles
  • Elevation Gain: ~4,500
  • Start time: 4:09 AM  
  • Time: 8.1 hours (including 45 minutes on the summit) 
  • Climbers: Alan, Terry and Sandy

We raced traffic out of Denver on Friday, hell bent to trade the worries of work for the rarified air of a single alpine pursuit, Pyramid Peak. This is my final 14er in the Elks Range. Often maligned as choss piles, these scenic mountains offer a blend of rugged beauty, aesthetic lines and exposure.

There was a quick stop for groceries in Frisco and then dinner in Leadville. With the Leadville 100 this weekend, half of the town’s occupants made Alan and I look morbidly obese and feel fantastically lazy, but I guess casual athleticism (think lithe and chacos clad) is one of the rewards of training for and running 100 miles.

The skies above Mt Massive and Elbert were stunning, with a mix of clouds, sunshine and rain setting the atmosphere ablaze in a highly textured theater of color. It was my monthly reminder as to why I live in the Rocky Mountain West. I am sure the Midwest has a subtle beauty and the scrublands a certain austerity, but nothing makes feel more expansive than a mountain viewshed in low angle light.


Things only got better on Independence Pass, whose zenith we perched upon as the sun set in the west and lightning flickered to the north. Nearly every passerby stopped, with plates from Illinois, New Mexico and Colorado all representing. While blessed with timing, I could not help but be thankful that this was just part of another Colorado weekend.


Rain greeted us at the trailhead, so we abandoned the open air bivy and shacked up in the Subaru Inn. It kept us dry, but given the narrow confines, not comfortable. The night passed in fits and starts with the alarm ringing at 3:30 and actually providing relief as we had more or less given up on sleep.

Pyramid 003

Enjoying a Tecate at the trailhead.

Packed up and ready to go we noticed a climber heading straight for us across the parking lot. Upon introductions it turned out to be Terry Matthews, who I have never met, but know from his postings on 14ers.com. Terry had gotten word of a bear attack* near Crater Lake. With search and rescue alerted there was little we could do, but recognizing safety in numbers, we formed a trio and headed upvalley.

*The victim suffered a bite to his calf. He was able to walk out and was transported to a local hospital. The bear has been tracked and euthanized.

We made short work of the trail up to the cutoff for Pyramid Peak. One thing to be said for hiking in the dark, you fail to notice the elevation gain. Minus that visual cue the suffering is somehow less and the pace that much quicker. We passed our first mountain goats of the day ascending into the Amphitheater and quickly found ourselves traversing beneath the bulk of Pyramid’s North Face.


Having walked past this sign three times this summer, I look forward to leaving it behind for a little while.

Alpenglow creeping onto Pyramids upper flanks

Pyramid 008

Alan in the Amphitheater.  He forgot a belt so was wearing a shockingly bright yellow bight of webbing. It made him easy to spot. 

The gully leading to the summit ridge is loose and steep. That did not stop Alan from scorching up it in 27 minutes and then climbing to a high point while waiting on Terry and I. Approximately a 1/4 mile in distance and 1,000 vertical will set your calves to burning and push your heart rate up.

Pyramid 018

Alan (upper right) seeking bonus vertical feet

For scale. I am on the trail, just right of center.


Panorama taken from 1/2 way up the gulley. Maroon Bells are in the left corner, Minnehaha Gulch is dead center, with Snowmass and Capitol on the horizon behind the Gulch.

The Leap of Faith, an infamous ledge and the Green Wall all lay ahead. We were a 1,000 vertical feet from the summit with what has been described as loose rock, exposure and challenging route finding in our path. The three of us have had an active summer, with 75 14er summits between us this year, including much class 3 and 4 terrain. Thus, this trio of “inquisitive alpinists” could not stop smiling in excitement while staring upward at the summit ridge.


From saddle to summit

Me jumping the Leap of Faith, or for those of us with a long inseam, the Long Step of Faith

Pyramid 023

Alan airing out the Leap of Faith while the world’s brightest belt helicopters

Pyramid 053

Alan casually crossing the ledge, with large drops below…oh, and nice belt

Pyramid 030

Terry adding a little challenge

Me at the base of the Green Wall

Terry and I headed up

After the Green Wall the trail braids with cairns located in many places. Being comfortable with the terrain we all took slightly different variations, but knew that up was the way to go. By looking for solid rock and bits of obvious path, none of us were ever outside our comfort zone.

Pyramid 044

Alan approximately ~400 vertical feet from the summit

With the terrain so steep we quickly consumed the remaining vertical feet to the summit. An early start paid off as we spent 45 minutes on the top without another soul in sight. Time for summit shenanigans and food, in that order.

Classic flexshot on the diving board, there is a really long drop off that thing

Classic flexshot on the diving board, I am basically ruining a really nice view of the Maroon Bells

I held this for at least a 1/4 second


Throwing down Egyptian style a top of Pyramid

Pyramid 045

The buffet: beef jerky, hummus, chips, tuna, triscuits, a trio of spanish cheeses, breakfast burrito, bars, bloks and gels

Pyramid 052

Hero shot

Pyramid 049

These guys showed up, neither sweating or breathing heavy

Summit shot

Pyramid 051

Summit shot

The descent was quick. We passed 24 people who were headed up and at least 7 mountains goat who were doing what could be best described as mountain goat things; which mainly consisted of seeking salt in human urine.

Goat with kids

Pyramid 070

Oh that, I just left its summit

Alan and I attempting dancer pose while Terry walks up from behind probably wondering why he ever chose to climb with us…

Alan and I already wearing flip flops and sandals, Terry said he looked forward to the ensuing “toegasm” upon doing the same. That is the best word I have learned all summer.

Pyramid 073

This guy barely made it to Maroon Lake

We stopped at the Grottoes on our way over Independence Pass. Some 10 year old kids turned us onto the Ice Caves and the Cascades so we headed upstream. Next thing you know Alan is launching off a 10 foot ledge into the plunge pool, while I am taking a more modest 3 foot leap. The water is refreshing, in that it is so cold it takes away your breath, burns and demands that you find any shoreline ASAP. It was the perfect end to the climb. Lots of people were taking pictures as the frigid lunacy continued. As Alan noted, “people on vacation were taking pictures of our weekend.” We are obviously doing something right, at least two days a week.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Capitol Peak


  • Route: Northeast Ridge (standard)
  • Distance: ~17.0 miles
  • Elevation Gain: ~5,300
  • Start time: 3:20 AM  
  • Time: 10.1 hours (including a 1/2 hour on the summit and two 15 minute breaks) 
  • Climbers: Alan and Sandy

This climb has loomed large in my mind for quite some time. The length, combined with technical challenges, has left me feeling like a kid on the way to the haunted house: trepidation mixed with excitement.

Alan and I have been discussing Capitol for a good portion of the summer. With a litany of climbs behind us we decided that a single day effort fit our strengths well. Backpacking leaves the legs weary, whereas a light and fast approach has had us completing long days with more bounce in our step. Thus, we set out from Denver with the longest hike of the year awaiting. In an illustration of geologic time and human indifference, Capitol, which dominates the skyline, sat patiently in view at the the trailhead.


With this view my trepidation turned to excitement.

It was a full moon, but we were lucky to be parked beneath aspens. So in the partial shade of a full moon we grabbed a few hours of fitful sleep. The trailhead is on a grazing allotment, so cattle are abundant, and it was the nocturnal bovine mutterings that made sleep intermittent, which was frustrating with a 2:50 AM wake up call. On top of that climbing parties returned at 9 PM, 10 PM, and midnight. I lay in the back of the truck wondering what was keeping these groups out so late. Pondering a potential epic is about as effective as drinking cappuccinos in terms of bringing on sleep. After what felt like 37 seconds of unbroken sleep the alarm sounded.

Why are we up and ready to hike at 3:16?

Capitol Lake sits ~6.5 miles from the trailhead, and given the gentle nature of the trail we reached the lake in 2.25 hours. We combined a rest break, bathroom break, food break and water pumping session in 15 minutes of frenetic activity. Hikers walked by and a collection of headlamps danced upwards, like wayward satellites, to the ridge. We set off in pursuit, looking to pass as many parties as possible to minimize rockfall risk once past the “knife edge”.

The trail leaps off the valley floor in pursuit of higher elevation, which was hard to appreciate in the the half light provided as the sun flirted with the eastern horizon. We hit the ridge with impeccable timing, as we collided with the first rays of sunshine to strike the Capitol/Daly saddle.

Capitol 005

Sunrise upon hitting the ridge

Capitol 013

Alan awash in early morning light

Capitol 040

Capitol Lake Basin (taken on the descent)

We dropped into the basin and began the traverse to the adjacent ridge to gain “K2”. We noticed two parties who were off route, not quite on the Class 4 ridge route, but not on the standard route either, but in between the two. It appeared to offer an express route to “K2”, but I think (my opinion only as this was seen from a distance and I did not speak to anyone in these parties) it becomes cliffed out as they turned back and dropped into the basin. In short, either drop into the basin as described by 14ers.com or stay high on the ridgeline.

Alan and I reached “K2” without incident and were soon confronted with the “knife edge”. This narrow ridge top is known for its exposure with a lengthy fall off either side. I took a multi-faceted approach that mixed with walking on the top, a half squat and a full straddle. Alan, who has more faith in his balance, cat-walked most of it.

Capitol 018

Alan with the ridge leading to Capitol’s summit behind him.

Not sure if I am maximizing my safety with a  mix of handholds and footholds or looking for a pose with the some “booty pop”.

Capitol 023

Alan walking the balance beam.

It was on the descent, but while discussing the topic of the “knife edge” it is topical. It was spitting rain and the rock was slick. I was leading with Alan close behind me. I was traversing with hands on the ridge top and looking for footholds. Both of my feet slipped from beneath me. My  left hand was locked in a solid crimp and my right arm chicken-winged over the ridge top, so I immediately arrested my fall. I was unshaken as I knew I had had two solid points of contact with my hands/arms. Alan, who was surprised by the sound of shoes scrabbling against wet granite, looked up to see me lounged against the slope of the “knife edge” and simply asked what the “pucker factor” was like. I appreciate a climbing partner who can mix concern and morbid humor into a single question. Back to the climb…

Route finding beyond the “knife edge” was not as bad as I feared. Alan is a great with a map, especially with photo accompaniment. In a matter of seconds he points out the route. I express doubt. He holds up the photo and says something like “See that granite with the striations trending upward from left to right? That is right there. That cantilevered rock is here. That pika is…” He was probably bored with “Where’s Waldo” at age 5, maybe sooner, but that is his problem, and frankly I am glad to have a partner who can instantly read a map. This is  main reason we hit the summit ~30 minutes after leaving the “knife edge”.

Capitol 028

Summit feast featuring fish, the world’s worst PB&J, triscuits and goldfish crackers.

Capitol 035

The view towards Snowmass, note the clouds building.

A hopeless juggling lesson.

The summit of Capitol is spectacular. Lakes drape the landscape as granitic tendrils extend north, south and east. The summit begged for an extended visit, but the sky was a mix of bruised clouds and blue sky, with the bruised clouds winning the battle. With virga on the horizon and drizzle veiling nearby peaks, the race was on. A mix of descending prowess, acrobatics and a faith based move or two (WWJD, What Would Jesus Descend?) allowed us to cross the “knife edge” as graupel began to fall.

Capitol 036

A low ceiling of moisture rich clouds which provided impetus for speed.

With the difficulties behind us we made short work of the basin and the descent to the lake, stopping only to admire the wildflowers.


Paintbrush with Capitol Peak providing a backdrop

Capitol 044

Alan knee deep in larkspur and asters

This man is more sensitive than you are likely to realize

Hero shot. Or two guys who need another hobby.

The 6.5 mile trip to the trailhead was a mix of fast hiking and trail running. Being a city dweller the cows were intimidating. Hamburgers do not exist as a wall of trailside animated flesh and frankly I would cross the “knife edge” in exchange for a cow free hike. Alas, this was not the case so we bailed into the trees as needed, stealing sideway glances at 1/2 ton beasts as we slipped downvalley.

Capitol 058

This picture does not do justice to the killer instinct that possessed these cows! Or maybe I am an urban cowboy…

Capitol 059

Idyllic aspen strewn trail


In Aspen we ate this in a matter of seconds.