I have always had a few of the red, rugged, and rotten traverses in the Elks in the back of my mind to hopefully climb one day (other than the Maroon Bells Traverse, which I have done a few times) and when my friend Natalie suggested she wanted to do the Pyramidal Traverse, I was interested. A huge plus would also be to get into the Elk Range on a gorgeous fall day. But, mainly I just wanted a new ridge traverse. The Pyramidal Traverse traverses the 14er Pyramid Peak (14,018′), the centennial Thunder Pyramid (13,932′), and the bicentennial Lightning Pyramid (13,722′). Natalie wanted to scope out the non-standard northwest ridge route up Pyramid in preparation for a winter ascent. This sounded fun as well as I had never been up the NW ridge route. I had been up and down the standard NE ridge route 4 times in the past, the last one being with Rainier and Caleb & Jennie Wray in August 2009. While the loose rock of the Bells, Pyramid, and surrounding peaks is not my favorite rock to scramble on and doesn’t instill much comfort or confidence, it is still very unique rock and offers challenging scrambling even if only low 5th class, especially on the downclimbing aspects. Several climbing buddies had suggested we traverse south to north as we could climb up most of the low 5th class crux sections, but we wanted to climb Pyramid’s NW ridge route for a recon of the winter route, so it looked like we would be downclimbing all of the cruxes. And, it was a lot of downclimbing. I brought my 30m/8mm rope, webbing, harness, slings, biners, nuts, and a few cams in hopes to set up a rappel if needed, but it turned out everything just stayed in my pack. I always believe its better to have it and not use it than to not have it and need it. So, after Sawyer was in bed and Kristine & I had dinner, I zipped over in the Subaru to the Maroon Lake TH parking lot and got a few hours sleep in the back of the car with the tailgate open. Natalie showed up around 5am and we departed the TH around 5:30am. It was to be just about a perfect fall weather day except for the fairly stiff west wind that was supposed to subside by around 9am, which it fortunately did. We made quick work of the approach up into the amphitheater below Pyramid’s north face and then veered off south west on steep grassy slopes and loose scree to the northwest ridge at around 12,700′.
We followed the northwest ridge route pretty much “to a T” up through the Keyhole Couloir and then further up the fun class 4 slab/chimney above. It was a gorgeous morning except that we were climbing in the shade and the wind was pretty stiff. I was chilled as I normally get considering my hefty plethora of body fat 🙂
We then just sort of traversed ledges and slight aretes until we both found ourselves into the upper bowl/amphitheater below the summit block.
Once on the summit ridge, it was a short scramble to Pyramid’s summit arriving around 9:15am.
I was a little worried about my timing as I needed to be home by 7pm (back to car by 5pm), nut Natalie convinced me we would be ok with timing. So, we began the traverse south to the centennial Thunder Pyramid in what would be the “meat & potatoes” of the day. The downclimb of the class 4 pitch on Pyramid’s south ridge was lots of fun and then it was pretty cruiser class 2 walking for several hundred yards until we started doing some pretty mellow class3/4 downclimbing with not much exposure on the ridge crest.
We tried the west side of the ridge to actually get down to the lowpoint several hundred feet below, but it didn’t go anywhere. We backtracked slightly and headed on the ridge top or just slightly east and found the top of the crux low 5th class downclimb with some big exposure that we had heard about. Well, there was only one way down. I was considering setting up a rappel, but there was just no good place to set up an anchor.
I had gotten down to the lowpoint and was scouting the next portion of the traverse when Natalie thought she could just drop her pack the remaining 10 ft down into the top of a steep, loose couloir down the west side. While it looked like the pack would just plop down and not roll from Natalie’s perspective, it indeed took off down the couloir. We both looked and thought it would stop, but just went over a steep crux and into oblivion. Natalie went down after it, but triggered a small rockslide, which didn’t make either of us very comfortable. She searched for a good 20-30min, but to no avail. She came back up to the lowpoint and we would both have to get by with my half nalgene of water and half liter of Gatorade for the rest of the traverse and the descent down to West Maroon Creek. I felt awful for Natalie as she had some valuable gear in there including her Delorme. I mean that pack could have been close to her lowpoint or rolled to the couloir’s bottom. Who knows. She would later get in touch with Delorme and they would track it to be resting at 13,300′ or just below her lowpoint. And, Natalie would go back 2 days later, ascend Thunder Pyamid via the standard White Gully, and traverse over to retrieve her pack. Very admirable and impressive determination, Natalie!
Anyway, we continued along the traverse south from the lowpoint, which was now significantly easier with some class 3/4 and nothing all that exposed.
Even with the delay for the dropped pack, we still made the traverse in just under 2 hours. It was my first summit of Thunder Pyramid and another centennial for myself. It was a nice summit.
I believe it was around 12:15pm when we left Thunder Pyramid’s summit for Lightning Pyramid. Easy class 2+/3 downclimbing at first quickly yielded class 4 downclimbing to get down to the lowpoint between Thunder & Lightning Pyramid.
I dropped my pack with all the gear at the lowpoint saddle between Thunder & Lightning Pyramid and in 15 minutes over easy terrain we were on Lightning Pyramid’s summit at approximately 1pm.
Our descent off this ridge was via the awfully steep and loose west side couloir between Thunder & Lightning Pyramid accessed from the lowpoint saddle. Not looking forward to it, we navigated it pretty well going one at a time for several pitches ensuring we don’t knock rocks down on one another. It could have been the worst couloir I’ve descended. I don’t know. However, I do know I will never touch it again.
It was wonderful to get down into the grassy Len Shoemaker Basin and take a break and guzzle our remaining fluids. We then made our way on grassy ledges and rock gullies to get down another 1,200′ to the West Maroon Creek trail.
We finally hit the West Maroon Creek trail, filled up with water and iodined our nalgenes, and cruised out the remaining few miles back to the Maroon Lake TH arriving just at 5pm. Natalie’s car keys were in her lost pack, so we hurried quickly down to 82 in the Subaru to get cell service so Natalie could call Geico and get some roadside assistance. After everything was settled, I was drove back to Edwards just in time to see Sawyer before bed, which was my goal all along. I later learned that Natalie’s spare keys were not in her locked car, so someone drove them up from Denver apparently and she finally got into her car later that night. But, my hat is certainly off to her for going back up Thunder and over to the couloir to retrieve her pack 24 hrs later. So happy it all worked out.
Lastly, thanks to Natalie for a great day and a solid idea for an Elks traverse in the fall. Its exactly what I needed having not been in the area in years. I don’t get on 14ers too often anymore, but Pyramid will always be one of my favorites. I guess total stats are something like 5,500′ vertical gain in 12.5 miles and 11.5 hrs RT. Our little Pyramid loop is shown below:
Cool beans! Brings back some fond (and some not so fond) memories. That’s wild about Natalie’s pack, even more wild that she went back up and got it a couple days later.
Hoping to go south to north from W Maroon Pass over Pyramid if you’re ever interested in heading back up there 🙂
Haha. Thanks, Ben. I hear ya on the fond and not so find memories, buddy. Yep, Natalie really got after it and retrieved her pack!
May take a raincheck on going back on that ridge. I mean I like that unique rock and traversing, but I like technical granite rock better 🙂 Hoping to go back to Cap NW Butt before the big snows really fly.
Thanks Brandon for the write up. The narrative reads like I was there. Oh wait 🙂 Yeah, a complete rookie mistake on my part. I felt very silly after it happened. Basically from my downclimb point of view, the low point of the saddle looked deceptively flat (ish), which clearly wasn’t the case. I was downclimbing facing out and pack was pushing me out, so to speak, so I decided to lower it. The heinous gully (that made out descent off Lightning look like a walk in the park) was separated by a rock rib and the pack ended up on the other side of it, on a ledge above the cliff, out of sight. It is only after I got home, enabled Delorme map sharing, that I could see the pack location on the screen, roughly near 13,300 ft or about 50 ft from my descent point, marked on Gaia. Andrew Hamilton, bless his heart, helped me to get the GPS coordinates off Delorme screen. After plotting several of them into Gaia (since Delorme kept transmitting), I ended up with several GPS coordinates- data points, all very close to each other. I couldn’t find partners for the traverse on such a short notice, so I decided to come from TP side, since it’s considerably easier. All went without a hitch, albeit I was moving slowly and deliberately, and thankfully, I was able to locate the pack, and very slowly and carefully to climb out of the gully. Again, a rookie mistake of mine, really glad it was fixable though without any major consequences to life and limb. It will be some time before I head out for Bi 13,631 and a neighbor (my last 2 remaining 13ers on that ridge), but I eventually hope to get there. 🙂
Natalie, yes you were there! Hey, like I’ve said 100 times, these things happen. They have happened to me more than I’d like to admit. Momentary lapses of reason. Fortunately, there was nothing life-threatening on the line, just a big frustration & inconvenience. You did so well to go back up there solo and retrieve your pack safely. Huge congrats.
Nice brando! That looked like a great and fun filled day in the hills dude!
Thanks, Ricardo. A fun-filled for sure. Will miss seeing you kids this Friday at Miller’s shenanigans. So wish we could be there, but we are flying to Kauai on Saturday. Hope to see you sooner than later, buddy.
Wow, quite an adventure. got my palms sweaty on a few of those downclimb shots! Have an awesome time in HI!!
Thanks, John! A day in the Elks always seems to be a good day. It had been awhile since I had been in the Bells/Pyramid area. Hey, congrats on your Nolan’s attempt too, buddy! Hawaii shall be good. Best to you & Jennifer.
Great write up, looks like a fun day in the hills. Crazy on Natalie’s pack, glad she got it back. Most would have donated it Lord Elk.
Thanks JB. Yes, most would have donated it to Lord Elk. Hope you and the gals are well!