Peak(s):  "Thunder Pyramid"  -  13,932 feet
Date Posted:  07/03/2011
Date Climbed:   07/02/2011
Author:  GeorgeB
 Thunder Pyramid - West Face Snow   

Thunder Pyramid - 13,932'
West Face, Class 3/Steep Snow
8.8 miles, 4,332'

Thunder Pyramid's reputation for loose rock led to some centennial procrastination, it was one of only ten peaks I had left to climb to complete CO's highest 100. This year's far above average snowpack had me thinking that a snow climb would be a great way to manage the route's notorious loose rock. All I needed was a partner for the endeavor...

I met Paul Wellner on Mt Hood a few years ago. His partners had all bailed on him in the parking lot due to inclement weather, so I got to ride up in his snowcat and we shared a rope. Paul has since authored a guidebook for Mt Hood, which he has climbed ~20 times. I recommend the book for anyone planning a trip up the standard route. The aerial photos of all aspects of the mountain in the book are especially great.

Paul's been out to Colorado from Oregon a few times to rock and ice climb with me and for this trip I thought his Cascades experience on steep snow and rotten rock would be great preparation for Thunder P. Just to make sure he saw some higher quality rock in Colorado, we kicked off this trip with climbs of Wind Ridge in Eldo and Seal Rock in the Flatirons. After a morning rock climb on The Dome in Boulder Canyon, Paul and I drove to Aspen and packed into the Crater Lake area. We grabbed campsite #9 at the recommendation of a FS ranger. It turned out to be a great spot, with a great view of a large waterfall.

With our tent pitched, we hiked a ways south on the Maroon Creek trail to check out our route before our pre-dawn start. We figured out a few stream crossings, confirmed that we would have a snow bridge to cross Maroon Creek on, and eyed the remaining snow on the west face route. Much of the west face/white gulley route was still filled in with snow, but the snow line did end abruptly with a waterfall over a cliff. Knowing this, we planned to ascend basically the standard route, traversing into this west face from the climber's right.

While cooking dinner, we had a visit from a large porcupine. I think he wandered into us by accident, as we were actually downwind from him. With all remaining food hung on a high clothesline, we went to bed after setting a 3:30am alarm.

On the trail by 4:45 or so, we saw a party well on their way up the Bell Cord and another party behind us also heading for the Cord. Not surprisingly, we would have Thunder Pyramid all to ourselves. The climbing turned from mellow trail cruise to "game on" pretty quickly. We put crampons and helmets on around 10,700' and didn't take them off until just below the summit. From here the route ascends 3,200' in less than a mile. We snuck through the entry cliff band climbing a gully full of fairly steep snow. With only a few stretches of rock hopping in crampons, we were able to link up snow patches all the way to the high basin below Len Shoemaker ridge.

From here the remaining route is partly hidden, but what you can see looks imposing. The Maroon Bells are still soaring far overhead across the valley, giving you a sense of scale and how much of Thunder Pyramid remains. We saw a lone mountain goat high on the face and hoped that he wouldn't knock any rocks down on us.

We studied what we could and selected a narrow couloir to grant us passage through the next cliff band. We picked a route that is most likely not standard (just right of standard, I think), because it appeared to allow us to climb more continuous snow and would put us higher on the west face. This ultimately worked out for us, but did necessitate a lot of traversing on steep snow to get over to the white gulley on the west face. We would later descend the standard route (a more obvious and larger gulley).

We grunged our way across mud, loose rocks, and grass, finally reaching the continuous snow line in the white gulley. This snow turned out to be rock hard making ice axe self-belays impossible. Front pointing with low dagger axe technique was my preferred method of travel. We remembered our ice climbing tricks and made a point of re-using the leader's axe pick placements as opposed to making our own. Step kicking was hopeless in the icy snow, so drafting the leader had limited benefits. I was glad I had worn my Kayland ice boots and rigid Rambo crampons. The sun didn't hit this face until almost 9:45am, so the snow stayed firm all the way up.

By 13.6 or 13.7K we could see the snow was petering out, so we traversed over to the climber's right, exiting on the infamous rock, and picked our way up the ridge. The rock here certainly lives up to its reputation, if you come expecting the worst you won't be disappointed. We were glad to have climbed so far on firm snow and only mess with a hundred feet of choss. At a small saddle at 13,800, we refueled and studied the remaining ridge. A rock step prevented easy access, so we traversed just a little ways left and climbed a dihedral. The remaining trip to the summit was a mostly pleasant rock scramble on the ridge proper.

At the summit just after 11am, we saw some prayer flags (praying for no rockfall?). Upon signing the summit register we learned that we may have made the first ascent this year. We also figured out that more people climb Mt Hood on an average day than climb Thunder Pyramid all year. It looks like only 20-30 people visit this summit annually.

We soaked up the views and contemplated our descent. Expecting the snow to still be icy, we elected to down climb the rock on the climber's right side while the sun softened up the snow. By 13,000 we'd pretty well had our fill of teetering blocks, so we put our points back on and hit the snow. It had softened up a bit, but was still pretty steep, so we down climbed facing in. After several hundred feet facing in we could finally switch over to plunge stepping. This sped up our descent rate, and before long we were traversing rock and the occasional snow field over to the entrance gulley. We chose to head down the standard bigger gulley as it had been baking in the sun longer, even finding a short glissade along the way.

Getting back to the high basin was a relief, but we still had 1,200 feet of snow to descend. We knew parts would be steep, but we took our crampons off here and hoped we could boot our way down. Some more step kicking and a couple cautious glissades got us back to the snow bridge across Maroon Creek. #91/100 and what a relief to be down this one safely!

Conclusions/other comments:
Snow is definitely the way to climb Thunder Pyramid; this really minimizes the loose rock/rockfall.
That said, it's still a pretty serious snow climb (and there's a lot of it), you need to be solid traversing/climbing/downclimbing steep snow. Paul and I each executed a real self arrest once (from sliding out on a plunge step). This arrest needs to be instinctive and instant, run outs aren't friendly here.
Route finding isn't a gimme, I think we only saw 1 cairn over 12K and no obvious trail.
We did not bring a rope or second ice tool. I don't regret leaving the rope, but I probably could have climbed a bit faster on the icy snow with a second tool. I was glad to be able to clip my ice axe leash to my harness.
UV Buffs were awesome for sun protection on this sunny day.
Here's an awesome aerial photo of the area. I just found it on the net, it's not mine:

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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