Mon, Mar 15, 2004
|Story||Photos / Slideshow||Maps: 1 2||Profiles: 1 2|
Pyramid Peak previously climbed Sun, Aug 28, 1994|
later climbed Wed, Apr 29, 2009
Martin Point later climbed Sun, Apr 4, 2004
Once again I was up to the 4a alarm in my room at the Motel 6 in Reno. By the fourth day of rising at this time I was getting pretty used to it. But this was the last day for such a regimen, and after the day's hiking it was time to head back to San Jose. Not having a firm plan where I'd hike on the fourth day by myself (Matthew had to return the previous day), I had considered heading to SR88 to climb Thunder Mtn, the Amador County highpoint. It wasn't a very difficult climb, even in winter, and with a full day available I was looking for something more challenging. I hit upon the idea of climbing Pyramid and Price Peaks in Desolation Wilderness as a worthy goal. I had been to Pyramid Peak before, but not as a dayhike, and Mt. Price has been on my Todo list for some time. Tagging both of these on snowshoes seemed like it would make for a pretty full and adventurous day.
After a quick breakfast I packed up the rest of my things in the car and headed out before 4:30a. South on US395, west on US50, It took me an hour and a half to make the drive from Reno to the trailhead at Twin Bridges. By 6:20a I had my gear ready and headed out. Initially I followed the broad canyon leading up to Horsetail Falls. But following a previous (failed) attempt on Pyramid from the top of the falls, I have since learned that it is best to climb the ridgeline on the west side of the canyon as early as possible and follow it to the South Ridge of Pyramid Peak. This is the most direct way from Twin Bridges. After I reached a Wilderness sign about a half mile up the canyon, I decided to head up the more direct line where I could see steep, but passable routes up the canyon wall.
It took only a few minutes to leave the comfort and shade of the canyon floor and find myself on the steeper slopes now bathed in the bright morning sun. The slopes were soft and tiring, but at least they held fairly well and I made quick progress. It was 800ft up in a very short time before I topped out on a subsidiary ridge east and lower than the main ridge. Here I picked up tracks from several other snowshoers and at least one skier that had visited some time in the last few weeks since the last snowfall. I was now at the height of the top of Horsetail Falls and I could see Ralston Peak looming high on the east side of the canyon. The easy walking along the short ridge soon ended, and I began another 700ft climb up to the main ridge. By the time I was atop the main ridge I was high enough to see south to Round Top and other peaks in the vicinity of Carson Pass. The angle of ascent eased as well once up on the ridge, and in the absence of strong winds or other undesireable weather impediments, the climb from this point on was delightful. The distance to the summit was some three miles (and another 2,000ft higher), but the grade is more gradual until the final South Ridge. For over a mile trees along the ridge provide shade from the sun and I picked up many more tracks from skiers and snowshoers - this seemed to be quite a popular route indeed. But on a Monday I had the entire route to myself.
Where the trees leave off the ridge makes a gradual turn to the northwest, and one is greeted with a fine view of Desolation Valley peering over the northeast side of the ridge. Brilliant white snow covers everything - few trees grow in the broad valley below Aloha Lake. The numerous small lakes are all frozen over and snow-covered as well. Jacks and Dicks Peaks rise high to the north, impressive sentinels of the landscape. Pyramid Peak comes into view as well, now maybe a mile's distance to the northwest. There was no route-finding to be done, one merely follows the trail of ski and snowshoe tracks as they make their way to the South Ridge. Once on the South Ridge, the route grows steep again, and I followed the very crest of it since it had a slightly lower angle than the faces on either side. It was 9:10a when I reached the top, just short of three hours from the start. Nearly the entire top is covered in snow, only a few of the rockwall shelters poking up above the snow. As I peered over the northwest side of the summit I am struck by the impressive view (and seemingly considerable distance) of Mts. Agassiz and Price. I also am struck by the seeming folly of my idea to hike over to Mt. Price. A thin, dangerous-looking ridge connects Pyramid Peak to Mt. Agassiz. It doesn't look within my abilities to safely follow the ridge. An alternate route dropping down into the cirque on the south side of the ridge looks like it will cost me a thousand feet in elevation, and add twice that to the total elevation gain for the roundtrip. That was discouraging, but it didn't turn me back just yet. The bigger problem seemed to be just getting down into the cirque. The Southwest Ridge of Pyramid was incredibly steep on the side facing the cirque, huge cornices hanging over the edge before the slopes dropped near vertical for several hundred feet. It may have been possible to climb down the North Ridge in order to reach the cirque, but I didn't walk far enough down the ridge to ascertain that possibility. No, it looked like the better choice was to turn back while I was still enjoying things.
I took some photos of the fine views (NW - N - NE - E - SE) and then headed back down the way I came. It was nice that the upper three miles of the ridge if not exactly firm, weren't bad at all for walking on. As I began the steeper descent off the ridge back down to the canyon, it was a different story. The lower elevation and the early morning exposure to the sun had softened it so much that I would plunge a foot deep with each step, even with the snowshoes. Gravity had the effect of pulling my shoes forward after the plunge, setting them deeper under the snow I had just pushed down into, and extracting them back out for the next step became a real chore. Several times the tip of the rear snowshoe plunged deeper into the snowpack and I came to a wrenching halt with my front foot stretched out in front of me trying to head downhill. I almost thought my leg was going to be ripped from the hip socket. And if a 43yr-old doing the splits wasn't painful enough, I found extracting myself rather problematic. I couldn't pull the rear leg out, and I couldn't pull the front leg back up. So I had to take five minutes to dig over three feet of the heavy, now compacted snow out from under me so I could free the rear leg. It was very easy to see how wet slab avalanches could kill without burying their victims more than a few inches deep.
By the time I returned to the trailhead at 10:50a, my lower body was pretty much soaked up to my underwear. Had I fallen in the creek I doubt I could have gotten much wetter. Back at the car I stripped off the wet clothes and put on some fresh dry ones. On my way back down it had occurred to me that I would still have plenty of daytime left. Since I didn't make it to Mt. Price, perhaps I could use the time I saved to go back and climb the original objective, Thunder Mtn near Kirkwood. And so I drove off back up over Echo Summmit, down towards Lake Tahoe, up over Luther and Carson Passes, and down to Kirwood Ski Area. It took over an hour to make the drive, but it was really quite nice with the spring conditions, and it gave me a change to eat lunch, rest, and dry out my socks. At Kirkwood I pulled into the first large lot on the south side of the roadway, changed back into my wet boots, and headed uphill at 12:15p. The map I carried was for an approach from the west side of the mountain, so I wasn't exactly sure where I was heading as I began climbing. But how hard could a county highpoint be? I stuck to the west side of the ski area, not wanting to cause grief to anyone connected to the ski area, and besides the trees provided welcome shade from the sun. The first 200ft of gain are fairly gradual, then the next 1200ft go quite steeply. With ample rests every 30 or 40 steps, I made steady progress heading for the ridge above, aiming for the easiest angle I could find, still protected by trees.
After reaching the ridge I saw that I was a short distance to the left of the highpoint, and it was an easy amble over there, arriving an hour after I'd started. Pretty good I thought, considering the heavier workout in the morning. I found several register containers, both in plastic PVC piping. One had gotten moisture inside and the contents of several registers were a damp mess. The other one, more recent, had stayed dry and the registers were filled with entries, many quite recent. This was one popular point. At the bottom of this second PVC pipe was a small glass jar with a laminated original ascent record from 1933 (the glass jar appears to be the original register container) - very impressive. The presence of the registers threw me off, and despite a reference to Martin Point, I thought that was simply an old name to Thunder Mtn. Not so, I was to find out later. Thunder Mtn is actually a mile further south and 160 feet higher, and though it was there in plain sight (and I even commented to myself that it would make for a fine visit in its own right), I was able to convince myself it was some other point in a nearby county, no doubt. A good map would have been quite useful here. I took some photos of the surrounding views (NW - N - E) while taking a short break on top.
Oblivious that I missed my mark, I headed back down the way I came. The northeast-facing aspect of the slope was a big help in avoiding the slushy mess I had found coming down from Pyramid Peak, and though the snow was still pretty soft, I never buried myself too deeply as I'd done earlier. It was 2p when I arrived back at the car - still early it seemed, I had another four hours of daylight. But I'd run out of new objectives and more importantly, continued motivation to keep going, so I was content to call it a day and head back to San Jose. Thunder Mtn would get a return visit sometime in the future.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Pyramid Peak
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