Sunrise from Pyramid Peak

Sunrise from Pyramid Peak, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

Pyramid Peak and South Maroon Peak promised to be two of the most difficult peaks from which to shoot sunrise. Both have lots of exposed, difficult scrambling, both have a reputation for loose rock and intricate route-finding, and for both the only reasonable campsite is very low, 10,076 feet at Crater Lake. For most Fourteeners, the highest reasonable campsite is between 11,000 and 11,500 feet. The elevation gain alone ‒ about 4,000 feet ‒ meant the routes would take a long time to climb in the dark. When I considered all those factors, I decided that the only safe way to shoot sunrise from the summit was to climb each peak twice, once in daylight to learn the route, then again the next day by headlamp to shoot sunrise. That meant summiting each peak twice in less than 24 hours.


It only took about an hour to hike to my campsite at Crater Lake. That evening two women from Mountain Rescue Aspen, the local volunteer search and rescue group, walked into my campsite and asked if I'd seen a very tall (6'7") 190-pound man named Leonard Joyner. He had set off to climb South Maroon Peak about four days ago. No one had seen him since. I told them I'd keep an eye out for him when I climbed South Maroon in a few days. First, though, I intended to do Pyramid. 


I got up at 3 a.m. the next day and was rolling out of camp under a beautiful starry sky just before 4 a.m. I knew the clear sky was deceiving. A huge thunderstorm had moved through the area the previous day, narrowly missing me but dropping torrential rain in Aspen, according to climbers who hiked to Crater Lake after it passed. The forecast called for more of the same today, with a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms that afternoon. The summer monsoon had definitely arrived.


The first 1,000 feet of gain was on a trail constructed in 2005 and 2006 by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. As always, I was impressed with the sheer amount of manual labor required to construct such a trail on such a steep slope. As I was laboring up the switchbacks around 5 a.m., I saw three headlamps above me, heading up. Then, surprisingly, the headlamps began to descend. I soon encountered the lead climber and asked what was going on. "We just saw someone flashing an SOS with their headlamp from North Maroon," he replied. "We're going to hike out and alert the search and rescue team." Neither one of us had any coverage on our cell phones. I had a Spot Connect, a personal locator beacon, but it would probably have just confused matters, since the GPS position of the Spot Connect would have been at least a mile away from the person signaling the SOS. I told the climbers I admired their selflessness and continued upward. 


The established trail ended at the bottom of the amphitheater, a long, tedious talus section. After crossing the amphitheater, I grunted up a very steep, 800-foot climb on a loose dirt trail to a saddle on the northeast ridge of Pyramid. I spotted a mother mountain goat and her kid just above the saddle and managed to grab a few frames before they moved out of range. Now the real scrambling began. With the help of the route description and GPS track from 14ers.com, I was able to find the route fairly easily. I reached the summit 4 1/2 hours after leaving Crater Lake. During the climb and descent I saw a helicopter making at least two round trips up the Maroon Creek valley. I hoped it was performing a rescue, but knew it was much more likely to be engaged in body recovery. Later that afternoon as I was recuperating in camp a ranger told me that Leonard Joyner's body had been found. It was a sobering beginning to what proved to be a very intense trip.


I ate dinner around 4 p.m., closed my eyes around 6 p.m., then got up again at 11 p.m. feeling like I’d hardly slept at all. The sky was completely cloudy. Maybe, I tried to reassure myself, the evening thunderstorms hadn't yet cleared out. It was, after all, a ridiculously early start. At midnight, just as I was leaving camp, a huge hole opened in the clouds, revealing a brilliant starry sky. Finally it's clearing up, I thought, and headed upward. Half an hour later, the clouds closed in again. I sensed rather than really saw that clouds had probably settled low over the peaks, obscuring their summits. A few drops of rain began to fall. It was not looking promising. I was already up and moving, however, and had just drunk a pint of strong coffee, so I certainly wasn't going back to sleep any time soon. I decided to go to the saddle at 13,000 feet since there was no thunder or lightning. Rain wouldn't make the descent from the saddle much worse than it already was. 


At 3:30 a.m., one hundred feet below the saddle, a dense fog suddenly enveloped me. Visibility dropped to fifteen feet as my headlamp beam bounced off the particles of moisture and glared back into my eyes. It was like driving at night in a fog with your high beams on. I continued to the saddle, convinced that I'd just climbed nearly 3,000 vertical feet for nothing. Once on the saddle, I turned off my headlamp, let my eyes adjust, and scanned the sky. Was there any hope it was going to clear? I still had not seen any lightning or heard any thunder, so there didn't seem to be any immediate danger. Still, it seemed rather unwise to continue up one of the hardest Fourteeners in the state in such dicey weather. Then, to my surprise, I spotted a couple of stars near the northwest horizon. Straining my eyes looking upward, I imagined I saw a star or two straight above. A moment later the fog dropped below me as suddenly as it had appeared. A thousand stars began glimmering in a moonless sky. I headed upward once again.


I had memorized the key landmarks the day before, as well as created my own GPS route with waypoints at every twist and turn along the way to the summit. With both memory and the GPS to guide me, I was able to stay on the route even in the dark. The stars continued to gleam above me. It looked like my gamble might pay off after all. One hundred feet below the summit, the fog returned. I summited at 5:15 a.m. in a whiteout. Did I really want to be sitting on top of one of the hardest Fourteeners in the state in such weather? It was still 45 minutes before sunrise. I pulled on all my warm clothing, wondering if I should descend immediately, and decided against it. It would be easier to find my way in daylight, particularly if the warmth of the sun burned off the fog. I began waiting anxiously. 


Gradually it grew light. The fog began moving in and out, granting me glimpses of grand vistas one moment, then immersing me in a white void the next. I began shooting. Fog completely filled the East Maroon Creek valley. Periodically it boiled up and over the summit, only to be pushed back by the westerly wind. As the sun rose further, the fog and mist began to dissipate over the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak, and Snowmass Mountain. I headed down an hour after sunrise in bright, warm sunshine. Although mist once again capped the Maroon Bells when I finally reached my campsite four hours later, no significant rain fell the entire day. I went to bed early, knowing I still had two back-to-back ascents of South Maroon Peak to accomplish.

Glenn Randall Photography

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