Hiking Stats as of 11/19/2019
Total Trips:
Total Distance:
Total Elevation Gain:
 3,891.68 miles
 1,060,050 feet

Mar 2, 2013 - Pyramid Peak


Partners: (None)

Distance: 7.78 miles

Elevation Gain: 4,122 feet

Trip Time: 6:40

Maps and Stats:
Having completed my first winter summit on Devil's Peak a couple of weeks ago, I felt ready to avenge my prior defeat on Pyramid Peak from last October, when the unexpected deep snow highlighted just how unprepared I was for winter conditions in the Sierra. This time I would come armed with snowshoes, crampons, gloves, an extra jacket and a balaclava. Pyramid Peak is a prominent Peak in the Lake Tahoe area - it is the highest point, at 9,983 in the Desolation Wilderness and its prominence has it included on 3 climbing lists that I am currently working on - the Sierra Peaks Section (SPS), Western States Climbers (WSC) and the Lake Tahoe Region Peak list (OGUL - not an acronym but the Indian word for Bighorn Sheep). A successful ascent would be quite productive, adding one more peak to my total ascents on each of these lists. The route to the summit of Pyramid Peak is not long in terms of miles, but it is extremely steep. The Rocky Canyon trail covers less than four miles from Highway 50 all the way to the summit, but gains over 4,100 feet of elevation along the way, making it the top elevation gain in the Tahoe region. Still, I figured I could do at least 1 MPH, meaning I was looking at a maximum of 8 hours on the trail. This gave me the perfect excuse to sneak in a walk for each of my dogs before leaving my house at 7:30 AM. The drive up to the parking area took less time that I thought, and I found myself on the trail by 10:15.

The first challenge with Pyramid Peak lies in actually finding the trail itself. There are no signs, and you just have to start climbing up a steep embankment off the side of Highway 50 and try to find it through all of the dense brush. Just like the last time I came up here I couldn't find the trail and resorted to winding my way alongside the creek that I knew eventually intersected the trail. While this provided some nice scenery, it was not too efficient, as I continually wound back and forth trying to avoid the dense brush while looking for the trail. After about a half mile I found it, thanks to the onset of snow on the ground which did a much better job of retaining the tracks of previous climbers for me to follow.

I had lashed my snowshoes to my pack, but so long as I wasn't sinking into the snow I wanted to keep trekking in my hiking boots. I knew I could go much faster in my boots than in the snowshoes, and after summiting Devil's Peak a couple of weeks ago in my hiking boots I wanted to go as far as I could with them today. As the snow deepened, I occasionally fell through the snow, but not often enough for me to want to stop and spend the time to put on the snowshoes. (I didn't realize how bad it was at the time, but when a leg would sink through it was difficult to get back out - almost like fitting a key into a lock, I had to pull my leg back out just as it went in. I didn't like that and instead tried to push forward with my buried leg, causing some nasty bruises and scrapes that I discovered when I got home). My stubbornness finally burned me when I came to the portion of the route where it crosses the stream. The route that others had taken went across a snow patch (no rocks or logs, just walking along the snow above the stream). I set out to do the same thing and then...crash!!!. Not wearing snowshoes like I should have, my boot sank all the way down and landed on a small rock that kept it from going all the way into the freezing water. Fortunately I was able to grab the branches of some shrubs and use them as leverage to pull myself out without risking another step. Not that the stream was some torrent or anything but I didn't think that getting my feet wet would be a good idea if I planned on going up to 10,000 feet in winter.

After crossing the stream the route became much easier to follow, as the snow pack deepened and the trees thinned out. I immediately put on my snowshoes, and the route was steadily uphill for a while, until I had my first views of Pyramid Peak not too far off in the distance. From this point the route became quite steep and difficult, starting with an extremely steep ascent to the ridgeline. The combination of traveling in snowshoes and the thinning air were doing a number on my stamina, and I started having to take more breaks. During the steeper sections I could sometimes only go up maybe 50 vertical feet at a time before having to stop for a few seconds to rest. The benefit of these rests were that I could take in the fine views that were now surrounding me. After getting up to the ridge the route turned due north and straight up to the summit.

Although the summit seemed so close, my slow pace and fatigue made me think about turning around. I don't remember ever feeling so drained after each step as I did heading up the seemingly never ending snow slope to the summit. I ran into a group of about 6 guys coming down at 1:30 (the only other people I saw all day) and their enthusiasm rejuvenated my spirits. I inquired about the summit conditions, to which they replied that extreme winds (60-70 MPH) were blowing on the final 500 vertical feet up to the summit, but once you get to the summit they were only about half that. Ok, so that part didn't rejuvenate me. I asked them how long they thought it would take to reach the summit from where I was and they replied about an hour. That was hard to believe, as it looked so close. But then again, when you have to rest 1 minute for every 2 you climb, that will slow you down. But then they said how worth it it was to get to the summit, how fantastic the views were, and I could see how pumped they all were to have done it. I reminded myself that it would be a long time and would take a lot of effort to be back in a such a good position to get the summit of Pyramid Peak again - 5 hours of round trip driving and 3 hours of climbing and here I was only an hour away. Sure I was tired but other than that I wasn't in any physical danger or pain...so I pushed on, picking out odd trees on the slope and telling myself to just reach the next tree and then I could rest.

By this time the wind was fierce, and I had stopped to put on my extra jacket, gloves and balaclava (which made breathing more difficult still). Fortunately the wind was at my back, which at least helped push me up the slope. Still, I had to kick step some of the way, out of an abundance of caution, to make sure I didn't slip down. By a few minutes after 2:00 I was on the final push up the snow slope to the summit, and a few minutes later the slope leveled out and I was on the flattened summit of Pyramid Peak after 4 hours of climbing. I have never been so pumped to reach any summit in my life. Even some of the longer ones, like Whitney and Half Dome were not nearly as intense as this. For the first time ever I went to the summit and yelled out as loud as I could. Then I did it again. With the festivities over I took some shots looking West, Northwest, North, Northeast - with partial views of Lake Tahoe, East, South back towards where I had come from (note the dome shaped feature near the lower left of the picture - here is that dome from near the bottom of the route), and southwest. I spent about 20 minutes on top and took a 360 degree video of what was a cold and windy summit (although not nearly as bad as it was on the final slope up to the top, just like the guys told me).

I began the steep descent and was able to make much better time going down. The nice thing about going down is you don't get as tired and so my breathing was much easier now. The other nice thing about descending is you get to enjoy the fantastic views. Before too long I was back at the steep section that connects to the ridge, and descended it from the sitting position. This may not have been the greatest idea, as snow somehow bunched up against my back and when I stood up it slid down into my pants and down into my shoes. It was cold, but I didn't care, as the wind down here was completely gone and I was running on adrenaline form my summit. The trek back was uneventful, as I descended down from 9984 feet to the stream crossing at 7500 feet. There, I made sure to cross at a different spot (with my snowshoes on) and made it across without incident. Down lower, as the snow became more spotty, the sun turned some of the snow into some dangerously icy conditions, especially near the creek. Having learned my lesson about being to lazy to put on the right equipment, I changed out my snowshoes for some strap on crampons which gave me excellent traction against the ice. I made my way back downhill, this time staying on the correct trail, as it descended down to the parking area at 5,800 feet. Over 4,000 feet lower and seemingly a world away from what the conditions at the summit.

It seems unbelievable that this is less than 8 miles round trip, but a review of the Google Earth and elevation profile chart help show just how tough this one is, especially in winter.

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