Pyramid Peak: Nocturnal Mission

28 March 2013

random trip report
What does it feel like to climb a mountain alone, in the middle of the night, in winter?

To answer this question, I decide to try climbing Pyramid Peak at night, with the goal of seeing sunrise from the summit. Pyramid Peak is 9,985' high, in Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. It's a tough hike in the best circumstances - 4,000' vertical, most of it off-trail. I've climbed it before in both good and bad conditions.

It's not easy to get people to go on a hike like this, so I end up going it alone. To make things a bit safer, I buy a hand-held GPS at REI.

The trip gets off to a bad start: in stop-and-go traffic on I-80, I'm rear-ended by a pickup truck driven by a young woman who is undoubtedly composing a text message. My rear bumper is cracked, but the car still runs, so I drive on, stopping in Sacramento for a couple of hours.

I arrive at the Horsetail Falls trailhead a 1:45 AM. The parking area says 'Closed for the season' and there are No Parking signs all along the road. I risk it and park on the road.

It's been overcast the whole way up, but it clears up (briefly) and the full moon is out. The temperature is a little above freezing.

Things are hard right off the bat. Winter storms have made the trail non-obvious, and I waste a lot of time losing and re-finding it. The moon is not sufficient for navigation. I rely on my LED headlamp, which illuminates a radius of about 10'.

After about .5 miles I leave the trail and go up some granite slabs on the left, headed for the ridge that leads to the Pyramid Peak plateau. I feel good and gain altitude efficiently. My balance is slightly shaky because of sleep deprivation. The slabs become steep enough that I use my hands a lot.

On my last nocturnal hike I had an enjoyable feeling of being part of the ecosystem rather than just a visitor. I don't get that this time, mostly because I'm focusing on the few LED-illuminated feet in front of me; actually I have the feeling of being a subject in some kind of lab experiment.

After about 20 minutes I encounter a small patch of manzanita bushes. Then more, and bigger. Finally I'm confronted by a wall of manzanita. Going around is not an option, so I battle through it. Manzanita is a pain in the ass. Its strong, springy branches can't be easily pushed aside. If your foot gets lodged in them it's hard to get it out.

I head for some pine trees, thinking that there might be less brush there, but this is not the case.

Fighting through the brush, my progress slows to a crawl, and I'm using a lot of energy. After a while there are some patches of snow on top of the manzanita, sometimes strong enough to bear my weight but sometimes breaking through. As I go higher the amount of snow increases; I put on my snowshoes and am able to keep to the snow.

Finally I leave the manzanita and come out on the ridge. It's pretty much all snow. After a few hundred yards, the ridge becomes very steep, and the snow is not good for snowshoeing; it's deep and powdery, with a hard crust on top that breaks through a lot. I'm flailing a bit, concerned about slipping and falling down the slope, and not making much progress.

At this point it starts snowing - an icy, slightly-below-freezing snow. Soon it's coming down pretty hard.

I evaluate my situation. The conditions are bad and getting worse. I have some energy left, but not a huge amount. There's no one within 10 miles. I decide to turn around.

Instead of retracing my steps, I head down the slope farther up the valley, hoping that there will be less manzanita. No such luck. However, this part of the slope has more snow, and I'm able to glissade a fair amount. For some reason there's a lot more snow melt here. Everything is drenched and dripping. The sections of dirt are slippery and treacherous. Eventually I reach some granite slabs, but they have water coursing over them so traction is not guaranteed. I slip and land on my butt a few times, fortunately not hurting anything.

Since my vision is confined to a 10' radius I can't find the globally optimal route down the slope. On 2 occasions I find myself at the top of a 15-20' stretch of very steep rock - steep enough that a slip would result in injury. In each case I stop and assess the situation for several minutes, not wanting to make what could be a serious mistake. I consider climbing back up and traversing. In each case I end up down-climbing the steep part using small ledges and cracks, after convincing myself that it's safe to do so in spite of the wetness of the granite.

I make it back down to the valley floor, and try to navigate the trail back to my car. But for some reason I have extreme difficulty following the trail, and end up bushwacking through streams and rocks, relying on my GPS to keep headed in roughly the right direction. The experience becomes slightly nightmarish, and reminds me a bit of parts of 'The Blair Witch Project'.

I make it back to the car at 6:30 AM, pretty tired and soaking wet. I change into dry clothes. On the drive back down highway 50, I feel pretty sleepy. I pull over for about 10 min. to close my eyes. A bit later I stop for breakfast at a terrible Scottish place (ha ha) and have some coffee. I make it back to Sacramento around 10, visit Don and Gayle, go for a run in the late afternoon (my body feels fine by that point) and drive home that evening.

Even though I didn't come close to the summit, I'm satisfied with the climb. My main goal was to get a unique and extreme experience, and I succeeded in that.

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