Saturday, September 6, 2014

An epic day on Pyramid Peak - on the other side of fear


One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that I can look back on my past thoughts and see just how far I’ve come. In 2010, when I first started my journey hiking Colorado’s 14ers I wrote this blog on the hardest peaks in the state. My blog then was full of doubt that I could ever accomplish something as lofty as reaching the summit of one of these peaks because they were too hard, too dangerous, too challenging for my abilities. There were six summits I wrote off as never being able to touch because I wasn’t somehow worthy enough. Yet, four years later on the 4th of September…I proved myself wrong.

I had my first glimpse of Pyramid Peak a few years ago when my husband Chad and I hiked to the top of Crested Butte Mountain. From the 12,000ft summit you could see Pyramid and Chad remarked how he’d always wanted to hike that mountain. Chad went to school in Gunnison and spent many years skiing Crested Butte and the unique shape of Pyramid always intrigued him. I told him it just wasn’t possible to summit that mountain, that as a class 4 it was too steep and the rock was too rotten making it unlikely we’d ever be on top. “Maybe if we hired a guide,” I told him. As the years progressed however, my hiking skills increased. My first class 3 mountain was Wetterhorn then I moved on to summit Long’s then did a brief class 4 section on Mount Lindsey to reach the summit. When your goal is to climb all the 14ers, eventually you start to run out of class 1 and 2 peaks and so it’s inevitable you will have to face your fears one day. I fretted over many of these harder peaks because photos and trip reports made them sound scary yet once I found myself touching the rock and moving towards my goal my worries decreased. Each summit I grew stronger, braver and more confident in myself and my abilities. Pyramid Peak had been on my horizon awhile and after years of talk I had to confront my fear head on. Grandparents were lined up to come in town and my friend Randy, who had summited the mountain years earlier was game to lead the way. We had to try…if not now…when?

view from mt. crested butte
So I told myself I could bail out at any time. I told myself that I didn’t have to make it to the top and I could turn around if I wanted. We left Idaho Springs where we were staying at 2am and made the 3 hour drive to Aspen to meet Randy at the trail at 5am. Being September I knew we were pushing it with the weather as the week before a few of the peaks had gotten snow. I prepared for cold and was greeted with surprisingly warm temperature given the time of year. Pyramid is 8 miles roundtrip and the first mile was a great trail on nice solid ground and rock that the CFI painstakingly put together. Once you enter the amphitheater though it’s a totally different ball game. From here there is a well defined trail on the right hand side but we ended up boulder hopping most of the way until we reached the base of the mountain. It was here where I got my first look at goliath. There are two huge cairns marking the entrance to the north face of Pyramid and it felt as though I was entering an arena. I felt very small in the shadow of the towering Pyramid but again I told myself that all I had to do was try. I could bail out at any time I felt necessary so why not give it a go?

Although Pyramid may be about 4 miles one way you gain about 4,500 feet in those four miles. It didn’t take us long to ascend the 1,000 vertical feet and reach the saddle of the Northeast Ridge but the trail was steep and loose. From the saddle portions of the remaining climb were visible, including the terrain near the summit. We took a brief moment to assess, let two hikers pass us and we were on our way towards our goal since the weather was holding and we all felt good.

From the ridge the trail is easy enough to follow for awhile. The standard route actually takes one over the ridge proper and we followed cairns over a few small rock ribs towards the leap of faith. The “Leap of Faith” consists of a 3 to 4 foot jump over a gulley from one ledge to another. I’d guess the fall would be about 30 feet although it’s such an extreme slope that you probably wouldn’t stop for hundreds of additional feet. This was an area that initially made me nervous reading about but didn’t give me too much pause in person. I kept the mantra, “On the other side of fear lies freedom” going in a loop in my head and it guided me through the leap and across the cliff traverse where my heels felt air underneath. Whenever my world is overwhelming I make it small by concentrating on each hand and foot placement and not looking down or too far up. This mountain caused a lot of mental pep talk to be going on in my head and I kept myself sandwiched between my husband and friend for guidance. In my day to day life I tend to be stubborn and often talk negative to myself…here was the complete opposite. I could only think positive thoughts and listen to the guidance of others to ensure my safety.

Our second major obstacle was the Green Wall. It’s a steep gulley made up of greenish rock that has plenty of solid hand and foot holds but can be a dangerous place with climbers above. We waited to make sure no one was above us before ascending as any rock fall here would take you out and send you down the mountain. We stayed left in the gulley as we made our way up and then exited left once the rock started to turn redish.
Here is where the real climbing and route finding began. While Randy had climbed Pyramid before, his memory wasn’t fresh on the entire route and often we end up following one cairn only to cliff out and turn around and follow another. I will say the “trail” winds its way back and forth past the gulley and eventually leads right up some very steep loose ledges towards the summit. Here is where the majority of our class 4 climbing was- areas where we had to use good solid footing to get up and over obstacles. When you see photos of this area it doesn’t look possible that one could find the summit from all the rotten confusing rock. This area was exposed and incredibly loose and we all stuck close together and took turns assessing which way up was best. Often we took a harder class 4 move because the rock was more solid than a class 3 area. Near 13,900 the slope eased and we could see other climbers on the summit and we knew half of the worst of it was over (we still had to come down of course).

“Congratulations today is your day, your mountain is waiting you’re off and away.”

It’s hard to describe how I felt on the summit. To see the views I’d only read about and to stand on top of this mountain where so many before had passed felt incredible. I had slayed my goliath and reached my goal. While I knew I wasn’t safe until I was below tree line, for all intents and purposes I had made it to peak 35. On the opposite side of my fear there truly was freedom. If I could stand on top of what is arguably one of the toughest 14ers in the state then why would I let anything smaller stand in my way? While this mountain was tough, I had all the strength and courage inside me to make the summit but it wasn’t until I believed in myself that this dream became a reality. This was a peak that I knew I’d never be satisfied until I summited and I’m so happy I had my husband and Randy to help me achieve my goal. They never wavered, questioned my ability or let me turn around although in my head I wanted too. My husband looked at me halfway into the climb and said, “get your game face on” and that’s exactly what I did. Many times when I climb I am the faster, more experienced and impatient one and I am eternally grateful that I have someone who can stand on the other side and be that for me.

I could say Pyramid Peak was my Everest but that would only be partially true. People say events that they overcome are their Everest because Everest is the tallest mountain in the world and there’s nothing greater. In life, I believe however, that there are many Everest’s. I reached the summit of Pyramid Peak but that’s not the last challenging mountain I’ll ever climb. Physically and mentally, Pyramid was demanding but that’s not the last time I’ll ever be mentally and physically challenged in life. What is true is that I know what’s behind me and what I have accomplished and now I know I can achieve so much more.

I was scared of Pyramid Peak and rightfully so. That mountain has everything a mountaineer could want in a challenging climb- exposure, loose rock, difficult route finding, gulley’s, a leap of faith and even mountain goats kicking rocks down. Yet, had I let this mountain define my abilities then I would have never even attempted to climb its walls. If I had continued to think the summit was out of my reach then it would always be out of my reach because I’d have never had the courage to try.

I was reminded of my yoga practice in a lot of ways when I hiked this peak. I thought about how when I first started yoga I couldn’t do crow or headstand or any other hard pose for that matter. I’d watch others do these poses in class yet they eluded me and mostly I wouldn’t even try. However, with a little encouragement from some very patient teachers I did begin to try to see what would happen. My reward for my dedication was eventually being able to “stick” the harder postures and in turn teach others how to do so. While the harder poses don’t make up my whole practice, they are a reward for my continuous effort. I feel the mountains have rewarded me in the same manner after years of slogging up and down easier climbs and working my way towards the more challenging peaks. The view from Pyramid was unlike any other mountain I’ve experienced and that was my reward for years of dedication and hours upon hours of effort.

That’s the thing in life- if you want the best views you’ve got to be willing to work hard, cross some lines, scare yourself and be willing to stand on the edge….


But on the other side of your fear lies freedom

Here's a little video of our climb

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