PYRAMID PEAK (14,018 feet) is a craggy mountain located approximately 12 miles southwest of Aspen, Colorado. Unlike many of that state’s gently sloped fourteeners, Pyramid is steep. It rises abruptly on all sides, gaining over 4,000 feet of elevation in just over a mile of climbing. The standard routes up Pyramid are the northeast and northwest ridges (the latter is also called the “Keyhole Route”). According to Lou Dawson’s Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners, both involve advanced route finding, high exposure and a great deal of loose rock, placing them among the most difficult and dangerous of all of the standard routes on the Colorado fourteeners. A typical ascent on Pyramid will take around four or five hours from base to summit where the mountaineer is rewarded with views of other majestic fourteeners such as the Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak and Snowmass.
At about 10:00 a.m. on November 10, Andy McClure, 23, of Center, Colorado, was attempting the northwest ridge of Pyramid Peak with his partner Ian Noel of Colorado Springs. The men were at 13,000 feet, negotiating the notorious narrow ledges and chimneys that lead to the summit when McClure “grabbed a decent-sized rock without trying it first. It came loose and I immediately lost my balance and fell.” He tumbled about 60 feet down the slope and arrested his own fall by grabbing an outcrop. On the way down, he was struck on the head by the falling rock, broke his ankle and dislocated his hip.
Noel helped his partner descend 30 feet to a safe ledge, then took off for help, blasting the six miles back to the Maroon Lake parking lot and arriving in Aspen at noon where he contacted authorities.
Ten members of Aspen Mountain Rescue were immediately dispatched. Eight more went by helicopter and were dropped off at 11,900 feet in an area known as the Amphitheater. The first ground team located McClure at 2:00 p.m. and determined that his vital signs were stable.
McClure was loaded in a litter at 4:00 and carried down to the Amphitheater, where helicopter pilot John Peterson and EMT worker Winston Merrill picked him up at 4:40 and transported him to the hospital.
ON PYRAMID Peak, climbers face the objective hazards of loose rock, steep scrambling, difficult route finding, altitude and capricious weather. Accidents are not uncommon on this peak and at least one person has died within the last 20 years. McClure and Noel climbed the peak in November, outside the recommended summer season for Colorado peak bagging. Though it had been an atypically dry fall, one Web report described the last 800 feet as having two to eight inches of snow, “which made for slippery conditions on narrow ledges.” That report was for a climb that occurred on September 28. The snow and ice had likely increased by November 10 when the accident occurred.
MCCLURE WAS not a mountaineering novice. According to his online posts, he had summitted 13 fourteeners, climbs low fifth class and had done nearby North Maroon, another peak with a fierce reputation and a history of accidents. In this case, however, experience was not enough to prevent a fall. Mountains are volatile. Loose rock, avalanches and sudden shifts in the weather can be devastating, even to the best prepared.
Anyone attempting a peak like Pyramid in November will increase his or her chances of success by packing (and using) crampons and an ice axe for steep sections of snow- or ice-covered rocks. Employ a rope and rock gear when negotiating precipitous passages, although on the rubbly Pyramid, finding good anchors might be difficult. Finally, always wear a helmet. Even a short tumble down a low-angled slope can be disastrous. McClure’s advice? “Be vigilant about loose rock. This happened on a class three traverse and the consequences were major. Never trust a rock until you’ve tested it. And of course, always wear your helmet. My helmet probably saved my life.”