Pyramid Peak East Face Attempted

Post by blogger | February 28, 2006      

Pete Sowar and Chris Webster (prolific ski mountaineers and frequent partners of Sean Crossen) attempted the East Face of Pyramid Peak (Colorado fourteener, IV D20 R4 ) this past Sunday. Their plan was to use the “Winter Theory” for Colorado descents that are hard to find in condition. The idea is that such routes may have a better and more skiable coating of snow in late winter rather than spring. More, (besides avalanche danger) the chances of falling down a steep run are less when it’s covered with powder rather than dense spring snow. Problem is, if you trigger a slab avalanche on extreme terrain, it’s likely to take you on a certain-death ride down a mountain. That almost happened to Pete during their attempt. In his words:

“Hey Lou,

We attempted our Winter Theory on Pyramid two days ago. With Chris D. skiing the East face of Maroon a couple weeks ago we thought we might have a chance. We were able to get to right under the summit cone but the snow was too sugary to push for the top.

I decided to make a few turns on the obvious knob in the photo which turned out to be a mistake. During one of my ski cuts the slope slid just above my feet. I was able to step off it and watch a small but deadly avalanche plow down the east face. The slope slid on facets below the dirt layer, ranging between 12 – 18 inches deep probably about 50 – 75 feet wide. It never stepped down but it did pull out more pockets of the same depth. Ran around 1,500 – 2,000 feet. It was a spectacle I think I can live without ever seeing again.

So while the winter idea may have been good a few weeks ago, I think the theory is on hold now due to the dirt layer we got and the bad layer below it. Gonna have to wait for the big 2 until late March or April, depending on temps.


Upper 1,000 vertical feet of Pyramid Peak east route
Upper 1,000 vertical feet of Pyramid Peak east route. Pete triggered avalanche in area outlined by circle.


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6 Responses to “Pyramid Peak East Face Attempted”

  1. Scott Harris March 1st, 2006 1:25 am

    Can you comment on whether they dug a pit? And how that compares to just ski cutting the slope? I am just trying to figure out what ski cutting is? I have an idea that it is just traversing across the slope, with a safe zone really near by and seeing if you trigger an avalanche?

    Also, how did they get back down. Did they ski down the bed surface figuring it was now safe? Or did they find a less than 30 degree slope?


  2. Tom March 1st, 2006 2:25 am

    This is a great example of the type of avalanche information we need as a community. Unfortunately, close calls don’t often get reported. This is the kind of stuff that helps us all learn. I’m not here to judge their decision making, as they are clearly experienced mountaineers who were well aware of the dangers they were facing by going up there in winter. Everyone’s acceptable level of risk/reward is different. Hopefully this kind of information will help dispel the myth perpetuated by the ski porn industry that big lines can be skied without consequence. I’m glad they made it out okay. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Lou March 1st, 2006 4:52 am

    Ski cutting means judging where the slope might fracture, then working your way down to that point with a series of speedy traverses, the theory being that if something is going to go it’ll break at your ski track, and your momentum will carry you to the island of safety you’re heading for. It’s sometimes best to do with a rope (and more fun that way), especially if there is a cliff or terrain trap below. As for pits, I’m sure those guys knew what the snow was doing, pit or no pit, and they would have dug one if they thought it appropriate. Pits up high tend to be very iffy as wind and exposure cause the snow to vary immensely from spot to spot. Knowing the history of the snowpack and watching behavior of test slopes, along with general observations, can give you a much better idea of what’s going on than a pit, in my opinion. More, when you climb that sort of route you can end up digging a series of “pits” just because of the places you wallow while you climb, and looking at the snow in those “pits” can provide plenty of data.

    Having been there myself many times, I can imagine that to get down Sowar and Webster just continued to do a combination of skiing and down climbing. It’s very convoluted terrain. All sorts of wind sculpted features, along with rock outcrops and cliffs. Much different than most other fourteeners. Very enjoyable as a climb, but kind of a pain for a ski descent unless it has an unusual amount of snow cover to even things out. I downclimbed it once on a record snow year, and the whole upper part had become mostly a steep cone of snow, wish I’d had my skis then, it was more like Alaska than Colorado. But downclimbing it was fun too.

  4. Sky March 1st, 2006 5:05 am

    Tom, Lou, Pete and Chris-

    This is beautiful. Way to get after it Pete and Chris. Better yet, way to tuck your tail and live for another day when the signs are there. And thanks to Tom, Lou and the rest of the Colorado community that reads this blog for the notable absence of finger-wagging.

    I like your style. Papa don’t preach!

    I concur with Lou’s comments regarding pits. I try to listen to the snow all day. If and when it scares me, hopefully I’m smart enough to head home. It’s a tricky game. Nothing like ticking a big line with pillows of powder exploding from every turn!

    Better luck next time.


  5. Lou March 1st, 2006 6:10 am

    Sowar and Webster know what they’re doing. For what it’s worth, when Jeff Maus and I skied Pyramid back in early May of 1989 we knocked off at least 25 huge avalanches that ran 4,000 vert to the valley floor. We belayed quite a bit of it because of the avy danger, but our rope setup was limited in terms of how well it would have helped if we’d been caught. Sowar and Chris did a better job, and I’m sure they’ll be back when conditions are better.

  6. Sean O'Neil March 4th, 2006 7:03 am

    wow! Chris Webster is my step-brother, haven’t seen him or talked to him since he & Pam got married several years ago. didn’t know he had come so far in mountaineering.

    thanks for the report!

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