Rio Grande Pyramid, Colorado — Summit Descent Southeast Face

Post by blogger | March 22, 2011      

Zach Marquis
Crested Butte, Colorado

Was the 19 hour slog worth the half hour ride? Rio Grande Pyramid (13,821′ see map below) is an intriguing and remote peak in Colorado’s eastern San Juan Mountains. At high noon during a fine day this March, Jeremy Wegner and I were ‘lucky’ enough (or so our sleep deprived minds seemed to think) to drop off the top of the ‘Grande (RGP) and ski the Southeast Face.

Rio Grande Pyramid backcountry skiing route.

Rio Grande Pyramid backcountry skiing route, Southeast Face.

After successfully negotiating the locked gate halfway down the Rio Grande Reservoir road and arriving at Thirty Mile Campground just east of the Rio Grande Reservoir around 10:30 Friday night, we skinned up and headed into the Weminuche Wilderness.

We traversed the south side of the reservoir and up the Weminuche Creek drainage through an unconsolidated and thin snowpack.

As the moon set in the early hours of the morning, the blackening sky combined with our total lack of knowledge of the area to reduce our navigation technique through the low timber to a rudimentary level.

“I’m pretty !!****!! sure we need to go that way,” became our most logical travel plan.

Despite such guesswork, the backcountry skiing travel plan worked as we made our way up Weminuche Creek to the large flatness of Weminuche Pass, arriving unknowingly at this fairly important milestone sometime around 4:20 Saturday morning. Wegner, who was speaking an increasing gibberish level, mumbled something about taking a break, found some dry ground in a timber stand, whipped out a space blanket, and immediately began snoring.

I was not so prepared as to have a space blanket or anything else to keep me warm enough to lay down and sleep in. So I spent a long hour postholing around timber stands on top of the pass unsuccessfully trying to light fires and doing low grade jumping jacks to keep warm.

Near five in the morning the sky lightened enough to reveal what was probably the Rincon de Vaca drainage that would lead us to the foot of the mountain of our desire.

Wegner got up, speaking much more clearly, and we charged into the new day.

Hours passed like minutes and our skin track rose above tree line, across the alpine basin to the bottom of the East Ridge of the RGP. A pleasant boot pack took us up the ridge through an array of blowing snow formations and deposited us at an elevation of 13,821 atop the Pyramid.

Topping out on the RGP

Topping out on the RGP

We celebrated the rare view of the Weminuche, shoed up and dropped into the Southeast face of the RGP. The top 500 vertical feet or so was a hanging alpine face of shark infested, breakable, wind-crust-corn snow. Thankfully, the start funneled into a nicely pronounced 500 vertical foot couloir of sloppy corn snow.

Jeremy dropping in.

Jeremy dropping in.

We had found the prize in the bottom of the box of a thirteen hour approach.

We skied out and arrived back at truck at 5:30 pm Saturday afternoon feeling the justification of a mind numbing slog of nineteen hours, 4500+ vertical and eighteen mile round trip.

Only a couple of questions to be answered.

Was this a first descent? Ted Mahon posted on his website that he had skied the East Ridge in what appeared to be summer conditions. So the peak has been skied previously but the Southeast Face and couloir don’t seem to have any claims on them, at least in our internet research.

Secondly, how many folks have climbed Rio Grande Pyramid in calendar winter? We know it gets done on occasion, but because it’s a heck of a slog we wondered how much traffic it sees in the winter — our guess, not much.

Maybe some Wildsnowers know what’s up. Whatever the case, I’m not making a habit of 19 hour approach marches, but a ski descent of Rio Grande Pyramid is something to savor.

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17 Responses to “Rio Grande Pyramid, Colorado — Summit Descent Southeast Face”

  1. Peter March 22nd, 2011 10:08 am

    No space blanket, got matches, still no sleep…..mmmm? 😆

  2. Lou March 22nd, 2011 10:16 am

    Indeed! I’d say some fire starting practice is in order! Though I can’t think of a better way to ruin your clothing than to sit by a fire close enough to get warm. Whatever the case, the slog these guys did is rather under-stated in the blog post. This is a slog to end all slogs, really!

  3. Drew S. March 22nd, 2011 12:02 pm

    Wow that sounds like a blast! The RGP is pretty sweet!

  4. John Red-Horse March 22nd, 2011 12:06 pm

    That’s a slog rolled up into an enigma! I think it’s significant that you actually talked Jeremy into this. 🙂


  5. Forrest March 22nd, 2011 1:33 pm

    I love the trip reports!!! Keep them coming more often. Former Colorado resident and I enjoy seeing the updates! Southern CO looks like the snowpack is pretty thin at the moment.

  6. Zachary Marquis March 22nd, 2011 2:30 pm

    Looks good Lou. Thanks. Although I must say that I would not mind more extended slogging in the future. Especially if it’s what it takes to access the goods. Besides skiing at night cuts down on sunburn.

    John Red Horse! What’s up Buddy? Long time no see. Ha ha, it wasn’t hard to talk Jer into this one.

  7. Nick March 22nd, 2011 3:02 pm

    Looks like quite a trip! Love to read trip reports from this part of the state. Sounds like the snow was a little thin. How filled in did it look over towards the Grenadiers and Needles? Snotel suggests that it might be a bit more, but lower than average as well.

  8. Lou March 22nd, 2011 3:22 pm

    Zach, knowing Colorado, I’m sure more slogs can be arranged. Or you can just go up to Wyoming and visit the Wind Rivers.

  9. Mark W March 22nd, 2011 6:30 pm

    Amazing ascent and descent. Way to persevere. There must be loads of peaks out there so far, like this one, that unskied lines abound.

  10. brian h March 22nd, 2011 7:30 pm

    Congrats to these guys on a tough one. As far as snow pack questions ,the S.W. hasn’t been getting the storms that the nothern lats. have. I’d say the Needles and Grens are a little thin, surely below average. The skiing is better north of Molas pass (Red Mountain, Silverton area).

  11. snorkel March 23rd, 2011 8:16 am

    Nice work boys! I have also wondered about such a trip.

    I would imagine the the RGP gets skied at least once a winter. I have spent most of this winter on long grueling tours to random peaks in the San Juans and have seen evidence of fellow sufferfest lovers out there. Then again the RGP is a long ways from most people in the San Juans, so maybe you guys nailed a first winter descent?

    It seems to me the San Juan locals spend more time skiing and less time posting on the internet, and that’s not meant to be snarky 🙂 I am always amazed at who I meet in the random spots far from the trail head. 3 weeks ago I was in about 10 miles and noticed a solo set of tracks down an incredible couloir off of one of the Centennial peaks; while the line was an amazing aesthetic line it was more of a line that was skied for the joy of touring and climbing. There are certainly comparable couloirs closer to the road.

    Brian H is correct; the Grenadiers and South San Juans are pretty thin, but in the case of the Grenadiers that may not be a bad thing. The approach into the Grenadiers is pretty much under massive hangfire the whole way. It’s a scary approach due to the complexity of the terrain 4,000ft above

    I am happy to see people far off the beaten path, to me being deep in the San Juans is an incredibly spiritual place that requires tenacity, good routefinding, and serious skiing skills. On that note, Lou – can you please dissuade people from visiting the San Juans? There are no good safe peaks, no snow, and the locals are all jerks. Your readers are better off skiing Bethoud and Loveland passes 🙂

    Safe travels!

  12. Fritz March 23rd, 2011 11:08 am

    I always thought that “the route” for skiing was off the north side via the Rio Nieve Couloir. I never even considered the SE line. It looks like a good one though for sure. Good to hear you’re getting after it Jeremy.

    Hmmm I want to get down that way soon.

  13. Lou March 23rd, 2011 2:59 pm

    Snorkel, yes, it’s so incredibly crowded during snow seasons in the Wiminuche Wilderness, they should immediately institute a quota/permit system and I should stop publishing anything about it 😀

  14. dsunwall March 24th, 2011 8:29 am

    I know Ken Nolan has made the summit of Rio Grande in winter. Not sure I dare say this here but he was on slowshoes.

  15. Zachary Marquis March 24th, 2011 5:36 pm

    dsunwall – Good info, thanks.

  16. Ted Mahon March 25th, 2011 8:41 am

    Nice job, Zach. It looks like a better time to go than Christy and I did, which I think was the 3rd week in May (2008).

    “Slog to end all slogs” is right. At least in our case, after the effort getting in and up, the skiing was done in a relative instant and it was right back to slog mode.

    We accepted that you have to experience those types of painful days to be able to know when you’re actually having a good one.

    Our trip-

  17. Craig Burbank March 28th, 2011 2:50 pm

    OK so yes this was an exceptional feat but what Zach didn’t tell you all was that after this death-march he showed up back atop Mt CB sunday afternoon and won his 4th consecutive 8-Ball Rally here in Crested Butte. I challenge all you wild-snowers to try and take his 8 Ball title next year, but I bet you can’t.

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