Pyramid Peak - Death Valley National Park - California
February 24th, 2010
"Easy and reasonably enjoyable" hike... so they said. This was supposed to be a straight forward Class 2 hike on an unassuming mountain whose only "distinction" was that of being the highest point in the Funeral Mountains. It was this distinction as well as the three names associated with it (Death Valley, Funeral Mountains and Pyramid Peak) that made it feel appropriate for this to be my final hike of my 2010 southwest adventure. It would also be the first time in all my climbs that I would be going solo and I was happy about that also. I wanted this last hike to represent both the end and the beginning of a chapter in my life. Hiking alone on a desert mountain while contemplating my past and hopeful future was exactly what I craved. Only, by the time I got there, I wasn't in the mood for an "easy" hike. It may sound strange, but I wanted it to be difficult. I wanted this hike to be a kind of cleansing event and a symbolic "funeral" for the end of a period in my life. For some reason I felt that the more difficult it would be the more it would feel like I was "unburdening" myself.
It was with these intentions that I found myself making impulsive choices as I walked across the desert floor towards the base of the mountain. Instead of heading toward the typical southeast ridge route, I decided to try and follow a "west side" GPS plotted route I had found on the net (the Garmin GPX file can be found on the creators page or downloaded directly from my site). Strangely, everything about this hike and this mountain turned out to be confusing, frustrating and downright dangerous. The lack of clear directions and information available about this mountain on the net is obvious when one starts looking for it. All one has to do is look at a satellite view of the mountain to realize that "west ridge" and "southeast ridge" are not clear indicators of which ridges are being referred to in the few "route descriptions" available. I am positive I had read somewhere that the southeast ridge route was "clear" and "easy" to follow with "little" route finding required, which couldn't be further from the truth in my opinion, and yet, like all the other mysteries of this mountain, I can't even find the source of this information anymore. Don't get me wrong though, I blame no one but myself. My only excuse for making so many poor choices was that I was determined to get to the top in a way that would challenge me. Well, I got exactly what I wanted and a whole lot more... all in total and complete solitude.
One of my first impulsive choices was to head in a direction I assumed to be the west ridge, but which took me to a steep south facing gully filled with scree and a less obvious route up. It was only then that I bothered to turn on my GPS to try and see where the route I downloaded began, only to discover that it was not showing up in my route list. There was no question in my mind that I had downloaded it to the GPS, but frustratingly, it wasn't visible. Feeling committed to the direction I was heading, I decided I would trail blaze my way up to the top in true adventurer (i.e.; ignorant) fashion. In hindsight, this was the entry point in to Pyramid Peak's maze of ridges, drop offs, cutoffs, cliffs, gullies and false peaks. So, unfortunately, anyone reading this report hoping to find a good route description up this mountain has come to the wrong place, but let it be a cautionary tale instead.
I don't know if it was because of my somewhat masochistic intent going in, but it felt like the mountain was all too willing to gratify my desire for a challenge, almost egging me on with every frustrating twist and turn I encountered, daring me to try and make it to the top. The ten hour process of finding my way to the top and back down again has, as of this writing (two months later), continued to weigh on me like no hike has ever done before... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
The moment I finally reached the top of the scree filled gully I realized this was going to be one of my most technically challenging hikes ever. Not only was I confused about which way the peak actually was, I could clearly see that no matter where I went I was going to have to deal with some drop offs or steep exposure. From the top of this gully, it would be the first instance of many where I would be forced to lose some of the precious elevation I had gained in order to make my way to a spot that looked traversable (which often did not end up being the case). It was around this area that I was forced to edge my way along the side of a cliff, committing at that point not to return this way on the way back down. The going was rough and confusing, but I just kept telling myself that somehow I would find my way to the top where I could relax and then have an easy hike back down via the southeast ridge... I just had to get through this initiation.
I imagine my route must have been very inefficient and meandering for the most part, mainly because the spot I thought was the peak was actually not it at all! It's only because I was forced along the mountains south ridges that I inadvertently ended up heading in the right direction. What a shock and pleasant surprise it was when I finally took a moment to check my GPS for the location of the actual peak, only to discover I was less than 500 meters away! As I made my way up some final quartz covered ridges I could see a piece of lumber standing erect as a marker for the top.
Four and half hours after starting, I was at the top and it felt damn good to be there! I had asked for a challenge and received it, now I could sit back in the blowing wind and enjoy the beautiful views while I bid farewell to the end of a chapter. It was around this time that I discovered a hole had been torn in my jacket pocket on the way up. My cell phone was gone... but thank the good Lord my car keys managed to stay in place. I don't even want to imagine how things would have turned out if they had been lost as well. All I know is that I would have been in a rush to get back down the mountain and based on what was ahead, that could have been disastrous. For the time being, I was very thankful with how everything had turned out (both in terms of the current hike and all my southwest adventure experiences). I felt alive, content and filled with hope for the future. I said my goodbyes to the past and prepared for my return home.
I threw my pack on and scanned the southeastern section of the mountain looking for that "easy and reasonably enjoyable" southeastern ridge the other trip reports talked about. I won't mince words here... from the top of Pyramid Peak it is incredibly difficult to choose which ridge is the correct southeastern ridge (especially if you didn't come up that way). There are no markers or cairns. There is no hint of a trail anywhere. The hike reports made it seem like the correct ridge would be obvious, but up there everything looks different and there appear to be multiple choices. Even today looking at the Google Earth view I can't tell what would be considered the southeast ridge and where it begins or ends. Someone who has done it really needs to plot out a GPS route to make this more clear, otherwise someone may end up in the kind of situation I did.
I decided on more of an eastern direction towards what looked liked a series of southern facing ridges heading back down the mountain, only, it was next to impossible to tell if a line in the distance is an impassable drop off or just a gentle rise. My view ahead was often blocked and the multiple shades of beige caused terrain features to blend together making it even harder to judge distances. Like water flowing down the mountain, I was forced to follow the natural curves, crags and crevices taking me in which ever direction it happened to flow. It wasn't too long into my descent that I began to have a sense I was not following any kind of "southeastern ridge", for I was often surrounded by rock walls, the very opposite of a ridge!
For the next 5 hours I would constantly have to work my way around cutoffs and drop offs. Backtracking became a common occurrence and every route that seemed to have potential would lead me to ever more precarious positions. As the hours passed, my frustration grew exponentially. It was getting hard on my knees and the loose rock required careful and concentrated movement with each step. At one point I even ended up near my original southern ridge ascent route and discovered a trail cairn! I felt incredibly relieved believing I had finally found the southeast trail. However, as much as I tried to follow the faint hint of a trail, constantly keeping my eyes open for other markers, I was soon back on my own to figure out where to go. I have no idea if I got off course again from that point on, but I know I ended up in more gullies that required class 3 climbing to negotiate. At one point slipped and wrenched my back pretty good, and like a frustrated little boy, I started to feel angry at the people who wrote the reports making it sound like the route was simple and easy to follow. Of course, there was only one person to blame for my situation.
However, as the sun was closing in on the western edge of the Funeral Mountains, at long last, I finally reached the floor of Death Valley, thanking my lucky stars once again. From here it took another hour to reach my car, which I was walking in the dark for the final few minutes of.
Unlocking the car door with my keys I thanked God once again to still have them. I knew if they had been lost I would have taken much more riskier moves on my way down and I have a feeling it would have got me in to some serious trouble. Instead, the mountain was satisfied enough to simply test my patience and ability to route find... and, of course, the sacrifice of a cell phone. At least I think that was the only sacrifice. I have to admit that many times on the journey down I wondered if I would ever get off the mountain and that my intentions going in had cursed me. This is part of the reason this hike still weighs on me. I keep imagining a nightmare scenario where I'm lying unconscious from a fall on the mountain and everything that has happened since has only been a kind of dream before I die. Ridiculous, I know, but for some reason the thought keeps returning to me. I hope writing this report will finally purge the bizarre thought...
Obviously it is hard for me to recommend this mountain to anyone, especially with the lack of clear directions available, but at the same time if you go in knowing it will require some route finding and possible class 3 climbing depending on where you end up, it could be right up your alley.
Download my Google Earth pyramid-hike.kmz file [9 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Pyramid Peak hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "pyramid-hike.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Pyramid Peak" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Distance: Approximately 8-10 miles round trip
Time: 10 hours
Elevation: 6703 feet (2043m)
Elevation Gain: 3687 feet (1124m)
Pyramid Peak: 36º 23' 30.75" N; 116º 36' 43.60" W (NAD83/WGS84)
Driving directions can be found on the SummitPost page.
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