Column: A windy trip up Tahoe’s Pyramid Peak
Ryan Summerlin February 20, 2014
We first felt the wind just above treeline. As we skinned along the ridge, the gusts grew in strength, blasting the rocks, trees and us with tiny stinging grains of ice. Whirlwinds of snow spun off the summit 1,000 feet above us. Gloomy gray clouds began to move in.
Pyramid Peak is one of those mountains that is just asking to be climbed. Its big, bald head is visible from nearly everywhere at the South Shore. At 9,983 feet, it’s not the tallest mountain in the area, but there’s no easy way to approach it.
My splitboarding friend Wes Minton and I started our morning at the base of Horsetail Falls. We climbed in our boots over hard snow up the south wall of the canyon. When the snow became too soft to walk in, we slapped on our skins and continued to the ridge. Once off the steep sides of Horsetail Canyon, the going was fairly easy — until we hit the wind.
One of the things I love about splitboarding and hiking is the chance to see the upper mountains. These zones contain a unique ecosystem that endures extremely unfriendly conditions. In the summer, the sun bakes the barren landscape. In the winter, it’s hammered by snow and 100-mph gusts.
At the edge of the tree line, the small, scraggly conifers are permanently warped by the wind, bent over and often broken. Brown deadened leaves of the low-alpine plants stick from the thin snowpack. Bright lichens cover the pinkish rocks.
As we slid past I noticed thick ice buildup on the southwest side of everything. From the trees to the rocks, horizontal icicles hung precipitously, defying gravity. Some of these white, sideways spikes were more than a foot long. I imagined what we’d look like if we stayed up there in the freezing wind for too long.
On the final push to the summit, the crust became hard and icy. We both slipped and fell, elbows and knees shattering the hard layer. To gain traction, we had to stomp our skins. Every so often we’d hunker behind a rock or a small tree to rest.
A rock outcropping blocked our way a few hundred yards from the top. We dropped our gear, ate our summit sandwiches and took off on foot to check out the peak. The wind blew so hard over the ridge, we had to proceed on our hands and knees.
Finishing the nearly 4,000-foot climb felt good, but the ride down would feel better. We eased onto the east face, peering over into the steep bowl. The loud voice of the wind interrupted any possible discussion. We pointed it.
Dylan Silver is a freelance writer and photographer who lives at Lake Tahoe’s South Shore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org