Pyramid Peak: Crown of Desolation Wilderness

One of Tahoe’s peaks always draws my attention, regardless of season:  Pyramid Peak, the highest point in Desolation Wilderness and the apex of the Crystal Range.  Shiny granite in the summer, glistening white in the winter, it pokes above the darker rock of Mt. Tallac and the peaks closer to town, hinting at the wild vistas of Desolation Wilderness.

I’d only been up Pyramid once in the summer, but it’s been something I’ve wanted to ski ever since I first flipped Brandyn Roth’s guidebook to backcountry skiing in Tahoe. Every trip report spoke of the long approach, and little more- but I love suffering, so I shanghaied Jonathan Fox (from Gardnerville) and Mark Shahinian (of San Francisco) to check it out.

Several trip reports had recommended starting from the Twin Bridges parking lot, but this was closed this season, and a Caltrans operator driving by told us not to try. Instead, we parked a half-mile further down the road, at a pullout used to access the Rocky Canyon use trail in the summer.

While there was snow down to the trailhead, there was not a track, and so we started up, breaking trail through manzanita, boulders, and close trees. We kept hoping to find a trail, but the sun and frequent recent storms had left us with miles of untracked forest- and so we broke trail, following the fall line upwards.

We finally gained the long ridge that separates Rocky Canyon from Horsetail Falls, and got our first vistas of the surroundings- breathtaking views over Sierra-At-Tahoe, Ralston Peak, and Lovers Leap far below.

The route finding was simple: follow the ridge, until it turned into the South Ridge of Pyramid proper.  The terrain turned from sparse alpine trees to rime-encrusted rocks and snowfields, and it was easy to imagine the fury of Pacific storms ripping across the Sierran Crest here.  To the West, we had an uninterrupted vista over the forests of the foothills until they disappeared into the clouds of the Central Valley.

The ridge finally started to flatten off, ending in a flat summit knob.  The views were striking- east to Lake Tahoe over Mount Tallac, south to the peaks of Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass, west to Icehouse Lake and the Crystal Basin, and north to the Sierra Buttes. Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Kirkwood were all easy to pick out.  My biggest surprise was that Lake Aloha disappeared into the winter landscape- no longer a sparkling lake, but just a flat snowfield amongst the rolling white of Desolation Wilderness.

Taking shelter from the wind, we basked in the sun and soaked up the views of the bowls to the West and North, talking about the idea of traversing the Crystal Range (one of my tick list items). Soon enough, it was time to rip skins and descend- cutting fresh tracks down the smooth white face.  There’s nothing as exciting as taking the first turns over an untracked rollover, wondering what lies over the edge and feeling your heart fly as it opens into a face of smooth, perfect white.

It was good enough that once we reached the bottom we convinced our tired legs to take another lap, and we headed back up the ridge, happy and excited this time rather than beat and exhausted.  Another lap, another perfect set of turns- as we contoured down across the snowfields, we looked back at six perfect sets of S-turns breaking the untouched face.

On the way out we contoured south along the ridge we had come in on, trying to stay above the thick trees in the valley floor and keep close to the landmarks of our skintrack. As the snow got warmer and heavier, it became more of a fight to stay moving, and we inexorably dropped into the brush below.

The ensuing forty minutes was a memorable ordeal- survival skiing through tight scratchy pine trees, fighting snow that was too heavy to turn in. Tight trees gave way to manzanita and undermined, rotten snow as we dropped elevation.  Finally, the sounds of cars on 50 came to our ears, and at last the trailhead- an awesome trip to an incredible peak.

We took about 7 hours car-to-car with a strong team. Expect to break trail for 4000ft over 5 miles (one-way), with added time for route finding. It’s worth it, and good luck- Strava trace here.

In hindsight, I would strongly recommend the Twin Bridges approach, or contouring towards Twin Bridges on both the approach and descent below the ridge. The trees are much thicker in Rocky Canyon, making the skiing much less fun.

Pyramid can also be approached from the West, by using a snowmobile- this cuts the approach down to just a few miles, and gives access to the impressive western bowls.

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