Pyramid Peak and Smith Mountain
12-13 December 2009
By: Greg Mason
There was week of rain before a DPS trip scheduled for the weekend of 12-13 Dec 2009. Being Sierra Club leaders, we watched the weather but decided it was a go with a predicted chance of clearing. After all, this is the desert. So off we went to meet up at the Pyramid Peak trailhead off Hwy 190 in Death Valley. With a roster of 9 a week before and storms brewing all over California, I was not surprised at only the 4 participants and 2 leaders who arrived there ready to go. My co-leader Paul Garry and I were joined by Keith Christensen, John Sefton, Steve Eckert, and a DPS legend Dave Perkins. It was cold and cloudy, but no falling rain or snow at 7am.
Pyramid was not visible from the trailhead, buried in the clouds. We wondered if it really did exist. Dave climbed it before and he mentioned something about a sun being out to see it last time. We trusted that. So off we headed to the visible low point across the desert. I told the group, “we go until the weather gets bad, then we head back”. All agreed as if they had a choice and we soon were across the 2.5 miles of slightly elevating desert. Once into the narrowing wash almost to the saddle, to our left we saw a couple choices to climb up. Still no rain and still no top to Pyramid. Someone broke out the DPS guide routes and because I did not plan with the guide, I looked at the DPS guide and my plan and decided Route B (further East route) was where we were headed. Besides, we already passed the A route start.
Up we went upon a north traveling ridge (SE ridge route) with lots of black rock and passed by the east side of it like the guide (and my plan) showed. This seemed to follow very well and we came upon a use trail off and on. We got into the clouds at about 5500’. Clouds went in and out and still no rain or snow. Everyone was moving well, it was cold and breaks were short as we knew it was only a matter of time before the weather came. Following the use trail made it fairly straight forward in the clouds. Visibility was less than 100 feet at times.
We came to a flat spot which is a clear feature on the topo (and the 3 or 4 GPSs we had among us). The slope ahead of us was the last ridge climb to the peak, Pyramid must be there somewhere. Still no rain or snow falling, but there were ample patches of collected snow all around us as we climbed along the off and on use trail. Many thanks to my companions for finding the use trail after losing it many times. We were a good team. Visibility was poor, our GPSs were tracking our every move, no rain or snow falling, off we went into the clouds.
DPS climbs are usually sunny and provide for fantastic views. We had none of those usual views. Our fantastic views were the amazing crystal ice formations on the rocks and plants. Wind blown and crystal white, one cannot find a more scenic path on this route. These are the views, I’m sure, most climbers seldom see on a climb of this peak. We were fortunate to be amongst this beauty. Photos cannot provide the extreme and intricate details of this ice.
I lead the group right to the summit rock pile. I climbed a slippery rock ledge to the top which was easily bypassed around the back side thanks to Steve’s find. At the summit and in the presence of the register, we were very happy to be there now as the clouds decided to open up and a snowy ice rain began. Ok, we need to go. With a quick sign, bite to eat and a fast photo, off we went down the peak.
I chose a nice sand slope, knowing well it was well left (climbers) of our ascent route. We descended quickly in the sand, but I heard shouts behind me saying we needed to get back to the use trail. So we traversed right a few rocky ridge lines finding our use trail and the obvious flat spot landmark. The rest of the descent was via a deep gully west of the black ridge we just climbed. This was far superior to the black ridge and we all commented on why the DPS did not have an up route in this gulley. Rain was light and we got a little wet, but nothing major. Our descent to the wash was fast down the gulley and before long we were heading across the desert to the cars at dusk. About 10 miles and 10 hours round trip. Dave headed off home and the rest of us went to the Furnace Creek campground for a nice meal at the lodge restaurant.
In the morning, the 4 of us in 3 cars (John went home), headed to the Smith trailhead. Dumping 2 of the cars at the road intersection and everyone piled into my Jeep for the 4WD to the start point. Paul lead this route to Smith with ease as the sun was shining brightly despite a cold wind. Across the desert into the deep canyon with very steep sides. A few class 2+ moves over a waterfall and we were within sight of the Smith ridge. In no time, Paul had us at the high point, but not Smith. Smith is a saddle and short climb away West of this high point. The views were wonderful and we a had a great time lounging close to the saddle for lunch out of the cold wind. Paul inhabited a cave for this break. The descent was via the same route.
A special note about conservation. Charlie Callagan from the NPS (Wilderness Coordinator for DV) sent me an email asking that we remove all wire and metallic objects from our peaks. History had the USGS teams leave lots of garbage at the top of these peaks. I removed about 1 pound of steel wire and some old battery casings found at the top of Smith. I was glad to do our clean up task. Charlie did note that this was approved by the Archeology folks at NPS and that we should leave the wood behind to rot where it sits. I encourage all DPS climbers to follow this recommendation when climbing DV peaks. Thanks to all the participants and especially Paul for co-leading this successful trip.