Landry Line – Pyramid Peak, Colorado
Landry Line – Pyramid Peak
14,025’ / 4275m
Descent Route: East Face / Landry Route
May 4th, 2018
(This text originally appeared as an exclusive article for Julbo Eyewear)
Labeled a 50 Classic Ski Descent of North America by Chris Davenport, Art Borrows and Penn Newhard, the “Landry Line” off the east face of 14er Pyramid Peak is worthy of all the hype and worth all the effort. A proud mountain of 14,025’/4275m, Pyramid stands a prominent member of the Elk Range, just outside the town of Aspen, Colorado. With an uncanny ability to live up to its namesake by so perfectly resembling a monolith from the ancient world, it’s captivating summit so completely seizes all of the attention that it’s hard to imagine a place beyond it where a ski from its summit is possible. But, for those looking past what’s visible at first glance, a small strip of snow cascades directly off its east facing summit, forming the perfect route for a steep ski descent. That perfect strip of snow is exactly why the mountain has had my attention since I first set eyes on it over seven years ago.
The “Landry Line” was first skied by Chris Landry in 1978 with a downclimb through a short, 100’/30m snow and ice runnel. For the twenty-eight years following, it stood without a “clean” descent, (no rappels, no down climbing) although several attempts were made. Finally, on April 13th, 2006, it was completed in the purest expression of ski-mountaineering by Chris Davenport, Neal Beidleman and Ted Mahon with a skis on, “clean” descent through the narrow crux at the bottom. Every year since the first successful “clean” descent of the “Landry Line,” it garners more and more attention as not just a test piece for local ski-mountaineers, but also as a destination descent worthy of travel from outside of a Colorado. The line has not only grown in reputation and mythical status but remains high on every graduate level ski-mountaineers list of to-do’s.
In my mind, the “Landry Line” is a route that more closely resembles something you’d find on the Mont Blanc du Tacul in the Alps than in the Elks. It stands as one of the only descents in Colorado where significant vertical relief combines so perfectly with a consistent steep pitch and consequential exposure. The climber needs to have exceptional skiing ability and acute mental toughness, combined with a deep and expansive range of mountain fitness and mountaineering skill. The Landry is eye-catching. It’s truly inspiring as it presents an exemplary set of challenges and a depth of ingredients that will continue to allure ski-mountaineers to its steepest aspects for as long as snow continues to cling to it.
I knew well before diving into my third Landry attempt just what it would take to put myself in a position to accomplish the goal this time around. On my first two attempts, and after a massive commitment in time and energy, I was forced to turn around due to less than ideal snow and weather conditions. This time, I had just come off a long stint in Europe, where the size and scale of the mountains and terrain I’d been skiing had well prepared me for another attempt. I’d also had several opportunities to get eyes on the route, and had previously skied a similar, but less exposed route of the same aspect and similar elevation on a different Colorado 14er. I knew, despite a very low snow year here in Colorado, that the easterly aspects on the peak had more than enough snow to make a safe attempt.
For weeks I patiently watched Mountain-Forecast. Finally, it seemed an opportunity to attempt the route was presenting itself. Although late April had been pretty dry, we were now looking at a small but promising storm cycle for the high peaks. The perfect set of circumstances seemed to be unfolding. I quickly called my ski partner, Chase Frantz, to see if he’d be available that Thursday evening for a big mission. Of course, he was. Chase is almost always game for an adventure. We made loose plans to meet at 9:30 pm at my apartment to gear up and head out.
Preparing for a ski on Pyramid is a unique experience in its own. The evening starts with at least a one hour approach on a bicycle with around 1,000’/300m in elevation gain, followed by equal parts walking in sneakers, before finally reaching a skinnable snow-line where the real ascent begins. With so little snow at lower elevations this year, we found ourselves slogging through the early morning hours in triple overhead willows from the onset of the approach at the banks of Maroon Lake. I struggled to lead us up a route very familiar to me. Our efficiency was immediately put in jeopardy by the lack of snow coverage. Willows normally covered by feet of snow were cause for painstaking bushwacking. Our access to the amphitheater, our gateway to the summit, would be our first major challenge of the day.
As starry skies were clouding up again, the very real fact that we both had not slept, and I was coming directly off of a long night of work, was setting in. These missions combine some of my favorite abstractions, like the idea that collaboration is always greater than competition. And, just as I was running out of gas from willow hoping, Chase set in with a huge push up toward the amphitheater. He broke trail, switch back after switch back, motivating me to regain my energy. I was surprised that on my third trip to the amphitheater, we’d actually climbed a significant portion of this approach in good time and decided, despite all the slogging and tough route finding, that we’d made up enough time to stop and have a little lunch at the foot of the amphitheater. It was 3 am. The sky was cloudy as we sat in the dark, surrounded by towering rock walls and beautiful cathedral-like features. A passing snow flurry illuminated in my headlamp. Chase ate a ham and cheese sandwich. I laughed. The moment was completely surreal. To be there in that dark mysterious place, on such a beautiful mountain with the uncertainty of the day obscured in a giant puzzle before us and to be eating a ham and cheese sandwich. Nothing could have been more perfect. Nothing could have better symbolized the polarity of the seriousness and non-seriousness of the situation better than that damn sandwich.
We hadn’t encountered even a dusting of new snow on our westerly approach. The snow was nicely frozen, and conditions were the best I’d seen across my previous two attempts. We were also feeling good about the cloudy sky, and confident in the forecast that the clouds would break up by sunrise. A good opportunity to summit was beginning to present itself. Having put a few of the necessary pieces of a much larger puzzle together without much difficulty, we decided we were well within the flow of nature, right in the moment. The natural decision was to continue on and gain the northeast ridge.
The initial climb, completely by headlamp, presented wintery snow conditions. As the terrain steepened and narrowed, it dictated to us that it was time to transition to crampons and ice axes. Knee deep boot packing ensued, and we split the burden between us under a rising waning gibbous. The moon, floating just beyond the saddle that headlined our approach and would be our portal to the northeast ridge and the summit, stood an illuminated beacon, flashing surges of light on our route between passages of clouds. We continued to push toward its reflective face. Chase gained the ridge first as I trailed behind, transfixed on the moon. Although it wasn’t perfectly full, it was so flawless. Completely remarkable. It seemed so close. Perhaps one of the most transcendent experiences I’ve had on a mountain in Colorado. The entire day was elucidated in that instant. I already knew this was the day we’d ski the Landry.
I caught up to Chase in the dissipating light and we scouted the next piece of the puzzle. The huge northeast ridge stood there before us, rising up more than 1,000’/300m over terminal exposure and on an aspect that sees direct early morning sun. This would be more than a solid challenge, presenting difficult route finding, while demanding calculated climbing. The true breadth of fitness that necessitates summiting Pyramid, combined with mountaineering skill became very obvious. We were in a very committed situation and would be for the entirety of the latter stages of the day. We had much work to do.
From the northeast ridge at 13,000’/3962m, we could barely see the summit. Clouds had begun to envelop it, shielding it’s symmetrical and well-guarded complex block from our view. The haze created such a false sense of depth perception along the ridge that it was difficult to determine with any real degree of accuracy just how far away the summit was, and what kind of conditions we’d be dealing with along the way. With very obvious signs of significant snow accumulation on the east face to our left-hand side, we discussed roping up for part of the ascent. Stepping into what felt like the unknown, the snow seemed a touch slabby. We discussed our plan of action and Chase spotted a safe route directly on the ridge. I led the way forward. The entirety of north face of the peak rolled away toward the right-hand side of the boot pack into a misty abyss, a real hazard not to be dismissed, but also not to be attached. Our focus had to remain on each delicate step. Connecting steel to rock and securely plunging the axe into the light new snow.
As we continued upward, there was no place to be but the present moment. Ski-mountaineering tends to put you right in that perfect place where each traverse or climbing pitch is so naturally focused on and accomplished as if it were the main goal for the day. Slowly we found ourselves well within reach of the summit. It was just before 7am. The sun had risen but was faithfully veiled in a deep spectrum of clouds. We clung to the side of the mountain, just below the summit, wrapped in a wispy haze of lingering altostratus. And, at that moment the experience began to eclipse. My normal state of consciousness, that typical conceptual field of vision fell away into an abstraction. A gamut of interconnectedness. A different awareness. A chain of thoughts came into my consciousness: I wasn’t there seeking mastery over the mountain I’d tried on two separate occasions to climb and ski. I wasn’t there to control it, conquer it, check a box or do something rarely done. No, I was that mountain, and I was there to experience myself through it. I was the thin air I was breathing, and I was there to be elated by it. I was Chase, and Chase was me. It wasn’t the mountain that was dictating to us what was possible through its features. No. We were merely dictating to ourselves just how to respond to it based on our own perception of reality and our own perception of the limitations we set within the confines of our minds. Everything was one, and flowing in a giant example of how life, all of it, expresses itself through each one of us. What I’d felt for so long, that ski-mountaineering represented an interaction of interdependence between climbers and mountains was transcending an unfathomable level of oneness. The perfect metaphor through action for that one thing I call total-connection. The experience was incredible.
As quickly as my thought process was elucidated, my normal state of consciousness again presided over me, and my awareness went to the task at hand. I spotted an easy move through a short, but “must make” labyrinth of rocks near the summit, and led us through. We were on the final pitch as the summit freed from the clouds and I told Chase to have at it. He’d been the greatest collaborator of the day. I was thrilled to watch him summit. As I came up behind him, the clouds seemed to encircle us, with perfect visibility within our immediate peripheral. All of the tallest and closest peaks in the valley were still shrouded in their own set of clouds. We basked in the moment, standing in our own tiny universe. We knew we had plenty of time for the descent — the clouds were giving us a perfect time advantage. Although I cannot recall the exact hour now, it must have been well before 8 am. We’d left my house sometime around 11 pm, and had been moving for the better part of 7 hours. After all that, we were only halfway there. Behind us — the famed Maroon Bells. Below us — one of the greatest routes in North America spilled out toward the valley floor. This was the most beautiful summit I’d stood on in Colorado.
Finally, the moment we’d been working toward. Chase dropped in. A series of ski cuts off the summit into steep, terminal terrain, revealed very good, stable snow on top of firm, frozen spring layers. I shot photos as Chase delicately made his way back toward the opposing ridge. I soon followed. The initial turns in close to 55-degree terrain were spectacular. Equal to, if not better than I’d experienced skiing on three other continents.
As we gained the opposite ridge and stood above several hundred feet of exposure, I made a few delicate ski cuts to release some small, but fresh wind slabs. The snow cascaded off the cliffs below us — an ever-present reminder of the power and intensity of the situation. A few turns followed in significantly less steep terrain and I waited for Chase to catch up to me. We regrouped in perfect position to take in the entirety of the valley below us. The tiny, ant-like tracks of our boot pack across the northeast ridge communicated just how far we’d come, but our path would take us down another way as the Landry continued to fall down the east face. “This is as close as it gets to a true ski-mountaineering line in Colorado,” I thought.
I led us down the next pitch toward the real meat of the line and watched Chase flash the upper portion with great style and solid steep skiing technique. Sloughs ran down the mountain below him, and he managed the terrain and snow well. It was his first time in such consequential terrain, and I enjoyed watching him come into his own. A confident, and capable steep skier. We regrouped and I led us down toward the crux. A bunch of old tatt and pro lay weathered in the rocks, an interesting sign that not every group gets to ski this line clean. Many have forced their way down by rappelling.
Never wanting to rely on old gear, and well prepared to make our own anchors if necessary, I assessed the narrow passage. The trajectory and course of the day seemed well set in advance of us even being on Pyramid. I made a few deliberate and precise turns into the runneled choke, where a good line of sight revealed that only a bit of “dry skiing” would be necessary to get us out of the crux. Chase followed, mimicking my movements, and soon we were down and out into the lower portion of the mountain. About 1,000ft/300m of skiing down the apron in spring snow remained.
At the bottom, we basked in the sun, well out of harm’s way from any mid-morning wet slides. The totality of the day towered above us, and I enjoyed the feeling of weightlessness that engulfs the mind and body of a skier after such a splendid day in the mountains. At no point was the day greater than what it was in that moment. Right there. And we laughed. Because in life, just like in skiing, you can’t take it all too seriously. Had the day turned out differently, had we skied back down the way we came, we’d have laughed too. You just never know when all the pieces will fit together so perfectly, or when they won’t. The best you can do is get out there and try. Go until it doesn’t feel right. Go until you’re no longer in the flow with nature. Or, if the situation allows, continue on until you’ve reached your goal.
Putting all the premonitions aside, the transcendent moments, I often ask myself, if I truly knew the outcome before embarking on the adventure, would I have bothered at all? Would any of it have had the same meaning? Perhaps this question, seen through the small lens of a ski-mountaineer, provides a greater look into something much bigger. Because it’s the entirety of the process, each piece of the puzzle put together in each moment on the way to that goal that gives the larger undertaking, once completed, its truest meaning and greatest significance. In skiing, like in life, to know the ending before embarking on the journey would only serve to detract from this natural progression. The entire process would lose its significance and those fulfilling qualities that make adventure what it is, by its purest definition, would have no meaning. There is nothing more exciting than stepping into the unknown.