We set out to climb an impressive mark in the Sierra Nevada, specifically the Crystal Range, just to the west of Lake Tahoe: Pyramid Peak, the tallest point in the Desolation Wilderness, and a “must-do” hike according to other peak baggers around California. I had spent last weekend in Yosemite at Glacier Point, a peak standing at 7,214 ft., and had experienced a long, hot, grueling day that left me thirsty and with sunburns.
Now, Yosemite is just 2.5 hours south of Tahoe National Forest, so I imagined similar conditions on what I believed was a comparable hike. Furthermore, the Lyons Creek trailhead that leads to Pyramid Peak sits at 6,700 ft. and the top of the mountain reaches 9,983 ft., so I was braced for a challenging day hike – nothing more – and brought three friends along. I felt pretty prepared.
We can joke about it now; but we were absolutely, comically unprepared.
We left San Francisco at 4 a.m. and set out northeast. Only once we were winding up highway 50 towards Tahoe did we start seeing patches of snow, and when we finally caught our first glimpse of the mountains from the road, we all echoed the same thought: “Are those peaks… completely capped in snow?” We had not anticipated snow, at all.
I had to put my car into four-wheel drive heading up Wrights Lane Road, which takes you 4 miles off of highway 50 and straight to the Lyons Creek Trailhead, one of the more popular approaches up Pyramid Peak via the West Ridge route. We parked next to only one other car and set off in 1.5 to 2 ft. of snow around 6:45 a.m. I was the only one in the group wearing shoes that were not water resistant, and though my extra-tall gaiters helped guard snow from slipping inside of the tops of my boots, it did nothing for the soles, which were helplessly soggy all day long. All of our feet were soaked throughout the entire day, and at our turnaround spot two of the guys wrung out ounces and ounces of liquid from their sopping, sweaty socks. It was nasty.
We followed a set of tracks for the first two or three miles until they zig-zagged away from each other into different directions. We started following one, having to turn around after a quarter mile, and would follow the other until it doubled back and seemed to loop around to the original trail. Finally, Joey took the lead and started trail blazing into what we thought looked like the most obvious direction. Mind you, we did not have a map or a compass with us, we walked solely on instinct and with the intention to reach the clearing that we assumed must be so close.
That clearing was nowhere near as close as we thought it would be. Also, trail blazing is hard work. We were lifting our legs and dragging ourselves through almost 2 feet of untouched snow, reaching over trees and brush and rocks as we stumbled upon them. We did get validation that we were walking in the right direction each time we came across a cut log – those became one of our only signs that we were on the right path. Still, it was a tiresome and long process getting out of the main forest area.
When we finally reached the clearing that we’d been waiting hours to stumble upon, I realized that we had walked 7 miles that morning even though Sylvia Lake was supposed to have only been 4.7 miles from the trailhead. Part of that mileage would have come from turning around a handful of times, but I was worried that we might have been moving too far to the west, and missed a trail on the east, putting us even farther from the lake. A little after 10:30am, when we’d been walking for nearly 4 hours, we decided to camp out on a log to enjoy lunch, relax, and turn around. We left our sunny field spot at 11:30 and got back to the car by 2:00.
On the return, the streams we’d been hopping over (or in some cases, walked straight through) were rapidly expanding and quickening from the melting snow. The final two miles of our trip looked like an entirely different trail with the small tributaries that formed in the hours that had warmed us that morning.
Overall, it was a solid attempt. Everyone had high spirits and was eager to trek on through the less-than-ideal conditions. We all aided each other through the difficult snowy steps over logs and across streambeds, and most importantly, we’re all psyched to come back in a couple months once the snow has melted to give Pyramid Peak another shot.
- Expected length: 11.4 miles
- Actual length: 12.1 miles
- Expected elevation gain: 3,300 ft
- Actual elevation gain: 1,300 ft
- Time: 7 hours