Pyroclastic Peak

Elevation Gain: 2,138m
Distance: 26.41km
Total Time: 15 hours 6 minutes
Date: February 10th, 2024

Pyroclastic Peak can really only be described as an evil sand castle; not unlike it’s neighbour Mount Cayley. It’s part of a volcanic complex that also includes the unclimbed Vulcan’s Thumb. The summit is flanked on all sides by rotten rock and sand. Despite that, there’s a certain allure about this peak, due to the very limited information available about it. It was first climbed in 1971 and then a subsequent first winter ascent in 1982. Bruce Fairley’s guide offers a brief paragraph description and a nice photo of the north west face, but further details are not easily ascertained. What other information there is, likely only exists in hard to find paper copies of alpine journals.

I had seen this peak many times on maps or always from a distant peak off in the horizon. However, when Steven and I climbed Mount Cayley in the summer of 2023, I had my first up front view of it and was immediately captivated. Sometime early in the winter or fall we formed a plan to take it on in the spring. Unfortunately, for me, our plans got sped up when a week of unusually bomber snow conditions with a perfect weather window saw Steven organizing a trip for Friday, February 9th. I had just started my new job that week and couldn’t call in sick so soon. Nonetheless I wanted to take advantage of the snow conditions too and while the weather was closing in on Saturday, it seemed a trip could be squeezed in. Chris Gulka had been thinking about this peak as well, so we formed a team and would await to hear back from Steven on his ascent.

Midday on Friday, I got a voice message from Steven after a successful attempt to the top. It seems a crux section of mixed rock and ice awaited us after the party of 3 had dispatched with the thin snow covering this tricky steep bit. Nonetheless, Chris and I felt confident we could either climb it directly or find a bypass and committed to a Saturday attempt. While we wouldn’t get to join on a fresh ascent of the peak, we could at least take solace in the fact that a pre-broken trail was laid out for us. I had one last scan of the weather forecast before heading to bed and it called for a low level clouds with intermittent snow fall. Not great for views, but more than manageable for an ascent.

Chris picked me up at 3:30am from Squamish and by 5am we were marching down the snowed in remainder of Brandywine Creek FSR. An hour passed and we found ourselves crossing broken snow slabs through a creek and then up a large bowl. We reached the top just as the sun began to rise. Most of the guess work about where to traverse was removed from the equation. Steven, Elise and Mel’s tracks made a clear cut across the long set of slopes between us an Pyroclastic. So we took advantage and followed them footprint for footprint.

At some point you get used to these winter views
Chris marching up the bowl between Brandywine and Fee
Pyroclastic seemingly the only peak around getting the cloud treatment
Chris descending off the ridge
Following these tracks to the glacier
Early morning light over the Ashlu range

As we neared the start of the glacier we had to traverse around the ultra loose and steep rubble pile that stands between the Brandywine Area and Mount Cayley. I had encountered this hill once before on the way to Mount Cayley and was hopeful it’d be less tedious with a layer of snow. Unfortunately, I traversed to high around it on steep snow and had to make some careful moves in show shoes and then boots to get back to less treacherous ground. Chris wisely accepted some elevation loss and promptly beat me to the end of the traverse.

Mistakes were made
Very cool rock formations along the way

From here we had one more steep traverse around the west side and donned crampons this time. Once on the glacier we had an easy plod up to the north east face between Cayley and Cayley SE1. We crossed some tedious avalanche debris and then marched up to the Cayley-Pyroclastic Col. The whole summit area was enveloped in clouds, but the weather and snow were otherwise in perfect condition. We ditched our snowshoes and extra gear and harnessed up for the climb.

More climbing around the rubble pile
Nearly at the glacier, but still some elevation to lose
Chris on the traverse
Cayley SE1
Climbing up the col
Chris climbing up
The col in sight
The massive east face of Pyroclastic Peak and The Vulcan’s Thumb
Chris coming up to the col

Chris lead the way from the col along a corniced ridge and then across the north west face of Pyroclastic. For the most part we followed Steven and company’s tracks until we were directly under the ascent line. Clouds obscured the majority of the route, but we could see the crux section and the steep exposed rock they had mentioned. To our left we spotted a clean snow line up a separate couloir with what looked like an option to make an exposed traverse back into the main face. We both agreed this seemed like the fastest option.

Visibility was lacking
Traversing off the col towards the north west face
Heading towards the right most snow face. Not quite visible is the steep bowl we need to drop into below
The bowl behind us now

I took the lead and broke trail up the steep slope through deep snow. Part way up the snow firmed a bit with a layer of snice for easy purchase and I climbed up this as high as I could before having to make the traverse. This section steepened to perhaps 50-55 degrees above a near vertical roll over so I tested each step carefully. I made the 15m push across and was now back on the main face. Chris followed up and we lead a diagonal line up the face and rejoined with Steven’s tracks halfway up. From there it was straightforward up to the ridge on 45-50 degree snow. The uppermost section steepened further to maybe 55 degrees.

Looking up at the route. To the right is the exposed rock from Steven’s ascent. To the left is the couloir we’re going to take. We traverse just below rock bend second from left
Chris climbing up
Chris making the exposed traverse now
Looking at the route ahead
Myself nearing the ridge

Once on the ridge, we setup a belay with snow pickets and Chris took the lead. He weaved through several small steps and stood on the summit with about 50m of rope length out. After some digging he found the picket that Steven and co’ had rappelled off of and brought me up on that. The ridge wasn’t all too challenging and perhaps made easier by the clouds covering the immense exposure below us. Periodically the sun would burn off parts of the cloud around the Vulcan’s Thumb and it felt surreal to be among these wild snow covered volcanic formations.

A look at the summit ridge
Chris leading up
At the top now
My turn
Standing on the summit!
Chris on the summit too

After taking in our summit glory, it was time to get down. I figured it would be easier for us to just belay each other down and then we could recover the picket. Chris felt comfortable down-leading so he put me on belay first and I descended back to the base of the ridge. I put Chris on belay next and the climbed down without issue as well. We decided at this point, we might as well rappel using Steven’s picket above the first crux down below. That would save us an exposed traverse and so we started our descent aiming for that instead.

The Vulcan’s Thumb making an imposing appearance
Time to descend
Chris descending from the ridge

The snow was perfect for easy descending, but the steepness warranted careful movements. After 60m or so we reached the top of the crux and started digging around for the buried picket. A minute later, I swung my axe into something solid and started to haul it out of the snow. I nearly declared victory, before my axe pulled out a solid block of frozen pee. I quickly swung the axe around to free it and we declared the search over. We were here now, so we decided to bury our own picket and rappel off that instead.

Somewhere down the face
Nearing the crux section we’re going to rappel
Chris nearing our rappel spot

Chris rappelled first and then I followed. I packed the rope up after and we made a short section of downclimbing back to our traversing tracks. From there we could face out and climbed along the lower face back up to a small bowl and then onto the col. We were now done with the hard part! And just in time as the sun burned off the clouds around Cayley and Pryoclastic. To our surprise some skiers had boot packed up to the Cayley ridge line. This at least confirmed we weren’t going crazy as we were positive we’d heard some voices while descending the face.

Chris rappelling
Admiring the imposing terrain around us

We didn’t bask for long as there’s quite a ways back to the car. So, after getting some cool shots of the summit we hit the road. We grabbed our stashed gear and descended back down the glacier. Reversing the tracks around the rubble pile was not so bad with cramp ons this time and then we had about 150m to gain back to the Brandywine bowl area. This part was a slog, but once we crested over the final ridge it was all downhill back to the car. I need not bore you with the details of our final 8km night time road walk from here.

Traversing back to the col
Chris about to re-ascend the bowl
Almost there
The clouds starting to burn off
Mount Cayley in view now!
Now that’s a nice summit
Chris descending back towards the glacier
On the glacier again
Traversing again
Mount Fee North Tower at center in the clouds
Ascending back to the ridge
We were dead tired by this point
Huge avalanche above Brandywine FSR from a few days ago

I am beyond stoked to have climbed this obscure summit, especially so soon after seeing it from Mount Cayley. Depending on the snow conditions this could be just a steep snow ascent or as Steven saw some challenging exposed rock and snice. Having some foot prints to follow certainly made things easier for us. The trickiest part is timing the snow. The terrain is quite complex and there seem to be some very interesting wind interactions through the ridge and north west face. Even the approach requires a fair bit of exposure to large slide paths, so I’d only attempt this if you’re 100% confident in the snow pack.

5 thoughts on “Pyroclastic Peak

  1. Snice is a fantastic; snow and ice. Sounds like pee popsicle or psnices on your axe.

    Thanks for the laugh.

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