Friday, August 30, 2013

McHenrys Peak via Stone Man Pass.

McHenrys was high on my list for this year.  I love the off trail scrambly summits, and I have heard this one called the most difficult 13er in the park when done by it's standard route.  Last week I got a good glimpse of this peak and some beta on the route from Dan (his trip report can be read here, and it is worth a read!).  Naturally, my interest was piqued! 
The day before I mountain biked on a high altitude trail for all of ten minutes before hearing thunder and packing it in.  With similar weather predicted for the day, I set out early yet again, leaving the truck shortly after 3:50.  Actually my wife was still awake from the day before when I got up to get ready to go. 
The spot at Mills Lake, aka Sexy Lake.  See the last photo on this page.  
This is what it looks like to hike by headlamp.  Just that little cone of illumination.  I didn't hear any creatures stir in the woods, but did see eye shine at one point, or so I thought.  As my heart started to pound, I realized I was seeing the headlights of another early riser on Bear Lake Road through the trees!
A problem I was already having was that everything was wet.  All the rock on the trail, mud, dirt.  All wet.  I decided to slow my pace to give things up high a chance to dry out a bit.  Heading onto wet 3rd class in shoes that don't stick to anything wet very well was not something I wanted to do. 
I hit upper Glacier Gorge as the day started to lighten.  I headed directly for the peak, passing by the bivy cave on the way.  Upper Glacier Gorge is basically a shit show of cairns and climbers/game/hunters trails, some of which seem to go the way you are going, some of which seem to stand alone, and some of which seem to go no where.  Really, I have had better luck just picking a way towards the thing I am going for than following any of those.
A beautiful morning.  It was a similar view after all that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write America the Beautiful.
Sunlight makes its way over the long north ridge of Longs Peak and hits McHenrys. 
The Spearhead.  I was hoping to add an ascent of this peak on to the day.  This would give me close to 100% completion of Glacier Gorge.
The Arrowhead in the early morning.
The Stone Man becomes visible as I get closer.  Stone Man Pass is to the north or right of this.  I made my way to it, meeting it near the bottom. 
It is a loose scree filled scramble up this.  The top comes quickly though.  Here is the view of Chiefs Head Peak from Stone Man Pass.
The Stone Man stands out against Chiefs Head. 
Mount Alice.  The ridge in front is what we climbed down to Lake Powell last week.
There was a little bit of a path beat into the tundra as I started to gain elevation on McHenrys.  When the ground became too rocky, I started to follow some cairns.  I did not always follow them directly, but tried to keep in their general vicinity.
Black Lake in the early morning. 
Longs Peak, Mount Meeker, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain, and The Spearhead.
This is what some of the terrain looks like.  This small section had you get onto the slab to the right and traverse across to continue up.  Though everything looked dry, the lichen held moisture and things were a little slick.  I made sure to hold on tight and find solid foot placements.  Despite this, I did have one occasion where I lost both feet at the same time.  My hands held, and my pants remained unsoiled. 
I found a few places where the route was not obvious or felt too hard.  It seemed that I tried to go up too early and by traversing to the climbers left I was able to locate a cairn and get back on route. 
And then the summit came.  It is funny, as it is actually a rather large and flat summit.  This is about as close I was willing to get to the edge.  I summitted shortly after 8:30, giving me about four hours and forty five minutes to reach the top.  Not too bad! 
Thatchtop and The Arrowhead
Summit cairn.  I didn't find a register anywhere. 
Looking at Alice and that ridge that drops way down to Lake Powell.
The descent was no less tricky.  The sun had yet to hit the western side of the peak and the lichen remained wet.  It was easier to follow the cairns down, as I could now see them all from above.  Here the route goes through the keyhole to continue around.
This is looking at the same area as above from farther down.  
As I neared Stone Man Pass, I started to see puffy white clouds that looked like the ones I saw the day before, moving in the same direction as the ones I saw the day before.  It was only 45 minutes or so after I saw those clouds that I heard thunder. 
The ridge to Chiefs Head looks pretty intense, but I am told the route you follow between the two stays low to avoid it all. 
Back at Stone Man Pass, some more clouds rolling in.
Looking back up towards McHenrys.
Stone Man and clouds.
I made my way down the pass, exiting at an earlier point than I entered.  My goal was to loose as little elevation as possible, and ring the bowl above Frozen Lake staying at around 11800 feet.  I was pretty successful at this.  I reached a point above Frozen Lake around 10:50.  This was my decision spot.
More clouds were building, and not just from the south, but the north as well.  They were looking thicker and more thunderhead like.  I calculated it could take me another hour just to traverse around to the base of the talus slope up, though it looked doable.  Then maybe up to another hour to summit.  Plus time to get down.
This peak would have to wait for another day.
It sucks to be so close only to turn around, and I really would have liked to climb this peak today.
I made my way down to Frozen Lake to get a few photos.
Chiefs Head Peak from above Frozen Lake.
Reflections of Chiefs Head in Frozen Lake.  This was a very pretty place to be. 
Longs just poking out from behind a slabby ridge. 
The Spearhead in Frozen Lake.
And the bowl of the lake once again. 
Okay, and maybe just once more.  It was pretty neat to sit here for fifteen minutes or so and watch the view change.  I did briefly entertain the though of swimming- the flat rock on the right here could've been used as a platform to jump into head deep water, but the intermittent sun put and end to that idea.  Jewel Lake I told myself. 
I was really regretting the decision to turn back as things started to clear a bit. 
Black Lake.
But when I stopped for a final snack at Jewel Lake, I heard thunder from back the way I'd just come.  And I still would've been on The Spearhead.  Right decision made. 
Sexy Lake.  Now see the general greyness of the clouds above Glacier Gorge.  It started to rain.  And then we caught some small hail stones.  And more rain.  It was never heavy, but enough for me to get my rain jacket out.
And of course, when I got back to the trail head, there were still people getting out of their cars and heading up the trail, thunder be damned!  Driving out of Estes, I saw several lightning strikes in my rear view mirror, and this storm dropped so much hail that Trail Ridge Road was closed down over night!  I was doubly glad to have turned back upon reading that news.
So, is McHenrys the hardest 13er in the park?  I guess there is the caveat of "by the standard route", but what is the standard route on Meeker or Ogalalla?
I would have to say two of the three routes to get to Ogalalla from RMNP are more difficult, with the traverse from Elk Tooth being more difficult than Cony Pass.  Both require a longer hike in, more elevation gain, harder technical moves with more exposure, and more route finding.  No cairns to be found on those, that is for sure.
Meeker via Horse Creek TH requires more elevation gain over a shorter distance, similar route finding (at least below treeline), and the traverse from Meeker Ridge to the true summit is more technically difficult and exposed.  I have yet to do The Loft or Iron Gates routes, so I don't feel I can comment on those, but I'd have to imagine they would be comparable in scope to McHenrys.
This is not to take anything away from a successful summit of McHenrys.  This is most definitely at an advanced level of difficulty as far as things go.  One needs to be able to route find and be comfortable with making some basic climbing moves with alot of exposure. 
Anyway, this can all be taken as one persons opinion.  There is no better time than the present to get out there and see for yourself!
Glacier Gorge is a special place, quite pretty and worth spending some time in if for nothing else than the lakes and the experience of being in a high alpine bowl surrounded by many of the highest peaks in the park.  Climbing any of the peaks that surround or are in the gorge from the gorge is certainly a heady endeavor.  All are going to require significant elevation gain, a good deal of hiking in, and in many cases some classed climbing.  But to those who make the effort comes the reward of standing in a place surrounded by the rawest and purest of beauty the park has to offer.
McHenrys Peak via Stone Man Pass:
Stone Man Pass, 12500 feet: 6.7 miles one way, 3320 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous-.
McHenrys Peak, 13327 feet: 7.1 miles one way, 4147 foot gain.  Third class.  Strenuous.
Frozen Lake, 11580 feet: 6.1 miles one way, 2400 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Along the way you will pass by: 
Alberta Falls (9400 ft): .8 miles one way, 220 foot gain.  Easy.
Mills Lake (9940 ft): 2.7 miles one way, 760 foot gain.  Moderate.
Jewel Lake (9940 ft): 3.1 miles one way, 760 foot gain.  Moderate.
Ribbon Falls (10580 ft): 4.8 miles one way, 1400 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Black Lake (10620 ft): 4.9 miles one way, 1440 foot gain.  Moderate+.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Lake Powell, Mount Alice, and Pilot Mountain.

My friend and regular hiking partner Dan had Mount Alice on his list for this year.  This is such a spectacular peak and of course Wild Basin is so beautiful it didn't take much to convince me to go for a repeat.  My only condition was that we additionally attempt the "easy" way to get to Lake Powell and possibly add Pilot Mountain on the descent so I could get some photos of it.
He was game, and off we went!
We started from the Wild Basin TH at 3:50am, which set off pictures of Loch Ness Monsters in my head...
We got to Lion Lake one just before sunrise, with the nearly full moon soon to set behind the continental divide.  Already two of our days goals were quite visible.  The distinctive diamond of Mount Alice and the crumbling arm of Pilot Mountain.  Very little wind this early in the morning gave some nice reflective photos, but nothing like we'd see later. 
Sunrise and Chiefs Head Peak.
Lion Lake Two, which lies a short hike uphill from number one.
Snowbank Lake, which lies a short hike uphill from number two.  The namesake snow bank is actually pretty small at this point.
From here we went left or south to gain the ridge and continue west to Hourglass Ridge.  This is pretty mellow over tundra and talus, with a faint trail visible most of the way up. 
Sunrise casts the shadow of Pagoda Mountain onto Mount Alice.
We arrived at Hourglass Ridge proper, and snared this great view of Mount Alice in the morning sun.  It certainly looks alot different and less intimidating from this angle.
From here, we went north.  The ridge can be taken to Chiefs Head Peak, and farther even to McHenrys.  There is a finger of land that extends northwest off the ridge, and this is the way to descend to get to Lake Powell.
McHenrys Peak and Notch along with Stone Man Pass.
We finally gained sight of the lake.  I didn't realize how reflective it was when I shot this photo.  It looks like a whimsical upside down heart shape from above.
The descent is on tundra, with more and more large blocks of talus towards the bottom.  A loss of almost 1000 feet brought us here, to a place of true solitude and peace.
Reflections of things to come.
What is wrong with this picture?  Notice the rock and grass in the upper right hand corner...
Well, if you haven't figured it out, I flipped this photo.  The top part is actually the reflection in the lake.  That is how amazingly still the water was. 
Here is a second photo the right way.  It looks like a mirror was laid down below me.  Incredible!
Due to there being no trail to it, and the "easy" way requiring an 18+ mile round trip with around 5000 feet of gain, this lake is seldom visited.  But it is worth it.  We thought this lake probably sees the same number of visitors each year as Pilot Mountain, which is to say in the single digits.  
We took a nice snack break, and then made our way back up to Hourglass Ridge.
On the way back up, points west.
Now back on Hourglass Ridge, we make our way to Mount Alice.  Though it looks intimidating, the worst part is probably on the small connector between the ridge and Alice.  Things narrow, with some easy scrambling and a bit of exposure.
On the way up, we both stayed near the west ridge of the mountain to find a fun scrambly route to the top.  You could also stay more to the east for a less scrambly option.  Staying near the ridge did provide some great views!
And then we were there!  The good thing about Alice is the high point you see from the bottom is actually the top.  No false summits here.  It is hard to tell what might be the true highest point, though the western hump is cairned and holds the register, which was missing a cap and anything inside.  See also in this photo Chiefs Head, Pagoda, Longs, and Meeker.
And looking south along the divide to Wild Basin.  It was good to be back and see so many familiar places and relive so many memories.
We descended south and east from Alice, continuing to cut south as we could.  I thought this gave a unique perspective on the mountain.  The diamond looks alot different from here. 
And again, the third, seventh, first, and second highest peaks in the park.  I've now ascended them all.
On the way to Pilot Mountain.
We arrived at the top of the loose scree and talus gully I had ascended to get to this peak last year.  There is a large boulder near the top of this which blocks the way up.  This also marks the place to start out on the grassy ramps towards the peak.
Pretty mellow travel at first on wide grassy ramps.
Which narrow slightly...
And then slightly more...
Until you come to a pile of talus which you climb over, loosing some elevation on the other side.  This is where the going gets tough.  Ascend the fourth class chimney feature.
Dan going up.  Last time around, I commented that I found the transition to and from the chimney to the face on the other side the hardest part.  I'd say that held true again.
Upon arriving at the top of the chimney, you'll now have to traverse and ascend some cracks in the rock to the top.  This keeps you in third class territory. 
This summit is tiny, with room for just a few people.  Dan looked south over the edge and uttered an expletive.  It is also super exposed.
There is alot of history here.  The register was placed in 1974, before either of us was born.  Actually the year my parents married.  It has not seen many ascents in the time since.  Last year wrapped up with a whopping ten.  This year we were numbers two and three.  That is pretty incredible to think about, and why these minor peaks are places that stand out in my mind. 
We went back up the gully and traversed over to descend Mount Alice's grassy eastern slope.  This was way better than taking the gully back down from Pilot.
Pilot as seen from below.
We were able to pick a good way through the trees, and avoided any bushwhacking for the most part.  The day was heating up pretty well, and I was quite warm.  "Unless it's thundering, I am swimming in Lion Lake," I said. 
Not pictured this time, but this lake is not very deep and it was less of a swim and more of a fall backwards into thigh deep water. 
It's always hard to believe we were up there shortly ago.
Chiefs Head Peak.  We saw two other parties of two at or near Lion Lake, and very few others on the way back to the car.
I did see this bunny along the trail!
Here are some beta photos to help you along the way.  I have circled the large boulder blocking the scree gully in pink.  If you take the gully up, continue up to the right of this boulder before crossing over to the grassy ramps above it.  If you come from Alice, just consider this boulder a marker to find the right place to start.
 The boulder.
 Route on the grassy ramps, with the chimney crux circled in red.
 The boulder as seen from below.
Route as seen from below.
We made it back to the car right around 3:30pm, giving us an almost twelve hour day.  All things considered, not too bad.  I think we estimated something like 5700 total feet of gain over 19ish miles. 
All in all, a great day in the park, visiting or revisiting some very worthy destinations.  Mount Alice is fun in and of itself, but for those of you with the spirit of adventure, consider adding a visit to Pilot Mountain on the descent.  Lake Powell is breathtaking, and worthy of a visit.  Consider the effort to get there and back well worth it to have this alpine tarn all to yourself!  It was rewarding to climb Longs, but it is the destinations like these that my heart truly seeks.
Lake Powell, Mount Alice, and Pilot Mountain:
Lake Powell, 11540 feet: 9.1 miles each way, 3040 foot gain (but close to 4000 total since you ascend to around 12500 on Hourglass Ridge).  Strenuous.
Mount Alice, 13310 feet: 8.8 miles each way, 4810 foot gain.  Second class.  Strenuous.
Pilot Mountain, 12200+ feet: 9.5 miles each way via Mt. Alice, 3700 foot gain.  Fourth class.  Strenuous.
Along the way you'll pass:
Lion Lake 1, 11080 feet: 6.3 miles one way, 2580 foot gain. Moderate.
Lion Lake 2, 11420 feet: 6.9 miles one way, 2920 foot gain. Moderate+.
Snowbank Lake, 11521 feet: 7.1 miles one way, 3021 foot gain. Moderate+.