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+.

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