Friday, June 27, 2014

Chiefs Head Peak via Pagoda/Chiefs Head Couloir.

Ahh, Chiefs Head Peak.  The last time I climbed it, it was one of the few remaining peaks in Wild Basin that I had to do.  We took the standard route that day- starting at Sandbeach Lake th and, after reaching the lake, making a short bushwhack up to North Ridge and then continuing on to the summit.  I have fond and cold memories of that day.
With the Pagoda/Chiefs Head Couloir being one of the few remaining named destinations in Glacier Gorge that I needed to check off, this one was a priority this year.  When we were on our way to Dragon's Tail, I could look up and see that the top of the couloir looked to be melted out already, so I decided to head for it next instead of waiting a little bit longer. 
Aspen in the early morning. 
The single most photographed tree in RMNP??
Sexy Lake.  The wind hadn't picked up too much yet and I was able to get a nice reflective photo.
The amount of snow on the trail steadily increased as Black Lake grew nearer.  At times route finding became a little bit of a challenge- was I sure those footprints were going in the correct direction?  That always becomes a bit of an issue this time of the year.
Nearing Black Lake, McHenrys Peak.
At Black Lake. 
I had a few views of it from farther down and away, but here I was in upper Glacier Gorge, and there it was looking intimidatingly steep. 
As I've said before, there are a ton of cairns in Upper Glacier Gorge which may lead you somewhere or nowhere at all.  I've had better luck just picking the general direction I want to go and working my way over.  Try to stick to the slabby rock in the area to avoid any bushwhacking.
Much to my surprise, it only took me three hours to get to Green Lake.  I thought the snow had slowed me up alot.  I was happy to see the north facing couloir was still in shade.  That mean the snow would still be pretty firm.
The Spearhead is the only destination in Upper Glacier Gorge that I have yet to climb. 
At the bottom.  It looks less steep from this vantage point.  I strapped on my crampons and got out the ice axe.  Upward!

The snow was rather hard, so much so that I couldn't kick in steps. 
About half way up, there was a small section where the snow had disappeared significantly.  I carefully made my way up the thin strip of snow to the right. 
Things grew steeper near the top, and I wasn't going to stop to take any photos there.  Here I have just finished the snow section.  There was a short scramble over some very loose rock to the top. 
Pretty good views!
I headed west towards the summit of Chiefs Head Peak.  While only .6 mile away, you do gain about 1000 feet per mile until there.  And it's on sometimes loose talus.  So it takes a little bit of time.
There is a flat rock on the summit on which you can sit and hang your feet over a whole, whole bunch of air into Glacier Gorge.
Looking back to Pagoda and Longs.  You can see the top of the Spearhead/Chiefs Head Couloir here.
I'd briefly entertained the idea of descending this couloir rather than going all the way back.  But it was the bottom that looked to be in the very steep snow category with a lot of air under it that kept me away.  Maybe once this region melts out this could be a more viable option.
Looking back down North Ridge.
The high peaks of Wild Basin.
On the descent, I carefully made my way down through some of the rocky stuff until I hit solid snow.  Though I was worried about the snow never softening up enough to glissade, a few hours of sunlight did the trick.  Once past the rocks at the top I got into the snow and started down in a side self arrest position.  I remembered that one area of thinner snow and knew I'd need to stop completely there and walk through it.  This is also where the climb is the steepest, and this position helped me to control my speed much more than the standard sit.
However, once I got past that thin area, I moved to sitting glissade and kept a moderate speed the rest of the way down.  There were still all those rocks at the bottom to avoid.
Back near Italy Lake.
In the early afternoon, I could see the couloir already getting back into some shade, this time provided by Chiefs Head. 
I made my way back down towards Black Lake.
I snapped this photo standing on the snow field that covers the trail to Upper Glacier Gorge.  It looks like CGI almost, but I can assure you it is real.
Looking north from Black Lake.  I wondered when I would start to see some people.  By Mills Lake surely, but would anyone have gone up to Black Lake?  I saw some footprints.  The answer was yes. 
At Mills Lake looking up.  I always enjoy being able to see a destination from below later in the day.  It seems improbable that I was up there just a few hours ago.  But I was!
This was a pretty fun and adventurous way to climb this peak for the second time.  This route is about half a mile shorter in distance and gains about 900 feet less than the route from Sandbeach Lake.  But of course, this method requires some special equipment and skills.  Due to the steepness of the couloir and the large amount of loose rock in it, I would suggest doing this route only in snow.  Even then, make sure you wear a helmet as there was visible and audible evidence of rockfall in addition to the chunks of ice whizzing by me from above.  And as always, Glacier Gorge provides spectacular scenery!
Chiefs Head Peak via Pagoda/Chiefs Head Couloir:
7.3 miles one way, 4399 foot gain (9180-13579).  Second class, steep snow.  Strenuous.

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