Chief’s Head Mountain
April 27, 2005 - Glacier Gorge – Snow
Our original plan was to make an attempt on the east face of McHenry’s Peak. McHenry’s flanks Black Lake in Glacier Gorge and by its summer route, is said to be the most challenging non-technical peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. We were not; however, looking to climb the summer ridge route, but instead we wanted a mixed climb of the east face. For the most part, the route follows a substantial ledge cutting diagonally across the face before it gains the uppermost portion of the summer ridge route.
Black Lake is a good five mile hike up Glacier Gorge and to access McHenry’s we would have to not only get to Black Lake but also go well beyond it to gain the high ground leading to the base of McHenry’s. The choice was simple, one very early alpine start with a full load of climbing gear or an overnight bivy at Black Lake, complete with the addition of even more weight. Our trip to Peru was getting closer so we took the opportunity to lug the extra weight in exchange for the promise of an overnight rest before the technical portion of the climb.
We left the Glacier Gorge parking area a bit later than we hoped for but at least we were Black Lake bound. Would we ever get there . . . a good question . . . as my load was just a pound shy of 50 lbs and G was a pound or two over the mark. Too damn much weight by any standard but we had both cut out whatever we could, short of a shared sleeping bag or other similarly sporting options. We lugged our loads ever upward and about two hours later I was grateful to be wending my way around the edge of Mills Lake, which had some open water and lots of signs that a winter crossing was surely not to be. The time was just a bit past five but we wanted to make it as far as possible before looking for a spot to tramp out a flat pad for the Megamid.
We kept moving over the less challenging ground leading toward Black Lake and were pleased to see patches of open stream here and there . . . hence, the promise of running water. This would come in real handy as we made a weight saving call to bring only enough fuel to heat dinner that evening and a light breakfast before the climb. Any snow melting effort would be a terminal event as to the potential climb the next morning. We finally made Black Lake and found a bivy spot off in the woods that had a great spot for the Megamid and was not too far from a thinly iced water source. The ground got stomped, the "mid" was raised and dinner followed in short order. After dinner we both constructed a means to stabilize us on our sleeping pads rather than the snowy tent floor. We called it a night.
The alarm went off all too early at 4 a.m. and after some resistance, we managed to heat cereal and other breakfast items before heading out for the climb. The morning was reasonably warm, just a bit below the freezing mark and there was very little wind. We hefted our not that much lighter packs and headed up the steep but short headwall to Black Lake proper. Our route took us around the lake and then up to the high ground nearing the exit Long’s Trough route. As we left Black Lake, we could see that the exit from the East Face route on McHenry’s was nicely corniced and the base of the climb was littered with avalanche debris. We knew it would end up a warm day and McHenry's east face just did not look like a route to be on when movement became the norm. So much for McHenry’s . . . onto Chiefs Head.
We figured there were two viable routes to the top of Chiefs Head, the east couloir splitting the peak from Pagoda’s west ridge and the large diagonal ledge forming the more northerly boundary of the northeast face of Chiefs Head. We kept climbing toward the decision point and stopped to decide once and for all as we passed around the flank of Spearhead. Both routes were well snow loaded but the sloping ledge seemed to have all of the avalanche debris and we knew that to be a more technical route. We had just gotten the sun hit and out of a need for avalanche caution, we chose the east couloir as a faster route that would not warm much over the course of the day, i.e. still cold on our return.
We cut a circular course to the base of the couloir and G cut trail to the point where the couloir begins to narrow. The snow was deep and our steps sometimes approached the point of postholing. We had dropped our snow shoes at the base of a large boulder in order to save a bit more weight, of course at the risk of posthole party on our return. At about the half way mark, we swapped leads and I kicked steps to short rocky band that marks the conclusion of the couloir climb. There was a wide variety of snow so it was not hard to maneuver a bit left or right here and there to find the perfect step kicking conditions. The couloir probably does not exceed 40 to 45 degrees inclination and given the amount of powder, we did not consider protecting the ascent. We wended our way through the rocky band and then stopped for a rest in the cleft dividing Pagoda from Chiefshead.
We assumed that the southern flank of Chiefshead would be talus walk and we were correct. We alternated between tame boulder hopping and snowfield traverses to attain the summit of the peak. From the top of the couloir, it is a fair traverse to the summit but gentle terrain the whole way. We celebrated the summit with the traditional gummy worms and photos and after 15 minutes, we retraced our steps across rapidly deteriorating snow to the top of the couloir. We gathered a few pieces of gear left earlier and plunge stepped our way down the couloir to the lower slopes. At that point the sun had warmed the snow enough to make each step a two-foot deep powder wade and we took the precaution of spreading out in the event something started to move. Soon enough we were back in the lee of the huge boulder below the Spearhead gathering the gear dropped earlier to cut some of the load going up hill.
Our course back to Black Lake was across softening snow but since we’d brought the snowshoes to the big boulder, there was no postholing to slow us down. We gained our camp and after a good lunch, we packed the overnight gear and again took on the full load for the trip to the parking lot five miles distant. We made our way down through the gorge and, with every foot of elevation lost, the snow deteriorated and the going got tougher. So long as we stayed on the packed trail, all was well, leave the trail, even in snowshoes, and postholing was the name of the game. It ended up being a long sore shoulder slog for me to the parking lot but we did score another RMNP 13’er summit, another snow climb, and more conditioning in preparation for our upcoming trip to Peru.