January 29, 2005 - Glacier Gorge - Winter
In late December of 2004, G and I purchased “AT” ski gear in an effort to temper to the arduous process of winter mountaineering. We hoped that if we could climb and then ski to the truck, we could extend our winter climbing range. So we bought the gear and headed for the Mummy Range. We found a narrow trail, lots of rocks and not enough snow to cushion my falls or protect the skis. A big investment, lots of scratches and very return. Having read of another climber’s efforts to score Pagoda in the winter and taken a shot at it ourselves the previous year, we knew that scoring Pagoda in the winter was going to require a good bit of effort and a weather window.
To improve our odds, we added the skis in lieu of snowshoes to shave what we hoped would be at least two hours off the retreat. We knew from the previous year’s climb that the return ski could be a five miler and that the trail at least as far a Black Lake was likely well packed by ice climbers making 4½ mile of the trek. Alternatively, without the ski advantage, we were looking at no less than 14 to 15 hours and the possibility of an overnight. And so began Pagoda II . . .
Regular visitors to this site will presume that the trip began as do all of our winter climbs in RMNP and this one was no different. We dined at the Grumpy Gringo, did the Safeway shopping trip (I still do not know why the Clif bars are in the Mexican food section and probably never will), and spent the night at the Super 8. We arrived in light rain but as we agreed upon an all too early wake up time (3 a.m.), we were pleased to see stars overhead. The appointed hour came too early but soon enough and we got our warm gear out to the truck for the drive to the Glacier Gorge parking lot. The weather was still good, we had plenty of moonlight and better yet dawn was but a few hours away. Now bear in mind, we did not presume that we would get a dawn sun hit walking up Glacier Gorge, but when the sun is bathing the tops of the surrounding peaks, I can convince myself that the day is looking up and the promise of warmth will be fulfilled in another couple of hours.
We were the only car in the parking lot at 4:30 and by 4:45 we had lashed the skis to the packs and were heading up the trail toward Mills Lake. I do not feel that either of us was all that keen on the prospect of wearing ski boots for the hike in but the AT boots we purchased do have an adjustment that allows some degree of normality in the realm of flex and gait. They are; however, still ski boots and not the double plastic mountaineering boots I prefer. But . . . I also would rather not to carry the better part of ten extra pounds on my back, along with the skis. The trail was packed and we hiked steadily past Albert Falls and on to Mills Lake. I think Mills Lake is the better part of 2½ miles in and it took us about 1½ hour to cover the distance. Not real fast but come on . . . we’re doing the ski boot gig.
Mills Lake was well frozen and we crossed its upper and lower sections to get back onto the trail to Black Lake. The trail above Mills was packed as expected and we continued with our slow and steady pace, staying warm but not burning the legs. It was a chilly morning and in the upper reaches of the Gorge, both of our beards were well frozen . . . I’m guessing it was around 10 degrees F. We also reserved a few moments here and there to glance at the terrain we would have to negotiate on skis after the climb, including the steep sided stream course and three sharp drops over what I presume are rock headwalls in the warmer seasons of the year. We made Black Lake at about the 3-hour mark and took our first substantial break before climbing on.
We departed Black Lake via the left side gully and climbed steadily toward the terminus of the Trough, which descends from Longs Peak. The snow was well frozen and generally supported our weight without the torture of postholing. We made a direct course to the base of the Trough and arrived at the turn point of our previous year’s attempt on Pagoda. The prior year, we had second thoughts about the terrain and time available for a Pagoda summit attempt and instead chose one of the couloirs leading up to the Keyhole. From the Keyhole, we scored Storm Peak and then made a death march down the North Longs Peak trail, finishing well after dark and but a few minutes in advance of the “call for help” time established with our spouses. Now . . . this year we had the ski retreat advantage but to score Pagoda we were still faced with climbing 2000 vertical feet of snow and some class 3/4 terrain in ski boots.
The skis and all non essential gear were stashed in plain view and at 10 a.m. we headed up the steep slope of Glacier Gorge aiming squarely for the juncture between the Keyboard of the Winds and Pagoda’s ridge. The route did not look to be that steep, certainly not as steep as the route we took to the Keyhole the previous February. Appearances; however, are deceiving and we found the terrain to be both steep and loose in those portions not on snow. Fortunately, more than half of the climb was on snow and the snow was well frozen. We alternated kicking steps (front and side) and after way too long, we topped out of the snow with but 200 yards of loose couloir to go. We climbed that 200 yards a couple of times and what seemed like forever, we got to the saddle.
Coincidentally, while we were climbing, the weather was deteriorating. The morning’s sun hit on McHenry lasted all of two minutes and that was the last real sun we saw for the rest of the day. As we climbed the couloir, we observed that the clouds were starting to drop tendrils of fog and mist down over Pagoda’s summit as well as all the other surrounding peaks. There was no wind but we could see that the visibility would not improve and that the intermittent snow would likely be with us for the remainder of the climb.
We looked to the east and saw little more than clouds, to the north Longs Peak came into view briefly but then disappeared. The sun almost came out from the clouds, enough at least to briefly warm our backs but all too soon it too was obscured by the snow and fog. We figured that was the mountain talking . . . “you worked hard to get here and I’ll give you a touch of warmth, but then it is time to go home.” It was 1 p.m and we had time for a drink and snack but harbored no thoughts of an extended stay. We picked our way back down the ridge, respectful of the slick rocks occasioned by the falling snow and then dropped from the saddle to make the long decent to the skis below. Most of the trip was on our heels down the snowfields but we also had to traverse here and there to get to the easier snow, calling for careful use of poles over what was now really slick and loose ground. An hour and a half put us at the skis.
We watered and fed before stepping into the bindings and starting down. G is a good skier whereas my total experience is perhaps going downhill skiing about 10 or 12 times over the last 20 years, not including the recent Mummy Range debacle. G was off to a fine start and I was off to a fine fall at the first steep section. I righted myself, shook off the extra snow, and followed his tracks. We skied from the base of the Trough all the way to Black Lake without the need to portage any of the rocky terrain. The gully leading down to Black Lake was a blast . . . we took the steeps in stride and avoided being taken out by the steep stream canyon section. Alas we had to dismount at the outlet of Mills to get across rocky terrain but we were back on the boards one hundred yards later. We continued to make good time until having to again dismount at the Loch trail junction and walk about ¼ mile to get beyond a thin rocky zone before cresting the hill leading down to the Bear Lake Road. Back to the boards.
The final section was an absolute treat, good glides here and hard turns there but the trail is plenty wide, it was late in the day, and the heavy snowfall had driven off the last of the tourons. We passed Albert Falls, the lower trail junction and dropped down to bottom below the Glacier Gorge parking lot. It was 5:20 and the day’s light was fading . . . we not only scored Pagoda but skied 90% of the way out.
All in all, lugging skis to the terminus of Glacier Gorge was certainly more work than doing the approach on snowshoes but the ski home made the effort worthwhile. The climb up the couloir in ski boots was acceptable but any serious traverses over rock were pretty much out of the question. Had we been entered crampon territory, we have been stopped cold, at least at our present level of experience. The class 2 terrain was feasible but tougher terrain was more of a challenge, but workable on this trip as it there were only isolated short pitches here and there. To our surprise, the walk in was painless and at the end of the day, neither of us had any foot/boot complaints. My hat is off to Ian at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder for a first class fitting.