A Climb up Pagoda Mountain via Glacier Gorge
Route: Northeast Face and Northeast Ridge
Summit Elevation: 13,497’
Trailhead elevation: 9,240’
Roundtrip Distance: 13 miles
I arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park at 6am to begin the approach climb for my solo summit bid of Pagoda Mountain. I was the second car in the parking lot but there was not another soul to be seen or heard. I quickly put on my boots and sorted my pack and began the 5 mile hike to Black lake. The walk past Alberta Falls and Mills Lake were uneventful and I made decent time. The weather was not cold, maybe 40 degrees, but there was a bit of a wind even at the early hour, which would hint at things to come.
I met two other climbers near Mills Lake who were on their way to do some ice climbing on All Mixed Up. I wished them luck – they would be the last people I would see for nearly seven hours. The climb up to Black Lake was steeper and was made more difficult by long stretches of packed snow and ice on the trail.
McHenrys Peak at Black Lake
These patches had to be avoided because they were too slick to walk on most of the time. But this annoyance was inconsequential compared to the view up Glacier Gorge and the many spires and peaks of the surrounding mountains; this is truly a remarkable place.
I arrived at Black Lake (11,100’) and took my first real break to sit and have some breakfast and enjoy the spectacular view of McHenrys Peak towering above the water, its face covered in beautiful ice.
I knew from here the climbing would become more difficult. I followed a broken trail to a small ledge away from the lake and into a large basin. The trail ended here and I was left to myself to navigate the entire length of this valley to reach the face of Pagoda, which waited for me on the far side. The basin was a mild climb but was filled with boulder fields. Picking my way through was tedious – several times I ended up knee deep in snow that had blown up around the boulders.
Keyboard of the Winds
The wind in the basin was a steady 20-25 mph with gusts near 35mph. I felt truly alone up here on these mountains – and knew that I had to be careful from here to the summit, there was no help nearby and a fall, slip or sprained ankle would spell disaster. I finally arrived at the foot of Pagoda with The Spearhead and Chief’s Head to my right and the amazing Keyboard of the Winds to my left.
All that remained was the steep 1,500’ gully to the saddle that separates Longs Peak from Pagoda and then the short climb to the summit. This gully was a nightmare of a climb. It was steep and filled with loose scree and talus that kept sliding down with each step I took. Progress was slow and I had to put on my helmet because I was afraid of falling.
Gully to Pagoda
To make matters worse the wind increased and was now gusting much stronger than before – perhaps 45mph. The wind nearly knocked me over and down several times as I fought to keep my progressing moving upward.
After attaining the saddle ridge it was a short a quick climb to the summit. I had won the day as a solo climber. Sitting completely alone on the summit was a peaceful and amazing sensation. The views of Longs Peak were stunning and I wondered how we would fare on that monstrous rock in February.
The decent was long, difficult and slow. I arrived back at the trailhead after 10 hours of climbing happy to have accomplished what I had set out to do and knowing I would be back again to try some of the other peaks I had seen that day.
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