| McHenrys Peak vis Stone Man Pass
The team: Brian, John, Cameron, Boyd, Dan
Route: Southeast ridge via Stone Man Pass
Trailhead: Glacier Gorge
Resources: Cooper’s scrambles book, and I know that Brian got some good beta on the angle of the approach to Stone Man Pass from Furthermore
Gear: Ice axe, crampons, helmet (several of our members did bring snowshoes, but I only regretted leaving them at home for the first hundred feet past Black Lake)
I’ve been visiting Glacier Gorge and the surrounding basins for longer than I can remember. When I was very young, my parents would use jellybeans as an incentive to lure my sister and me up to places like Alberta Falls or Nymph Lake. Up into my teens, family hikes up to Mills Lake, The Loch, or Ouzel Falls would occur several times every summer. These outings tapered off when I was in high school and college, but I started to visit again once I stated hiking regularly four years ago. As I gained endurance and competence, I continued to venture higher and higher. First came explorations up to Black Lake, Sky Pond, and the summit of Hallet Peak. Then, last year I explored Blue, Frozen, and Green Lakes and summited Chiefs Head Peak. I’ve enjoyed every visit to Glacier Gorge over the years; it’s served as a good bellwether for my continued development as a hiker.
I was, therefore, very excited when I received an invitation from Brian to join in on an attempt on Chiefs Head and McHenrys Peaks. He had secured a Saturday night reservation at the Glacier Gorge campsite, however I was unable to join in on the overnight festivities as I work Saturdays. Instead, I awoke to a 2 AM alarm, drove up to the trailhead, and started hiking at 3:30 under a sky painted with shooting stars and the faint haze of the Milky Way. I encountered no bears or lost tourists on the way up to the campsite and arrived just as headlamps were becoming unnecessary. Cameron greeted me upon my arrival, and the rest of the party was starting to stir.
We soon hit the trail and made our way up to Black Lake over alternating mud and packed snow. The “standard” trail up east from the lake into the upper gorge was covered with heavily crevassed snow thanks to the torrents of snowmelt flowing underneath, so we made our way up through the trees north of the creek and then over the rocks at the top until we could cross over and actually start making our way towards Stone Man Pass.
Arrowhead and McHenrys from the trail up to Black Lake.
Now, I would remiss if I failed to mention the spectacular views that one encounters high in Glacier Gorge. Arrowhead, McHenrys, Chiefs head, and Pagoda all present their best sides, and Longs stands sentinel above them all. Spearhead, thrusting out into the center of this magnificent cirque, looks simultaneously rugged and graceful in a way that makes it hard to imagine that it was crafted simply by the work of glaciers. One could spend all day taking in the scenery, but that would be fairly unproductive if one was on his or her way up to any of the surrounding summits.
I was staring over at Arrowhead all day. That connecting ridge to McHenrys looks pretty amazing.
The flats below Spearhead were far dryer than we expected, and we were able to follow cairns through the lurking willows and then up the rocky slabs below Frozen Lake. From there, it was continuous snow up to the pass and we switched to axe/crampons once the slope began to increase. We had been somewhat concerned about snow conditions with the relatively warm overnight low and the early sunshine on our route, but the snow in the final gully leading up to Stone Man Pass (35-40 degrees at its steepest) ended up being in good condition. Once we gained the pass, we admired the views and pondered our options.
Nearing the pass (photo credit: Boyd)
On the way up to Stone Man Pass (photo credit: Boyd)
Looking up towards McHenrys from Stone Man Pass. The summit remains hidden.
The first thing we noticed was that all of the mountains were holding more snow than we’d anticipated. Doing both of our planned thirteeners seemed out of the question in any reasonable amount of time, so we decided to focus our efforts on the nearer and more challenging McHenrys (Chiefs Head is, after all, easily approached from Sandbeach Lake). We picked our lines and ascended up to the first snowfield above the pass; some of us chose to head up the class 2 talus, and some of us enjoyed the scrambling on or near the ridge crest. Upon reaching the beginning of the snow, we discussed route choices while gearing back up. John decided to call it a day at this point, and settled down to enjoy the scenery while the rest of us continued on up.
Boyd stops to take a picture...
from this rock (photo credit: Boyd)
A closer look at the first real obstacles (photo credit: Brian)
The summer class 3 route wasn’t immediately evident, and we couldn’t see the final stretches up to the summit. In the end, we traversed across the top of the snowfield and scrambled up the nearest rocky outcropping. The snow was fairly solid and the scrambling was straightforward so we had our relatively easy access to the final gully standing between the summit and us.
There were some small tracks going along the top of the cornice. I do not have that nearly that magnitude of, uh, confidence. (photo credit: Boyd)
The team follows, with the distant Stone Man standing out against a snowy backdrop.
Briefly back on easier terrain. Longs looks pretty good from this side too.
From here, the difficulty increased dramatically. We appeared to have a choice between sustained class 4+ and steep snow. Cameron didn’t like either option and decided to turn around, while Boyd scampered up the rock. Brian and I pondered the rock, but eventually decided that we weren’t comfortable with the idea of down-climbing this section. Brian made the admirable decision to turn back at this point, not feeling up to the steepness of the snow. Knowing that the previous snowfield had felt pretty good to me, I decided to venture out a little ways and see if the conditions were similar here. Indeed, the snow was soft enough to allow for kicking steps while still firm enough to provide good security. Boyd continued up his line on the rock, and I made my way up the snow towards a class 3/4 line that looked reasonable to me.
From partway up Boyd's rocky route, looking back down at Brian and me (photo credit: Boyd)
And looking up... (photo credit: Boyd)
Can you spot the climbers? (photo credit: Brian)
Looking over at Boyd from my position
And Boyd's perspective on my route after leaving the snow (photo credit: Boyd)
When Boyd and I topped out on this stretch, we were ecstatic to see a cairn that looked awfully summit-like. We walked over the broad summit area to this cairn, confirmed that it was indeed the summit, and then snapped a few quick pictures before starting back down towards the rest of the team. We both agreed that down-climbing the snow seemed like the best option, and we were able to follow the well marked class 3 route down the west-ish side of the summit and around to the top of the steep snow slope.
Me hiking across the broad summit to check out the views to the north (photo credit: Boyd)
Sometimes I like taking pictures of people taking pictures
The snow remained solid, but the angle of the snow and the large drop behind us demanded intense focus. I slowly made my way down to about level with where I’d stepped onto the snow on the way up, and decided to traverse across back to that point as the snow was beginning to feel slightly softer and the angle steepened below me. After giving me a good head start, Boyd followed. Both of us made it across completely uneventfully, but it was definitely relieving to get back onto rock. From here, the way back to Stone Man Pass was relatively straightforward. Going back across that intervening snowfield certainly required our attention, but our team was soon reconvened at the top of the pass.
Starting my down-climb (photo credit: Boyd)
Boyd and me from Brian's vantage point (photo credit: Brian)
Continuing down... (photo credit: Boyd)
Below the pass, the snow was in excellent condition for plunge-stepping, and we descended uneventfully to Black Lake. On the way we found ourselves pausing often to admire the handiwork of glaciers (the peaks, the lakes, and also the awkwardly placed gigantic boulders) and chatting. Below Black Lake the trail was getting pretty slushy and we did pass a good number of hikers on the way back to the campsite.
Descending Stone Man Pass (photo credit: Boyd)
This boulder, for example (photo credit: Boyd)
Once at the campsite, I enjoyed a celebratory beverage while the others packed up their tents. The 3.5 miles back to the trailhead went quickly enough considering the warm temperatures and tired feet. We got back to our cars, and said our goodbyes.
Celebratory beverage! This is an excellent American brown ale - I can certainly see why it won gold at the GABF last year.
With the current conditions, McHenrys is the most difficult mountain that I’ve attempted to date. I’m proud that I was able to summit it without venturing outside of my comfort zone, and I also have a tremendous amount of respect for the members of my party who made the difficult decision to turn around on the way up. All in all, this was a tremendous and challenging day in one of my favorite places and I’m lucky that I was able to share it with a good group of guys. Brian and Cameron, it was great to get out with you again. John and Boyd, I really enjoyed meeting and hiking with both of you.
To the rest of you, thanks for reading!
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