| The Alberta Falls Massacre
Peak: Pagoda Mountain
Tale of the Tape: 12.6 miles and 4400 vertical (shortcutting here and there)
Partners in high-altitude crime: lordhelmut | wooderson
We were somewhere around Estes when the IPAs began to take hold.
Wooderson, lordhemut, and I had been kicking around a trip to Rocky Mountain NP for several weeks. I told helmut I liked to close the summer climbing season with some easy car camping up in Moraine Park. You know the routine: A good climb, nice fire, dinner at Ed's Cantina. Endless beers, starry skies, talk of future plans. The usual flirtations with immortality. Helmut said he was in and we were on our way.
But the drive through town is often the crux of any RMNP trip.
The main drag in Estes is nothing short of a motorized colostomy. You've got RVs and exhaust plumes, elk jams, dead-end trinket shops, caffeinated kids and bickering marriages on every street corner. The smell of deep-fried wickedness saturates the air. There are credit card swipes, cash register zings and all manner of price-tag gimmicks ready to ensnare you. The place is crawling with vacant-eyed tourists and professional a--holes. Everyone appears to be going somewhere but they're really going nowhere. You wanna know what it's like to be on the set of a George Romero flick? Check this place out on a Saturday afternoon in August.
Back to the task at hand: The initial plan was that Pagoda Mountain was the prize and anything else would be gravy. But in the days leading up to the trip, bravado made its presence known. Pagoda morphed into Pagoda and McHenrys. And if we get to McHenrys, we might as well go on to Powell. And if we add Powell, we might as well tack on Thatchtop. Rope and harnesses, raps and belays, traverses, downclimbs, bushwhacks and infinite energy. Never mind what the total vertical might entail because everything is possible at 5,280 with the sun in your eyes and a beer in your hand.
The Glacier Gorge trailhead is a ghost town at 5 AM. Crisp, still, real. While all of the tourists are resting up for breakfast, we prepare for departure. Last-minute doses of caffeine, sunblock application, food, gear, bear spray (this last item due to the fact that Helmut's friend was charged multiple times by a bull elk near Black Lake a week ago and he doesn't want to take any chances. I myself was charged multiple times by a guy from Michigan when he saw my pepperoni, provolone and pickle sandwich near Alberta Falls a year ago… I don't want to take any chances either).
We make quick work of the pre-dawn trail, but the approach is not without some weirdness. On several occasions we walk through pockets of balmy air that stops us in our tracks. It's as though there are space heaters tucked in the trees giving off intermittent currents of warmth.
"Did you feel that?"
"I don't know. Is that Rod Serling behind that tree?"
"Where's the pepper spray?"
"Let's get the hell out of here..."
Breakfast at Mills Lake. Water re-supply at Black Lake. The wind picks up and we make it to 11,000 on a solid trail. Helmut mentions a previous trip involving Arrowhead, McHenrys, and The Spearhead. I get dizzy just watching him draw the ascent and descent routes across the skyline.
Ants in The Trough. Lots of ants. We pass below Longs Peak and aim for a gully near the end of Keyboard of the Winds. There appears to be a mess of people on Longs and I'm thankful to be watching from a distance. We marvel at the scenery around us. This is a very special place.
The gully is 1,000 feet of nastiness: Ball-bearing scree, break-neck kitty litter on hardpan, dinner plate talus, slabs of class 3 relief, not to mention the occasional television- and microwave-sized missile at the ready. Fortunately there is nobody below us so our stress is minimal. The towers of Keyboard of the Winds loom large as we approach the top.
Near 13,100 feet, I step on a rock the size of a welcome mat and it goes perpendicular on me, smashing my shin. I've had my share of ankle-snappers before, but nothing like this. I feel the pain in my teeth and gums, lose my breath, my leg goes all sewing-machine on me. Profanities flow from my lips with venom. Instant blood and swelling. Thankfully, I can put weight on it.
We talus-hop for 400 feet and reach the summit. Unbelievable views. Longs, The Loft, Meeker. Sandbeach Lake, Chiefs Head, Copeland, Alice. McHenrys, Arrowhead, Thatchtop. Blue Lake, Green Lake, total sensory overload. We eat and snooze and dream the morning away, checking out familiar names in the summit register. Wind gusts approach 20 mph but we've got good rock cover. I don't want to leave.
We drop down to Green Lake and observe multiple rope teams on The Spearhead. We listen to their muffled shouts as we test the icy waters with our hands.
Lordhelmut: I should've brought my bathing suit.
Papillon: It'd be pretty cool if LoJ had a list of lakes for crazy high-altitude swimmers.
We call it a day right there.
Lordhelmut insists that we use the rope he carried all this way, so wooderson gets an impromptu rappel in on the way back to Black Lake while I head down to filter water. About a half mile below the lake there is a massive bull elk just off the trail. We give him a wide berth. A very wide berth. He's sizing us up. I turn and lordhelmut is brandishing the pepper spray like the .44 Caliber Killer. Ultimately, the elk decides we are not worth the effort. Thank frigging god.
Several miles later we approach Alberta Falls. The place is packed with tourists. I turn and lordhelmut has his pepper spray at the ready again. Look out...
What happened next is a blur: Somebody asks me to take their picture. People start crowding around. Some guy grabs lordhelmut's hat and he unloads with the counter-assault spray. There are screams and shouts. Footsteps and mass chaos. Coughing, wheezing, itchy red eyes. A guy yells that he is going to get a ranger and takes off. I grab some old bag's cinnamon roll breakfast and drop him from 25 yards with a direct hit to the neck. He tumbles into the creek like a sack of potatoes. Soon there are rangers, cops, horses and handcuffs.
That night, we try to put the pieces back together at Ed's Cantina over pints of Dale's.
Lordhelmut: We'll probably get banned for life.
Wooderson: Do you think it'll help if I tell the judge I still need McHenrys?
All in all, it was a pretty rock n' roll 48 hours. Our court date is scheduled for October 11 and legal fees will probably be pretty stiff. Can anyone spare a dime?
Breakfast at Mills Lake
Keyboard of the Winds
The top of the gully
Blue Lake and a distant Mills Lake
Gratuitous rope shot (Longs in background)
Meeker and The Loft
The slick get slicker...
Woulda shoulda coulda stashed beer in Black Lake
I'll give you $20 if you stick your bare foot in that hole.
A feast of friends
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