Peak(s):  Arrowhead - 12,380 feet
Date Posted:  07/26/2012
Modified:  10/06/2012
Date Climbed:   07/26/2012
Author:  MtnHub
Additional Members:   unclegar
 A Glacier Gorge Escapade  

A Glacier Gorge Escapade - Escapade #3

Attempt of Arrowhead and McHenrys Peak
July 26, 2012

Glacier Gorge Trailhead (9,180')
Climbers: MtnHub, unclegar (Gary)

Estimated Length: 12 miles
Estimated Elevation gain: 2,250'

Starting Time: ~0400
Return Time: ~1400


I've climbed Longs Peak several times. I enjoy climbing it so much I've made it an annual event every year when my wife and I spend our last week of vacation in Estes Park. Descending the Trough and crossing the Ledges, the views into Glacier Gorge are phenomenal. McHenrys Peak especially sticks out across the Gorge. During my last few climbs, I've frequently wondered about the possibilities of ascending it.

McHenrys Peak from the upper part of the Trough (taken July, 2010).

During this past year I discovered a few trip reports describing a route up this gem. One even offered the added bonus of first climbing Arrowhead, a connecting 12er, via a couple of major ramps on its southern face. This gave access to McHenrys Peak by first descending down Arrowhead's sharp arete (the top of the spectacular "Wave") to the saddle and then climbing up another one to McHenrys' summit. I definitely wanted a partner for this and Gary had agreed to attempt these peaks with me to close out my 2012 vacation.

This climb has a fairly long approach to it. Starting from the Glacier Gorge parking area it requires nearly a five-mile hike to Black Lake in the upper part of the basin before the real scrambling begins. Earlier this spring when I was doing research on the climb, I discovered that this area of the Park had suffered a severe windstorm resulting in many downed trees, especially just below Black Lake. There were reports of the trail being completely occluded in some cases and getting through or around them would require heroic efforts.

Shortly after my wife and I arrived in Estes Park, I drove up to the Visitors Center and inquired about the current status. The rangers thought the trail crews had mostly finished their work back there, but they couldn't guarantee that it was entirely clear to the Lake. There still might be a few trees down that we would have to get around somehow. I wanted to see this for myself in the daylight so I could better determine how difficult it would be to do in the dark.

I had also read about a shortcut trail cutting off about a mile from the popular standard trail that passes by Alberta Falls. Since I wanted to be at Black Lake by dawn's first light, we would have to find this trail in the dark as well with only our headlamps to guide us. Rather than risk missing this secondary trail and losing precious time the day of our climb, I took this hike up to Black Lake on one of my "rest" days just to see it in the daylight and get it familiar in my mind.

I found the hike up to Black Lake to be fairly easy. It pretty much parallels Glacier Creek all the way with only a slight rise in elevation. Passing over several large rock slabs, you can sometimes lose the trail on the other side even in daylight. If this happens, I found it best to just aim slightly to the right (west) closer to the stream and you will eventually discover the trail again.

Above Mills Lake the trail levels off a bit through a marshy area as it goes around the east side of Jewel Lake. Elevated wooden planks have been laid here, but several of them were rotted out a bit, especially at their ends. A little care needed to be taken to avoid stepping on the iron spikes which were now exposed and sticking straight up 3-4" above the decayed wooden fibers.

Just below Black Lake you pass through thick forest again and it was here that the storm damage was quite evident.

Evidence of the wind damage.

The work crews had done an amazing job of almost cutting a tunnel through the fallen trees. The trail was completely intact again thanks to their hard work.
Trail crew's hard work.

Hats off to the trail crews!

Even though the trail was completely clear again, I was glad I hiked it during daylight hours. I felt much more confident that we would not lose the trail in the morning's early hours.

The Climb:

Since we were coming from different parts of Estes Park, Gary and I met at a parking lot at the SE corner of town. I transferred my gear to his vehicle and then we drove over to the Beaver Meadows entrance the RMNP. The drive up to the Glacier Gorge parking lot didn't take long. Because it was pre-dawn, we weren't affected by the road construction that is still taking place there. We arrived at the parking lot around 4am. It appeared to be a super day with stars still shining brightly in the sky above.

Two other climbers had arrived shortly before us and were just getting ready for their trip. They were loaded up in full climbing gear and told us they were planning to climb The Sharkstooth, a technical spire just east of the Continental Divide at the end of the Loch Vale.

We left the parking lot a few minutes after them, starting down the wide pathway. This area is a popular place for park visitors and as a result the trail is well maintained for the first few miles. When we hit the first trail junction after only a little ways, I already became confused. Even though I just did this same hike 3 days prior, it was still easy to get disoriented in complete darkness. We initially took the wrong route but I recognized this quickly and we turned around and found the correct one.

The shortcut occurs immediately after the 4th water crossing. Fortunately, this was easy to find even with our headlamps and we continued following this trail for about another mile. It passes between the Glacier Knobs and we eventually met up with the main trail again. But we didn't stay on this very long as the branch to Mills Lake arrived shortly thereafter.

We made good time on the Mills Lake trail and by the time it was light enough to turn our lamps off, we had almost reached Black Lake. Just above the falls at the north end of the lake, I found the logs that allowed us to cross over to the west side.

There was now no real trail anymore. The vegetation close to the lake is pretty thick, so we had to do a little bushwhacking. It was slow going for a little while until we found a boulder-filled gully that provided an easier way to ascend. We were finally out of the trees and we could then see sunshine lighting up the unique towers of Arrowhead above us.
Arrowhead in the sunlight.

Looking back down at Black Lake from the same place.

Gary continuing to climb the boulder gully.

Stopping for a photo shoot, I looked over to our left and studied the terrain carefully. I could identify The Stone Man, the landmark rock chimney, and Stone Man Pass, the little dip just to the right of it. We were hoping to come down that way after hitting the summit of McHenrys Peak. I had read that finding a good route down some of those slick slabs could be a bit tricky.
Looking over at The Stone Man and Stone Man Pass.

Gary also studying it.

Gary climbing up the boulders; Black Lake in the background.

As the summit grew closer we could see 2 shelves holding grass and shrubs. I was hoping the upper one would be the access ramp that would take us over to the summit ramp, the gully leading us up to the top. The report I had read regarding this route had only a few photos with it but they looked quite unique and I thought they would be hard to miss.

(Note the smooth slabs leading up to the second shelf)


From a higher perspective, I once again looked over at our anticipated descent route from Stone Man Pass. I could better see the slick slabs that would require some careful route finding. I then thought it might be easier and safer to just take the longer and more gradual route below The Spearhead and then down and around to the eastern drainage gully into Black Lake.

The Spearhead with Pagoda (L) and Chiefs Head (R) behind it.

The drainage gully into Black Lake (lower L) with Longs Peak, Keyboard of the Winds, & Pagoda.

A closer view of the eastern drainage gully down into Black Lake.

For the next hour or two Gary and I searched for access to that upper grassy ledge. The report I had read said it would only require an occasional class 3 climbing but everything we found looked much more difficult. We tried a few places where it had to be at least a difficult class 4 if not lower class 5 moves. The smooth rock face offered no easy way to ascend, And even if we did make it up and found ourselves dead-ended, it would be even more dangerous to go back down without a rope.

We searched farther around the NE side with no success as well. We finally concluded the ramp we were seeking was more on the south face and farther to our left. But from our perspective it just wasn't very apparent and there certainly was not any place where we could access it from where we stood.

No easy access to the west of us.

After failing to find a safe way to gain any more elevation, we debated our options. We had consumed the better part of the morning trying to locate the correct route up Arrowhead. It would turn into a very long day to try a different route at this stage, so we decided to simply return home. Although not giving me any real pain, both of my knees and parts of my legs were still retaining fluid and were slightly swollen inhibiting flexion. A killer hiking day would probably not be in the best interest for them.

We began our descent back down to Black Lake around 10:30. I was the first to arrive at the Lake a little after 11am, so I munched on some snacks while I waited for Gary to join me.

About halfway down to the Lake.

Black Lake at the beginning of the trail.

Looking north into Glacier Gorge; Halfmoon Mountain near center.

One last wistful look at McHenrys Peak.

Ribbon Falls just below Black Lake.

The return trip went quickly. We met several groups of hikers along the way, some going all the way to Black Lake, others just stopping at Mills Lake as their destination. Here we also made a brief stop just long enough to photograph this scenic lake.

Beautiful Mills Lake framed by the Glacier Gorge skyline.

Although the climb had been unsuccessful in not making either summit, I still enjoyed hiking in one of the most beautiful places in the Park. I was blessed with having perfect weather and an excellent partner plus I arrived home safely and without injury. For this I'm very thankful! And God willing, I'll be back to try it again next year!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Better safe than sorry
09/03/2012 04:01
seemed to be our motto this year...and I'm o.k. with that. Good getting out with you again this year, Doug. Though we didn't make it to any summits we DID enjoy two beautiful days in the Colorado mountains. (if only everyone was that fortunate) 8)

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