The Giants of Glacier Gorge

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The Giants of Glacier Gorge – Longs, Pagoda, Chief’s Head, McHenry’s and Powell seen from Taylor’s summit.

Glacier Gorge 13er Ridge Run: Chief’s Head (13,579), McHenry’s (13,327), Powell (13,208), Taylor (13,153)

Trailhead: Glacier Gorge TH

Time and Distance: 16 miles, 6,500 vertical, 14 hours


Rocky Mountain National Park is a region of contrasts. Its boundary is home to many ridge runs, including, but not limited to, the Mummy Mania, Cloud Traverse in the Never Summers, the frighteningly loose Mahler to Nokhu Crags, a 12er fest along the Continental Divide from Ida to Terrah Tomah, Elk Tooth to Ogallala and the Grand Slam around the Longs Massif. Each of these have their own unique characteristic and they all make life feasible for those insatiable peak baggers who find solace on narrow knife edges, deep in the heart of the range.

With all those areas in mind, Glacier Gorge reigns supreme in the crap-your-pants-o-meter, both in an awe inspiring way and in a “if I lose my concentration here, they’ll need dental records to identify me” way. Right up there with the Ruby, Ice Lake, Upper Slate, and Cimarron Basins of the world, Glacier Gorge can be considered on another level. In addition to ridge runs and cool looking peaks, there are enough alpine rock routes to keep someone busy for a decade.

Ben and I, with summer winding down, needed a decent sized day to keep our minds from obsessing over the upcoming ski season. What ensued was us talking for 15 straight hours about the ski season, only difference was it wasn’t in the comforts of our cubicle. We left Denver at the ripe hour of 3:30am and were at the Glacier Gorge TH, hiking by 5:30am after a few quick errands. The drive, with no traffic, took 70 minutes flat.

For anyone who has ever researched the Glacier Gorge Traverse, you may have come across a trip report from Mountain Jim on Summitpost, only this guy went ahead and included Lady Washington, Storm, Longs and Pagoda to his day. All I’ve gotta say is whatever he was smoking, I would love to try some. I think he climbed for 27 hours straight. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. I’d like to edit that a tad and say that anyone who runs a ridge, solo, for 27 hours and 12,000 vertical is insane and incredibly badass. I imagine Jim had to find room on his passenger seat to rest his gigantic balls for the ride home. Bravo.

We agreed on something a tad more tame – Chief’s Head to Taylor. The approach in to Black Lake was like any other. We found the cracked rock, notifying us of the shortcut and arrived at the lake about 90 minutes later.

The weather, as the forecast stated, was flawless, so we took some time to enjoy the serenity of the lake, taking some reflection shots and admiring some local falls, before filtering a crap load of water for our 13er ridge fest.

We reached the upper basin below Spearhead via a little shortcut that went straight from Black Lake basically and we got our first solid views of our objective for the day, as well as a nice panorama of the Mummy Range

Mummy Range panorama.

Spearhead and Chief’s Head.

The views of Keyboard of the Winds, Chief’s Head and McHenry’s from this vantage point are surreal. When one thinks of big walls in Colorado, they think Diamond Face. While that may very well be crown jewel, the North Faces of Chief’s Head, Spearhead, Pagoda and McHenry’s are no slouch, as is the Southern ramparts of Arrowhead across the way. This is glaciation at its very finest, some of the rock features look like something straight off a Tim Burton set.

Chief’s Head Peak.

We made way for what we thought was the standard route on Chief’s Head (I will refer to this peak as “Da Chief” for the rest of this TR). Gerry Roach is a man of many distinctions, but something he lacks is accuracy at times. There are 2 things I’d like to point out in his vintage, hand held 1987 publication of his “Classic Hikes and Climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park” guidebook. The standard route on Da Chief from Black Lake is NOT Class 3 and the Andrews Glacier is NOT 20 degrees. I haven’t been climbing for 1/10 as long as he, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who have taken the time to relay these gems of the state to us getting in to this hobby, but these are 2 things I thought I’d point out.

Back to the climb, we soon found ourselves on a rather complex and very exposed ramp leading up to a notch. To be honest, we never really tried to gain the true Stone Man Pass, so whatever terrain we got in to was our own fault. We saw a notch closer up towards Chief Head’s summit and figured we’ll get to that notch, or die trying. For some reason, that was our mentality.

Broadway-esque ramp.

Ben described this as a wider version of Broadway on Long’s and probably 500 feet less of exposure. Your body would still probably explode upon impact if you fell from here, so caution was taken of course. At one point we got cliffed out and a mutual agreement on an awkward, 5.5/5.6 move was required to reach higher ground. Ben had approach shoes on and made the move with ease. I looked like a socially awkward Silverback Gorilla at an exhibit at the zoo, not knowing whether he should show off for the crowd or actually try to focus, so he doesn’t break his neck.

Primate behavior aside, we reached some sort of notch, under the 3 genadarmes mentioned in Roach’s book and it was class 2+ snow covered scrambling to the summit ridge from there. The ridge was actually quite narrow in spots coming from the West. There was a sheer cliff on either side, but the catwalk remained at class 2 the whole way, just a really exciting area.

Around 4.5 hours after our departure, we were standing atop Da Chief, with some others who had come up from Sandbeach Lake. The views from here were pretty sweet, its pretty cool when you can actually look, and marvel at Longs. It’s just a ridiculously big rock, like a North American version of Ayers Rock, except instead of 1,000 degenerates using a cable line to hike up a sacred monument, there are 1,000 degenerates hiking up the Keyhole Route.

The Keyhole.

Looking south towards the southern boundary of RMNP.

Chief’s Head summit with Mt. Alice in the background.

We spent a solid 30 minutes on the summit, actually probably spent 30 minuts on every summit, except for Taylor, which we spent 30 seconds on. The downclimb to Stone Man Pass was methodical, but after numerous trips to the Gores this summer, it really didn’t seem to dampen any spirits. McHenry’s loomed above in the blue sky of a glorious Rocky Mountain afternoon.

McHenry’s Peak.

Roach refers to McHenry’s as one of the tougher peaks in the park to climb by its standard route. What it really is is just a pile of splintered rock, no tougher than class 3 and the summit is surprisingly big and flat. A really cool vantage point. Neither of us remember much about the ascent up McHenry’s, we were too busy mindlessly quoting Braveheart, with really bad Scottish accents, as well as reminiscing of our glory days back in high school.

We reached McHenry’s summit around 2 hours after leaving Da Chief. We kind of skimped on food rations on this day for some reason, went overboard on the fluids, not so much on the food. We did have a sleeve each of Pringles, myself mixing it up with the Ranch flavor and Ben striking out with Pizza flavor. It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t good. I also had a big bar of chocolate and refueled on that, along with a 32 ounce bottle of the Dew, which revived whatever spirit I had lost so far that day, as well as Ben’s.

Chasm near McHenry’s summit.

You probably know what this is.

We made for Powell. This is when things got interesting. Pagoda to Da Chief, so I hear, is, by far, the toughest part of the Glacier Gorge Traverse, from a technical standpoint. From what I’ve read, you need to know where the F your rap stations are….or else. While McHenry’s to Powell isn’t nearly as complex, it threw us a curve ball, that’s for sure.

It first started with a snow covered, knife edge, which are always fun. Ben took the lead…

And I was busy taking shots of what an alpine cheese grader looks like, had we taken a fall, on either side of the ridge.

Exposure to the north.

Exposure to the south.

We hadn’t even reached the mandatory rappels before finding an exposed, legitimate, mandatory 5th class move on to a big ass rock that was basically balancing itself on the knife. Of course we didn’t know this till we (or shall I say Ben) climbed on top of it and back down the other side.

Knife edge scrambling.

With my hiking boots, Vibram soles just weren’t enough to overcome this obstacle, plus I was low on TP, so I took the easier ledge route, below the knife edge.

The ridge route is above, the ledge route is below.

Soon after this, we reached mandatory rap terrain. From what I’ve read of Mtn Jim’s TR on Summitpost, the guy doesn’t sound entirely human in his climbing abilities. What he downplays is the down climb to McHenry’s Notch. Ben and I were thrilled to have a rope, a 60 meter one at that. To be honest, I’m not sure how one could down climb this terrain. In all seriousness, bring a rope. If some old timer from 14er World or LOJ, who has over 1,000 peaks to his name and somewhere along the way kind of lost his ability to get scared, gets on here and disagrees with me, saying this section can be down climbed, do yourself a favor and pay no attention. Forget my opinion, Benners never backs down from a crap your pants down climb and he was quite content bringing it out on this section. All I can say about that. We rapped down the first section, pretty much using the entire length of the 60 meter, finding a huge anchor, using webbing (about 15 feet) and a rap ring.

We landed on a nice, comfortable ledge, but still had another 120 feet or so to go to reach the saddle. After downclimbing some moderately sketchy terrain, we finally found a nice rock horn to throw 2 slings around and thread the rope straight through them, easily reaching the ground.

With the main difficulties of the ridge run behind us, we quickly gathered up the rope and made way for Powell’s summit. The only interesting things I can say about the rest of the ridge to Powell and Taylor was the final upclimb next to a snowfield en route to Powell.

Nearing the summit of Powell.

And the wide open tundra run from Powell to Taylor, which was a much welcomed reprieve from the tedious climbing of the day. I believe we reached Taylor’s summit around 5:15pm, touched the top, took this shot, and were off for Andrew’s Glacier and the descent.

There was something calming about that descent, being that far away from our car in such a grand setting, in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park at sunset. We were fortunate to have such amazing weather. In one day, we saw Black Lake, all the monoliths of Glacier Gorge, the Thatchtop-Powell Traverse, McHenry’s Notch, views of Powell’s and Taylor’s North Faces, the Petit Grepon, Sharkstooth, ran in to a family of Bull Elk at Loch Vale and experienced a 500 foot glissade on Andrew’s Glacier. Can’t ask for much more than that.

To elaborate on that, we reached Andrew’s Glacier….

And realized that Roach was not using an inclinometer on the day he measured that snowfield. It was NOT 20 degrees and we left our ice axes in the car. Fortunately, it was mellow enough for a slightly exciting foot glissade, with a sharkstooth shaped rock as an axe. We took this route cause hiking all the way around to Flattop sounded incredibly unappealing.

We made it to Andrew’s Tarn, ate the rest of our food and water and prepared to hoof it back to the car. Despite the fading daylight, the views of Sharkstooth were out of control….

And the sunset made for a nice end to a special day.

We ran in to the resident Bull Elk family, I’m pretty sure it’s the same clan I saw at Black Lake the year before. Most of them are a cordial bunch, but the alpha male must have his gonads tied in a knot, cause he is one pissed off hombre. On this evening, he was displaying a positive attitude and granted us safe passage. We told him what we had done that day and he must have recognized we weren’t national park gapers who were going to gape at him and his family like they were UFOs. It was a mutual respect between two climbers and a full racked beast. This was good, cause neither of us really felt like getting gored on this particular night.

Anyways, not a hour later, after we had just recognized the solid pace we had been making thus far, we heard voices in the woods, crying for help. As luck would have it, we were the last hikers out that day and happened to stumble upon a family of 6 from Longmont, who lost the trail back around the junction to Black Lake and Loch Vale. Armed with a bic lighter and light from their iPhones, they were thrilled to find people with headlamps. I won’t get in to details, or my opinion on the matter, but they were lucky we strolled through when we did, they were NOT prepared to spend a night out there.

At the risk of ending this TR on a bad note, I’ll leave that one be. Needless to say, we both have a new found respect for the Glacier Gorge region and have a lot more exploring to do in the future. Thanks for reading.