Walking Sidewalks in the Sky – Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Traverse date – June 18, 2016. Sometimes you just want to be out in the mountains. It’s about having a full day. You want to lose yourself in miles of engaging terrain with fantastic views. The Glacier Gorge Traverse is THAT day, 21.5 miles and 8,200′ of gain to be precise. It links incredible features and a multitude of moderate routes from Arrowhead (12,642’) to McHenrys (13,327′), McHenry’s to Chief’s Head (13,579′), Chief’s Head to Pagoda (13,497′), and finally Pagoda to the iconic Longs Peak(14,259′).
The journey starts from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. You head towards Alberta Falls and Mills Lake. At Mills Lake, the crowds disappear and you are in the mountains. You pass through meadows and tiptoe across alpine wetlands heading toward Black Lake. At Black Lake, you refill your water bottles and say goodbye to any fellow hikers who have made it this far. You are now surrounded by a cirque of massive walls, the crown of Rocky Mountain National Park, of which you will traverse its rim. Directly in front of you is Arrowhead, the first peak, and the start of your journey.
From Black lake you have two options to reach the start of the Arrowhead routes, up the climbers trail towards Spearhead (left) which lies in the middle of the cirque or up the ledges directly above the lake (right). In fall, the ledges are a pleasant class 4 start to the day. In the early season, when they are strewn with rock hard snow, it is a somewhat dangerous proposition in the early morning, adorned with trail runners. The climbers trail toward Spearhead winds you up to the base of Spearhead and places you on top of the 300’ cliff, from which a myriad of waterfalls tumble into Black Lake far below.
The summit ramp route is the most direct route to the top of Arrowhead and is on the peaks sunny South Face. Some fun slabs (low 5th class) provided what we thought to be the safest way onto the steep talus leading up to the headwall. At the headwall a ramp traverses out and to the left, follow this as it narrows and narrows. Almost at its end you pass beneath a large column fallen against the ramp and the wall. Pass beneath this fallen monolith and head straight up the short featured face for 40’ to gain the summit ramp (5.4ish). The summit ramp winds its way counterclockwise with amazing views, first of Longs and the cirque, and then back out the valley where your morning began in. Soon you find yourself deposited directly onto the summit of Arrowhead at 12,642’.
The day only gets better as you walk along the ridge crest towards McHenry’s northeast arête. The south face of Arrowhead falls away to your left with hundreds of feet of air below your feet. The northeast arête of McHenry’s is a hidden gem, remote and alpine. The scrambling is mostly just to the arêtes right, and whenever in doubt head back left towards the crest of the arête and its sweeping views of McHenry’s east face. The route’s brilliant rock is featured and while the face takes a shear drop to the left and the gully to the right still held plenty of snow, the arête leads cleanly upwards. We found each gendarme had a chimney corner on its backside that allowed easy downward access before you continue up again. As you near the top, the ridge broadens, but if you keep trending left it remains fun and steep landing you directly on top of McHenry’s at 13,327’. This is a pick your own adventure route, based on conditions and desire, if you go far right it might be class 4; alternatively, stay true to the crest of the arête and expect something more in the realm of 5.4.
From the top of McHenry’s follow the ridgeline down towards Chief’s Head and Stone Man Pass. We stayed to the ridge proper enjoying some great views, fun rock, and avoiding the snow filled scree gullies below. At Stone Man pass you are aiming for the obvious access gully leading up to the shoulder of Chiefs Head. You can drop down and climb the whole gully or better yet, stay on the ridge and some surprising ramps on the right side about 50’ below the crest will yield access to it at mid height. Topping out the gully, the terrain becomes the easiest it has been for quite a while. You absorb some great views of Longs and down Chiefs Head’s impressive northwest face as the ridge narrows and narrows until you are on a 10-foot wide crest and the summit of Chiefs Head at 13,579’.
From here, the crux of the route looms ahead, Pagoda’s west ridge. A quick descent takes you to the col separating the two peaks. Follow ledges out onto Pagoda’s north Face, trending upwards and staying towards the ridge passing several gendarmes. The rock has lichen but is solid and the climbing engaging at around 5.7. We ended up on the ridge between gendarmes twice, the second time, about halfway up the ridge we found the tatters of an old anchor. Turning the ridge here, a 5-foot wide ledge leads out onto the southwest face angling slightly down. A hundred yards or so along this ledge a chimney system appears to the left going back to the ridge. To the right of this chimney system fun cracks (a few low class 5 moves) provide a dry and fun option leading back up to the ridge and the summit at 13,497’.
The descent of Pagoda’s east ridge is an easy jot down large talus blocks depositing you on top of the Keyboard of the Winds. You either navigate the Keyboard of the Winds or move right onto the face to pass the cliff band in front of you, eventually ledges return you to the ridge and you cross the Keyhole route. At the Keyhole route either continue straight up the southwest ridge, or follow the Keyhole route to the summit of Longs at 14,259’.
The long journey back to the car now begins. Either reverse the Keyhole or take the Cable route down towards Stone Mountain (bonus summit, time and stoke meter permitting). If you summit Stone Mountain you can beeline down granite pass, skipping the switchbacks. Otherwise take the Keyhole trail to granite pass and jog down, closing your loop from the morning just above Alberta Falls, and your car shortly thereafter.
Disclaimer: The GPS tracks have been included for information purposes only. There are many ways to climb/run the Glacier Gorge Traverse. It is important to understand your own skills before pursuing this route.