It was Tuesday, September 22st, 2015, when I set off from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead for a summit attempt on Pagoda Mountain in the Park. Due in part to the B.S. at work these days though, I had not bagged a single peak all summer. So this difficult route up Pagoda was probably not my best choice for a season warm up. I wanted it though, and the season was closing fast, so here I was.
I was not acclimatized for much over 11,000 feet, so knowing I would be dragging above timberline, I set off nice and early, at 4:15 AM. Two hours later, at 6:15, I was at Black Lake and was finally able to turn off my headlamp for the hike back into the upper Glacier Gorge. I was 7:15 AM when I stopped for this shot of Pagoda Mountain and the nasty loose scree and rubble slope I would be ascending.
After taking the above photo, and while I was still deciding how I was going to pick my way through the broken cliffs and slabs on Pagoda’s lower slopes, I turned for this shot of Spearhead on my right, still well blocked from the sun by Longs Peak.
I was through the lower cliff and slab band and into the roughly 1,000 vertical feet of the nastiest scree and rubble slope I could remember, when I stopped for a break and a shot of Chiefs Head Peak to the West. The day was plagued with a thin overcast cloud layer, so every once in a while when the sky did clear a little, I had to get what shots I could wherever I was on the route. It was now 8:25 AM, and I was re-evaluating my desire for the summit with every step - this slope sucks!
Getting some good shots of the Keyboard of the Winds Ridge was a big factor in my desire to summit Pagoda, but with the semi-overcast sky and the unavoidable morning shade from Longs Peak on my east side, I wasn’t getting the shots I had hoped for. Plus, the question dominating my thoughts at that point was, "What’s it going to be like trying to get back down this mess?!" The rocks and gravel shifted and slid with almost every step. Avoiding an ankle injury, or worse, was really going to be a challenge. What looked like trails all over the place were not; more likely, they were created by the flow of water during the spring snowmelt. With my early start though, I had plenty of time for each carefully chosen step.
At 9:07 AM, I stopped for a needed breather and noticed a great view of the lakes down below: Blue Lake (above and east of Black Lake - not visible), and then Jewel Lake followed by Mills Lake. You can also see a little of the fall aspen colors in the distance. I felt lucky to have such a nice day, especially this late in the season, and the temperature was perfect for this kind of strenuous activity.
Still taking my breather, I noticed the distant sound of voices, so I looked up and realized they were coming from hikers going up the Keyhole route on Longs Peak. With a tight zoom, I was able to get some shots of the group gathering in the Keyhole itself. Last year, taking a similar shot from Chiefs Head Peak, I unknowingly caught a helicopter in the picture performing a body recovery. While this is not a technically hard section, a slip can be deadly.
I finally reached the Keyboard of the Winds Ridge at 9:50 AM, where I took this shot looking up the ridge towards Longs Peak. I have always wanted to traverse this ridge from Longs to Pagoda, but after fighting my way up Pagoda’s scree north slope, and looking at the rubble on this ridge, I couldn’t see myself doing it. It looked like a nightmare. My imagination conjured up visions of surfing 1,000 vertical feet down the south side of the ridge on a rock avalanche. It’s probably not as bad as that though, and looking at the picture, it almost looks like there’s a light trail along the ridge.
Looking west up at Pagoda now, it appeared to be fun moderate 3rd class climbing from the ridge saddle to the summit. I was still suffering from the stress of the scree slope though, and wasn’t enjoying the thought of this finish as much as I should have been. After a few minutes I started to relax a little, feeling the more stable rock on the ridge. I topped out at 10:24 AM and took this shot showing the summit register canister (minus the register) and the summit cairn. The battle was half over; now, I just had to get back down.
After putting on my rain jacket to block the nippy summit breeze, I eat an early lunch and took a few more pictures of the surrounding area. This picture looks across to the Keyboard of the Winds Ridge up to Longs Peak, and then down Longs’ North Ridge to Storm Peak - another 13er at 13,326 feet elevation.
The descent was long and a little tense in spots, but my GPS made it fairly easy to backtrack down through the lower broken cliffs and slabs. By the time I got down on solid ground, about 1:00 PM, I had to stop and tend to a few blisters before going any further. Now I had only the long three-hour hike back down to the trailhead to go. Below Black Lake, my two-liter Platypus ran out, and I had to stop to pump another liter. Somewhere in this area, I looked up at the fall colors on the west side of the river and noticed a small waterfall which made a great final shot for the day.
Three days later, on a drive up Old Fall River Road and down Trail Ridge Road with our grandchildren, Auguste and Scarlett, I had to stop and take this shot looking out into the Glacier Gorge at Longs Peak and Pagoda Mountain. While the haze from Denver and smoke from the fires burning throughout the western U.S. are hard to ignore, it's still a shot worth finishing this page with.
The GPS recorded a total distance of 12.08 miles, a total elevation gain of 3,964 feet, and a max elevation of 13,526 feet above sea level (only 29 feet off of the official summit height of 13,497 feet). The entire trip took a mere 12 hours and 12 minutes.
National Park Service - Climbing and Mountaineering in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks
U.S. National Parks Net - Rocky Mountain National Park Hiking Guide