Peak(s):  McHenrys Peak  -  13,327 feet
Date Posted:  03/10/2019
Modified:  03/11/2019
Date Climbed:   08/15/2002
Author:  flyingmagpie
 Climbing McHenry's Peak   

I first climbed McHenry’s Peak in August, 2002. It was on that climb that I realized my apprenticeship on the Park 13ers had entered a new phase of development. I was no longer training to be a mountaineer. On the summit of McHenry’s, I realized I had actually become a mountaineer. What I needed to do from then on was to continue learning to be a better mountaineer. I was growing through my journey.

I would advise everyone who is considering climbing McHenry’s to assess honestly if you are truly ready for this peak. Why? Well, let me quote Gerry Roach here. Roach writes simply and unequivocally: “McHenry’s Peak is the most difficult peak over 13,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park and is a test piece for peak baggers.” Let me repeat some of that for emphasis: the most difficult peak. More difficult than Longs, Meeker, Pagoda. In the whole park. There are no bull’s eyes painted on rocks to guide you up McHenry’s. If you are lucky and look sharp, as I did, you might spot some cairns in key places that will help guide you. I’ll never forget something Teresa Gergen told me on our climb up Longs from the Loft: “When I find cairns, I am always inclined to follow them.” Her sharp eyes always spotted them first, then she showed them to me. Teresa, not me, figured out the Clark’s Arrow route we used for that climb, and put us both smack dab on top of it quickly. Thank you, Teresa!

Walter Fricke, in his climbers (no apostrophe) guide to the park, hedges on Gerry’s position by writing of McHenry’s: “This 13,327 foot peak has the reputation for being the most difficult peak in the Park. It is, nonetheless, ascended more frequently than either Chiefshead or Pagoda.” I personally believe, though, that Gerry’s advice is the wisest here. I would explain Walter’s equivocation by saying that McHenry’s is climbed more often because if you are up to it, and succeed, the peak gives you a wonderfully wild ride that will leave you dead tired, limp as a dishrag, but as happy any climber can be after achieving something that isn’t easy at all.

I say the ride is wild because first of all, if you get yourself into trouble here, you are a long way from help. Black Lake is the point from which you are just beginning your climb of this peak, and Black Lake is already nearly five miles from the closest trailhead. Black Lake is just a hike. Only by going beyond Black do you finally begin your climb.

Tourists do hike successfully to Black Lake. Just below the lake, heading up one time, I encountered a tourist descending. “There’s a moose at the lake!” he told me excitedly. “Oh?” I asked. This was before one single moose had ever been sighted on the east side of the Park. Moose had vanished from all of Colorado long ago. Around 1978, State wildlife officials had transplanted 24 bulls and 24 cows into the North Park area. The first Park sighting of a wandering moose had occurred a couple years later on the West Side. By 2002, sightings had become pretty common in the Kawuneeche Valley on the West Side, where Trail Ridge Road descends from the Continental Divide toward Grand Lake. No moose had ever been seen on the East Side of the Park until about 2008. A moose at Black Lake in 2002 would have been an extraordinary development. “Yes,” he assured me. “It’s right above the lake. You can’t miss it. It’s the first moose I have ever seen!” When I got to the lake, of course, I found a cow elk grazing green grass peacefully near the shore.

Few tourists actually venture beyond Black Lake. Many of the few who do sometimes just turn around soon because they believe there is not much to see up on that high alpine bench of rock below Longs and the Keyboard of the Winds, and Pagoda, and the other great peaks across that magnificent high cirque. To me, that high basin holds more starkly pure and savage beauty than any place else in the Park. If God himself could live anywhere on earth, I believe he would live up there.

Venturing that high is not for the faint of heart. I used to take my good Pentax 35mm single lens reflex camera up there specifically to work with that scenery! And, also to work with the many waterfalls along the way. This is a terrific hike. Let me share three of my shots with you. After these three, nearly all of the photos in this trip report are only informational shots taken with my smaller, lighter, easier to carry Pentax IQZoom just to show you what views you will pass along your approach to McHenry's.

The Wizard's Hat. Spearhead in Profile.
It was a day in which tendrils of mist were enveloping various things in the high cirque. It was a magical day. The two climbers above the left corner are
bound for Pagoda, as was I. They climbed to the right of the ascent couloir. I climbed to the left. I found good solid rock there. Every so often on our ascent
they would holler "Rock" to warn any climbers who might be below. After we descended, which we did on our separate choices of routes, we chatted a bit
at the base of Pagoda. They said they had encountered a lot more loose rock on their route than I did on mine.

Waterfalls above Black Lake.
It is early in the climbing season. I probably wore snowshoes to get here. That is MicHenry's, and its famous
"Notch" above the falls. Note the dangerous snow cornice ready to let loose filling the top of the Notch.

Frozen Lake.
It's a bit later in the climbing season than the photo above this. Icebergs. Chief's Head rises up from the lake.

There are two things you don’t want to do above Black Lake. The first is to fall and hurt yourself. If you hurt yourself badly enough, you won’t be able to self-rescue because you’re too far back into true wilderness. And it is unlikely that some passing hiker will find you soon. The second thing you don’t want to do is get yourself caught up here by a lightning storm. I learned these two facts the hard way by doing each of them myself in turn at different points during my Park climbing career.

Luckily, when I hurt myself badly here, I could still walk out. Let me explain.

There is a bald face of rock not far above Black Lake that the trail up the cirque directly crosses. You could easily hike above the rock. But by this point on your climb you will probably be a bit tired already, and I, like most climbers, am always tempted to just walk across the rock. I’ve walked across many short rock faces just like this one, and I’ve walked across this one many times. When this rock becomes wet, it becomes very slick. It would be best to hike up to the grassy slope above it, cross there, then descend back to the trail on the other side. One day climbing above Black Lake I had been turned around by a slight sprinkle of rain that I figured might actually turn into a lightning storm. I was hurrying down the trail get back into the trees below and put myself out of harm’s way. Hurrying, instead of hiking above, I attempted to cross the rock. I didn’t make it. My feet rocketed out from under me, and I fell hard, landing on my right side. Immediately, I slid down the rock until my boot soles hit the bed of the creek below, and stopped my slide. Right away, I felt the pain. I knew I had probably cracked some ribs. That’s what I thought at the time. I didn’t realize I had broken some. I didn’t find that out until years later, much older, when I had a full spinal x-ray performed in a chiropractic office. “What happened here?” the chiropractor asked me immediately after he put the x-ray up against the light board he used to examine x-rays. He pointed to what even I could recognize as a clean line of breakage healed long ago down many ribs along my right side. “I fell climbing,” was all I could say to him.

So that day I was able to walk out just fine, through the pain. My legs still worked. It was my chest that pained me every jarring step of the way. When I got home, I wrapped an Ace bandage around my chest, and kept my chest wrapped for several months, except when I was sleeping. That is about all anyone can do for cracked or broken ribs. For some reason, the pressure of the Ace bandage, and the support it provides, lessens the pain. Every time I coughed, sneezed or laughed for months after that fall, though, my chest suddenly shot through with paroxysms of pain. It wasn’t a fun time. But I didn’t stop climbing!

Another time, again, up in that savagely beautiful basin above Black Lake, I let myself get caught up high in a bad thunderstorm with plenty of lightning. Now, as I write this, too much time has passed since that day for me to remember exactly why I got caught up there. Humans sometimes make bad mistakes. I am human, and I made this one. At some point, the rain had begun. I could hear thunder, and I knew it was high time to get out of there. I turned around and headed down. The thunder got louder. The rain got worse, and suddenly I was right in the midst of a deluge, with what seemed like buckets of water being thrown at me. I don’t even remember exactly where I was on the trail when that loud clap of thunder broke loose. It was so loud that, from pure reflex, my legs spasmodically tightened, and I rocketed straight up into the air like a human pogo stick. I then came down and immediately fell down prostrate into the river that was by that time flowing where the trail had been just moments before. I got up soaked, and muddy. I wondered if lightning had hit me, but didn’t think it had. That was the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard! I surely hope I never hear another one that loud ever again. Truly terrified, I hurried down the trail until I reached the shelter of trees, where I breathed a sigh of relief. I was still alive! To this day that remains the worst storm I have ever suffered up high.

With those prefatory remarks out of the way, I’d better start writing this trip report about my first climb of McHenry’s Peak in August, 2002.

McHenry’s is one of the great peaks overlooking Glacier Gorge, along with Longs and the spires of Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, and Chief’s Head. You will want to climb McHenry’s from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. I recommend you start at first light or before to ensure you find an empty parking space there. This is a long hike, and a demanding climb (maybe over 14 miles round trip, and over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, only a little shorter and with a bit less gain than climbing Longs itself), so you want to save every little bit of distance you can. You don’t want to park at Bear Lake if you can avoid doing so. The new Glacier Gorge Trailhead is where you want to park.

One time, on one of my three climbs of McHenry’s, another car beat me and my truck to the last parking spot available in the old, smaller Glacier Gorge parking lot by just seconds. The people inside pulled into it just before I could, smiling, realizing exactly that they had just stolen that last spot from me. After that, I reluctantly left the lot, and drove on up to the bigger Bear Lake Parking Lot, which was nearly empty of cars that early in the morning. I didn’t feel so badly about this incident when, much later that day, while I ascended the final hundred yards to McHenry’s summit, I encountered those same folks descending from the peak after successfully summiting. On this encounter, we all smiled, even shook each other’s hands gladly and joyfully as real brothers. They had deserved that last parking spot as much as I had. And they had gotten up earlier than I had to have truly earned it for themselves.

To climb McHenry’s, one other thing you need to do on a prior hike is locate the shortcut trail Park rangers use to save a bit of distance hiking to wherever they want to go in Glacier Gorge or Loch Vale. You don’t want to waste time looking for this shortcut on this climb. You need to already have found it. I found it before my first climb of McHenry’s, and I used it every time I needed to. You can find it too, if you are truly experienced enough to climb McHenry’s. What this shortcut does for you is eliminate that loop the main trail takes just for the view Alberta Falls provides tourists. Remember what Alberta Falls looks like? You should be able to remember before you climb McHenry’s. By then, you should have seen Alberta Falls enough already. You don’t want to see Alberta again on this climb. You want to save time and distance, like Rangers.

Remember, in 2002 we were all hiking from the old, smaller Glacier Gorge Parking Lot in the tight “v” of that big switchback just below the bigger Bear Lake Parking Lot. Now, a new Glacier Gorge Parking Lot and a short spur trail takes you down to the old main trailhead, which is where the trail began in 2002, and still continues through today.

The Ranger shortcut is thus not off the spur trail. It is between the old main trailhead sign and Alberta Falls. You will find it on the right-hand side of the main trail, the southern side, and the shortcut bypasses Alberta by cutting straight south. Not exactly straight. It does wind around a bit to remain on gentle terrain. It passes through the Glacier Knobs area, where huge glaciers once long ago polished rock pinnacles down into little knobs through uncountable centuries of slow time.

There are lots of things just as interesting as Alberta Falls for you to see along the shortcut. For instance, it was along the shortcut, with my good camera, that I took that great photo of the skeletal pine I put in my prior trip report on Taylor Peak. Remember that Chief Seattle quote from 1852 that I tacked onto the photo?

The entrance to the shortcut is obvious, but unmarked. Across the entrance, you will usually find one or a few small aspen tree trunks placed to indicate to tourists who are headed to Alberta Falls that this is not the trail to Alberta. The exit from the trail is harder to find than the entrance, because the exit intersects the main trail again in a rocky area, and a line of rocks is used to keep tourists from wandering off the main trail down the shortcut once more. When you first find and explore the shortcut, you need to pay particular attention to the details of this exit. You will want to use the shortcut again on your return journey from McHenry’s. You will be very tired. I have wandered myself, tired and daydreaming of a hot shower and a good meal and home, right past the shortcut on my own way down.

Since you should already know your shortcut through Glacier Knobs, I will begin this trip report with a photo of myself standing in front of the trail sign at the junction that splits the two trails to Glacier Gorge and Loch Vale. This photo is not from my 2002 climb of McHenry’s. It is from an earlier, easier and more simple hike I did in 1999 when I was still an active member of the Wyoming Air National Guard, before I retired. My hair is short, and my mustache does not yet extend beyond the corners of my mouth, in accordance with strict military regulation.

There are three trail branches at the sign. One trail to Lake Haiyaha, which offers a beautiful view of Hallett Peak's Buttresses, starts here, too.

I urge you all to take photographs along this climb. You will pass through some of the most beautiful scenery you will ever encounter anywhere in your own climbing careers, and your climb of McHenry’s will be among your most challenging. You will want to relive your accomplishment later, many times.

The trail up Glacier Gorge passes many scenic places people on lesser hikes than you actually choose as their final destinations, and also their turnaround point . The first such destination is Mills' Lake, named for the man historians credit as the driving force and strongest advocate for the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, Enos Mills, who is often called the father of RMNP. Many people hike to this lake with a sack lunch and sit down on rocks along the shoreline to eat, and to enjoy the distant views from the lake of that high cirque that is your destination. Mills is a big lake, and the trail passes along its left shoreline.

Just look at all you can see from Mills' Lake! The only peak up there you can't see from Mills is McHenry's, and of course the pinnacle "Arrowhead,"
right below McHenry's.

Another destination, though less popular than Mills, is Jewel Lake, a smaller little gem of a lake.

Jewel Lake. Looking toward its inlet.

The open meadows along Glacier Creek provide you with your first real taste of the hugeness of the peaks and pinnacles in the cirque. The sight of Spearhead and Chief’s Head are stunning. Many people believe they see the profile of an Indian Chief’s Head, including his eagle-feather war bonnet, in the skyline of the peak.

Glacier Creek.

Ribbon Falls is a bit off the trail, and you have to listen for the increased roar of Glacier Creek to find it. When you hear it, cut off-trail through the trees to your right and you can see it spilling down a steep long slab of glacially-polished granite like a long ribbon of foaming whitewater. The face of Arrowhead towers above.

Ribbon Falls. Arrowhead above.

Another View of Ribbon. It is early in the season. Ribbon provides the first available view of McHenry's!

As you continue your hike, you will come to another great waterfall and get your first good look at the peak you are going to climb, and what is known as the “Notch” on its flank. Arrowhead, again, is just to the right of McHenry’s. The falls themselves are beautiful, but bear no formal name on the maps I have. The falls are informally known as Black Lake Falls, or the Falls below Black Lake. They are called the Falls below Black, because cliffs on the far side above the lake also have great waterfalls spilling down them. These falls also bear no formal name, and are just known informally as the Falls above Black Lake. Black Lake is a pretty spectacular lake in a spectacular setting. You can’t show it off as it deserves to be shown off with a single photograph. The field of view of a camera is just too narrow to take it all in. You must see Black Lake with your own eyes to fully appreciate its beauty.

Falls Below and Above Black Lake.

Another view of the falls below and above Black Lake.

The falls above black Lake, and McHenry's.

Black Lake and Arrowhead.

Once again, you pass along the lake’s left shoreline until you find the ascending trail near the lake's inlet. The higher you climb, the more beautiful become your views. Look for ptarmigan up high. They will be in their summer plumage camouflaged the same color as the granite, and are difficult to spot until they move. Rarely do they fly away in summer, though I have seen them fly often in winter when they are wearing their white camouflaged plumage. They change color with the seasons, just as snowshoe hares do.

McHenry's and Arrowhead Above Black Lake.

Higher above Black Lake

Near the top of the trail, you can see Spearhead over the creek.

Gateway to Paradise. St. Peter must be nearby!


Columbine, Indian Paintbrush, Others.

Once you reach the great cirque above the lake you will see all the great peaks surrounding it. In the alpine willows and tundra above the lake, the formal trail ends. A web of many informal climber’s trails pass through the alpine willows toward many destinations. To climb McHenry’s, you must pick a strand of the web that takes you in the direction of the nose or north-facing ridge of Spearhead. This steep ridge is an actual route up the pinnacle for technical climbers. If you look the other direction, you will see Longs, the Keyboard of the Winds, and Pagoda. There is a route up Longs known as the “Trough Direct,” in which you climb the entire Trough from its tail-end here in this cirque to its head high up on the backside of Longs. When you have climbed Longs by the Keyhole Route, you have only climbed the neck and head of the Trough. From this cirque, you can also see the route I used to climb Pagoda both times I did so. It is a Class 3 route up the rocky couloir dividing Pagoda and the Keyboard. I climbed just to the left of this couloir both times, and found good hand and footholds whenever I needed them. Many people also climb Pagoda from its Wild Basin side up a Class 2 route. You can see from the photos why I loved climbing it from this side. By the way, if you don’t know it already, this view of Longs and the Keyboard and I believe Pagoda too was used by the U.S. Mints as the “tails” side of the 2006 Colorado Washington quarter back when the mints were coining quarters for every state and territory.


Beyond the Nose of Spearhead, Pagoda, Keyboard, Longs.

Telephoto of the "Trough Direct Route" up Longs.

But to get back to the McHenry’s climb, work your way across the glacially polished shelf directly in front of the northern ridge of Spearhead. What you will find on the other side is Frozen Lake. In August, the month I made my first climb of McHenry’s, there were no icebergs floating in Frozen Lake. On other subsequent hikes into this area later, earlier in the season, I sometime found many icebergs still in the lake.

Frozen Lake. No icebergs. Spearhead above.
Believe it or not, there is a Class 3 route to the summit of Spearhead. Roach describes it. It begins in the
scree gully at the right edge of this photo and runs along the ridgeline to the airy summit. A technical
climber once invited me to do this route with him. Something came up, though, and we didn't go.

Work your way around the lake, and climb toward McHenry’s, which is only now, at last, fully available to you. Arrowhead rises below it. The glaciers that once filled this cirque are revealed by the polished granite faces and pinnacles they left behind. Work your way over the granite bedrock bench ever-closer to McHenry’s slopes the best way you can find. Start looking sharply for cairns to help guide your ascent. Hopefully, you will find some, as I did. Your destination is a broad couloir that rises to a low point on McHenry’s flank. You will be able to see what looks like a tall stone man standing on the ridge line. This strange rock gives its name to the pass that will be your path to McHenry's, Stone Man Pass. Keep following the cairns that should take you there. If you can’t find cairns, the shortest description of the Pass is given by Fricke, who writes: “The Stoneman is easily recognized from a distance, near the low-point of the Chiefshead-McHenry’s ridge, and the pass is to the right, close up against the McHenry’s Ridge.”

Working my way toward McHenry's. I must move left from here to avoid the deep rift between me and McHenry's.

Closer to McHenry's. I believe that's the Stone Man toward the left edge of the photo.

Still Closer.

Stone Man Pass.

Looking Down. That's Black Lake Far Below the Cliffs.

At the Stone Man Ridge line.

On the other side of the ridge line, I rock-hopped over until I was directly below the Stone Man.

The Stone Man from along the ridge line. Since I knew Stone Man Pass from this McHenry's climb, I returned later to climb Chief's Head from Stone
Man Pass, too. I had to drop low enough below the cliffs blocking easy passage over, then climb that scree gully clearly visible in this photo. The scree
gully passes between the two rock pinnacles, and then provides access to the northwest ridge of Chief's Head, which I ascended to its summit.

Gerry Roach provides a good description of the route remaining: “From Stone Man Pass, do a long ascending traverse northwest to reach a gap in a southwest-facing rib (some Class 3). Finding this gap is the key to this route. Cross this rib and get into a small basin west of the rib. This basin is snow filled and dangerous in early June. Climb north up the small basin to the crest of McHenry’s southeast ridge. Follow the ridge northwest for 100 yards to the summit.”

After Passing over Stone Man Pass, I took the photo of the Stone Man. I also moved a bit further toward Chief's head to take this photo of McHenry's
ridge line, the one Gerry Roach says must be crossed to reach the small basin.. I can't remember exactly where I crossed. I know I followed cairns there
on both my second and third climbs.

I’m not sure I exactly followed Roach’s directions in my first climb of McHenry’s, but I did find my way to the summit whichever way I went, if I did deviate from it. On my second climb, I remember cairns leading me to the gap Roach describes (it was a kind of mini-Keyhole, but without rock overhead), and I believe I followed his route then, and repeated it on my third climb. This is complicated terrain, as you can see from my photos. I used photos from all three climbs in this trip report, and successfully summited on each climb.

Higher above the Stone Man standing on the ridge line.

Looking Toward Wild Basin. That's Mount Alice, another Park 13er, beginning to reveal itself over one of the ridges running up Chief's Head.

More of Mount Alice.

Even higher above the Stone Man.

Looking up, close to McHenry's summit.

I put my camera down on a rock, with McHenry's summit directly behind me. the camera's auto-timer snapped the shutter. Clear, warm beautiful day
without wind.

At the summit itself, I put my camera down on another rock. The camera's auto-timer snapped a photo of me with McHenry's summit register tube in
my right hand.

Let me tell you, successfully climbing McHenry’s, and making it down safely made me happy, and gave me a great sense of real accomplishment. I remember being quite worn out physically, though, on my descent back toward Black Lake and the long trudge back past all the other lakes and waterfalls to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and Parking Lot. At least, living in Estes as I did, I was not confronted with a long, weary drive back home, too. What a climb it had been!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
nice report!
03/11/2019 12:59
I do have to say that there's a few ranked peaks in the park, that I personally found much more difficult, but McHenrys is certainly the best challenge for the ranked peaks above 13k. Enjoyed reading this one.

Cool Report (as usual!)
03/11/2019 13:54
Nice photos and a valuable guide to anyone who wants
to climb McHenry's (maybe even me someday ).
I have been on the huge shelf above Black Lake a
couple of times, but just to visit the lakes (Frozen,
Green, and Blue). Your assessment is spot on: it's
a truly special place.

thanks much
03/12/2019 09:06
These reports/reminiscences of yours are consistently interesting, and I appreciate the air of reverence towards your surroundings found in each one.

I have only visited that upper shelf once on a climb of Pagoda, but your report makes me want to return (as if RMNP needs more visitors).

Love the photos, especially the Jewel Lake shot, with its interesting lighting and reflections.

Of course, since 2002, we've all, except some of the tourists, learned to wear hats.

Glad you're posting these, John. Keep 'em coming!

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