Pagoda Mountain - 13,497 feet
Pagoda Mountain - 13,497 feet
|Climbing Pagoda Peak|
I first climbed Pagoda Peak in July, 2002. I enjoyed the climb so much, I repeated it only a month later, in August. I climbed Pagoda for a third time in September, 2003. The best photographs from all three of those climbs are intermixed in this trip report. I chose a photo based not on which climb it was taken, but on which photo from any of my three climbs best illustrated the particular point I was trying to make in my narrative.
For all three of my climbs, I used the Class 3 Northwest Slopes and Northeast Ridge Route described by Gerry Roach in his book “Rocky Mountain National Park: Classic Hikes and Climbs.” I guess I would rename the route, though, the “Northwest Couloir and Northeast Ridge Route” because it ascends not a slope, but a definite couloir between the Keyboard of the Winds and Pagoda Peak itself. The couloir reaches up to the low point on the ridge between the Keyboard and Pagoda. From there, it ascends that ridge to the summit. This is a truly spectacular climb in a spectacular place! The trailhead used for this climb is the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, and the approach and climb cover about 6 ½ miles, 13 miles round trip. There is a bit over 4,200 feet of elevation gain and loss on the route.
An easier, Class 2 route is available from the Wild Basin side of Pagoda. The Class 2 route ascends to the same low point on the ridge between the Keyboard and Pagoda as does the Class 3 route, and also follows that ridge to the summit, so the last 300 feet of both climbs coincide. The route from Wild Basin may be easier up to the low point on the ridge, and the mileage from the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead may be similar to the mileage to the summit from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, but the big drawback to the Class 2 route is that there are nearly a thousand more feet of elevation to gain and lose on the route from the Wild Basin side because of its lower trailhead!
For me, at least, choosing the route by which to approach Pagoda was a no-brainer. I believe that the high, ruggedly stark basin above Black Lake is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited on this earth. If God can be found anyplace here on earth, I believe He could be found in that terrain above Black Lake, close to the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Significant also, in my mind, is that the scenery, the terrain, you pass through on the Wild Basin approach hardly compares to that of Glacier Gorge, which Roach himself calls “the heart of the Park.”
One advantage of the Wild Basin approach, though, is that you may encounter fewer Park visitors on the trail to Sandbeach than you will hiking the trail through Glacier Gorge. Another advantage to the Wild Basin approach is that if you want to break the climb into two days with an overnight, there are many more back-country campsites available on the Sandbeach Lake Trail than on the Glacier Gorge Trail.
Both approaches involve a lot of time and distance off formal trails. In Glacier Gorge, the formal trail ends above Black Lake, but before Green Lake. On the trail to Sandbeach Lake, the formal trail should be left behind near where the trail crosses Hunter’s Creek, well before the trail reaches the lake. When I used that same Wild Basin approach up Hunter’s Creek on two of my earliest attempts to climb Mount Meeker in 1999, I didn’t encounter a soul beyond the point where I left the formal trail and started following the creek. It was a complete bushwhack from that point on. There were no cairns to follow, no faint path along the creek. I chose my own path. Because Park visitation has greatly increased over the years, a “use” trail probably exists up Hunter’s Creek now.
I believe Pagoda Peak from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead provides one of the finest climbs available in Rocky Mountain National Park. It does so for three reasons: the beauty of Pagoda itself, the beauty of the terrain on the approach, and the quality of the climb provided by that Class 3 couloir. I hope that through the text of this trip report, as well as through my photographs, you can understand why I feel that way.
Before I begin my narrative of the climb, I want to explain one thing—I refer to Pagoda as a peak. On maps it is named Pagoda Mountain. I choose the word peak deliberately. To me, Pagoda has always been and will always remain a peak. If you look up the word “pagoda” in any reference source, you will learn it is “a tiered tower with multiple eaves,” a common architectural form in Far Eastern countries. To me, Pagoda resembles a pyramid more than it does a tower. It is shaped almost exactly like the pyramids which slaves long ago constructed to house the mummified remains of the pharaohs in Egypt.
To me, Copeland Mountain is accurately named a mountain. Its western slope may be rugged rock and cliffs, but its eastern slope is much more gentle tundra. I wouldn’t call the long tundra trudge up that long slope “easy” though, because it seemed never-ending to me when I was climbing it! But Copeland is a mountain all right, and a mountain with incredible views from its summit, a mountain well worth climbing.
I did find a few scattered small patches of tundra high on the route up Pagoda. Other than those few tiny patches, Pagoda is all rock. Nothing on Pagoda is gentle. Pagoda rises sharply on all sides. To me, that makes Pagoda a peak for sure. And it is a peak that, together with the sweeping view of Keyboard of the Winds and Longs, takes my breath away every time I see it! That’s Pagoda Peak.
Most of the approach to Pagoda is remarkable. Let me start my narrative with a view of Mills Lake. Mills Lake is within hiking distance from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead for most folks in average physical condition. Because of that, Mills Lake is one of the most heavily visited destinations in the Park and a common turn-around point for tourists. It is rare for anyone to experience a solitary hike to Mills Lake, except by starting at maybe crack-of-dawn first light, or by starting even earlier--in the dark, by headlamp.
Some adventurous tourists do go beyond Mills to reach beautiful Jewel Lake. Mills is big enough that its water seems to always have waves, is seldom still. Jewel, on the other hand, is smaller and more sheltered by terrain and trees, and I have often taken “mirror” photos of its completely still surface.
Beyond Jewel Lake but before Black Lake are two beautiful waterfalls. The first is named Ribbon Falls because it resembles a long thin ribbon of white foam. Ribbon Falls cannot be seen from the trail. As you ascend the Glacier Gorge Trail and get pretty close to Black Lake itself, you have to listen for the roar of Ribbon Falls off to the right. Once you hear that roar, you can follow the sound through the trees to the falls. The second waterfall is directly below Black Lake. You can see this waterfall from the trail. It is informally known as the “Falls Below Black Lake.” When you first see the Falls Below Black Lake, you can also see a third waterfall spilling down cliffs below McHenry’s Peak on the skyline. The third waterfall is informally named the “Falls Above Black Lake.”
Few tourists venture the nearly 5-mile hike (nearly 10-mile round-trip) to Black Lake. Most of those who reach Black Lake are no longer tourists. The few who do have earned the right to call themselves “hikers.”
The formal trail ascending from Black Lake to the high basin above is steep, and those even fewer folks who persist in continuing up that steep trail until it becomes less steep and finally disappears over rock into that high beautiful basin between the Longs Group to the southeast, and Chief’s Head and McHenry’s to the west, usually know what they are doing up that high, have specific reasons for visiting, and have set specific destinations and goals for themselves. These fewer are climbers, even mountaineers--kin to us, our brothers and sisters.
At Green Lake, these fewer have already hiked about 6 miles. And, as Frost wrote, they have miles to go before they sleep, miles to go before they accomplish what they set out to do from the basin and can then turn around and begin to head back down toward the Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
As we all know, and should have been doing all along the trail, before going further, Green Lake is a good place to stop and assess the weather before continuing on. At Green Lake you are very close to the dome of the sky at last, and can try to make your best judgment call. If it looks like a storm might develop, you would be wise to turn around and begin to descend. In that high basin, there is no shelter from the storm. Right here may be a good place in this trip report, also, for me to go off on a tangent, to write an aside, to recount a story.
One of my three climbs of Pagoda Peak, I believe my second, turned out to be one of the most magical climbs of my climbing career. Let me explain. Overnight, the night before, a storm had blown in. That next morning, when I reached the high basin above Black Lake, the basin was still filled with tendrils of low clouds which were enveloping peaks and rocks in mist, and then releasing them again to sunlight. Sunlight and cloud were shifting back and forth in a slight breeze, swirling around. It was beautiful to be there, to be watching that happen. The night before had been unseasonably cold, close to freezing up high, and the storm had cooled the temperature even further, and a strong wind had driven the rain. The wind-driven rain had frozen onto the rock as sheets of crystal-clear ice. The ice was so clear, you could look right through it and see the lichen on the rocks clearly. Verglas. Verglas on the tops and sides of the rocks. The partial sunlight that morning was melting the verglas. Any sensible climber would have figured an attempt of Pagoda that day was a no go. I guess I wasn’t a sensible climber that day.
At any rate, I stuck around for a while just to take photos. The breeze-swirled mist made that high basin even more beautiful than I usually found it. That was magical in itself. But the sun kept on warming the basin as I photographed, and the verglas kept melting. It melted enough that the verglas started falling off the sides of the rocks and shattering against whatever it hit below. The breaking of the verglas made a tinkling sound, a random music, a symphony of natural sound.
Musical notes can be produced by a human finger rubbing circularly around and creating friction against the rim of a stemmed, crystal drinking glass. I think we have all seen and heard that done, somewhere, sometime. Doing that with many crystal drinking glasses, each producing a different note, has a formal name. It is called “playing a glass harp.” That was what the random music produced by the tinkling verglas most reminded me of. Not quite. But close. However, the verglas was shattering when it fell, and the tinkling made by its shattering also reminded me of the tinkling of many different sizes of bells.
Intrigued by that random natural tinkling symphony, I continued up the basin until I was at the base of the ascent couloir. I remained in the high basin as the day warmed even more, and all the mist disappeared, and until I was almost in full sun. The notes of the random music began to grow less and less frequent, and even fade away. I began to realize at some point that if I were very careful with my foot placement, placing each step carefully on ice-free, sun-dried rock, I might be able to climb Pagoda that day after all. And after I had realized that, I did start up the ascent couloir very, very carefully, paying attention to each step. My very careful second ascent of Pagoda took me much longer than my first dry one had taken, but eventually I made it to the summit just fine! And by the time I headed back down from the summit, the symphony had ended, and the rock was nearly all the way dry, and it was safer to descend.
To begin my narrative of climbing Pagoda Peak, I would like to show you what Pagoda truly looks like from a distance. I particularly want to show you the ascent couloir. This first shot was taken in August, 2002 on my ascent of McHenry’s Peak. In this photo I am on a shelf of rock that has taken me west past Spearhead on my way to Stone Man Pass. This is a look back at the terrain above Green Lake. On this side of Longs, you can see the “Ledges” segment of the route from the Keyhole. You can see the base of the “Trough Direct” route up Longs. To the right of the Trough rise the spires of the Keyboard of the Winds. Then, at the low point of the ridge-line between the Keyboard and Pagoda, you can see the entire ascent couloir.
My second photo is the best one I have ever taken of that beautiful view. I took it in September, 2002 on a hike to Shelf Lake, on the southeast shoulder of Thatchtop. Thatchtop’s steep slope is darkened by shadow, right. There has been a slight dusting of September snow, which contrasts the dark rock and truly shows the ruggedness of the area. A thin thread of snow descending from the low point of the ridge-line between the Keyboard and Pagoda renders the ascent couloir even more visible and definite. That thin thread of white descends all the way into the high basin itself. The low end of the thread in the basin is the beginning of the Class 3 route up Pagoda. From the low point on the ridge-line, where the top of the white thread ends, the Class 3 route finishes on the skyline to the summit.
Another reason I wanted to show you the views from a distance is that close up to Pagoda itself, looking up, my good 35mm Pentax SLR (which I carried on all three climbs) severely foreshortened the steepness of the ascent couloir. The couloir appears to be a gently rising gully, just as my foreshortened photos of the final slope up Taylor Peak taken from near Andrews Pass below render Taylor’s steepness into a gentle tundra stroll. Let me assure you, neither ascent is easy. Taylor’s final slope requires me to stop and catch my breath often, and on the summit of the peak I always feel wrung dry physically, and worn out. Similarly, Pagoda’s ascent couloir is tough and steep. If it were easy, the peak would not be so memorable. It is always our accomplishment of something that is truly difficult for us that is the most gratifying.
I think I will use mostly captions on my photos of the climbs to explain and comment on the Class 3 route up Pagoda. Sometimes though I will write a few brief sentences between photos. Before I get to the photos, I wanted to point out again that photos from all 3 of my climbs are intermixed here. You will notice different sky conditions in the three different climbs. There are a couple other important differences I need to mention as well.
Before the getting back to the differences, I would like to first mention that as in my other trip reports on climbing Rocky’s 13ers, I see no real point in detailing my descent. A descent, if it is by the same route, is simply the ascent in reverse order. I see no reason to repeat everything.
Regarding the photographs, on my first two ascents, I took most of my photographs on the ascent, and few if any, on the descent. For some reason I don’t even remember now, I did exactly the opposite on my third climb. On my third, I took most of my photos of the route on the descent, and none on the ascent. Yet here I will present those descent photos in the order they need to appear to illustrate my ascent, and that order is the exact reverse of the order in which they were taken. You will notice in these third ascent photos that the hour of the day is later, and the shadows are longer. And you will notice something else about my photos from the third climb—I had evidently switched to a higher quality film that brings out the richness of the color of the rock better than the prior film I had used in the first two climbs had done.
So, that said, let me now show and tell you the Class 3 route up Pagoda! In order to get to the ascent couloir, the first thing you will need to do is find your way through a maze of krummholz at the upper bounds of tree line. Many trails wind through the krummholz, making it difficult to find the one best headed toward the ascent couloir. I chose the word “maze” because it best describes the shrubbery barring your easy passage. From the krummholz, you have a terrific view of the glacially carved pinnacle named Spearhead. This photo was taken on my second climb, the morning after the ice storm, and mist still roils through the basin.
Once beyond the krummholz, I climbed high up a rubbly slope to the base of the couloir, so Gerry Roach at least named the Class 3 route appropriately lower down. Lower down, I did climb a slope. In the next photo you can see the definite couloir leading down from the low point on the ridgeline between the Keyboard (left) and Pagoda (right). Once again, the photo is from my second climb. Take a look at that rock formation on Pagoda’s slope. It looks like a last remnant of a spire similar to and in line with the spires of the Keyboard. This spire remnant lies on the other side of the ascent couloir, on the slope of Pagoda itself. Pagoda, far right, summit in mist, is greatly foreshortened by the camera.
The following photo was taken on my descent on my third climb. I am on the rubbly shelf of the prior photo, but looking down. That’s Thatchtop, left. Mills Lake is far below. In the distance is the Mummy Range. Note the long shadows. The day is growing late.
The next whole series of photos, through to my first two photos of Green Lake as I climb higher and higher, were all taken on my third climb descent as well. In the first one I am high enough to be looking back along the Keyboard to where the Keyhole route up Longs begins.
The following two photos were taken on my first climb. I continue to ascend. Green Lake has not frozen this early in the summer. Note the change in the color of the rock, and the few scattered patches of tundra that were the only green I found on Pagoda.
I wish I had taken a photo of the ridge line from the low point between the Keyboard and Pagoda, looking up, but I did not. The next four photos are from my third climb. In the first two, I am on the ridge line, on the last 300 feet toward the summit. In the final two, I am on the summit itself. The summit of Pagoda is so small and pointy, only one person can comfortably stand there at a time.
In the next two photos (the first taken on my first climb, the second on my third) I snapped a view of Longs from Pagoda’s summit with a purpose: both photos show the route by which the cliffs that bar easy passage from the Keyboard to Longs may be breached. I did that once, just to see how difficult it was. I did not climb Longs from there, though that is the purpose of breaching the cliffs on a Grand Slam of Longs, which involves climbing all the peaks from Pagoda through Mount Lady Washington. I only breached the cliffs once, many years ago, but I believe the route is just to the left of the cleft in the middle of each photo. As you can see from these photos, there is some dangerous exposure on the breach route, and I wouldn’t call the route a piece of cake, but I was able to do it. I would call it Class 4. Gerry Roach called it "Class 3 scrambling." Maybe he wasn't as bothered by the exposure as I was. Probably somebody has painted the route via software on one of the Slam trip reports, and taken photos from along it. Personally. I didn’t want a camera in my hands when I breached the cliffs. I kept my hands on the rock. I needed them to hold on. Once I had succeeded at breaching the cliffs, I turned right around and descended the breach route right away. That’s all I did from the basin that day: breach the cliffs, turn around, head back down.
The next series of shots were all taken from Pagoda Peak’s small summit. Pagoda is quite a peak, and the views from the summit are unique and tremendous views! Consider every word of that last sentence definite understatement. The sensation I experienced on Pagoda’s summit on all three climbs was sheer exhilaration!
Author's note: much as I would have liked to have done so, I will not be able to finish this series of trip reports on climbing all RMNP 13ers this summer. The high country has opened up, or is opening up, as I write this, and instead of writing trip reports, it is time for me (and everyone) to train up, and actually be climbing! I still have 5 peaks to cover in this series. All of them are Mummy Range Peaks: Hagues, Rowe Peak and Rowe Mountain, Mount Chiquita, and Ypsilon Peak. I will finish this series this coming fall, when the weather begins to turn cold, and we start getting snow in the high country once again. I promise! God willing. Be safe out there, and I'll try to be as well. Climb on! --flyingmagpie
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