Chiefs Head (13,579') is the third-highest peak in RMNP and is central in dividing the Wild Basin and Glacier Gorge areas. Aside from that, it's just a really big, amazing mountain in a spectacular area. What other reason do I need to climb it? For a couple months now, I've been contemplating an ascent of Chiefs Head via the North Ridge. Strangely, the North Ridge is neither north, nor ridge as it approaches from the southeast and is a broad, flat ramp more commonly called "slope". This route is by far the easiest on the mountain; the north face is composed of 1000' cliffs and the east and west ridges are third-class scrambles. However, the North Ridge route is 8 miles one way with 5200' of elevation gain; a long day to be sure, especially early in the season.
The plan was that Peter and I would hike up to Sand Beach Lake in Wild Basin to the south of Chiefs Head and camp on Friday night. We would then climb the peak on Saturday, return to camp, and head out for celebratory pizza and beer. The weather had been unseasonably warm all week and friday was predicted to continued the trend. Unfortunately, Saturday looked grim; 40% chance of snow, strong winds, and more seasonable alpine temperatures.
Thus it was that we found ourselves hurriedly setting up camp at noon on Friday dressed in shorts and t-shirts (along with gaiters and snowshoes) under bluebird skies and hardly a breath of wind. The previous 4.5 miles up to the lake had been familiar but brutal. After the first mile and a half of bare ground, the trail was mostly covered in a couple feet of snow. Unfortunately, temperatures had been high enough for long enough that the snow had become "sugar" with nearly zero in the way of cohesive strength. Even with snowshoes on, we would unexpectedly punch through above our knees at the slightest misstep. The solution was to stick to the packed path (possibly the remnant of our mighty trailbreaking efforts back in December) where we could walk safely. But the packed path was only about a foot wide and wasn't immediately obvious amongst the other snow. It was definitely "type 2 fun".
Yours truly sporting the latest in beach attire.
Peter at Sandbeach Lake with Mount Meeker behind.
We finished setting up camp and headed out at quarter of two. The route from here climbed the densely forested slopes of Mt. Orton and thence up the long North Ridge to Chiefs Head 3.5 miles away. The lake had melted in a few spots so we traversed around the south side alternately walking on rocks and postholing in the snow, wreaking great damage to our plastic snowshoes. This isn't a popular route and there is no established trail up Mt. Orton (these two facts are undoubtedly linked in some mysterious way), so we spent a hellacious hour thrashing through dense forest and ascending the steep slope. The snow conditions here weren't much of an improvement and I went in up to my armpits on one occasion. We were dripping in sweat by the time we were half way. After an hour of this, we had used up all bits of invective we knew and had started inventing some new, more colorful language. More type 2 fun.
At long last, the trees thinned out and the slope moderated. Wonder of wonder, the snow conditions were a bit better here and we could confidently walk along without sinking in more than a few inches! Even better, the views had opened up in all directions. The huge south and west faces of Mount Meeker dominated the view and dwarfed even the square head of Longs Peak farther to the north. We doffed snowshoes as the snow gave way to scrub and massive talus and picked our way tediously around the rocky nipple of Mount Orton. Finding ourselves less than 100' from this minor summit, we dropped our packs and scrambled to the top for an unprecedented view. The North Ridge was quite obvious from here. Thankfully, it looked like the tedious talus gave way to grass and gravel quite soon and that there were only a few patches of wind-blasted snow between us and the summit. That, and 2000' of ascent in two miles. The time was already after 3. Though the weather was holding and we were anticipating a nocturnal, "instrument" descent, we didn't want to push things too much. Time to get a move on!
Picking through the massive talus on the slopes of Mt. Orton
Bighorn sheep at 12,000'
We covered most of a mile of flat ground at a good pace, but the final climb was a real leg-burner. At 12,000', the ridge started upwards again with alacrity and the easy tundra gave way to more large talus. We spied a group of a dozen big horn sheep grazing on the slopes and they eyed us warily from a hundred feet away. Climbing above them, we paused at 12,800' below the final snow bowl. Both of us were pretty burned from the climb, but the summit was less than a thousand feet away. Too close to quit now! Given our experience with the previous snow, we picked a line mostly on massive talus and climbed in bursts to the top.
More sheep in front of Mount Alice.
Peter on the summit ridge.
The good news, once we arrived, was that the view north into Glacier Gorge was spectacular; worth every liter of sweat lost. The bad news was that we could now see the true summit farther to the west along a sharp ridge separated from us by at least two false summits a hundred feet high. The going was rough on more huge, sharp talus, but the insane exposure down the north face kept us interested and motivated. We finally arrived at quarter after 6 and paused for a well-deserved rest.
The views here were trully astonishing. Longs Peak, now revealed in all its glory, towered over the now-minor Mount Meeker which had previously loomed so large. Directly below, the sharp spine of the Spearhead was highlighted by the setting sun and shadows from McHenry's Peak, the Arrowhead, and the rest of the Glacier Gorge peaks crept slowly up the eastern wall of the Gorge. I could spy most of our route on the Trough. The Wild Basin spread before us to the south and, beyond that, the northern portion of the Indian Peaks. Pikes Peak was clearly visible a hundred miles to the south.
Tempting as it was to enjoy the last rays of the sun in this amazing place, the idea of descending that steep slope of massive blocks in the dark wasn't too attractive. We bid adieu to the summit and started the laborious descent at 6:30. By 7, we had regained the bench at 12,800' and by 7:30 passed by the big horned sheep again (still vigalent, though clearly now bedding down for the night). Lights in the metro Denver area started to appear in an appalling carpet. Clouds had also rolled in uniformly covering the sky. The just-past-full moon wouldn't be much help on our descent. I readied headlamp and GPS with fresh batteries for each and we girded our loins for another 2 miles and 1700' of nocturnal descent.
Both of us were, at this point, feeling pretty devastated. I don't know if it was altitude, lack of calories, or just general exhaustion, but our stomaches were fluttery and we felt very lethargic. Peter, especially, was not doing well with nausea and headaches, so we set a slow pace. By 8:30 it was fully dark and we picked our way around the south side of Mount Orton hoping to find a talus-free path to the trees. No such luck! The sky was clouded over and it was starting to snow. Wonderful! More invective and talus-hopping, this time without the benefit of being able to see more than 20' ahead.
At length, we regained the ridge and, with the help of the GPS, found our snowshoe tracks up. Snowshoes were redeployed and we started down to Sandbeach Lake. As with any exhausted endeavor late at night the second time through a particular peice of adversity, it seemed to take an eternity. Even once we'd gotten to the lake, it took a good 15 minutes to find the campsite again.
But find it we did, and with great relief, collapsed. Peter climbed directly into his sleeping bag and was not seen or heard from again. I stole his down booties (a welcome change from my soaked, leaden boots) and set about melting snow and making dinner. A half-nalgene of premixed margarita was a welcome night-cap and, at 11 when I finally retired, I was pleasantly buzzed, flush with success and fatigue toxins, and thoroughly, thoroughly exhausted.
Eventually, Peter woke from his coma. We lounged around in the tent for a good hour reluctant to get the cold, unpleasant process started. Unfortunately, the new, colder temperatures had done nothing to strengthen the snow and going out to heed a call of nature still required full winter clothing including snowshoes. This kind of thing was fun back in December, but not in April. Feh!
Eschewing breakfast, we packed quickly and set out. Crossing the open terrain near the lake, we experienced the full blast of the wind and felt grateful that we weren't up on the ridge right now. Once in the trees, it wasn't bad, but several inches of fine, new snow served to disguise our tracks in. The GPS helped, but we still ended up off-trail once or twice, floundering in thigh-deep sugar, swearing mighty oaths. Eventually, I realized that our occasional deep postholes left yesterday were still quite visible despite the new snow and I could navigate using them pretty easily. Of course, we still created our own, new postholes. Going was brutal, but at least we were headed downhill.
At great length, we got within 1.5 miles of the car and gratefully doffed the snow shoes. The weather had improved a bit and the skies were showing signs of clearing. The wind still blasted through the trees, but it was slightly more optimistic now. Back at the car, we changed and debated options for calorie intake. Pizza was choosen and we headed for Boulder as fast as possible to fulfill this mission.
Despite the pain and suffering (and there was a lot of that!), it was a fantastic trip. Mission accomplished despite various hardships and a nice night camping. Most importantly of all, I seem to have finally shaken that spring funk that comes over me every year about this time. Here's to a great season!
The Wilderness Journal