Saturday, September 24, 1988: Pagoda Mountain, 13497', and Storm Peak, 13326'
In one very long day of hiking, I visited the last (for me) of the four satellites of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Pagoda was my primary goal; a relatively distant and difficult summit, farther from trailheads than Longs. Late September was a beautiful if chilling time of the year for this adventure.
I drove up from Fort Collins and began hiking alone from Glacier Gorge Junction, 9240', soon after sunrise at 0705. A little-known fire trail took me directly to the fork below Mills Lake, where I met a foursome heading for Longs. We passed the famous, awe-inspiring down-valley end of Mills Lake at 0750. From here we viewed Glacier Gorge up to the wall above Black Lake, and enjoyed early morning sunbeams slicing through the air around Longs and Pagoda far away and above.
Continuing together, we reached Black Lake, five miles in, by 0905. After a break, we bore left up the Green Lake drainage, still on a well-used but primitive trail. We turned right on the shelf above Black Lake, and later separated upon reaching the bottom of the gully whose upper end is the Trough. They went up; I went forward, to break at 1030 just above Green Lake, a frozen pond in a small deep valley at 11560', surrounded by the heights of the Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, Chiefs Head, and Spearhead. No others were around; my only company was wisps of cold wind reaching down from pushing puffy clouds rapidly past the tall peaks. I can vouch for the effectiveness of polypro underwear!
Following printed advice, I started directly up ( SE ) toward the low point of the Longs-Pagoda ridge. I found a well-used trail, but a very gravelly one through the talus. I attempted to remain on firmer, larger boulders, but at times it was slow going.
I passed the bottom (12700') of the lowest Key in the Keyboard of the Winds. The Keys are pinnacles in the ridge with very steep, smooth, rounded walls on the Gorge side. I noticed there was quite an easy traverse just below them over towards Longs Peak, on boulders and ledges. Due to my fast pace and the cold weather I got some cramp warnings, an unusual event for me; had to pace myself better.
Above this point the route enters a narrowing gully on good rock up to the saddle at about 13080'. Popping over the top, one is suddenly presented with all of Wild Basin straight ahead to the south, and Longs, the Loft, and Meeker to the left. Where the NW slope of Pagoda, facing the Gorge, is steep, smooth rock like the Keys, just around the corner it's bouldery, an easy and fun way to the top. I followed close to the ridgeline, near the precipice into the Gorge, to reach the summit at 1226 (4260' in 5:21).
Pagoda ends in a relatively small, stony summit without much shelter from the wind. It was and remained a typical autumn day, a little hazy and partly cloudy, but stable; cold and windy. I enjoyed the unusual view E/NE to Longs and Meeker, including people on the Ledges and Homestretch climbing Longs, and for the first time got a good feeling for the relationships of the many high peaks west of Longs. Sandbeach Lake was very obvious yet quite distant down the long North Ridge from Chiefs Head Peak.
From the summit register I learned a number of acquaintances had been to the top this summer, including ex- HP ite Dave Landers. I found I was the first to sign the register in 16 days - so I was very surprised a half hour later when three people reached the top from the Wild Basin route.
Unfortunately, the connecting ridge west to Chiefs Head looked technical. Sheer slopes down both sides, and jagged on the edge. I didn't bother to explore down it as it became increasingly exposed. Instead, at 1337 I returned to NE to the saddle. I traversed a couple hundred feet further around to the NE to explore the only gully through a cliff running east from the Keyboard. I considered ascending through it a total of 1200' to the Homestretch and the top of Longs, but decided it was too risky what with the exercise I'd already done. I returned to the saddle after a 25 minute excursion.
At 1430 I began the descent to Green Lake. But, passing 12700' again, I got adventurous and decided to return to the trailhead ``a different way''. I turned right and followed NE along the bases of the Keys for nearly an hour, generally climbing up boulders, never very exposed or tricky despite cliffs below. I noted to my surprise that it's possible to scramble up between several of the Keys to reach the ridgetop, and was disappointed at not having time (or energy) left to do so. Eventually, after finding a discarded walking stick that helped me cross a lot of new snow, I reached the bottom of the Trough (from the right) and joined the Longs Peak trail.
It was rough gaining the 200' to the top of the Narrows Ledges because my stamina was fading. Dropping beyond that point, I rested at the Keyhole and watched stragglers depart Longs just ahead of me. The north face was crystalline in shadows with a tracery of new snow.
At 1600 I proceeded north as high as possible on the east flank of Longs' NNW ridge, but still had to gain at least 200' to make the summit of Storm Peak at 1645. Another surprise: The summit register placed in 1984 was still there and only half full. I found my name in it from 1985. Neat... Not so neat, it was now getting on to 5pm, with sunset just two hours away, and I was 4000' above and five miles from my car. Uh oh.
I hoped it would be a fast descent, but, while the ridge down to Half Mountain is pretty much a fun walk, I was tired and it seemed to go on forever. Funny how I forgot the length of it from the time I traveled it heading up. Near the 11200' saddle with Half Mountain, I ran into frustrating juniper bushes among the gorgeous gnarled treetrunks and had to do a lot of route-finding up and down. Rather than climb up and over the top, I bushwhacked around the east flank and didn't reach the north face until 1825.
I continued what had become a ``death march'', down the rocky, overgrown slope to the North Longs Peak Trail at 1915, a quarter hour after sunset, by which time it was starting to get significantly dark. I didn't dare pause even to finish the rest of my water. Having made the trail, I relaxed some, but still took 30 minutes more to hike out, and needed to dig out a flashlight enroute.
Total time on trail: 12:46.Estimated elevation gain: 5300'.
I think the CMC would call this a ``Class D'' kind of day!
By Alan Silverstein