Brian dug deeply into his copy of Rossiter’s High Peaks book of RMNP alpine climbs and found Dog Star (5.8). When Brian introduced the idea, I was interested right away because I had long wanted to climb McHenrys Peak. And I love the adventure of climbing up a big alpine wall; Dog Star is recommended in multiple guide books. But this trip is documented here due to the epic nature of the climb, only partially caused by illness.
“Dog Star: it’s a bit of both.” … overall assessment put in writing by me on the following day
We started hiking from the old Glacier Gorge parking lot @ 4am expecting to make our normal fast pace, but I was off. My body just wouldn’t cooperate with my cerebral wishes and its own best interests; but I suppose losing some of my altitude tolerance (spending 5 of 7 days in Atlanta for the last 3 months) and failing to get a minute of sleep the night before was just too much for my old body.
I hiked as fast as I could (read: slow), and we reached Black Lake a little after sunrise, around 6:30am. We took our normal shortcut toward Arrowhead from Black Lake and worked our way up to the large triangular buttress that dominates McHenry’s northeast face. At 7:30am, we stopped a few hundred yards below the face to study the rock and find our bearings. While Brian studied, I slept.
Once we started, it felt like we were off-route half the time. And it wasn’t just me (sleepy head). We both seemed to spend much of the day figuring out where we were and trying to get back to the route. Occasionally, we felt we were doing it right; but in the end, we were just glad to make it to the top.
It was good rock, except for the plant life; we just had to follow our nose and hope we didn’t dead-end. ”Faith” can be hard to come by, but without it, this day would have ended much sooner.
Pitch 1: I started on a wide crack for 50 feet, then recognized a key feature to my right and traversed to get back on route; climbed up a giant detached flake and belayed on a ledge below a hard dihedral
Pitch 2: Brian climbed the dihedral, requiring a hard pull over the lip without holds. He then turned a bulge on his left (route description seemed to point to right bulge) and belayed at ledge above the bulge.
Pitch 3: It was my turn, but I was feeling nauseated. Brian climbed up a slabby section to a ledge
Pitch 4: Determined to feel better, I started up a curving ramp and reacquired the correct route (I believe). I belayed at big flake and felt bad enough to think death would be better.
Pitch 5: Brian climbed up a ramp to the right and continued around the bulge to his right and then up another right leaning ramp. He belayed beneath a big roof & dihedral
Pitch 6: Brian took a couple falls trying to free climb the bushy, mossy and, in addition, technically difficult roof. It was rated 5.8, but I’ll eat my computer if that is accurate. He resorted to aiding it so we didn’t have to spend the rest of our lives there.
I angled up to the left on thin moves including a finger crack that held a solid cam. It looked like there was a ledge above that, but when I pulled my head up over the edge, it was actually sloping quite a bit. The finger crack was full of dirt and moss at that point. I fell trying to pull over the edge, and after that we were a bit demoralized. I stood on the cam to get onto the sloping ledge. After that were some roof moves. I remember that they actually had good holds and thinking that we could have free climbed them on a good day. But after the fall, I just wanted to be done with the pitch.
Pitch 7: Brian led a rope length of hard, steep rock that took a bit of wandering to find the easiest climbing.
Pitch 8: Brian continued up the steep section to reach a left-leaning ledge, which he followed to reach the top of the ridge. The correct route works straight up from the ledge, but I was ready to use a parachute to get off the rock.
At the top, Brian waited for me to announce a decision on proceeding to the summit. I hate missing out on a summit when I am so close, but I bailed. If my leg was off, I would have tried. But nausea is an unfightable affliction. And I must have looked bad, too, because Brian took some of my half of the gear weight.
Heading downhill made me feel better, if only psychologically. We worked down to Stone Man Pass, and then down the gully to reach the base of the climb.
It was over except for the clean up (the boring hike out). We had done it, sort of. I regretted missing out on McHenrys Peak’s summit, but I knew I’d come back eventually (in 2 years, actually: see McHenrys At Last).
We got back to the parking lot at 6:30pm for a 14.5 hour effort.
I cannot say I recommend Dog Star or mountain sickness. But if only for the great memories, I do recommend aiming high. A bit of suffering seems to make all the difference.