Wrongway Arrowhead

Story

I had a free weekend and decided it was time to do Arrowhead Peak and take a look at the 4th class ridge to McHenry Peak.  I had followed Brian up to Solitude Lake some years ago in the winter and figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find in the summer.  Plus, I studied Roach’s RMNP guide for pertinent details.  The approach and climb were fairly short, and the weather forecast was good; I didn’t expect to have any difficulty with time, so I took advantage of a late start.

The hike in followed the normal approach to Black Lake but with an early exit from the trail below Arrowhead and Thatchtop at approx. 10,200 ft.  After 1.5 hours, about 2 miles up the Black Lake trail, I crossed the creek and headed up toward Solitude Lake.

I never did find a clear trail, but managed to bushwhack using an approximation of the winter route I used with Brian.  Since I didn’t get a predawn start, the steep ascent to Solitude Lake (11,400′) was a sweaty affair made terrible by swarms of hungry mosquitoes.  I arrived a bit lighter of water and blood, approximately 2.5 hours into the day.

From Solitude Lake, I hiked to the low point in the ridge between Arrowhead and McHenry.  A specific climbing route did not look obvious, but a lone cairn seemed to show a way; so, I took it.  The scrambling was fairly easy, and I soon found myself near the ridgeline.  I continued scrambling along the ridgeline until I reached the distinctive Arrowhead summit.

As I enjoyed a brief rest and water break, I examined the other side of the ridge for future climbing opportunities (many) and studied the ridgeline extending to McHenry for a possible extension to the days fun.  The ridge to McHenry looked rather difficult, so I decided I would wait until I could bring better climbing shoes and get an earlier start.

As I packed up my gear, I decided I would avoid the long detour of following the ridgeline.  I didn’t have a topographical map with me, but I recalled thinking that the route could be straightened out a bit.  Looking down the slope of Arrowhead, it all looked about the same; I picked a line that I thought was a few degrees to the right of my ascent route and started hiking.

Arrowhead viewed from Thatchtop, with ascent route indicated in red and descent route indicated in orange

Arrowhead viewed from Thatchtop, with ascent route indicated in red and descent route indicated in orange

Almost immediately, I was lost.  It is not easy to get lost on a small peak like Arrowhead, but I was lost just the same.  I knew I could just backtrack to the summit area, and I suppose that means I wasn’t completely lost; but I sure didn’t know the way down.  But the knowledge that I could always go back to the summit and the continuing good weather gave me the confidence to keep exploring.

As I got lower, I got into a gully that looked familiar, and followed it lower.  The gully became a chimney and the climbing became steeper until it felt technical; but I could see a big ledge 20 feet below that would allow me to exit the chimney and look around to see where I was; so I continued.  The last move to reach the ledge was so difficult that didn’t want to repeat it.  From the ledge, I could see that I was several hundred yards off course, directly above Solitude Lake.  Strangely, I found a rap anchor, but no way down without a rope.  The rap anchor gave me visions of a down climb of the sheer cliff beneath me, but I came to my senses and realized that I had to find a way back to the top.

I hunted a bit for a better route, and found a chimney that looked better that what I had descended.  I climbed it a short bit before realizing it was going to be even harder.  I had to make a couple of unprotected, mid 5th class moves over loose blocks stuck in the chimney. Once I reached the flatter summit slope near the summit, I was still lost but not in any immediate danger of being stuck for the rest of my life.  I decided, finally, to go back toward the ridge before descending the way I had come up.

Finally, down to the main trail and 3 miles back to the car, and my surprisingly adventurous day was done.  I had hiked approximately 10 miles, gained approx 3,400 feet in an 8-hour day filled with adventure and lessons learned.

Complications

  • I was alone
  • The available route information was indefinite
  • The guide book didn’t have a topo map

Mistakes

(1) Prepared badly

  1. Didn’t bring a map or compass
  2. Didn’t study the map; just thought I’d be able to figure it out

(2) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  1. Optimism Bias:  I was foolishly optimistic about being able to figure out a way down when I didn’t know enough about the terrain.  Even when the decision started to go badly, I continued to feel that everything would turn out okay somehow.
  2. Confirming Evidence Trap:  I continued to be motivated by false evidence & silly rationalizations, while ignoring evidence that I was making a mistake, e.g.,
  • “the gully looks familiar”
  • “I’ll be able to see where I am”

How I Got Lucky

  • The weather stayed good during my “explorations”
  • I was able to make the technical climbing moves

Go to “Learning from Mistakes” index

Go to Index of all essays

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