Posts Tagged ‘arrowhead’

Solitude Lake Cirque

July 6, 2010

A low altitude illustration of the 'off-trail' ascending and descending required to complete the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'.

It was finally time to do it. After many years of thinking about the various connected pieces, it was time to attempt the entire Solitude Lake Cirque: a climb of Arrowhead (3rd or 4th class) from Solitude Lake, then traversing to and climbing McHenrys’ NE Arete (4th Class) to the summit, then traversing McHenrys’ Notch (5th class downclimb and 2nd class scramble) to reach the summit of Mt Powell, and then traversing and downclimbing Mt Powell’s entire NE Ridge (4th class) to the summit of Thatchtop.

We knew it would be a long day.  Even if everything worked out perfectly, it would be a grueling, body-breaking day: over 13 hours, 11.5 miles, and 5140′ of elevation gain & loss, with much of it being off trail. For illustration purposes, the planned effort is similar to scrambling up and down the 3rd Flatiron five times in a row with a mouth-full of water (to simulate high altitude oxygen availability).  Fun, right?

The Solitude Lake Cirque objective and plan evolved over the last 13 years:

  1. The ‘McHenrys Notch’ piece: I learned of ‘The Notch’ when sitting on top of Flattop during the summer of 1997 and wondering out loud about hiking the Continental Divide to Chiefs Head. Brian notified me that ‘The Notch‘ was a challenging obstacle. I was intrigued.
  2. The ‘NE Arete of McHenrys’ piece:  I still vividly remember looking up the NE Arete of McHenrys while sitting on the summit of Arrowhead in 1999 and thinking that it was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen; I also thought it looked way too scary to to climb unroped (only 4th class).
  3. The ‘NE Ridge of Powell’ piece: I climbed this ridge almost exactly 11 years earlier in a solo effort; it was a near disastrous day as a late start and rainy weather nearly ended my climbing days (and every other kind as well). While my ability to do it while wet was confidence inspiring, the experience was psychologically traumatic.  Brian and I attempted to repeat it in late 2005 but were turned back by heavy snowfall.
  4. The ‘Do Them All Together’ Goal:  in early 2010, I informed Brian that the ‘Solitude Lake Cirque‘ was a goal for the 2010 summer.
  5. The Plan:  during the last week of June, I decided that we’d do the climb clockwise.  Even though The Notch is easier to climb than descend, I worried that a descent of McHenrys NE Arete would be too hard (since I didn’t know the terrain at all); and I thought we’d could rappel ‘The Notch’ if necessary.  And, I didn’t think a down climb of Powell’s NE Ridge would be much harder than an ascent since the elevation change was small. I was very wrong about this last point.

The 'Solitude Lake Cirque' -- illustrative route

And, throwing a monkey wrench into the works, the weather report was not perfect.  A “20% chance of rain after 1pm” was very worrying since it meant the rain would come while we were on Powell’s NE Ridge.  Given my history with that chunk of rock, I was justifiably worried. In addition, the weekend before a forecast of only 10% chance of rain after 1pm came 100% true on a climb of Spearhead in RMNP; I just couldn’t ignore the threat. However, Brian and I worked it out that we could summit Thatchtop by 1pm, if we started @ 4am and moved at a quick pace. That was somewhat reassuring, but I wondered how long we could keep up such a pace.

For better or worse, the ‘Solitude Lake Cirque‘ was a go!

On the morning of July 3rd, 2010, Brian and I left Boulder@ 2:30am for the Glacier Gorge trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. Unlike the previous week, the sky was mostly clear; it was a good sign on a day when good weather might be required to survive.

Ascending toward Solitude Lake with Arrowhead in background

I was driving, so we arrived at the trailhead a bit earlier than planned.  We started hiking at 3:45am.

Looking back down the steep hike up toward Shelf & Solitude Lakes

We took the ‘Knobs‘ shortcut to save 1/2 mile, and then took the Black Lake fork off the Loch Vale trail.

Position 1 (see references on map)

About 3.5 miles in, we reached the avalanche gully which marked the cutoff for Solitude Lake.  We turned toward Glacier Creek, gingerly walked along fallen logs to avoid sloshing through the marshy terrain.  A quick hop across the creek and then we scrambled up the steep slope to reach the Shelf Lake area, swatting mosquitoes all the way up.  On one of the longest days of the year (daylight-wise), it was light enough that we could have started hiking 30 minutes earlier.

It was Brian’s turn to dunk a boot, this time working across the Shelf Lake outlet.  But Brian was smart enough to wax his boots, so no wet foot for Brian (unlike my experience on Spearhead the week before).

Nearing Arrowhead, our 1st objective

Position 2

We reached the edge of Solitude Lake at 6:15am; I was delighted with our quick pace.  I thought we would be close to my goal of a 7am Arrowhead summit.  But clearly I had forgotten about the long talus-hop needed to reach the base of the Arrowhead climb.

Our route up Arrowhead

It took us another 45 minutes to reach the base of the climb.

Position 3

We started up a 4th class path Brian picked out; he didn’t want to use the 3rd class route we’d used before. I figured it would be a good warm up for climbing to come later in the day.  Rather than angle directly for the Arrowhead summit, I decided to climb to the ridgeline first.  I was rewarded with spectacular views of Glacier Gorge through the clear, early morning air.

Position 4

Joe (me) on Arrowhead summit with McHenrys NE Arete in background

I then joined Brian on the summit of Arrowhead at 8am.  We were already one hour behind schedule. It was time to start going faster, somehow.

The weather looked good, but we could see the winds above McHenry were moving very quickly.

Looking back down the NE Arete toward Arrowhead

We started back down the ridge toward the saddle, and then up the NE Arete. The climbing was not very difficult; there were a few spots of harder climbing below the Gendarmes on the ridge.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the climbing was nearly all 3rd class, with only a spot or two of 4th class. Accordingly, our time was pretty good, even though I was slowing down a bit after over 4300′ of elevation gain in the last 5+ hours.

The finish was remarkably easy and led to within a few yards of the summit.  A great route.

Position 5

Joe (me) on McHenrys summit with Longs and Chiefs Head in the distance.

We reached McHenrys summit at 9:30am; still one hour behind schedule, but at least no further time was lost. And the wind was cold and strong.

After a short break, we started toward The Notch.

Brian hiking toward 'The Notch' with Powell in background

Progress was easy for a while, but then became confusing. It was unclear which ledge was the correct ledge to take to the downclimb.  We decided to stay on the ridge crest as long as possible, which forced us to make an exposed move or two to reach the end.  From that position, we could see that the ledge below us had been the correct ledge; we downclimbed to it and then traversed over to the gully that led directly to the top of ‘The Notch‘.

Brian put on his rock shoes (removing Makalus); this says it all.  It was steep.  Plus, the freezing wind rushing up the gully was enough to unnerve anyone.

Brian descending the last few feet of the gully toward 'The Notch'

At first, the downclimb felt very hard; but that was just me getting used to the awkward nature of downclimbing steep terrain. The holds were good and we made good time for a bit. After about 100 feet, Brian found a rappel anchor and thought we should do a belayed downclimb. I was thinking we were past the hard part, but I rarely argue for less protection.  Brian was right. The next 150 feet was harder.

A view of the ascent path out of 'The Notch' to reach the summit of Mt Powell

We had brought a small rack, so it took some doing to put in gear for Brian’s protection.  And we were both freezing in the wind.

Position 6

I reached the bottom of the gully at 10:45am and worked my way into the sunshine before stopping to give Brian a belay. He came down quickly and joined me in the sunshine to warm up. The downclimbing was good due to the solid hand holds; it was a luxury we would miss later in the day while downclimbing slabs.

A view of the spectacular Mt Alice seen from 'The Notch'

We wandered over to the edge of The Notch to have a look and also gathered in some great views of Powell Lake and Mt Alice.

We also marveled at the great looking rock marking the Powell edge of The Notch; still, we were happy to have an alternative to escape The Notch.

Brian led the way down The Notch to reach the gully we could ascend to reach the top of Mt Powell.

Brian taking the final few steps to Mt Powell's summit

On the way up, I was delighted to find a trickle of snow-melt running over a rock that I could use to refill my empty water bottle.  I was very worried about not having more water for the rest of the day; it was only 11am. I silently wished for 2 bottles to fill.

Brian moved ahead and I followed as soon as my full bottle was put away. The gully was a bit loose, but not too bad; a mere 2nd class scramble.

Position 7

Looking back at McHenry from the summit of Powell, with Longs and Chiefs Head in the background.

We reached the summit of Mt Powell at 11:30am; we had picked up 30 minutes against our schedule and were now only 30 minutes behind schedule.  And 3 peaks down; only 1 more to go!

I realized that I had never been on the summit before.  The time I thought I had summited, on my trip up the NE Ridge from Thatchtop in the rain, I must have stopped at the false summit some yards to the north.  Well, better late than never.

And, now I was feeling very confident.  While the weather was getting worse, it looked like it would hold out until 1pm….just a few dark clouds so far. We didn’t even have to discuss our plan B of descending Andrews Glacier. I was thinking, ‘how long could it take to complete the NE Ridge’?  The reports of the ridge taking 4 hours seemed ridiculous.

Position 8

A view of the Cathedral Peaks and Sky Pond

We hiked toward Mt Taylor for about 200 feet and found a keyhole to slide through to get onto Powell’s NE Ridge. We then had to navigate a few feet of snow to reach the climbing, but that was the only snow we had to contend with all day.

Position 9

Finally, the only real hurdle remaining was the crux section of the NE Ridge; the section that I struggled so terribly with all those years ago. If we got past that section of the ridge, we would certainly make it. If the rain came before, we’d have to rope up if not turn back for Andrews Glacier. But the remaining hour before 1pm would surely be enough, wouldn’t it?

Brian working down the steep slabs on Powell's NE Ridge

I had budgeted 2 hours to do the entire NE Ridge; it took us 2 hours to just to finish the hard section.

Brian working past the crux

I was utterly wrong about how long it would take to complete the ridge. Descending 4th class slabs is much harder than ascending them.  Much harder….even when the altitude loss is minor. My mistake was due to my lack of understanding or appreciation of 2 factors:

  1. Descending 4th class slabs is complicated by the complexity of route-finding as holds are obscured when viewed from above
  2. Descending 4th class slabs is much harder at the end of a long day than seems possible at the beginning of the day

Brian nearing the end of the hard part of Powell's NE Ridge

Fortunately, the weather stayed dry.  The wind was unnerving as it tossed us around while we smeared our way across and down the slabs, but at least the rock was good for sticky rubber.

Position 10

Once past the hard section, I told Brian that I had followed the ridgeline all those years ago (which is also Roach’s instructions; I checked).  Brian said he liked the look of  the talus below the ridgeline. I wondered if there was a reason for Roach’s advice and so I angled up to the ridge near Point 12836 to see if the ridgeline was a better path.  Instead, I found the ridge was much harder than the talus below, so I descend to match Brian’s path.

A tired Brian sitting below the summit of Thatchtop

At a little before 2pm (and the weather still holding), I found Brian resting below the summit of Thatchtop. In his green jacket, I couldn’t see him until I was within rock throwing distance. He looked so comfortable, I couldn’t resist the temptation, and so I stretched out on a grassy patch.  It turned out that he wasn’t comfortable so much as sleepy.

Resting my feet on Powell's NE Ridge while enjoying the flowers

I finished my water and ate a snack, and I remarked to Brian that I would be willing to pay a lot to have the truck close-by.  The thought of descending thousands of feet and multiple miles just shriveled my morale.

All I had left to comfort me were my own words of advice: the greater the suffering, the greater the feeling of accomplishment.

Misery Axiom: never turn back because of mental misery.  More mental suffering (e.g., boredom, frustration, irritation) leads to more personal rewards, which can only be harvested through perseverance (corollary to Reward Rule).

Reward Rule: personal rewards are maximized by seeking an aggressive goal that matches the most optimistic assessment of your willingness to suffer; the right goal allows both success and satisfaction

Position 11

But we had many miles to go, as it has been said before.  We trudged up to the summit of Thatchtop, and I stopped for a photo of our day’s route.

The 'Solitude Lake Cirque' route overview

Brian hadn’t stopped, so I hurried after him, working my way down the endless talus field.  It was another mile of talus hoping to reach the bottom of Thatchtop. And at the end of such a long day, it was an endless misery.

Brian later pointed out:

Thatchtop’s name is appropriate from a long distance, but becomes supremely aggravating when one is actually on it and trying to hike over the ‘thatch’.

So true, Brian.

Brian heading down Thatchtop

And that wasn’t the end.  We still had to find the descent gully, which somehow eluded us.  After wandering through the peculiar stunted forested area at the end of the ridge, we finally stumbled upon the gully.  The gully turned out to be far more loose than I recalled; we slipped and slid down and around the corner before finally escaping.

And that wasn’t the end either.  We still had to work our way down the mixed forest/talus field to reach the creek flowing from Loch Vale.

Statistics for the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'

It was a level of effort I was not prepared to expend.  I was really beat.

I don’t think I’ve ever done so much off-trail descending.  To get down, we had to descend over 4000′ down talus and technical rock.  Try hiking down Longs Peak without using any trails..

And still we had to hike another 30 minutes to reach the car.

What a day!  I’m glad we did it. I’m glad it’s over.

Our route on the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'

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Interesting info regarding ‘Cirque de la Solitude’ on the ‘toughest long distance trail in Europe’


Arrowhead Slushfest

March 3, 2010

It was the 5th weekend in a row since the end of July that promised rain, and this time with a chance of snow!  What were we to do, since we couldn’t rock climb and couldn’t count on a hike peak due to lightning?

Brian had the idea of attempting Arrowhead in RMNP with a lightning backup plan of simply hiking to Black lake.  He thought it was a good idea to bring a rope just in case the conditions turned a 3rd class scramble into a technical nightmare.  I agreed it was a pretty safe plan.

Packing at the last minute, I couldn’t find my gaiters or my waterproof bibs.  But I figured the odds were for me to be overheating anyway…so I let it go.  I settled for my spring bibs (think: thin), but threw a fleece sweater and balaclava into the pack for insurance.

On September 9, 2006, we left Boulder around 7:30am and reached the parking lot around 8:45am.  The drive in took a few minutes longer than normal due to the later than normal start (more people awake), the Man-Dress Festival in Estes Park, and the poor luck of driving behind two cars driven by old men who were still coasting in from the 1940s. As we drove into Estes Park, I could see blue patches opening up after days of rain.  It looked like it was going to be hot, just like I figured.

Step 1

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.  We went too far initially and had to backtrack to find the right spot which happened to be full of avalanche debris.

Step 2

From the avalanche debris field 2 miles up the Black Lake trail, we exited to the right to find a nice trail across the creek and up the muddy slopes below Thatchtop and Arrowhead leading to Solitude Lake at 11,400.

The hike in was cool, but sunny.  Hiking in just a shirt but with nylon bibs was too hot, as I expected; that is, until it started snowing.  It actually started raining & snowing, but by the time we got near Solitude Lake, it was full on snowing.  I didn’t stop to put on my jacket because my shirt was already soaked with sweat and I was too hot to put on a jacket anyway.  By the time we got to Solitude Lake, I was cold and wet; and it was time for some new clothes.

At that time, the blue sky was obscured by heavy cloud cover and falling snow (it was a whiteout beyond 100 feet), and the visible rocks had a 2-3 inch coating of fresh snow. The snowfall was heavy but was melting fast….dripping from everything and soaking a muddy ground.

Step 3

Fortunately, I brought a spare shirt for just such a need.  I sought shelter from the thick-falling snow by ducking under a large rock. with dripping cold water on my bare skin, I made record time in changing my shirt and donning my waterproof jacket and gloves.  It took a couple minutes for my hands to thaw, but otherwise I felt pretty good….except for the wet feet (no gaiters).

We continued up the valley toward the start of the 3rd class scramble, slipping and falling over snow covered rocks.  I was wondering how far should we go before retreating?  It wasn’t a question of whether to retreat, but when….right?

Step 4

Brian thought we should push on, and I reluctantly agreed.

My bibs were wet and my legs were very cold, acting like radiators for my protected upper body.  I could feel my body temperature falling and knew that it would go lower while moving slowly on the slippery 3rd class climb.  I put on the fleece sweater and balaclava that I had been sure I wouldn’t need.  I could only hope that too much insulation on my head and upper body would overcome wet & cold feet and legs.  I felt very fortunate to have the extra clothes on a cold, wet & windy day.

Step 5

We started up the 3rd class scramble and found that it was covered in a layer of snow and slush that obscured the rock and acted like grease.  We knew right away that this was not going to be easy, and that the descent would be even harder.  We didn’t have axes, and I’m not sure they would have helped anyway. Brian was leading the way, and I followed behind thinking (or hoping) that he would give up soon.

We couldn’t find the exact way and had to backtrack to find our way a couple of time.  The route was usually well-marked with cairns, but the cairns were covered in snow.  Slowly, we worked our way higher.  As we neared the top of the scramble, we faced the crux of the climb, a 15 foot steep wall.

Step 6

I finally said, “this is a mistake; I hope we don’t have to pay a terrible price for it.”  Brian felt it was safe enough because he thought he could downclimb the moves, but I wouldn’t follow until he found an anchor for a rappel on the descent.  He complied, and I followed him to the talus slopes that we climbed to the Arrowhead summit.

We reached the normally impressive summit in a whiteout.  Cold, we didn’t stay long; we only paused to put on our harnesses and take a drink.

Our route up Arrowhead via Solitude Lake


We scrambled down the snow covered talus with far more comfort than expected due to our ability to follow our own footprints.  The snow had stopped falling so we could still see where we had placed our feet on the way up.  Otherwise, we’d have struggled to descend without multiple slips and falls.

Once we reached the steep section, we stopped to pull out the rope.  Brian offered me the top-rope and I accepted gladly.  I slowly worked my way down the slush-covered grass and gravel to reach the top of the 15-foot cliff.  I had to slowly work my way up to the edge and then ever so carefully work my way down the snow-covered rock.  I worked down a total of 25 feet of terrain before stopping to provide Brian a belay.

He came down quickly, and we setup for the next section.  I started down the next section even slower than before.  Even though my successful downclimb of the previous section gave me a boost of confidence, the ground felt more slippery than ever.  About 10 feet into the second section of descent, I attempted to step down a drop in the ramp.  My uphill foot slipped on the slush.  As I slid forward on my rear end, I jammed my downhill foot on the only exposed rock while Brian’s belay slowed my apparent attempt to jump off the mountain.  Without the rope, I fear Brian would still be dragging my broken bones down the mountain.

We continued with the descent, stopping to move the belay lower when we could find a safe spot.  Eventually we reached easier terrain and put the rope away.  I was never happier to have a rope along for the ride.

Once we reached the bottom of the valley below the climb, I stopped to drain the considerable volume of cold water from my boots.  Afterward, with dryer feet and intact bones, it felt like a good day.

We then hiked back to Solitude Lake, and then back down to the Black Lake trail by 4pm.  We stopped for a drink and a bite, and attempted to do something about our wet clothes.  But it was all in vain as neither of us had anything dry to put on.

Finally, after a 3 miles trek back to the car ending at 5:45pm, the day was done.

We had hiked approximately 10 miles, gained approx 3,400 feet in mud and snow over an 8.5 hour day.  We had been drenched and frozen, but we had persevered to achieved our summit, even if it was against my judgment to do so.

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Wrongway Arrowhead

March 14, 2009


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.


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


(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

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