Posts Tagged ‘chiefs head’

Much Ado About Nothing on Chiefs Head

February 16, 2010

For eight years, one of the most significant rock formation in RNMP had stared us in the face every time we’ve ventured into Glacier Gorge, and yet, we’d never thought to venture onto its features.  Primarily, our lack of attention was due to the very long approach, but in some important way, its forbidding and committing look was also a deterrent.

The guidebooks didn’t paint a rosy picture, either.  Rossiter’s guidebook says…

The Northwest Face of Chiefs Head is one of the finest alpine walls in the contiguous United States.  The immense and unusally smooth oval face rises a thousand feet…and is home to some very aesthetic and very hairy routes.  All of the routes have long runouts and no fixed anchors[.] In the event of storm…it is very difficult to escape.

Plus, all the routes seemed to be 5.11X or 5.12R, so our attention was rightly elsewhere.  But one day, Brian sends me an email:


How about “Much Ado About Nothing”.  This is about the only climb on Chiefshead that isn’t 5.10 or above.  It’s way right of the big wall, and has five pitches, with the last one 5.8.


My thoughts were along the lines of: Heck yeah!  Only 5.8, really?  Why haven’t we done it before now?  And we can bag another Chiefs Head summit! I responded via email with agreement and a question about the descent.  Brian replied:


Descent may be most interesting part.  Stoneman could be done, but it would be a long way back to pick up packs.  Rositer recommends rapping down his Birds of Prey route, but first you have to find it.  And find it empty.  The third choice is a third class route much closer than Stoneman. Finding that route could be valuable knowledge.

Forgot to mention:  this climb gets no star in the book.  But I thought it would be worth it to do something on that mountain.


I wondered about the “no star” thing, but was already enthusiastic about the climb. They say, ignorance is bliss, at least for a while.  Soon, we’d find out just how wise it is to be afraid of Chiefs Head’s Northwest Face.  We find out just how hard Chiefs Head climbs really are, even a mere 5.8 route.

The Story

On the morning of August 23, 2003, we caught the 5am shuttle bus (earliest available) to travel up Bear Lake road as we set out for the far end of Glacier Gorge. We had to hike approximately 7 miles and over 3,000 vertical feet just to reach the start of the climb:  we hiked up past Black Lake, over the north shoulder of Spearhead, past Frozen Lake and beneath the west face of Spearhead, and then we scrambled up a rocky shelf before crawling up the snowy talus to reach the northwest face of Chiefs Head.  Then, we turned west and climbed up the snowy ramp to reach the base of the climb.  It was a brutal 3.5 hours; and we hadn’t even started the climb.

Our route plus alternative descent routes from Chiefs Head

Prior to reaching the base of the climb, we stopped for a moment of study while we could still see the entire wall.  The key was the figure of a head that would guide us to know where to start and where to aim during the initial pitches.  We were looking at shadowy patches trying to find one that looked like a head; Brian claimed to be able to see an “Indian’s head” but I could not.  But with a target in hand, we finished the approach.  Just before 9am, we started up the Much Ado About Nothing route on Chiefs Head’s Northwest Face.

Pitch 1

I took the first pitch and climbed over steep, broken ground that was supposed to end at the base of a “head” I could not see.  I could do no more than take out as much rope as I could and find a good spot to belay.

Pitch 2

Brian took the second pitch, following huge broken flakes that provided small left-facing dihedrals on their left side.  He finished over some easy ledges and belayed at the base of a left leaning ramp.  At this time we noticed that the weather was worsening; our view west was blocked, but the sky above was clouding up and darkening.  We knew we had to hurry since the crux was still ahead.

Pitch 3

I took the third pitch which was to climb the ramp leading up and left angling toward a big dark roof that stretched for more than a pitch as it arched left.  To save some time on an easier section, we decided to simul-climb. Using the ramp to travel diagonally under the  roof started out easy, but then steepened.

And then the rain started.  It was a only a drizzle, but now we were in it.  It was approximately 12pm.

The crux of the climb was still ahead; I knew we had to get past the slabby crux before the lichen turned into grease.  I put in a quick belay with about 1/2 a pitch of the roof remaining so Brian and I could put on our rain jackets. We then moved the belay to below the crux pitch so Brian could race the weather past the crux.

Pitch 4

Just as Brian arrived at the end of the ramp, the rain began again in earnest.  We could see the next ramp approximately 30 feet above us; Brian had to get there before the rock became unclimbable as well as unprotectable (a slab).  He started quickly but soon slowed as the  rock was quickly getting slick.

As I sat in the freezing rain, I could feel the water soak thorugh my rain jacket.  As I watched Brian slowly working his way up, hoping he wouldn’t take a long fall, and as I got colder and colder as my clothes became more and more wet, I came to understand just how important it is to have proper gear when venturing into hard to escape terrain.  Apparently, my windproof, water resistant, insulated and wonderfully packable North Face jacket was not up to the challenge of a real Alpine adventure.  I was going to suffer terribly as a result.

Brian decided to stop before the ramp, but after the hard section, to allow me to get past the crux before it became too wet.  But it was too late, the rock was completely drenched, and I was certain I could not climb the rock.  I was mentally prepared to “fall up” over the slick rock.

And it was like climbing a greased slope, but 3 points of contact allowed me to cling to the rock like a spider in the shower.  Once I reached Brian, we quickly moved the belay up to the ramp so we could figure out where we were.

Pitch 5

We were very confused because, according to the information we had collected, we should be at the summit ridge already.  But there was no summit ridge in sight.  It turned out that Rossiter’s topo only showed the unbroken portion of rock that was set into and below the full NW face.  We didn’t have any certain knowledge or clue as to how to get to the summit ridge.

All we could do was follow the ramp we were on and then follow our noses to try to find the rappel anchors or at worst take the summit ridge down to either Stone Man Pass or find the mysterious “broken ramp” that Rossiter described as an ascent route to the right of the Much Ado About Nothing route.  But first things first.

I took the lead for a simul-climb of the ramp.  After a couple hundred feet with no rap anchors or anything else looking promising, I found a right leaning ramp that promised to intercept the ridge as it sloped down. Desperate for any escape, I abandoned the search for rap anchors and took the right leaning ramp.  It went, and I was able to piece together a climb off the face.

Yes!  We made it.

While I was sopping wet and freezing cold, I now had control over my fate; I knew that I knew how to get home.  I just needed to escape Glacier Gorge before it got dark; it was approximately 3pm.

Much Ado About Nothing route plus descent. Photo from Longs Peak of Chiefs Head edited to highlight Chiefs Head features by removing other peaks (e,g,m Mt. Alice) from the background.



Shivering with no hope of getting warm, I had no intention of continuing to the Chiefs Head summit.  I wouldn’t have done it even if I had never stood on top of Chiefs Head.  I felt that my life was in play and wanted to take no unnecessary chances.

Brian thought he could find the gully that Rossiter described as an ascent route; from a safety, time & energy management perspective, we desperately wanted to avoid going all the way around to and down Stone Man pass.  We hiked down the much of the NW Ridge to find a likely big gully to descend.  It was more like a series of steep gullies that would work for 40 feet, then we would have to find ledge that would allow us to traverse to another gully.

We kept trying to turn back to the east where the climb started, but each time all we could see was a difficult ledge heading east and then a rock rib would prevent us from seeing whether the ledge continued.  Brian said it reminded him of Pyramid Peak.

Eventually Brian found a ledge that led out to the biggest rib, and from there he could see the start of the climb, and sloping, rubble-covered ramps leading down to it.  We scrambled down and followed it until the terrain started to break up; a path to the right appeared and we took it, hoping it would lead to the snowy ramp we started on.

We had to retrace our steps a couple times as we’d cliff out, and then we split up to double our chances of finding an escape path.  Eventually Brian found a path through tumble that worked.

It was approximately 5pm.  Three hours of light left.

We packed up our gear and headed down as fast as we could manage.  We were going to get caught out by darkness; it was only a question of how much hard hiking we had to do in the dark without headlamps.

We retraced our steps so not to introduce any new variables, and we made it to within a quarter mile of the Bear Lake road before it became too dark to see what we were doing.  Since the buses ran until 10pm, we took our time creeping in the dark to find the Bear Lake road.  Once there, we started downhill and found a small group of people standing by the road.  We confirmed that it was the bus stop and then we layed down on the pavement to wait for its arrival.  We had spent our last ounce of energy.

We made it.  We had hiked 15 miles, and climbed nearly 4,000′ in over 15.5 hours.  And this time we had overcome serious route finding problems, freezing rain, and one serious case of rain gear stupidity to make it home once again.

It was a glorious adventure.

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The Double Crown: Chiefs Head & Mt Alice

March 19, 2009

Time after time, I find that an ambitious goal combined with an equal willingness to suffer optimizes personal reward.  I’ll admit this statement doesn’t feel true during my adventures, but is clear afterwards.  Of course, larger goals lead to larger rewards; but, overly large goals, exceeding my willingness to suffer, lead to bitter disappointment.   And, naturally, small goals accomplished easily mean nothing.

To find situations where I must try as hard as I can to just barely succeed, I look to harmonize aggressive goals with an optimistic assessment of my willingness to suffer.  This mental model helps me to imprint two attributes on my adventure plans:

  1. My goals are probably attainable; high success rates
  2. I’ll have to suffer more than I wanted, but be rewarded more than I expected

My trip to RMNP to collect the summits of Chief Head (13,579′) and Mt Alice (13,310′) was aggressive for obvious and non-obvious reasons.  In success, I found tremendous satisfaction, even if some of the suffering was self induced.


When the alarm went off at 4:30am I was reminded of the Cardinal Rule of sleep:

“It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve slept the night, the sleep you were getting when the alarm went off was great.”

Still, I managed to get ready to meet Brian and then drive to the Glacier Gorge trailhead before 6am.   As I tied into my new La Sportiva Eigers, which just replaced my old Makalus, I silently hoped wearing them around the house for a couple days the previous week was enough to break them in.

It wasn’t.

We started hiking right at 6am and made good time until the battle between my feet and my new boots began to resolve itself into a win for the boots. By 8:45am I reached Black Lake where I performed my second boot/sock refit of the day.  Afterward, we left Black Lake for the shortcut to Stone Man Pass, aiming directly for Arrowhead.

We scrambled up the steep grass and cliffy slope, and reached the bench above Black Lake just in time for a boot pit stop.  In a blatant escalation of hostilities, I dug out the moleskin and athletic tape, and hoped for a stalemate.  We then turned south to head underneath McHenry and to Stone Man Pass.

Below McHenry, we stopped at a waterfall to refill our bottles.  This would be our last water source until returning to the spot hours hence.  Brian had his usual thimble-sized container, while I brought a surprisingly modest two 1-liter bottles.  To compensate for a dry future, I finished and refilled both liters before heading up the partially snow-clogged couloir to Stone Man Pass.

A view back down the ridge toward Stone Man Pass

A view back down the ridge toward Stone Man Pass. The route starts from the top of Stone Man Pass.

We reached Stone Man pass around 10:30am and examined the ridge leading up to Chief’s Head for clues about the route.  The available guidebooks were not very clear about the exact route to Chiefs Head.  I have found that this can mean the route is obvious or, alternatively, it could mean nothing at all.

We took another 2 minutes to study the Stone Man himself for possible future climbing; Brian assessed it a “five-easy” while I thought it looked hard to protect.  Brian is often right about these things and we made a mental note to give it a try another time.

Note:  a later trip confirmed the climbing is easy but awkward; however, a safe escape from the Stoneman’s head required the sacrifice of a long cordelette.

The Chiefs Head Keyhole

The Chiefs Head Keyhole

The route finding quickly became very interesting.  I spied a lonely cairn 90 degrees west (right) from where the route looked to go up a couloir to the ridgeline.  Brian went to investigate while I resorted my boots again.

I feared for torrents of blood pouring out of my boots each time I took them off.

We continued scrambling below the ridgeline on the west side along a ledge until we reached the end of the ledge.  Then we took a hard left through a “keyhole” of sorts, and climbed up to the summit ridge of Chief’s Head.  It was very good rock and a pleasant scramble (3rd class).  We reached the summit ridge at 11:15am and took another 30 minutes to ascend the remaining 700 feet of elevation to the Chiefs Head summit.

This last 700 feet consumed the last of my “still feel strong” status.  We stopped for lunch, during which I consumed ½ of the water that would have to sustain me until I return to the bottom of Stone Man Pass.  I was 1.75 hours into a 5-hour circuit and my water was ½ gone.   I also made another futile attempt to save my feet, and resolved to go barefoot if the pain got worse.

A view of Pagota, Keyboard of the Winds, Longs, and Meeker, taken from Chiefs Head summit

A view of Pagota, Keyboard of the Winds, Longs, and Meeker, taken from Chiefs Head summit

The views from Chief’s Head are worth the trip.  The line from Meeker to Longs to Pagoda to Chiefs Head is spectacular. The thought of doing the entire traverse appealed to my ego, but I concluded it would require too much suffering.

As I looked over toward McHenry, I joked that if we felt like it we could climb McHenry again to claim the Triple Crown (Gerry Roach’s title for bagging McHenry, Chief’s Head, and Mt. Alice in a day).  Brian just grumbled as he had done every other time I mentioned the possibility in the previous 24 hours.

Looking back toward McHenry and Stone Man Pass from Mt Alice

Looking back toward McHenry and Stone Man Pass from Mt Alice

Somewhat refreshed, we started down the talus boulders making very good time to reach the grassy field that lies between Chief’s Head and Mt. Alice.  We were approaching Mt. Alice when, looking back, we noticed a couple of people behind us about ½ way across the grassy field coming toward Mt. Alice as well.  We were surprised and wondered how they had gotten so close without us noticing. Looking back a few moments later, Brian noted they had gained a lot of distance on us.  I reasoned that they were traveling downhill while we where doing a bit of scrambling and climbing.  It seemed like a reasonable conclusion.

A view of Mt Alice from below the summit of Chiefs Head

A view of Mt Alice and the narrow ramp summit route from below the summit of Chiefs Head.

Over the next 30 minutes, these fellows proved that people are not all the same.

They must be young, I thought.  The first to pass me was a young fellow, but his partner right behind him looked like my father.   Brian strained to beat the old guy to the summit, marginally holding up the honor of the team.

When I arrived at 1:30pm, they were gone.  As I looked around, Brian indicated that they had gone on to grab more peaks before heading back to Wild Basin.  They had done Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, Chief’s Head, and Mt. Alice (so far) in shorts and sneakers.  The older guy had said he was tired, while the younger guy said he was running out of food because he didn’t have bread to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that morning.  Poor guy.

Our route map to (1) Black Lake, (2) Stone Man Pass, (3) Chiefs Head, and (4) Mt Alice

Our route map to: (1) Black Lake, (2) Stone Man Pass, (3) Chiefs Head, and (4) Mt Alice

After a short snack and another boot repair, I was out of water.  I was tired and 9 miles from the car, but at least I was turning around.

I managed to get back to the grassy field in decent time; downhill is always okay.  But climbing back up to the Chief’s Head ridge was murder.  And my body didn’t work that well anymore, forcing me to think carefully about moves that I did unconsciously a few hours earlier.  I really needed some water.

We reached Stone Man pass at around 4:30pm, which left us 4 hours of light to get down the snow/talus slope below Stone Man Pass, get over to and down the steep trail west and above Black lake, and then hike 4+ miles to get to the car.  We didn’t even talk about McHenry.

We descended the snowy Pass with a bit of heel plunging and a bit of scrambling to reach the bottom by 5pm.  I found a nice fountain of melted snow to refill my long-empty bottles; but I had to wait 30 minutes before drinking to allow the iodine to work its magic.  I was very tempted to throw caution to the wind and just drink it.

Thirty minutes later, I yelled to Brian to stop.  I was going to have that damned water right then.  As I was pulling my water out of the pack, I nearly trembled with fear as I lifted the 1st bottle up to the light . . . It was not dissolved.  The damned thing looked just like it did when I put it in there. As I was losing my composure, Brian reminded me that hiking equals shaking, in the world of iodine tablets.  I started hiking without taking a drink.

We scrambled down the steep slopes above Black lake with a bit of rock scrambling and steep grass maneuvering.  The plan was to stop at Black lake for a break, but once I was past the hard part of the descent, I just sat in the dirt and drank a liter of water.  That was good water; even the iodine tasted good.  I then joined Brian at Black lake where I finished off another liter and a bar, and then I refilled one of the bottles for the ride home.

I didn’t even bother with the boots any more.  I was just stumps below the ankles.

On flat terrain and using good trails, we took less than 1.5 hours to cover the 5 miles to the car, arriving at 8pm.  I finally was able to get those miserable boots off my feet.  I didn’t have the courage to examine the damaged tissues so I just put on my sneakers, drank my iodine water and started driving.

Driving home, it started to feel like a day well spent.  The pleasure of our successful 14 hour effort to hike 18 miles and climb 5,300 feet to reach the summits of two new 13ers spread throughout my body like a slow, warm wave.  My feet almost didn’t hurt anymore.  Almost.

Our trek to bag Chiefs Head and Mt. Alice in RMNP was another of those harder-than-expected- but-glorious-in-its-successful-completion efforts. It was perfect.

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