With a sunny Saturday open, Caleb and I had the day to play in the mountains. We chose a route in Glacier Gorge that was sure to fill up our whole day: Pagoda Mountain, a 12.5-mile roundtrip from Glacier Gorge. Conditions on the ground slowed our progress so that the summit was not achieved, but we still experienced the gorgeous and rarified views along the entire Glacier Gorge floor.
Our morning trek began in the trees, where bare dirt quickly became hardpacked snow. Shoes were sufficient here, but since I was carrying my microspikes anyway, I eventually put those on, while snowshoes remained in our packs. We took the packed and well-traveled shortcut between Glacier Knobs to Mills Lake, making good time to the lake itself. Had the lake still been frozen, it would have been a nice way to travel even faster, but we were in the transition period where open water was starting to appear. So, we picked our way on less-defined trails as we made it to the south end of the lake.
After that, all hell broke loose.
At least it did back in November, when a microburst blew down hundreds of trees just south of Mills Lake. We knew about the microburst event, but underestimated the time and frustration of getting around the downed trees. We tried deviating on both the west and south side of the trail, but ultimately, the "clearest" route was directly on top of the creek itself, since at least a fraction of the downed trees would fall across the banks of the creek and therefore be high enough to walk under. With just barely enough snow to bridge over the open water, we made our way through the mess. Finally, the damage ended -- mostly by virtue of reaching treeline -- and the cliff wall below Black Lake appeared. Our spirits were buoyed by ample sunshine and views of Spearhead pointing to the heavens above. We slogged on through solid snow, with Caleb donning his snowshoes, up to Black Lake.
No time to rest there, though, as we continued the steady grade up to the next bench which led to Green Lake, and even more stunning views all around, with McHenry's, Chief's Head, and Arrowhead looking especially magnificent behind us.
And, in front of us, lie our objective of Pagoda Mountain.
By this time, we had already taken over 4 hours to reach Green Lake. Still remaining was the crux of the route: the steep, scree and talus-filled col between the turreted Keyboard of the Winds and Pagoda Mountain. I had both enjoyment and trepidation from a trip report which described this section thusly:
The gully is 1,000 feet of nastiness: Ball-bearing scree, break-neck kitty litter on hardpan, dinner plate talus, slabs of class 3 relief, not to mention the occasional television- and microwave-sized missile at the ready. Fortunately there is nobody below us so our stress is minimal. The towers of Keyboard of the Winds loom large as we approach the top.
And that's in summer, but our pleasure was doubled by lingering and recent snow, as well as occasional ice, on top of and in the cracks between larger rocks.
Wobbly talus is bad, and scree can be no fun when ascending, but on this part it's combined in just the right diabolical proportion where a shift in the scree causes the talus to shift, where, if it doesn't hit your shin, it balances precariously on more loose scree for the next unsuspecting victim. Some of this can be surmounted by an intermediate section of solid class-3 (+, with snow) slabs in the lower part of the climb, where Caleb took an impressive and ambitious lead in the shadow of Pagoda:
Although some sections of this were fun, the snow ruled out some otherwise good holds, necessitating a traverse back over to the wobbly talus.
Our progress up this section was staggered and slow, with occasional breaks when a large enough, flat enough rock was available for balance. Having been at it for 6 hours, we decided to head back down and save the mountain for another day.
The retreat down was also slow-going, as predicted, but we were happy to make it down without incident.
Admittedly, the views were equally fantastic downvalley.
We were relieved to reach the snowfield on the bench above Green Lake again, where we enjoyed a snack and calm skies. Clouds moved and shadows danced on rock walls, and sunlight bounced off of the azure ice above Black Lake. Of course, that's also about the same time my camera stopped working altogether, but the advantage of no longer having the tension of the steeper section (or fatigue that we would have had from pushing to the summit) was that we could more easily appreciate the valley itself.
Again, until we reached the blowdown area.
This time, we stuck mostly to the creek itself. We took numerous disconcerting steps over snow with audible rushing (but shallow) water below us. Shortly -- within days -- even this option will not be available as the volume rises, and Glacier Gorge hiking will remain tedious.
We had our snowshoes on the entire time from just above Black Lake, giving us a 5+ mile snowshoe as part of our hike. Finally, 11 hours later, we reached the car. J asked me the next day how many people we saw, and I was stunned that I hadn't thought of it earlier: None. No other people from trailhead back to trailhead. 11 hours, just my brother-in-law and I. That's a pretty awesome day.