The author at the top of Stone Man Pass. I think that is Chief’s Head Peak in the background.
This article was published in the Estes Park news in a column I used to have called Tales from the Trail, it was many years ago…
My friend Lyn and I left the Glacier Gorge parking lot in Rocky Mountain National Park at 6:00 a.m. on the morning of October 27, 1998, with the intention of climbing McHenry’s Peak.
As we hiked up the trail to Mills Lake, darkness shifted around us, and our headlamps reflected shimmering ice crystals on fallen leaves. The first heavy frost of the season had descended that night.
We reached Mills Lake as the rising sun reflected shades of red in the water, a bull elk was bugling his morning song. On the trail between Black Lake and Mills, we were lucky to see a pine martin.
At Black Lake we discussed our route. I had not taken the time to read about the route up the mountain as Lyn usually did this. Lyn had read the guidebook, but only quickly. She remembered something about a route that was west of Black Lake. It was shorter and more challenging than the longer eastern route, which wound up to the bench above Black Lake. Although both of us had failed to bring a guidebook with us, we decided to try the western route.
Black Lake is a beautiful mountain lake. Arrowhead Mountain and McHenry’s Peak tower above, and there is a crystal waterfall winding its way down over slick rocks and ledges. We started up to the right, or west of these falls, along the edge of the rock slabs. There was a faint trail, which soon faded out, and we found ourselves forced onto the rocks, which seemed easier than the awful scree we had been struggling up. In order to ascend the ledges, we had to switchback left and right, and we soon found ourselves forced close and closer to the waterfall. Some of the ledges now were only wide enough for our toes, and we started to realize we were getting into a predicament. However, we had covered a fair distance and did not want to go all the way back, so we pushed on.
When we reached the waterfall we saw that it was frozen solid. Lyn made her way across carefully, then she went off to scout the route ahead. We were now close to the bench that would lead us safely to Stone Man Pass. I started across the ice, and was almost across when my boot slipped.
They say when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. All I envisioned was my body thumping its way down that icy, and very rocky waterfall, a cry escaping from my lips, and being quieted only when my body hit the rocks at the bottom, a mangle of broken bones. I imagined Lyn, up on the bench, frozen at the sound of my scream, not wanting to believe what she had heard.
In the same instant, the other half of my brain was thinking how I could save myself. As I began to slide, fear gripping my heart, I noticed a wide, rugged crevice just below to my left, and instinctually I put my right hand out and pushed my body toward it. When my left leg lined up with the crevice I rammed my leg into it and, with a jolt, I came to a stop.
I was frozen in fear, and my heartbeat pounded in my ears. I waited for the searing pain of a broken leg. Surely it would come any second? I thought, but there was no pain. When I looked down, I saw my leg was intact other than a few scrapes. I tested it cautiously, then slowly made my way across the rest of the waterfall. On solid rock again, I stood shaking, but Lyn’s voice came to me and brought me back to my senses.
“Well, I found a way up, but you’re not going to like it,” she said.
A few more steps to my left, and I saw the problem. The ledge I was standing on dead ended in a smooth rock wall about 3 ft deep, which was the edge of yet another smooth rock slab. My eyes I followed the dihedral crack upward, until they met Lyn’s eyes peering down at me.
“All you have to do is get up this, and it’s easy from here,” she said with encouragement.
“No way,” I exclaimed, “I don’t know any of this technical stuff, plus I’m in hiking boots and carrying a heavy pack.”
“Look I know it’s not easy, but I made it, I’m sure you can too.”
Lyn waited patiently while I looked around for another route, but I finally accepted I had no choice. I certainly was not crossing that waterfall again.
“Okay, I’ve done stuff harder than this before, just not with a thousand foot drop beneath me,” I told her. “Here I come.”
“Oh God I can’t watch,” muttered Lyn, and turned away mumbling to herself.
I was scared, especially after my encounter a few minutes before. I remembered watching a tape once on rock climbing, about how to make handholds and how to use your fist as a wedge, and decided I could do it.
“Here goes,” I said loudly, and started up the crack. Crablike, hand over hand, foot over foot, up I went, and bumped right into Lyn who had been looking away and was still mumbling.
“Oh quit your mumbling,” I said, “I’m here, now move before this juniper bush gives way under my weight.”
Never had either of us been so relieved, well, with the exception of five minutes earlier in my case. A little more scrambling through juniper bushes and we were safely on the bench above Black Lake, and to Lyn’s amusement I started singing:
“First I was afraid I was petrified, kept thinking I would never get off this mountain alive, but I’ll survive, I will survive.” Gloria Gaynor’s tune became our theme song for this mountain, adlibbed, of course.
Tired though we were, and as late as it was in the day, there was no looking back now. We popped Tylenol, ate some Twizzlers, and were on our way up Stone Man Pass and the long haul up McHenry’s Peak. The few narrow ledges near the top were a breeze now, and a little later we stood triumphantly on the summit.
However, Mother Nature had one more surprise up her sleeve for us on this day.
On the summit, we admired the view and took pictures of each other in various ridiculous poses. Lyn was getting ready to pose on a rock with The Keyboard of The Winds behind her, when I heard a strange noise drifting towards us on the slight breeze.
I looked over to Lyn to see if she had heard it, and she was standing perfectly still, one ear cocked towards Pagoda Mountain, a puzzled look on her face. As we listened, the noise rapidly grew louder, and I thought it sounded just like a freight train coming directly at us. In the same moment, I watched Lyn’s eyes get wide and the color drain from her face.
“Drop!” she shouted as she suddenly dropped to the ground and flattened herself against the rocks. In the same moment, I dived behind a boulder and clung to it for dear life.
I had heard stories of people getting blown off mountain tops. I believe someone had been blown off the top of Mount Lady Washington just a few weeks before, and I had wondered how that could possibly happen. Surely, if it’s windy you do not get near the edge. Right? However, as this freak wind roared down the valley and gusted up the side of McHenry’s Peak with the power of a hurricane, I suddenly understood, because had we been laughing or talking, we too may not have heard it until it was too late.
It had been quite a day. Tired and weary we took the longer, but safer route home across the bench, and made it to the trail right at dusk. Just before Black Lake we saw the pine martin again, and were safely back at our cars at 7:30 PM, thirteen-and-a-half hours after we started out.
At the gas station, I noticed people giving me strange looks. Upon inspection, I saw that my leg was streaked with blood and had many gashes in it. I smiled, knowing how lucky I was, and felt joyously happy to be alive.
Lyn on top of McHenry’s Peak. Directly behind her is Pagoda Mountain, then The Keyboard Of The Winds, and Long’s Peak. She got to do her silly pose after the freak wind vanished.
Bye for now
Roxy ~ A Nomad for Nature