For the first few miles into Glacier Gorge, the skis stayed strapped to our backs. The frozen compact of an entire season’s worth of snow barely resonated as it had when it first touched down, an unintended consequence of hundreds of others navigating the exact same line day after day. We moved swiftly into the yawn of the morning. We passed Black Lake and found ourselves in the flats just below Spearhead, which hid the entrance to our intended line. The morning was clear and the skies resonated a pure blue, save for one odd section of sky just above the basin. As we moved, a persistent cloud was forming just above us, seemingly rolling out of nowhere and drifting over The Trough and onto Longs. Before passing behind Spearhed to the East, we took a minute to study the what we could of McHenery’s.
As we came around Spearhead, the lower section of our line came into view – a massive hanging snowfield above a 200 or so foot drop. Great.
The rope in my pack didn’t feel so heavy anymore.
We took the opportunity to put harnesses on and eat in the sun now warming everything around us. The skis went back on to our packs and we began a short bootpack into a steepening slope to the apron on looker’s right of the snowfield. There was a short conversation regarding climbing the Pagoda/Chief’s Head couloir closer to Pagoda, then ride the ridge to the Chief’s Head summit, but we aired on the side of safety and decided to get a good look at the snow before committing to our intended line.
If you have been trying to ski the backcountry in the front range of Colorado for the past three weeks or so you know that things have been a bit confusing. High temps, high winds and a solid powder stash here and there around treeline. So anything could have happened when we began to climb.
The first hundred or so feet left a bit of a sinking feeling in my chest, literally and figuratively I suppose. The snow was dry and deep and evaded the intentions of the crampons on my feet. I continued on expecting this to be the next few hours of my life, but was pleasantly surprised to find a superbly consolidated layer a bit higher up. Our pace quickened as we climbed a bit of a natural ridge up toward the hanging snowfield. The familiar crunch of fresh, consolidated snow resonated through my boots and my axe had satisfying resistance as it met the firm layer of snow sitting just beneath a few inches of fresh. Each placement became increasingly solid, each breath became a bit less labored and we climbed into the stillness of a nearly perfect morning.
On a flatter section of the line, I stopped to look behind me and saw Austin making his way up almost effortlessly. Spearhead had just come into the sun and our bootpack across the bottom of the basin had receded farther than I could have imagined in the short amount of time we had been climbing. The persistently forming cloud still rolled above us, sucking moisture from the basin, condensing it in the sun and moving it along. Longs watched over our progress from the West and the entirety of Glacier Gorge revealed the Park north to a clean view of Mummy. The day was as pure as it could have been and we found ourselves riding a high only found when the good graces of patience give you more than you had expected. We had been waiting for the winds to calm and the temperatures to drop for what had felt like forever and now, standing halfway below our objective, we realized that it was all coming together once again, just like we knew it would.
We made it to the snowfield via a spicy little traverse a bit off to lookers right at the top of the apron. The snow remained consistent and we were confident in our decision to cross without deploying rope. Dickey led the charge from here and encountered a section of deep, loose snow right at the start of the main couloir, but for the most part, we were in the same snowpack as before. Perfect.
We followed the snow up to its terminus just below the rocky ridge line which would carry us East to the Chief’s Head summit. We found the summit ridge and raced to the summit in the sun.
Back from the summit, we found a solid spot to click in and Austin led the charge back down.
This was a line I really wanted to ski. When I was discussing Chiefs Head with my dad he told me about him and Mike Browning climbing this line in the winter over 40 years ago. It has it all, a hidden entrance, a steep exposed traverse and a beautiful couloir. Dropping in connected a dream of mine. The snow was fantastic for skiing. We skied the line quickly and took a break at the top of the apron. At this point the sun was disappearing and it was time for the 6 mile ski back to the trailhead. We donned our headlamps and pushed on back to the car.