My luck with Pagoda Mountain has been unusually bad. It’s not that Pagoda is anything unusually difficult or extraordinary; it’s a high peak in RMNP sandwiched between the much higher Longs Peak and Chiefshead. I’ve attempted Pagoda three different times by three different routes, and been turned back for three different reasons. Ever since, it’s been mocking me up there, smugly secure.
My first attempt was a climb of the north buttress with Jared; a technical climb from Glacier Gorge. I was turned around that time by an uncharacteristic bout of altitude sickness. The second time was during my Radical Slam adventure with Priddy. We’s made short work of Meeker and Longs and were all set to traverse over to Pagoda, but verglass on the western slabs made the traverse to Pagoda imprudent in running shoes. I came back for a third try via the Keyhole route on Longs, but was turned back by atrocious weather. I was running out of approach lines and failure modes in rapid order. My luck had to turn eventually.
Attempt four, instigated by the unstoppably intrepid Brad, was a quick-and-dirty ascent of the Pagoda-Keyboard Col from Glacier Gorge. This is not the most aesthetic of lines (being 1500’ of loose talus and scree with occasional low-angle slabs), but it offered the least opportunity for Something To Go Wrong Again. Better still, it was a chance to get up into the highest of the high country in the height of summer with some like-minded brethren… something I badly needed after a couple seasons of run-intensive training at lower elevations.
Summits aside, Glacier Gorge is always spectacular. Ben, Brad, and myself made short work of the five mile approach to Black Lake where most hikers turn around. I’ve always found this to be a shame since, with just a small amount more work, you can turn the corner and ascend a ramp to the enormous cirque complex of the upper Gorge which is flat-out spectacular. The trees ceased, a herd of very placid elk was passed at close quarters, the sun shone brilliantly, and we made no pretext of trying to run the rough, nominal trail.
At Green Lake (the higher you get, the smaller a body of water has to be to be called “lake”), we turned south and started the laborious climb. The route is pretty arbitrary and the best you can hope for as you puff and grunt your way up the 50% grade is that the rocks you’re trodding on with hands and feet are slightly more stable here than they are over there. The vista below gets better and better the higher you go, of course, so there’s that pay-off.
Brad is ridiculously spry and strong for a guy pushing 60 and reached the col considerably before us (somewhat) younger folks. When Ben and I finally arrived, we were greeted by an up-close view of the Keyboard of the Winds and a view of the elusive south face of Longs, not to mention the sweeping view south into Wild Basin and the Indian Peaks beyond. From here, it was another 400’ of climbing over massive blocks to the compact summit itself. Seven miles, and 4400’ of gain, much of it in the last mile. We lounged in this superlative position marveling at the traffic jam of hikers easily visible across the way on Longs (it’s called the Narrows for a good reason) and our complete solitude on the finally-surmounted Pagoda.
The descent of 1800’ of talus was, if not more pleasant than the ascent, at least a good deal faster. While we’d erred on the side of large, stable-looking blocks on the way up, there was a certain charm in hitting the patches of sliding scree on the way down and doing a little “scree skiing”. Each of us went down a couple times, but no one was pinned under any of the rocks, so no style penalties were incurred.
Back to Glacier Gorge and thence back along the well-worn trail to Bear Lake. I was feeling more than a bit chipped on the way out and hyperflexed both of my ankles on several occasions. We’d talked about some side-trips on the way out, but somehow we were all looking forward to getting back to the car and moving on.
So, fourth time’s the charm for me on Pagoda. I don’t believe it’s taken me so many tries to tick off anything like this before. But that petty satisfaction aside, it was a much-needed beautiful day in the mountains. Peerless weather, good companionship, great flora and fauna, spectacular positions, and a great reminder of why I do this stuff in the first place.