We weren’t sure of the exact route, and we didn’t know how long it would take or how hard it would be
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I’m back home in the Rocky Mountain and I’m looking into the continental divide, and it reminded me of on of my favorite days in the mountains. This is a trip report for the Shelf Lake/Solitude Lake Cirque Traverse, an incredible 3rd and 4th class scramble that has got to be one of the coolest things I’ve done in the mountains in a long time. It includes four awesome summits, a lot of time spent above 13,000 feet, two of the most gorgeous, nontechnical ridges I’ve been on, and views that go on forever.
The Shelf Lake Cirque Traverse is also known as the Solitude Lake Cirque Traverse, which is also known as the Arrowhead-McHenrys-Powell-Thatchtop traverse. You essentially circumnavigate the lakes below via alpine ridges above. I managed to piece together details on the trip from guidebooks and a few online trip reports, but I still left not really knowing everything I wanted to know about the whole linkup. We weren’t sure of the exact route, and we didn’t know how long it would take or how hard it would be, so I figured another trip report out in cyberspace would benefit pretty much anyone considering this fantastic day of hiking, climbing and scrambling. The day is a long one, but luckily there are numerous ways to bail should thunder and lightning roll in — and that’s important given how much time you spent above treeline.
I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re comfortable free soloing 5.2 (not that you will be doing that — you just need the comfort level and headspace to negotiate a few exposed downclimbs). If you are insecure or want to move fast, pack a pair of climbing shoes. If you’re really insecure, bring a rope, some alpine draws, and a light rack.
Here’s how our day went: We hiked to Black Lake and then took the Summit Ramp route to the summit of Arrowhead. Then we did the Arrowhead-McHenrys Arete which took us to the top of McHenry’s Peak. Next, we scrambled along the Continental Divide and down through The Notch, and then ascended the back side of the ridgeline to Powell Peak. Then we scrambled along the Northeast Arete route separating Powell Peak and Thatchtop. Last, we descended Thatchtop and offrouted our way through a bunch of wet gullys to Mills Lake. Car to car was about 12 hours, and much of the day was spent on top of the Continental Divide between 12,500 and 13,500 feet. It was beyond amazing.
We awoke at 4am, ate a huge breakfast, and hit the trail out of Glacier Gorge (9,240 feet) parking lot at 5am. Four and a half miles later we hit Black Lake (elevation 10,630), scampered across its outlet stream, and followed a faint trail through the bushes along its shore. The wind was howling, the sun wasn’t high in the sky, temps were chilly, and the weather looked ominous. We spent perhaps 20 minutes huddling behind a huge lakeside boulder to avoid the wind, filtering water, eating another meal, and prepping for Arrowhead’s Summit Ramp route. At about 7:15, we wandered along the lake for a few hundred yards and then cut upwards through trees to a huge talus field below Arrowhead.
Here’s our first glimpse of Arrowhead on the way in. You can see the Access Ramp and the Summit Ramp. The red line denotes the standard ascent route, though we soloed some easy 5th class slabs for a shortcut (the white line). Both ramps are large, grassy ledges perhaps 40 feet wide. You can’t fall off them.
Here’s the view from Black Lake, just after sunrise. In the black and white shot you can see Longs Peak, the huge flat summit in the center of the frame, as well as the Spearhead jutting into the clouds on the right side of the frame. In the color shot, you can see McHenrys, the second peak to be climbed during the scramble. The flows coming down into the lake freeze during the winter and create nice ice climbs.
Here’s a shot of the Access Ramp. It’s really gorgeous this time of year; the grassy slopes of all these peaks are lush and green and are exploding with the colors of Colorado’s most beautiful wildflowers.
As you traverse the Access Ramp, you come to a big gully on the left side of the wall. Ascending this gully is the crux of the climb up Arrowhead. It’s about 100 feet of third class scrambling. No moves are too hard, and the exposure isn’t so bad. Take care not to knock rocks down onto those below you, though, because there is loose debris. Below is a shot in this gully, as well as a shot of the Summit Ramp.
The above photo is what you see immediately after exiting the gully and walking onto the Summit Ramp. You essentially walk straight ahead and then wind your way around the opposite side of Arrowhead, and then wander up talus to the summit. What’s super cool is that as soon as you venture onto Arrowhead’s immense backside, you can see down to the cirque surrounding Shelf and Solitude Lakes, and the entire route of the day becomes visible. It looks fricken huge. Next, you round the bend, and later on as you leave Arrowhead’s summit and start walking up toward McHenrys Peak. We managed to get off route on the way up to Arrowhead from the mountain’s backside. We immediately started climbing up to a summit that turned out to be a false one, and got ourselves into some exposed, tricky, wet and loose 4th class scrambling. Lesson: once you round the bend and can see to Shelf Lake, don’t immediately start going upward; instead, maintain your elevation for about 15 minutes as you skirt the backside of Arrowhead, and then scramble upwards to the summit. It’s further away you think.
After a 9am refuel on Arrowhead’s 12,387-foot summit, we headed along the Arrowhead-McHenrys Arete. One climber has described it as an immense tidal wave of granite. I concur. It’s absolutely beautiful. Looking up to McHenrys, you’d never guess what lies before you is essentially a hike, but it is. Be super careful; you’ll be scrambling up some loose talus, so maintain contact with your partners and tell them to get out of the way if you’re in front and climbing some sketchiness.
Here’s the exact route we took:
Once you get to McHenrys, you head right to The Notch, between McHenrys and Powell. The dots mean we descended on the backside of the ridgeline and then came back up. It took us about an hour to get from the summit of Arrowhead to the summit of McHenrys. If the weather turned crappy on Arrowhead, we would have descended talus from the saddle along the arete down into Shelf Lake (that’s how many people do the climb, actually). But when we left the summit it looked stable enough to bag McHenrys. If it crapped out on McHenrys, we planned on bailing off the left of the peak down Stone Man Pass, but thankfully it held out for us to continue on. If it crapped out on Powell, we would have descended the backside down a gully to Powell Lake, but the weather remained perfect. Anyway, here are some shots on the way up McHenrys.
The exposure looking off one side of the arete is huge; it’s probably 800 to 1000 feet down to the Black Lake basin.
For the climb over to Powell, I don’t have any photos save for this next one, which I took just as we left McHenrys.
If you’re going to do the route, here’s what happens: you walk along relatively flat talus until it begins to narrow into a crest. You’ll be hovering on the Continental Divide’s left side. If you look forward, you’ll see a talus ramp that seems to dead end at a dropoff, and if you look downslope you’ll see what looks like a little V-shaped saddle on the right-side of the gully that goes down. We scrambled down that gully and picked our way across ledges to gain that tiny saddle. If your route finding is good, it’s third class scrambling tops.
Next, downclimb a crack from that V and head downhill. At the very bottom of the gully there are steep slabs – do not go that far. Instead, as you scramble down the gully you will see a couple of ramps that go to the right side of the gully (right side if you’re standing with your back toward the gully and looking out in the direction of Granby/Grand Lake). We took the lowest of those ramps and escaped into a huge scree slope separating Powell and the McHenrys. We scrambled up the scree, gained some talus, and went almost up to The Notch itself. Before the ridgeline, we veered left and found ourselves at the summit of Powell.
Contrary to everything we’d read online, the scramble down to McHenrys Notch was no more technical than anything else we’d climbed, nor was it the crux of the traverse, nor was it anything approaching 5th class — nor was it even that exposed. Both of us were pretty surprised by the simplicity of this downclimb. Perhaps we off-routed the proper Notch downclimb, but what we did was fast, easy and stress free.
We hit Powell Peak’s 13,208-foot summit around 11, about an hour after leaving McHenrys. This peak is totally awesome; you can see forever, and you get an uninterrupted view of the entire Shelf Lake Cirque. The next three shots are of that view. The first is looking back down the Arrowhead-McHenrys Arete (yep, you can see Longs looming in the distance), the first color one encompasses the entire route, and the final one shows a little more of the route along the divide and across Powell Peak.
As you can see, the weather was in our favor. Had it been bad bad, we would have descended that aforementioned scree slope below The Notch and weathered the storm at Powell Lake — but then we’d probably have had to come back up about 1,500 feet when the storm cleared. But we were confident that there’d be no thunder, so we hung out at the summit for a while and enjoyed the views. The wind was howling, so I bundled up.
We left the top and made our way over to the Northeast Arete separating Powell and Thatchtop, and this is when things get really cool (or hairy, depending on your point of view). To begin with, you descend onto a knifeblade ridge with the most incredible views down into the Catheral Spires. Here’s a shot working along that edge, with none other than Le Petit Grepon in the background. Le Petit is perhaps the finest multipitch alpine moderate in North America. You can see its entirety in the shot, from its broad base to its tiny little summit. If you look at the full res shot, you can see a little red and orange spec halfway up. Whoever you were, I hope you were having a blast. The next shot is reversing some moves after we went about 10 feet too far along the ridge at one point.
From now on I don’t have any photos for about an hour. Just past where the last shot was taken, you begin climbing the crux of the route, an exposed third and fourth class ramp system that goes on for about 45 minutes. A fall from here would be fatal. None of the scrambling is particularly hard, but there are no ledges to land on should you slip — so you’ll basically cartwheel about 1000 feet down toward Sky Pond. We made our way slowly and cautiously. This part was why I would advise bringing ropes, a rack, and climbing shoes if you’re uncomfortable soloing fifth class. There are no moves harder than 5.1, but if your routefinding is bad you might find yourself in a precarious situation. The safest option would be to simulclimb the length of the ridge with a set of nuts. If that’s too much hassle, at least bring a pair of climbing shoes. The ridge is exposed to really strong winds, and a few times we felt unnerved because we were being blown off balance. Below, you can see the length of the ridge once we finished it. It doesn’t look like much of anything, does it?
From here, its about a half hour walk and scramble to the summit of Thatchtop, at 12,668 feet. This giant mount of talus marks the final peak on the journey.
In the background of that final shot, you can see our entire traverse — from the Arrowhead arete on the left, up to McHenrys Peak, along the Continental Divide to The Notch, then back up to the flat, broad summit of Powell, and then the final talus up to Thatchtop.
To get down, we had two options — one was to rockhop straight back down to Shelf Lake, and the other was to descend toward the Glacier Gorge parking lot and follow the descent for All Mixed Up. We tried to do the latter, got off route, and wound up wasting about an hour stumbling our way down waterfalls on Thatchtop’s verdant slopes above Mills Lake. Here’s one of those grassy slopes:
Our downclimb was fun, but was also a pain in the ass. I think we should have followed All Mixed Up’s descent, but if you somehow find yourself wanting to descend back to Mills Lake, here’s what to do: go down Thatchtop directly toward Glacier Gorge parking lot until you hit treeline (or, more accurately, bush line). You’ll be on a relatively flat expanse (the first flat part of the mile-long talus field). We headed off to the right and found a nice grassy gully. At its end, we cut back left to another grassy gully. From there, we made our way down and left, scrambling down seeping waterfalls and wet slabs, and zigzagging along the face of the mountain. The whole time we were doing a bit of J-0 (Jungle Aid Zero – pulling on weeds and rolling along the tops of bushes) until we got to a steep, very wet gully. That landed us on the flat grassy knoll pictured above. The hard part was now finished. Below us we spied a flat expanse, and on the far right side of that expanse sat a big boulder. We aimed for the boulder, hoping that beyond it wasn’t a steep cliff band (and there wasn’t). From there, we picked up a deer trail and followed it to the shores of Mills. After a quick rest, we headed down to the car and arrived about 12 hours after we started.
What an incredible day. We each wore approach shoes and softshell pants, brought a few layers of shirts and a shell top, a helmet, 4 bars, 2 liters of water, and a way to purify stream water along the way.
Best. Day. Ever!!
Photos: © Nathan Welton
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rannveig Aamodt is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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