Pagoda from South and North

      by Gordon S. Novak Jr.       July 5, 1994

My first attempt to climb Pagoda is from Wild Basin. I leave the Copeland Lake trailhead at 0723 and reach Sandbeach Lake at 1000. Sandbeach Lake was prettier years ago when the dam was still in place; the lake was bigger with a small sandy shore. Now that the dam has been removed, there is a desolate belt of sand surrounding the lake. I leave the Sandbeach trail and head north towards Hunters Creek, following the creek up. By 1245 I am east of a small lake, fighting my way though krummholz.
Past the krummholz the going is easier as I wind into the valley and cirque between Longs and Pagoda. At 1400 I am well into the valley. The cliffs of Longs from this location are magnificent, and on the other side are the cliffs of Pagoda, making me feel that I am truly in the great hall of the mountain king. This is really a special place. I can see some climbers on top of Pagoda.
The valley meets a long scree slope coming down like sand in an hourglass from the Longs-Pagoda col. The neck of the hourglass is formed by two cliff bands that meet at an angle. Until midsummer, the neck of the hourglass is overlaid by a vertical bow-tie of snow at a slope of about 30 degrees. I begin a long slog up the scree, sliding back half a step for every step up.
The view of the Notch of Longs Peak from here is spectacular. As I near the snow at the neck of the hourglass, a group of kids in their early teens -- apparently Cheley campers or some such -- come down the steep terrain to my right. I am thinking, "Gosh, I wouldn't be comfortable there without a belay," but the kids come right on down without any problems. They are led by a young woman wearing a sweatshirt from the University of Texas, where I teach, so I hail her and ask, "The way you came down -- is that a good route?" "Oh, no, it was terrible -- steep and exposed, and wet and slippery." I am thinking, "So why are you bringing kids down such a route?" but I don't say it. I wonder if the parents of the kids know how much exposure they are buying when they send their kids to camp. But teenage kids seem bulletproof, and they go bounding off down the scree and soon disappear from sight.
I reach the snow at the neck of the hourglass at 1600, about 12,400 feet by my altimeter. I am having difficulty getting past the snow; I try climbing in the moat next to the rock, but that is difficult going on scree. It is getting late, and clouds are starting to come in. I decide it is time to turn around. In retrospect, I probably could have climbed on top of the snow and made the summit, but turning around was the wiser course. Better to be safe and come back next year.
Going down the scree is a breeze, plunge stepping and sliding rapidly down. At the bottom, a lone marmot watches as I sew up a blown seam in my boot. This place is carpeted green with flowers, next to a stream, surrounded by magnificent cliffs, and well worth the day's hike by itself. Coming back, I try to avoid the difficult krummholz by jumping from rock to rock through a small lake. Surely one can't cross a whole lake by jumping from rock to rock, but I manage to make it across. Hiking down the west side of Hunters Creek is fast and easy -- nice soft grass to walk on. I finally leave the creek and head south so as not to lose any altitude that I might have to make up. The end of the Mt. Orton ridge has a lot of very large boulders, and it takes time to get through them.
Where is the trail? Seems like I should have hit it by now. I take some compass bearings and plot my position, still about 1/4 mile from the trail. Another quarter mile and there it is, so I am back on the Sandbeach trail at 20:06. I reach the trailhead at 21:40, total time 14:17. Despite not summiting, it has been a great day.

July 2, 1997

My second attempt on Pagoda is from Glacier Gorge. I leave the trailhead at 06:53, reaching Mills Lake at 08:00. My thermometer reads 29 degrees, although I don't feel cold.

Around 09:30 I meet two technical climbers about half a mile below Black Lake. "Is Petit Grepon up this way?" they ask. "I don't think so." I have a map, so I look it up. Petit Grepon is up above Loch Vale; the climbers have gone several miles off-route. I tell them where to go, and they head back down. I am thinking, "Strange -- these guys are out to do something a lot more serious than I am, but they're a lot less prepared." I find out later that one of these climbers died that day on Petit Grepon: he stood up on the summit for a victory cheer, in high wind and before clipping in to protection, and was blown off by a wind gust.

I reach Black Lake at 10:00. There is considerable snow and some ice crust on the lake, temperature 40 degrees. Two fishermen are casting into the lake. There is a pretty good trail up the inlet stream to the east that leads up onto the rock bench a few hundred feet above the lake. Once on the rock bench, the going is mostly easy, with rock slabs allowing the krummholz to be avoided. I pass Spearhead and reach a small, half-frozen Green Lake at 11:55 and pump some water through my filter to refill canteens. Pagoda doesn't look so big from here, but such appearances in the mountains can be very deceptive; I know it's still a long way to the top. This is a place of great beauty, with the stark cliffs of Pagoda and the pinnacles of the Keyboard of the Winds towering above. There is no place in the Park that one can drive to that comes close to this.
I leave Green Lake at 12:40 and rest above a band of slabs an hour later. There is still some snow in the gully between Longs and Pagoda, but it is easily avoided. I have been climbing up scree, slow going but not quite as loose as on the south side. There are slabs that could be climbed, but they are somewhat steep. The pinnacles of the Keyboard of the Winds are magnificent. I trudge up through the scree, reaching the Longs-Pagoda col at 15:20. From here, it looks like the Keys would not be hard to climb from the back.
The climb to the summit is third class but not bad and not exposed; I reach the summit at 16:18. On the summit the thermometer reads 68. I'm the third person to sign the register this year; about 50 people climb Pagoda per year, judging from the climbing register. There is a great view of Longs Peak.
As usual I am running late, so I leave the summit at 16:52, reaching the col at 17:28. I get back to Black Lake and on trail just as the sun is setting. I don't much care for hiking in the dark, but it seems to be my usual fate. A few times I stop for rest, water, and a snack, tired after the long hike. I reach the trailhead about 23:00; total time about 16 hours and a day well spent on a memorable hike.

Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks