Thatchtop To Arrowhead Traverse, RMNP

by Eric Lee

Ever since I first laid eyes on the stunning granitic knife edge ridge that connects Powell Peak and Thatchtop in RMNP it’s been at the top of my “To Do” list. That ridge, combined with the Powell to McHenry traverse and the McHenry to Arrowhead traverse would make for an adventurous, challenging, but spectacular scrambling loop in RMNP. In 2007 I was all set to join friend and climbing partner Andy on a circuit when I got called back to California for a funeral. Well, a lot has happened since 2007, and 4 years later, I finally returned to my original calling, peak bagging and scrambling. After poking around for partners I found one friend interested and capable, so on the morning of August 27th we left the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 5:13am headed for Mill lake with small packs on, but big plans for our day.

At 6:30am we turned off the main trail half way between Mill Lake and Black Lake, hopped over the creek and started up the steep climbers trail to Shelf and Solitude Lakes. We refilled water in the outlet of Solitude Lake then started up the grassy hillside to Thatchtop’s ridge. We reached the ridgeline at 8:30am, making decent time, but not moving quite as fast as I’d hoped. The first part of the ridge from Thatchtop is composed of class 2 broken rock, fairly easy going. As we descended toward the saddle and low point on the ridge the stunning knife edge leading to Powell lay front and center.

Arrowhead and Shelf Lake Brian climbing toward Thatchtop Thatchtop Ridge in Full

At first the scrambling was a mix of slab traverses and giant blocks, on your right the slope falls away at about a 40 degree angle, but on the left is a vertical 900ft drop to the valley below. As we started to climb vertically a bit more, Brian commented that he just wasn’t feeling that spry and wanted me to head on, as he was going to scramble around a bit then turn back. We bid each other farwell and a safe climb, and I continued up onto the steeper part of the ridge. As the ridge steepens the climbing becomes a mix of slab and flakes on great granite. The closer one stays to the ridgeline the more consistent the class 4, though anything harder can easily be bypassed to the climber’s right.

Initial Scramblins Game on! Exposed Scrambling

I cruised through the scrambling, it was such a blast, solid and plentiful holds, super sticky granite underfoot, what more could one want? I soon topped out on the knife edge and traversed around the last set of blocky cliffs (climber’s right) to the broad north ridge of Powell Peak. From there it was a short hop up to the summit, where I sat down at 9:30am for a snack and a breather. I’d done the next section before so knew exactly what to expect. I dropped down the gulley on the SW side of Powell for 300ft to a grassy ledge, that when traversed would pop me out right in the McHenry/Powell Notch. From there one follows the obvious granite gulley that sits front and center, a 300ft class 4-5.easy climb. At the top of the chute there is a narrow (2-4ft) ledge that traverses just below the ridgeline and takes one to the summit of McHenry Peak. Once on the summit of McHenry Peak (10:15am) I stared down at the daunting task ahead; a steep, loose, rocky descent down toward Arrowhead.

Getting Steeper McHenry Notch, 5.easy Ahead Traverse to McHenry Peak

As I began to down climb off McHenry all I could think was, ug wet moss intermixed with loose rock, when is this gonna end. I finally worked my way back over to the edge of the ridge where I found a little more solid climbing, still not great, but it would do. There are two pinnacles near the base of the initial decent off McHenry, both of which are easily passed just to their left (climber’s right), but one wants to stay as close to the ridge as possible. The deep notch between the two drops off very quickly on either side, but is easily negotiated at the very top. Once around the second pinnacle the ridge turns back into the lovely granite slabs/flakes I’d enjoyed so much on the other traverse. The final jaunt up to Arrowhead went by quickly as I hopped and scrambled up the slabs to the summit, topping out on peak #4 at 11:15am.

Arrowhead from McHenry Looking Back at the Descent off McHenry Final Ridge to Arrowhead

The skies were spectacularly clear, especially considering a 40% chance of thundershowers. Whew, the difficult parts were over, now just for the decent off Arrowhead, a little jaunt across upper Glacier Gorge then trail back down. I found the twisting ledge off the back of Arrowhead pretty easily and was quickly making my way down when all of a sudden I looked around and things didn’t look quite right. I was in a steep narrow gulley that appeared to continue dropping off faster and faster. I looked up and saw the ledge I was supposed to turn left onto, oops, oh well, this looks like it still goes, so I continued down on class 4 rock.

McHenry to Arrowhead Traverse Upper Glacier Gorge My Route off Arrowhead(red)

As I neared the bottom I began to get a little worried as there appeared to be a 30ft cliff directly below me, well crap. I sat debating climbing back up, or looking around for anther way around. I opted to look around since I was already here. I spotted a rocky crack where the angle appeared to lessen to something very manageable, but standing between me and it were about 15 of steep and fairly blank slab. After another few minutes of search I found a few small ledges and a short finger tip/toe traverse across. A few deep breathes and I was safely back on nice class 4, only 20ft from the tundra.

McHenry to Arrowhead Traverse Pano of the Full Route

I was soon off and running across the talus and through the tundra of upper Glacier Gorge with the Longs, Pagoda, Chiefshead, McHenry and Arrowhead peaks looming high above. I cruised on down the trail past Black Lake, Mill Lake, catching the climber cutoff back to the trailhead, finishing my run at 1:13pm, exactly 8 hours after starting. What a day, lots of class 3 and 4, a little 5.easy, plenty of route finding, finished off with a short trail run. The route has everything for the experienced scrambler/climber and none of the crowds.