Sky Pond – Rocky Mountain National Park
Date: August 15, 2017
Elevation Gain: 1,753 ft
Start Time: 5:43 am
Duration: 5:54 hours
Sky Pond was the hike that I was looking forward to more than any other in the park. Not just because it concluded at the base of a cirque with a beautiful lake before us but mostly because it involved a level of rock climbing that we had never attempted before…up a waterfall. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The trailhead for Sky Pond is at Bear Lake which is the most popular place in the park. On our first day we arrived at Longs Peak at 5:30 to find no open parking spaces. We were obviously concerned that we may have trouble parking at an even more popular parking lot but there was hardly anyone there. When we hit the trail the eastern horizon was just starting to show signs of light. Alberta Falls was the first feature we came across on the trail. It was more impressive than I thought it would be. Knowing how crowded this place would be later in the day it was nice to enjoy it by ourselves just as the sun was rising.
As we passed the trail junction to Black Lake we noticed a cow elk coming up that trail. As we passed her we noticed that her fawn was hiding in the trees. Another half mile further we notice a herd of elk heading up the hillside from the river below us. Our trail took a switchback the other direction but after the next switchback we found the herd again only they were now in the trail ahead of us. They left the trail just before the next switchback and followed the river around the ridge but not before walking along side us for a short distance. The elk in this park sure aren’t very bashful. From there the trail headed up the side of the hill to the right as we made our way into a tight canyon.
At about the 2.75 mile mark we reached The Loch. It was still fairly early so we were getting a lot of glare but it was clear that this was a beautiful lake. It was narrow and long with cliffs bordering the eastern and southern shores. As we made our way around the lake the trees that separated the trail from the shore were creating a very cool strobe effect. The trail then headed into a thick wooded area along a very nice stream with several impressive water features.
After a short while the trees started to thin out offering us our first view of Timberline Falls. We are supposed to do some rock climbing up through the right side of the falls. There is no way of seeing the route from back this far. The trail is basically rock steps now as we break through the trees and traverse across a trail cut into the rocks against the cliffs to our right. On the final approach to the falls we notice that there is a man standing at the base. There was water coming down the trail and so it took a little longer than we thought getting to the falls without getting our feet soaked.
The man was probably in his mid sixties and it was clear that he had a change of heart on proceeding up the waterfall. While we chatted for a short while I had scoped out the route for the first ten or so feet so I just went for it. As it turns out that first section was the easy part because it was more of a bolder climb. We then found ourselves staring at a pretty steep cliff with water pouring down the left side. I would locate a good hand and foot hold above me and then carefully get a good grip and lift to that spot. After repeating that process I made may way up the rock. At times my route would take me into the waterfall a little but I felt good about my first rock climbing experience. Once we cleared about twenty feet of a steep rock face we reached the next section which was a very steep rock chute which, while it was not straight up like the cliff behind us, it still required careful route finding and deliberate footing to keep from tumbling back toward the cliff. Every time I looked back Sandy was keeping up nicely. It actually was quite easy climbing up but as we commented at the time it would be more difficult coming back down.
It wasn’t too long after the climb and we were standing at the eastern bank of The Lake of Glass. As was the case for us at most of the lakes that we hiked to that were back in a large cirque it was quite windy. This, of course, prevented the lake from looking anything like glass. The route past the lake went along the southern shore. We first needed to climb on the rock formation to our right and from there the trail took us through quite the adventure of going up and down other rock formations.
Once we were past the lake we entered into a meadow. There was a rock path that led through the right side. There were several small streams which fed from the surrounding cliffs entered into the meadow from every direction creating several cascades and a few waterfalls. It occurred to me that this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It also occurred to me that there would be no way of capturing it with a camera.
It was a short climb out of paradise and we found ourselves at the shore of Sky Pond. My first impression was that it was every bit as large as many of the mountain lakes we’d been to so far so nothing about it seemed like a pond. The cliffs that surrounded the “pond” were extreme. To the south there were jagged peaks that appeared to be from a different type of rock than the other peaks due to their color and texture. The wind was coming across the lake fairly steady and since the sun wasn’t on us yet it felt rather cold and since we weren’t hiking any more we quickly layered up to keep warm.
Heading back down the waterfall was more difficult than coming up. Since I was hugging the cliff it was hard to see where my next foothold was going to be. The routine was to find a very good hand grip, lean out and look down for the next rock to place my feet and the next handhold, climb to that spot and then repeat. It took twice as long as going up. Once I was at the bottom I filmed Sandy coming down. She tried to come down sideways so she could see where she was going and slipped down barely catching herself. This scared the crap out of me. I asked her if she was alright and she nodded her head and then proceeded to fall down the final five feet.
As long as I can remember she was always more confident around the edge of cliffs than I was and had very little fear of heights. I can’t even count the number of exposed cliff edges that we’ve encountered over the past few years at Zion, Yosemite, the Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Mooney Falls, the Canadian Rockies and countless other locations. As it turns out that fear can be a useful thing. I felt really stupid standing there filming her while she was struggling so badly. In my defense, she didn’t think she was struggling so it made it hard to tell from her body language until it was too late. There is no way we are ever going to rock climb again without having some intensive training.
She didn’t hurt herself because, as it turned out, she stuck the landing. We both hiked out the final four miles feeling very lucky that one of us wasn’t being carried out.
Below is a video of our hike: