Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Longs Peak (14,261 ft.),
Mt. Meeker (13,917 ft.)

26 August, 2007: Monsoon season in Colorado is finally over—or at least on the wane. I knew that the last weekend in August was going to offer better weather than we’d seen for some time, so it was obviously time to bag another fourteener. Then the bad logistic news hit: Trisha’s work schedule had been inconsiderately re-arranged on her, leaving her with no consecutive pairs of days off for the entire rest of the month.
With only four new fourteeners under my belt, despite a good start and against a plan of nine for this year, I decided to explore other alternatives. I turned to the Climber’s Connection section of 14ers dot com. I hoped to find someone in the Springs area who was after one of the same peaks I’m still chasing, with whom I could share the ride. I put out feelers on the forum, listing all the peaks I thought might be suitable, mainly those to the south, in the Sangres.
But I also included Longs Peak, the northernmost fourteener. And what I ended up with was a connection with Marcia, an avid peakbagger from Denver, who also wanted to do Longs, but definitely wanted a partner. All I had to do was get myself to Denver, and we could share the ride from there to RMNP. So I drove up there Saturday afternoon; we would catch a few hours’ sleep in the car at the trailhead, then get a pre-dawn start on Sunday. The plan was to climb both Longs and Mt. Meeker, its southeast buttress peak.
Longs is a huge mountain with four buttress peaks, arrayed around it with amazing symmetry in the northwest (Storm Mtns.), northeast (Mt. Lady Washington), southeast (Mt. Meeker), and southwest (Pagoda Mtn.) directions. Meeker is both the highest (69th highest in Colorado) and the closest to Longs (less than a mile as the crow flies). Since every route to the summit of Longs is long, both horizontally and vertically, I figured I might as well take the opportunity to summit a ranked thirteener on the same trip.
One last note about Longs: This is the only fourteener I’ve ever climbed that has a paved parking lot at the trailhead. You don’t need a four wheel drive vehicle. You could get there on roller skates. For some reason, despite its very real difficulty, this peak attracts thousands of people every year, many of whom, IMHO, really have no business trying to climb it. But they come all the same, and the Park Service tries to accommodate them. We pulled into one of the very last open spaces in this parking lot, which holds about 50 cars, and hit the trail at 2:45 am MDT.
Naturally, we started out with headlamps blazing. The moon was two days from full and still in the sky, but it didn’t help us much down in the trees. (The trailhead is at about 9,400 feet.) By the time we had covered the roughly three miles of very well worn trail to timberline, the moon had set. Thus, our trek across the next section of the trail, which is not very steep, was under stunning, starry skies with only hints of light pollution on the eastern horizon.
About four miles from the trailhead, we came to the trail junction where our route diverged from the standard peakbagger’s route on Longs. We had already passed, or been passed by, several parties of hikers, but once we took that turn-off south toward Chasm Lake, we were by ourselves except for one other pair we occasionally spotted climbing half a mile or so ahead of us.
The trail actually drops slightly from the junction to skirt the lake, before entering the steep approach gully above the lake, which leads to the Loft, the broad saddle between Longs and Meeker. The western side of this gully is a soaring outcrop of nearly vertical rock called the Ships Prow, and our route passed right under the base of it, before going to the left to the other side of the drainage. We got there just after dawn, so there was already plenty of light, and we were treated to ever-changing views of this immense wall as we climbed--that is, whenever we could take our eyes off the rock in front of us.
The climb up this gully might be the most challenging part of this route. Together with the traverse we would do later, it is one reason why the Loft route is not the standard way to climb Longs, even though it is actually shorter than the standard Keyhole route. It is probable that the difficulty can be held to Class 3 with good enough route finding. The cairns which mark the route, however, are sparse, and the gully steepens as one climbs, often making it hard to see very far ahead. As a result, we ended up doing occasional moves, or stretches, of Class 4 climbing. Some of the moves were exposed enough that, even though the rocks were still cold to the touch, I finally took off my gloves for a while, because I needed the best grip I could possibly get on the rock.
Near the top, you are necessarily funneled toward the center of the drainage, just to the right of a large headwall, and there was still a small amount of water flowing here. It had to be crossed twice, once in each direction. I was a little concerned about this, but, fortunately, we had no real problem with slippery rocks, as we found surprisingly level places to get across.
What we had more problem with was finding the ledge which leads out of the center of the gully and off to the left, the only safe way to traverse the headwall. It’s actually about ten feet wide, but amazingly hard to see from below. We actually missed it to begin with, then had to scramble back to the right to intersect it.
After that, route finding problems were over for a while. A couple of (relatively) easy climbing moves got us off that ledge’s top end and up onto the beginning of the second ledge, which heads back to the right, and which was not at all hard to find. After that, all the steep stuff is over, and we had only a modest hike on much more level, rounded ground to reach the Loft at about 13,460 ft.
We could already see the summit of Longs, complete with people. It looks at a casual glance as if one could simply walk northwest right up to that summit, but it isn’t so. A huge gash called, straightforwardly enough, The Notch slices into the slope. Not only is it deep and steep, it is actually overhung on one side. That is not the finish to the Loft route.
First, however, we had the side trip to Mt. Meeker to complete. From the Loft, a clear climber’s trail leads up Meeker’s slopes, fading out only when it finally comes to the narrow and steep summit ridge. The ridge contains several high points, all with very nearly the same elevation, spread out along a quarter of a mile or more. From the direction of our approach, the true summit is the second major point.
The summit register for Meeker is actually located on the first ridge point. That it is a couple of feet (literally) lower than the true summit is not really as important as the fact that it is several dozen yards away from the true summit. Those yards of traverse to get between the two points are amazingly exposed. The ridge is sharply edged, and very steep on both sides. I went across a good deal of it on all fours, rather than trusting my balance on only two feet on the slanted rock. It wasn’t really technically difficult at all, but any slip could easily be fatal, because there is absolutely nothing to grab to slow or stop a fall on either side, should one start sliding. Still, I got to the small boulder at the true summit, and photographed my foot dangling over several hundred feet of unbroken air on the north side before retracing my steps. The views, in all directions, were astounding, and all the more stunning in the horizontal light of early morning.
Marcia had proved to be faster on the climb than me, had summitted before me, and was waiting for me back at the Loft. Now it was time for the traverse over to Longs.
From the Loft, one must give up about 150 feet of elevation on the west side, in order to detour below the huge wall called the Palisades. (You might have noticed that I’m using lots of adjectives like “huge,” “soaring,” “sweeping,” and the like. It’s for good reason. Longs is a BIG mountain and, like Kit Carson, is mostly guarded from casual climbers by imposing cliff faces. Only a few lucky accidents of topography enable one to squeak around these imposing barriers.)
After finding the right place to descend from the loft—which some have failed to do—one then follows an undulating path, up and down while traversing generally north, through the rocks. All the while, there is a stunning drop-off on one’s left. There are occasional cairns to show the approximate route, but a lot depends on the climber’s ability to find, or intuit, a good route through the jumble of boulders, across rock ribs, and through gullies. This is the major reason why not only is Longs not a good “beginner” peak, this route in particular is really no place for a novice. You often can’t see where you’re going for very far, and the exposure is constant.
The rock, however, is quite good, at least until you actually pass north of the Palisades. Then, it is necessary to climb up and across a broad gully, which terminates in the dramatic gap of the Notch above, and which is filled with loose rock. Again, any slip could be catastrophic. This goes on for quite a ways.
Finally, after re-gaining about the same amount of elevation we had given up from the Loft, we came to a place where the rock surface turned to convex under us, and, looking over, we could see the place where our route would rejoin the standard one: the base of the rock face climb called the Homestretch.
It was a two-way highway of people. Most were on all fours, whether going up or down, but a few brave (or foolhardy!) climbers were striding over this steep surface with nothing but the traction of their boot soles to hold them on the mountain. I have no reluctance to acknowledge that I joined the all-fours group. There are only the smallest of ledges or cracks to grab or stand on. In a few places, there is really nothing, and one is forced to trust to boot sole traction for a step or two, no matter what. But mostly, I scrambled the entire way up the 300 feet or so to the big cairn which marks the top using all four limbs.
Then, finally, nearly eight hours after leaving the trailhead, I stepped out onto the immense, flat summit of Longs Peak. It is literally big enough to contain a football field. And, except for two piles of boulders six to eight feet high—one of which is the actual high point and contains the register—the elevation probably doesn’t vary by more than two or three feet over the entire area.
Marcia had gotten there ahead of me again, but we both took a rest on the summit. I was there for forty or forty-five minutes. Thankfully, the weather was just about as good as I had been hoping for. The sky was mostly cloudless, the sunlight bright and unbroken, and there was not a hint of rain. The temperature must have been around 50 or 55—warm for that altitude—and only the persistent breeze made me retain my long sleeves. I had dispensed with my long pants before starting up the Homestretch.
After taking a brace of pictures and signing the register, it was finally to leave the summit. I was much faster on the descent, but the work was definitely not over. From the bottom of the Homestretch, there is another so-called traverse to the north, to get to the gap in the mountain’s northwest ridge called the Keyhole. But, just like the traverse below the Palisades, this one does not go steadily either up or down on an even slope. It involves going down and back up several times by varying amounts, as it winds through the jumbled rocks.
Seeing where to go, however is easy. There are red and yellow “bullseyes” painted on the rock all along the route. The going is still rather slow, however, as it involves more scrambling than walking. You definitely use your hands. And, as this is a continuation of the traverse along the northwestern face of the peak, there is that awesome drop-off into the Glacier Gorge valley below you on the left almost the whole time.
Not long after passing through the Keyhole, though, things finally get easier. One has to descend a few hundred feet through boulders at first, but, though the boulders continue, the ground levels out quite a bit. There, one is presented with the dramatic, more familiar, views of Longs from the north, northeast, and east. As the need for hand use passes, the dramatic Diamond Face on the east side—with its many challenging technical routes—comes into view. So did never-melted snow fields north of the summit.
We finished the hike down in the company of another group who happened to be from Colorado Springs, including a chemistry professor at UCCS. We all hoofed it down in pretty good time, anxious to finish this arduous climb with some sun left in the sky. It took us only an hour and ten minutes to drop the last 3½ miles—pretty good, considering the efforts we had already put out.
Less than a mile from the parking lot, we did actually finally get rained on. It was just a passing sprinkle, for which I didn’t even put on my windbreaker. The temperature was in the mid-seventies when we finally got back to the trailhead at 4 pm. Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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