| July in March on Meeker & Longs
Route: Longs TH to Meeker via the Iron Gates, traverse to Longs, loop to Pagoda, descent to Keyhole and back to the TH
Approx Distance & Gain: 15.5 miles, >7,000 feet
RT time: just shy of 16 hours (5:05 am to 8:50 pm)
Climbers: Ryan (rpb13), Jason (egogo), Steve (marmot72)
With this very warm spring, it was time for another centennial and I've wanted to see Meeker's mini-knife for a while. We expected little snow, but were still amazed at how dry conditions were. We originally had Storm Mtn in the mix - doing a sort of modified "Slam" and expected to do the RT in just 12 hours, but lack of sleep and route-finding took a toll on us.
We met at the TH shortly before 5 am - Ryan drove down from Casper, and Jason and I just happened to pull up behind him on Hwy 7 from Estes Park. None of us took snowshoes - just axes and spikes/crampons, and it was a tad after 5 am when we started off.
The trail was snowpacked through the trees, then the slope above the forest was deeper snow and promised postholing in the afternoon. We made it out of the trees to where the trail splits off for Chasm Lake just shy of seven am and dawn greeted us.
Longs in alpenglow drew our gaze.
We made our way toward Chasm Lake, following steps across an easy snow slope above the lower basin as we contoured southward away from Longs and the Loft route. We marveled at the lack of snow cover. The couloirs looked thirsty and Ryan, who has Dream Weaver on his calendar for May, may have to find a different climb. This picture shows the Loft, looking like late June conditions.
Turning our attention away from Longs and Meeker's couloirs, we now faced directly southward to where the Iron Gates beckoned. The terrain looked fairly loose from a distance, but, when we started climbing the shallow gully, I was delighted to find that most of the loose gravel could be bypassed on solid slabs. Mostly class 2+, with a few little easy class 3 moves over blocks as we ascended between the upper buttresses.
We topped the gully in a notch on the ridge at 8:00 and took a few minutes to sit, admire the early morning sunlight on the plains and cities to the south, and take a little snack. Then it was time to scramble up the ridge. After a short class 3 section, it was then an easy walk along the ridge, with gently falling ground to our left and a sheer drop off on or right.
Jason scrambling from the notch:
We reached Meeker's south summit a few minutes before nine - so nearly four hours since the TH. From here, it was just a short walk to what was perhaps the highlight of the day - what I call the pocketknife. Shorter than Capitol's knife edge, Meeker's knife edge is equal to Capitol's in terms of the challenging nature of the moves. I used footholds on the left (S) side at the beginning, then switched to the right side on the latter part. This section was awkward, because the footholds were pretty high relative to the knife, so I had to lean my torso across the knife edge for balance. After guiding Jason across, Ryan scooted over, straddling the knife and perhaps getting a preview of what a vasectomy would feel like.
Very soon after the joy of the knife edge, we reached Meeker's summit - it was just before 9:30, so 4 hours and 20-25 minutes from the TH. The next photos show Ryan and me with Longs' SE subsummit to the North, a view back SE along the ridge, and our view west from the summit.
Next, we moved northward to the ridge's end, descending into a broad flat area with the top of the Loft on our right and Long's SE sub-summit directly ahead. Knowing of the steep notch separating this sub-summit from the main summit, our path led to the left around it.
The ground kept dropping down before us and then we came to a point where SE Long's lower ramparts of giant slabs was on our right, and a steep gully winding between boulders was directly before us. I felt sure our route lay ahead, which was dispiriting because we would lose another 200 hundred feet of elevation, but Ryan wanted to scout for a way higher up, because of some cairns that seemed to lead that way. He determined those cairns were for people going to Long's lower summit; meanwhile, Jason had already gone ahead of us down the gully.
This picture shows the traverse from the gully in a sort of NE arc under the cliffs to approach the Home Stretch.
This was our first spot of shade since the sun had risen and our reunion with snow. Around the bend shown in the previous photo, we climbed another gully to regain the elevation we'd lost from the descent gully and the snow was only patchy. Out of that gully, as we traversed NW along the edge of granite slabs, we walked a continuous snowfield. It spanned perhaps eighty feet and we made our way along the rock, sometimes using it for holds but mostly just plodding in the very stable snow.
Now we were on the Home Stretch and we reached the summit of Longs between 11:45 and 11:50. At the summit, we ran into Joe, who hikes every weekend and who had met each of us before - Jason on Princeton a few weeks back, Ryan somewhere, and me on Culebra in February. He snapped this photo of us trying not to look like we're trying to look cool.
We lounged for 10 or 15 minutes on Long's summit. Our spirits were high: with it being noon, it seemed a fair proposition to make the loop to Pagoda in two hours, and then another two hours to make our way through the Keyhole, over to Storm and back down, so as to be leaving the boulder field, homeward bound by 4:00. It didn't work that way.
I knew we had to reach the Narrows but then find a gully in the cliffs to get to the shoulder below - and then look for a similar weakness in another cliffband. Jason motored down the Home Stretch and I caught up to him at the Narrows; then I called the three of us to a halt because I knew we'd moved too far along the Narrows. (If you come to the red wood sign, backtrack about fifty feet and start descending west to look for the gully.) This is a shot of the gully (taken later, as we used it on our return from Pagoda).
After that, the way ahead looked deceptively easy - it looks like gently falling ground toward the Keyboard of the Winds and the saddle between Longs and Pagoda, but there's a pesky cliff band lingering about three-quarters of the way down to the Keyboard -it's the broken ground further down and left of center in this next photo:
I had read one other report of this route and the author warned of his mistake - going straight down the cliffs when an easier gully exists to the south (lefthand) part of the cliffs. But I promptly forgot that excellent advice as I steadily made a bee-line for the low point in the connecting ridge. So, Jason and I found ourselves in class 4 territory. I love climbing up class 4; I'm not as fanatical about climbing down it. We climbed down one short vertical section (big holds on solid rock) onto ledge, and then moved leftward to drop down off the ledge to the rocky slope below.
After we got down this thing, I turned and snapped this shot. It's hard to see the depth of the cliffs in the picture, but from the ledge formed by the top of the lower rock, we exited to the right - where the snow is.
Ryan was much smarter. He scouted for the descent gully and found it - we used it on our return from Pagoda and this is what it looks like:
It was now 1:22 pm - so it'd taken us one hour and 10 minutes since leaving Long's, and we still had to climb Pagoda. From here, there were no more cliffs to climb down, just another 75 feet or so of elevation loss before the scramble up the ridge to Pagoda. That scramble was fun - you could keep it to mostly simple class 2 by staying more to the left and winding between the rocks, but Ryan and I kept on the ridge crest, enjoying the class 3 scrambling and only deviating to bypass spires on the ridge. (These we bypassed chiefly on the left, though there was one where I went around to the right, glimpsing a very dry Glacier Gorge below.)
Jason reached the summit ahead of us, sometime between 1:50 and 2:00. Pagoda's summit has great views in all directions and we took our packs off, ate some more jerky, signed the "unofficial" register which strangely contains a column for one's age, and signed it, noting that Aron Ralston had been there a few days before.
Here's Jason with Longs behind.
Here's me with a view to the north. Glacier Gorge lies directly behind me, the ridge from Pagoda in the foreground at right, Longs northern ramparts at right with the Keyhole Ridge, Mt Lady Washington peeking from behind (just to the left of Longs), then Storm Mtn at a diagonal to right of my head.
It was about 2:25 when we started climbing down Pagoda. I should've been looking for an exit gully between some of the spires comprising the keyboard of the winds. We saw a couple (and one very mellow inviting exit ramp) that led into Glacier Gorge, and then I don't know what happened; I just forgot to keep looking. So we backtracked all the way back up to the Narrows and then descended to the Keyhole. We found patches of snow, well traveled with footprints and not requiring spikes or axe. It took us until after 5:30ish to reach the Keyhole. Both Ryan and I were out of water.
I thought we'd just abandon any idea of Storm, but Jason said "let's challenge ourselves" so I led us onto an ill-conceived plan to climb the ridge directly from the keyhole. Then I found myself looking up a hoodoo-like span that I knew I could climb up, but not easily climb down - and we had no idea what the other side looked like. Ryan joined us as we were making our way back down. It was 6:00.
6:00! Jason's wife is going to worry. My wife is used to my madness; she won't worry until 10 pm or so. You'd think you could get a cell phone signal on Long's - I've had coverage on remote peaks - but no coverage for any of us. So Jason takes off. This was my second hike in my new boots; my feet feel like flippers by this point and I'm "wogging" -- doing some sort of a controlled fall as I chase after him down the mountain.
To our startled eyes, we see another hiker ahead of us, but we're not catching up to him; he's coming up the mountain at this early evening hour. It's Cool Hand Luke, and he's going to bivy up by the Keyhole for a solo hike tomorrow. We wish him well and continue on down.
It's 7:20 when we reach the lower part of the trail before it hits treeline, and the snow here is just starting to refreeze after hours spent as mush. We stop to put on the spikes and my headlamp, then posthole through it; I'm just blindly following footsteps (using the prior postholes instead of making new ones) and that's when we follow some sidetrek a couple people made into the woods. I'm in such a hurry to get down that I tell Jason "someone -- make that at least two someones -- made it down, so we'll just follow this." Later, with some more post-holing and getting whacked by tree branches, my comment was "I hope this leads to the main trail."
It did. The three of us got back to our cars at 8:50, nearly 16 hours after starting out. I felt bone-weary from the day and the poor 3-4 hours of sleep beforehand, but Ryan had not gone to bed Friday night and still had the return drive to Casper before him.
All in all, a fabulous day, though longer than expected, and I met some great people.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):