Monday, August 11, 2014

Longs Peak Radical Slam

Longs, the Palisades and Meeker from Pagoda
For those living under the shadow of Colorado's northern Front Range, there is one undisputed monarch that rises above them all. Sitting proudly at the center of the action in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak is visible from most towns in the northern foothills corridor, and from virtually everywhere on the immediate plains to the east.

To the climber, the mountain offers a range of challenges of which few other peaks in the region can boast. Indeed there are over 100 established routes up the mountain. For the casual hiker, the mountain is a huge undertaking, taking an average of 12 hours car to car via the standard Keyhole route (used by probably 95 percent of those who summit every summer). For the more seasoned, there are enough non-technical scrambling routes to keep you on new terrain all summer long, and for the technically inclined the huge and imposing east face is legendary.

And for the guy or gal who likes to start a watch at the bottom of a mountain, get up and down as quickly as possible, before getting on with the rest of their day, then the mountain offers that challenge too. Andy Anderson's sub-two-hour best (1:56:46) is quite remarkable and requires the kind of intimate knowledge that one might expect from an RMNP climbing ranger; but even for those less versed in the intricacies of the mountain, a good degree of mountain-running fitness can have you up and down the peak quite comfortably in the four-to-five-hour range, closer to three at a good push.

The East Face.
Then of course, there are the link-up opportunities that exist on and around the mountain, of which there is a reasonably long tradition. And it was in this spirit that I found myself at the East Longs trailhead at the crack of dawn on a recent Saturday morning with my neighbor and friend Elijah Flenner and his CSU colleague Jamie Nielson; both strong and experienced technical climbers.

Elijah had floated the idea a couple days previously, stating a desire to complete the Longs Grand Slam in an efficient, yet non-time-obsessed manner. With the weekend still reasonably open, I was quick to respond in the affirmative, and then after a quick perusal of the intertubes I also suggested that if we were going to go out and do this, we might as well up the ante by tacking on Battle Mountain and Estes Cone, thereby completing the so-called Radical Slam: Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Pagoda Mountain, Storm Peak, Mount Lady Washington, Battle Mountain and Estes Cone. Although I'm sure it's been done faster, Eric Lee's 9:18 from 2009 appeared to be the fastest publicly recorded effort. Somewhat coincidentally I had been on the mountain that day and we had crossed paths right under the Keyhole; Eric on his way to Storm and me on my way to the summit.

Eric notes in his brief report that he essentially hiked the whole route and that he considered his time to be relatively 'soft'. Armed with that knowledge, I assumed a simple jog up to the start of the Loft and a strong hike the rest of the way would put us comfortably in the 7 to 8 hour range for the loop. As it turned out, however, our pace up to Chasm would be more strong hike than jog, as we would end up waiting for Jamie - more climber than runner - at points along the way. Nonetheless, we made good, steady progress up to Chasm and then up the scree and slabs of the Loft to the Meeker/Longs saddle. From there it was a quick and easy tag of Meeker, before descending back to the saddle for the traverse around to Kelplinger's Couloir and onto the Homestretch by way of Clark's Arrow.

The elusive Clark's Arrow.
Elijah and I enjoyed the scene on top of Longs for 15-20 minutes as we waited for Jamie to summit, then quickly set off in the direction of Pagoda once the three of us were back together. The route to Pagoda from Longs descends the famed - and often hilarious - Homestretch and then drops off the main Longs route just before the Narrows section. To get to the saddle between the two mountains at the Keyboard of the Winds, there is a small cliff band to negotiate and I'm pretty sure we negotiated it in about as inefficient a manner as possible, choosing a small, wet and moderately technical gully to the left rather than heading down the easy ramps to the right.

Pagoda itself is a big ole' mess of choss, but a simple walk-up nonetheless. Again, Elijah and I waited a good 15 minutes on top for a rapidly fading Jamie, and then the three of us took another five minutes to enjoy the huge 360 degree views of Longs, Wild Basin and Glacier Gorge from Pagoda. There are three or four spires that make up the so-called Keyboard of the Winds between Pagoda and Longs, and from the Pagoda summit it was a little unclear which ones would be the best to drop between in order to contour around and get back on the Ledges section of the standard Longs route at the base of the Trough. Predictably enough, we chose the wrong gully, lengthening our vertical accumulation for the day by a few hundred feet. For anybody reading this and looking for route info, the most expedient line is to use the gully between the two furthest spires as you look at them from Pagoda.

Despite the poor route choice, we were soon traversing our way over to rejoin the bullseyes of the main route, this time on the Ledges section from the base of the Trough. Again, we waited a good 20 minutes for Jamie, now in full-on bonk mode. After a brief discussion Jamie urged us to continue on, while he made his way down via the standard route.

I had it my head at this point that Eric's time was 8:18, not the actual 9:18 he had recorded, and a check of the watch showed that we were now 5:45 into our morning, so with four peaks left to tag and 2.5 hours to do it, we thought it unlikely that we'd duck under Eric's time. Not one to give up on a challenge though, I set a target of being on top of Mount Lady Washington, by way of the Keyhole and Storm Peak, within 45 minutes. We were on top of Storm exactly 20 minutes later, made quick work of the Boulder Field and hoofed hard on MLW, topping out 26 minutes after leaving Storm, 46 minutes after leaving the base of the Trough.

The descent off MLW was tedious, the rock hopping now officially getting old, but our line was good and we hit the trail right at Granite Pass. For the two minutes that we were on trail, I managed to take my only spill of the day, before we were once again headed cross country for the nondescript summit of Battle Mountain. From the bump on the end of the Battle Mountain ridge, we had a good sight line of the bushwhack down to the Estes Cone saddle, and with 7:08 on the clock we dropped in with the sounds of thunder now echoing overhead. As bushwhacks go, this one was mercifully forgiving, with few downed trees to contend with through the reasonably sparse forest.

We made the Battle/Longs saddle in reasonably short order and were soon forging our way up Estes Cone, the final peak of the morning with rain jackets on while being pelted with hail. We approached the rocky, just-above-timberline pinnacle of the mountain somewhat nervously, thunder and lightening still rocking the general vicinity. With 7:55 now on the watch, and with four miles left to cover, albeit on trail, it was obvious that we weren't going to better our 8:18 target time, so we casually jogged out the final trail miles, getting back to the trailhead 8:32:23 after we had left.

The Radical Slam route was first outlined by Gerry Roach in his guide to Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks, and his description reportedly includes a trailhead 50 push-up finale. Playing it by the book, Elijah got his upper body workout in, while I sat on a bench and laughed at him - not in the slightest bit interested, or perhaps able, of making a spectacle of myself at the crowded trailhead.

It wasn't until the next day, when I re-read Eric's report that I realized that I'd had the wrong time in my head all day, so there you go a new interweb FKT. This includes probably an hour and a half of non-moving time and a reasonably mellow effort for much of the morning. I'm pretty sure a motivated, capable and fit individual could take this down toward six hours quite easily, but for now the placeholder is 8:32.

9 comments:

  1. What, no GPS track/map?

    Sounds "fun".

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  2. Nice! This one has been on the tick-list, but I like the symmetry of just the Grand Slam. Might have to wait 'til next year. Briggs and Buzz put down what seems to be a pretty decent pair of times on that one a few years back: http://www.wwwright.com/climbing/speed/grand_slam.htm

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    1. I'd imagine it could go a fair bit quicker than 5 hours; it's a very straightforward route, especially for those already familiar with the mountain.

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  3. 5000 miles from Longs. My "highest" peak tops at 500 ft asl. But. Still. Very inspiring. Keep up this great blog, thanks Nick (from France).

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    1. Thanks, Stephane. Keep tagging that peak!

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