Saturday, August 3, 2013

Pagoda Mountain, Keyboard of the Winds, and Longs Peak via Glacier Gorge.

The time had come.  My wife kept asking me when I was going to do a 14er.  Longs Peak was something I'd set my sights on last year but didn't get to.
What route to take?  By now, I'd done all the other peaks in the Longs group, and with so many things left to I needed to take a way that would allow me to get to some of the other things in the area that I hadn't yet, or missed on previous trips.  Some research ensued, and knowing that it was possible to get from Pagoda Mountain to Longs made the decision for me.
I printed out a topo for my wife, and gave her time estimates.  In the end, I was almost right on the mark for the whole day.
I got up at 215am, got ready, and arrived at Glacier Gorge TH shortly before 4.  I decided to stick to the standard trail and skip the fire trail since it is steeper.  I figured a little extra distance at a moderate pace would be good for the legs.
Hiking via headlamp is a little freaky at times.  There could be a bear right next to me and I'd never know it.  I decided while going up it's like watching a movie that you know is in glorious HD color in black and white on a burnt out old tv that only shows a circle of the full picture right in the middle of the screen.
But the night sky from up here is amazing, breathtaking, and reminded me of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.  It was not the first time in the day that I would feel small.
I arrived at Mills Lake in darkness, but at some point between it and Black Lake, the earth continued its inexorable rotation and the morning started to lighten.
By time time I was at Black Lake dawn had started to come.  
Looking back down Glacier Gorge. 
The cascades over these smooth slabs were frozen last time I was up this way.
First sun hits McHenry's and The Arrowhead.
Early morning and the sight of my goals for the day.  I aimed myself to the left or east of The Spearhead to circle around Green Lake and arrive at Italy Lake, where I planned to take my first snack break of the day.
 
Green Lake.
 
Looking north from Italy Lake.
I had actually started about 15 minutes later than planned, but I was now half an hour ahead of schedule.
Food went down, a few moments of peace and contemplation were had, and I discovered that my wife has stashed some cherries in my bag, and having fresh fruit really made the day better!
The Spearhead reflected in Italy Lake, which is vaguely shaped like the country of Italy.
I started up the Keyboard/Pagoda couloir.  Lisa Foster recommends skirting the small cliff faces near the base of this climb, but in the interest of science and wanting to get some slab under my belt before the challenge of the home stretch, I picked a way directly up them.  As it turned out, this was the most technically difficult climb of the day, certainly in solid fourth to low fifth class.  I even threw in a heel hook at one point (going up a crack in the slab no less).
The Keyhole visible from ascent.  I kept looking up trying to see people, but was not able to actually see anyone until I was below the narrows. 
Gaining some height in the couloir.  There did seem to be a bit of a "trail", most likely animal, here and there.
Towers one and two of Keyboard of the Winds from below.   
And arrived at Pagoda/Keyboad col.
Most of Glacier Gorge still in shade.  Half Mountain is down along the ridge on the right.
I took a right and made my way up Pagoda.  I would suggest staying a little south of the ridge to make your way up.  Expect some non-exposed third class along the way.
Bummer.  The register was opened, no sign of any paper.  It only contained water.  While this peak is not technically in Wild Basin, it is on the northern border of this area, and therefore the only peak surrounding the area I had yet to climb.  I remembered the great views I got of it from Keplinger Lake
From Pagoda to Longs.  I got some great beta on the route from 14ers.  I will post a photo at the end of this.  It's only .6 a mile or so from here to there, but a loss of 600 or so feet with a subsequent gain of 1300 feet all on talus in up to third class while route finding means that .6 a mile takes some time.  Funny, I didn't expect to see anyone else until I joined the keyhole route, yet I ran into a group of five on the Grand Slam trying to find the descent route from Longs to Pagoda.  I was able to provide some advice on the descent, and wished them well.
Chiefs Head Peak, Mount Alice to the left and behind.
Glacier Gorge still in shade.  It was now around 815 in the morning. 
Wild Basin.
And more Wild Basin.  I love that place!
Glacier Gorge as seen from between towers two and three of Keyboard of the Winds.  A pretty cool little window of a view. 
Looking back at Pagoda as I gain altitude on Longs' west side.
One of the higher towers of Keyboard.
The traverse below the narrows seemed to go quickly, and I had the sights and sounds of others above to spur me on.  I climbed over a small ridge and had to stop for a quick bite to eat.  I would stop and eat more on top.
In contrast to every peak I have ever done, I now faced a line to summit.  Every picture I have seen of the homestretch looks like this, and it looks majorly steep.  Fifty degrees give or take a few sounds about right.  I was now stuck in traffic.  Facing the take three steps and stop and catch breath for a minute crowd, I went right to the smoother slabs.  I quickly passed and made my way to the top.  It's kind of anticlimatic.  It feels like there should be one final hard move to surmount right before the top, but when you finish the homestretch, you are there.
Mount Meeker and the Loft.
Mount Lady Washington.
Using my head at 14259 feet.  Longs is the fifteenth highest peak in the state, the northern most 14er, and the only 14er and highest peak in RMNP.  It would be a very good idea to wear a helmet, something I saw very few people with.  Even on just the keyhole route, there is enormous potential for rockfall from above, as well as there being several places where you will be climbing under someone above you. 
Storm Peak.
After taking some time to eat and then walk and look around, I started back down.  The descent was a mix of crab walking and butt sliding on slabs, as most of the area that offered hand holds was being used by ascenders.  At times, a break in traffic did allow me to get over and make use of some hand holds as well, which made things easier.
Since I was going back the way I came, I continued down the homestretch slabs, passing the right turn which would take you to the narrows.  One kind person asked from above if I intended to skip the narrows.  I responded with a yes.  With the blazes painted on every twenty feet or so, it would be pretty difficult to actually get off route. 
Below the homestretch.  I was able to approximate my route up and find my way most of the way back.  I did have some trouble relocating the gulley I took up the cliff from Pagoda to Longs, thinking it was lower at first, then after looking at topo and pictures, deciding I was too low and heading back up.  This cost me some time.  Despite my attempts to commit the place to memory, most everything looks the same up here, and it was difficult to find.
But I found it.  Here it what it looks like looking straight up from the gulley.  Hopefully this can help you locate it if you happen to go this way.  Notice you are almost directly under the tower pictured center.
This is looking east from the top of the gulley- notice the palisades and Meeker.
And this is the gulley itself.  As you can see, a very easy and non-exposed scramble takes you to the top.
Next up was my desire to actually stand on towers one and two of Keyboard of the Winds.  I worked my way down and back through the mostly stable talus. 
Tower two and Glacier Gorge as seen from tower one. 
The view from tower two.  It looks like you could sit right on the edge of either and hang your legs over a pretty steep drop.  I just took a photo and moved on. 
I stopped at the col for a quick snack and got my hiking poles back out.  My knees were starting to feel it, and I thought they would aid me on the descent.  This slope is comprised of much more loose talus and scree than what is encountered on Longs.  Some screeing was had.  And it's always fun to plunge step in rock. 
I made the bottom relatively quickly and without incident.  On the way down, I avoided all of the cliff faces I had climbed on the way up, and popped out above Green Lake.  In fact, I see no reason to head to Italy Lake or Green Lake before starting up this couloir (Unless you want to of course!  They are both beautiful lakes.).  You can see it from far away, and tell exactly where you are going.  Not an hour before I was standing atop those towers.
Some clouds were starting to roll in.  I could see rain falling to the north in places, but hadn't heard any thunder.  I was trying to keep things moving anyway.
Down, down, down.  Somehow I got off the trail which was so easy to follow up and this section of the hike took me a little longer than it should have. 
Back below tree line, I stopped at Black Lake and ate again, my last big meal of the day.  I stood up to leave, and drained my water.  And then had to take everything off, get the pump out, and refill.  And of course the mosquitoes now found me and were having their lunch as well. 
Ribbon Falls is the exit from Black Lake.  The trail passes right by it.  Very pretty.
I actually took the time to get over to Jewel Lake today.  The trail passes right by it, but there is no trail to it, ensuring low visitation, especially given it's location.  It would be an awesome place to have a picnic. 

Looking up from Mills Lake.  I love hikes like this when I can see from below where I was above.  It always blows my mind.  I also blew someone elses mind, when he asked me if I had made it to Black Lake, and I said I made it to Longs Peak.  "Well, okay," he said and kept walking. 
Sexy Lake.  I have several photos shot from this exact place. 
There was one more goal for the day- Glacier Falls.  At the first foot bridge below Mills Lake, stay on the west side of the creek and follow it up for 60 feet or so.
Glacier Falls.
I took the fire trail back down.  At this point I'd been going for quite awhile and the .7 less miles of less crowded hiking looked mighty appealing to me.  I made it back to the truck at 355pm, giving me just under twelve hours to do this hike.  I would say that is entirely reasonable given the amount of gain, the terrain, and the elevation.  I spent a good portion of the day above treeline, and a good portion of that above 13000 feet. 
Here's the trash I picked up this week.  Someone's dropped hat descending Longs.  Proof that even marmots hate Kansas City, or perhaps find it delicious.
Here is the approximate route I took on the descent down the Pagoda/Keyboard Couloir.  Note the slabs and cliff faces to the right.  This avoids them all.
And the approximate route taken from the Keyboard/Pagoda Col to the top of Longs.  Note that the best place to ascend/descend between the two is about where the relatively flat shelf starts to angle down and to the right to larger cliff faces.
In my opinion, this is not the hardest peak, nor the hardest hike I've done.  I would have to guess that the route I took to do Longs is more difficult than the keyhole route, and at least as difficult as the loft route.  Route finding skills are definitely needed, and more advanced scrambling/climbing skills and comfort executing those moves at elevation and exposure are needed over what you'd face on the keyhole route.
I think the hardest hike I have done still stands at last weeks adventure in fourth class bushwhacking.  Peaks or features I have done which I would say are more difficult technically as well as being more exposed include: The Cleaver, Mount Meeker, Pilot Mountain, Elk Tooth to Ogalalla traverse, Cony Pass, Eagles Beak, and Mount Neva.
I have mixed feeling about Longs.  Yes the blazes make it more accessible to people, and also help to keep people on the right track to the summit.  Without them, we would certainly see many more injuries or deaths as people could easily get off route.  But this marked way allows many who might not have the necessary skills to do this climb otherwise to do it.
The only time I overlapped with the keyhole route was on the homestretch, and I could plainly see that many of the people we not comfortable executing the third class moves here.  Despite the high risk of rockfall, especially in places where someone was climbing above you, less than 5% of the people I saw were wearing helmets.  In fact, I only recall seeing two (besides myself) on or around the summit wearing a helmet. Learning to read the first time was hard enough!
I guess the short of it is that Longs is accessible to many as it should be, yet it is quite difficult and not to be taken lightly, as it also seems like many do.  And many of those people do successfully summit and get back down, but people die on Longs every year.  It is good to prepare yourself as much as possible.  I think some good peaks to attempt for training would be: McGregor Mountain (difficulty), Mount Alice (difficulty, exposure, and elevation), Mount Lady Washington (elevation), and Storm Peak (elevation and difficulty). 
Pagoda Mountain, Keyboard of the Winds, and Longs Peak via Glacier Gorge:
Pagoda Mountain: 6.8 miles one way, 4317 foot gain (9180-13497).  Up to low fifth class, but can be kept in second or third by skirting the cliff faces near the bottom of the couloir.  Strenuous.
Keyboard of the Winds (towers 1 and 2): 6.8 miles one way, 3980 foot gain (9180-13160+).  Third class from Pagoda/Keyboard col.  Strenuous.
Longs Peak: 7.5ish miles one way, 5079 foot gain (9180-14259).  Third+ class from Pagoda/Keyboard col.  Strenuous+.
Other destinations along the way:
Alberta Falls (9400 ft): .8 miles one way, 220 foot gain.  Easy.
Glacier Falls (9880 ft): 2.3 miles one way, 700 foot gain.  Moderate-.
Mills Lake (9940 ft): 2.7 miles one way, 760 foot gain.  Moderate.
Jewel Lake (9940 ft): 3.1 miles one way, 760 foot gain.  Moderate.
Ribbon Falls (10580 ft): 4.8 miles one way, 1400 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Black Lake (10620 ft): 4.9 miles one way, 1440 foot gain.  Moderate+.
Green Lake (11540 ft): 6 miles one way, 2360 foot gain.  Strenuous-.
Italy Lake (11620 ft): 6.2 miles one way, 2440 foot gain.  Strenuous-.

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