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Trailhead: Longs Peak TH, on Labor Day the parking lot was half full at 230am
Approach and route: East Longs Peak trail to "Sky Potty", then to Chasm Meadows, Loft route; ~4500 ft elev
Time elapsed: ~12 hours (including 1hr+ halt at Chasm Meadows to await dawn)
Weather: Partly cloudy, strong winds (20-30mph, G40+), cool temps
Conditions: dry, very little snow remaining
Summary: Mount Meeker provides a great alternative to Longs Peak during busy summer weekends. Fellow SP'er Richard Masoner and I climbed Meeker via the Loft route on Labor Day 2005. We encountered many people attempting Longs, but past Chasm Meadows we saw only a few. The day was cold and very windy, with clouds billowing up over ridges and around Longs Peak. Meeker is a perfect choice if you're looking for a good challenge close to home - without all the crowds.
The Longs Peak area in RMNP is not generally considered a good place to 'get away from it all'. Longs Peak is too well-known (and coveted) a destination for those in the Front Range urban corridor, and the Longs Peak TH is an easy drive up from Fort Collins, Boulder, or Denver. Climbing Longs via the Keyhole on a summer's weekend will usually have you rubbing elbows (literally, if it's really crowded) with tourists from Denver, Kansas, Florida and further afield, all happily slogging their way towards the summit.
Longs Peak is the 'outdoorsy' alternative to Pikes Peak. No road to the top. No souvenir shop. As with its fellow attraction to the south, however, a visit to Longs will have you worrying about parking space and lines at the rest rooms.
So Longs Peak seems particularly ill-suited for a Labor Day getaway. I was driving in from Michigan that weekend, however, and the Longs Peak area fit my plans perfectly. I hoped to climb Mt. Meeker, Longs' eastern neighbor, if I could find a partner. Otherwise I'd attempt Longs' Keyhole route with the hoards.
For some excursions the Longs Peak area is ideal. The trail up to the "Sky Potty Junction" and Chasm Meadows is well-maintained and provides a great way to introduce people to the mountains. The views are beautiful, and the high traffic in the area (often considered a detriment) means that assistance, if needed, is usually relatively close at hand.
I chose the Longs Peak area for similar reasons. It's an easy drive from Westminster (where I live) -- after 22 hours driving from Michigan on Saturday and Sunday, I wanted to keep my transit time as short as possible. And while the access to the area is relatively easy, the objectives -- Longs and Meeker -- are substantial. It's this combination of easy accessibility and formidable challenge that makes the area so popular (and sometimes so dangerous).
I had promised my fiancee that I'd stay safe. Several weeks before when I visited her (she had already relocated to CO, while I was still stuck east, wrapping up a job in Michigan), she handed me an article she'd cut out of the newspaper. "Ascent of Danger," it proclaimed, and discussed the perils of climbing the peak, which had recently been taken off "technical" status by the RMNP staff. Despite her nervousness over the article, however, I convinced her that Longs Peak might well be one of the safer options for my Labor Day trip. Stuck in Michigan, I hadn't been able to find a partner for the day, and I imagined that Longs on Labor Day would effectively remove the danger of traveling alone.
In truth I was more interested in Longs' shadow to the east, Mount Meeker. Convalescing in Longmont during the winter holidays in 2004 (after a bad skiing accident), I'd spent countless hours staring out the window and down the road toward Meeker's eastern slopes, with the Longs Peak summit peaking out from behind. Descriptions on summitpost and elsewhere suggested Meeker was much less frequented than Longs, and the idea of finding relative solitude appealed to me.
Summitpost provided the beta, and, just a few days before driving out, a partner as well. A query to the Rockies board rousted member 'richardmasoner', who had climbed Meeker at the end of July but was eager for another go. Richard was contemplating a 'triathlon' style ascent -- biking to the TH, climbing, and then biking back to his home in Longmont.
Richard planned to ride up on Sunday afternoon, and bivouac overnight at one of the campgrounds. No parking problems for him. I would drive up overnight --- worried about the parking lot filling up, I planned to arrive near 2 or 3 am. Richard secured a permit for the Goblins' Forest campground, and we planned to meet at 3am on the trail.
The drive out from Michigan seemed to stretch on forever. I left Friday night and collapsed, bleary-eyed, in Iowa after more than 10 hours on the road. Fortunately I'd made good progress, and was able to reach CO the next day - I had Saturday night and Sunday to relax with my fiancee. I awoke at 1230am on Monday morning after a few hours sleep and headed up rt 36 toward the mountains. I arrived at the TH by 220am and was signing the log book and on my way by 230am. The parking lot was about half full when I arrived, and three or four more cars pulled in while I was readying my gear.
I headed up the trail in the dark. The trail is wide and well-graded, and walking by headlamp is easy. I could see lights ahead of me and also behind, but I couldn't hear any voices.
I reached the Goblins' Forest campground area just after 3am and started searching for Richard. I wasn't sure if there was more than one entrance to the campground and hiked up and down looking for him. After a few minutes a headlamp winked out from a side trail, and I saw the neon yellow cycling jacket Richard said he'd be wearing. (I had the same one and was wearing it too.) It's testimony to SP that two total strangers can meet, in the dark on the side of the mountain, and immediately share a sense of commonality and purpose. After a minute or two of 'hellos' we were heading up the trail at a quick pace.
The night was beautiful. The lights of the Longs Peak crowd twinkled ahead and behind us, and occasionally we'd catch the sound of voices. Overhead the stars burned, and once we were free of the trees we hiked up the moraine with the Milky Way stretched out above us.
Beautiful... but cold. The temperature was cool, but a stiff wind chilled us. We'd passed some people climbing in T-shirts. I shivered.
We reached the "Sky Potty" junction at about 430am. Many groups were gathered there, taking breaks, sheltering in the lee of boulders. After a quick stop Richard and I took the trail towards Chasm Meadows. Within a few hundred meters we were entirely alone. There had been lights heading up the trail toward the Boulderfield, but here we saw no one ahead or behind.
We reached the Patrol Cabin by 5am and stopped. The night was still very dark, and we decided to wait for dawn before picking our way through the boulders and up toward the loft. I put on some warmer clothes but shuddered with cold. We huddled against the Patrol Cabin trying to stay out of the wind. The gusts seemed to search us out, constantly changing direction and swirling around. No matter which side we chose, within a few seconds fresh gusts would find us. We passed the time looking at the stars and the lights, introducing ourselves and waiting for the light to come up. Richard was nursing an incipient sinus infection - he was feeling OK now, but had had to abandon the biking plan - his wife had dropped him off at the trailhead the previous day.
By 6am it was light enough to begin, and we were overjoyed to begin moving again. We headed SW towards the (climber's) left of the Ships Prow, picking our way through the boulders. The route up to the Loft is strenuous, but not difficult, and we slogged upward on loose rock and shallow slabs, following a faint trail and periodic cairns. Roughly we followed the line of the tiny stream which runs down from the Loft, keeping this on our right.
The climb up to the Loft is fun. The Ships Prow rises up majestically on the right, and the steep walls of the cirque surround you. Gradually the Patrol Cabin and Chasm Meadows fade below, and soon you are looking down on the Ships Prow. We stopped frequently to contemplate the alpenglow as dawn rose on the cliffs.
At one point I realized we must be at about 12,500 ft or so, and I turned to Richard, "you know, I've never been this high before". (My previous high point was Chasm Lake in July 2004.) I was winded (Ann Arbor's elevation is about 830 ft above sea level), and with each new step I grunted, "highest I've ever been...(step) highest I've ever been...(step)...". My head had started to ache badly, and I popped some ibuprofen (which I'd forgotten before setting out). Richard snapped a photo of me at this point and viewing it later I was surprised to see myself grimacing at the camera. I'd realized I felt tired, but the excitment of the clear air and the mountains rising around me had numbed me to the discomfort.
We continued up the slope, making for the cliffs at that lead up to the Loft. The ledges which offer easy passage to the Loft aren't readily visible from below, but once you get near the cliffs the route is easy to see. We followed the wide ledges and after a few easy scrambling moves we were on the final slopes leading up to the Loft.
The wind had been strong all during the ascent, but once on the Loft its full force was apparent. It howled past us. Gusts threatened to push us off balance, and we grabbed at rocks to hold ourselves steady. We crouched behind a boulder, forced down a snack, and discussed what to do. Originally we'd contemplated tackling Longs as well, and although we were making decent time (it was about 9am), we were tired, and the high winds and streaming clouds rolling over Longs Peak and the surrounding ridges dissuaded us. We decided to summit Meeker and then head down.
We stashed out packs at the Loft and headed up the final slopes to Meeker's summit. Quickly we reached the top, clutching at boulders in the windgusts. We decided that Layne Bracy's and the RMNP rangers' opinion was correct, and summitting was a perky slap on the rump of the western boulder. We had no desire to scramble across the ridge with the wind gusting as it was.
The winds remained strong as we descended to the Loft, and we caught brief glimpses of a few people who had made Long's summit. Most of the time Longs remained completely wrapped in cloud. Once we reached the packs we started down, glad to be fleeing before the wind.
On the descent we saw 6 more people on the route, all headed up: one alone, and groups of two and three. We moved down slowly, tired, trying not to kick loose stones down the slope. As we descended and the sun rose higher it began to get warmer, and despite the continuing wind we found ourselves sweating and shedding layers.
Once back at Chasm Meadows we found ourselves amid crowds. There were 20-30 people (in small groups) milling around the hut and privy, scrambling up the lake, and hiking along the stream in the meadows. By this time (about noon) the winds had lessened considerably, and the sun was hot. Even up high the conditions seemed to be improving, and the clouds were burning off.
As we descended the winds died still further, and the day remained fine and hot. It was one of those days when an 'alpine start', though prudent, brings more suffering than a more comfortable, 'hangover hour' departure. The weather remained clear the rest of the day, and we continued to shed layers on the descent.
Sky Potty junction was mobbed with people who had attempted Longs and day hikers just out for the view. We spoke with a crew from Texas who had camped overnight in the Boulderfield --- they reported that the night had been a lively one with the wind lashing the tent. They'd made the summit earlier, despite the wind. "Actually the wind pretty much pushed us up the Trough," they joked.
We skirted quickly around some llamas the rangers had brought up to carry away the piles of excrement (now wrapped in black plastic trashbags and attracting flies) from the privies, and headed down. We passed more people on the descent, and reached a full parking lot in mid-afternoon. Richard was fairly tired, and with the sinus infection still tickling, decided to accept my offer of a ride down. We loaded his bike (which he'd stashed behind the ranger station) into the car and were in Longmont in time for Labor Day barbecues. Having subsisted on energy bars all day, I sat back and downed masses of hot dogs and chips.
Driving back to Westminster that evening I excitedly pointed out Meeker and Longs to my fiancee, describing the day. Amid the late-day holiday traffic the wind and boulders in the Loft seemed incredibly distant. So distant, so close. The autumn months stretched out ahead, filled with trips back and forth to Michigan. More planes, more traffic, more hours in the cubicle. Yeah, my Labor Day excursion was 'escapist', but what a beautiful escape. Writing this months later (in Michigan) I still remember the wind and the soaring clouds. I was cold and tired and a little miserable. Ahh... escape.