Glacier Gorge Traverse, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
July 31,1982, 9:18pm
The landscape is bathed in the light of a nearly full moon. Given the time of day the temperature is pleasantly warm. There is the usual breeze from the west.
The challenge is to traverse eleven of the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park in less than 24 hours. I’ve been unsuccessful in five previous attempts. I’m told others have also tried and failed.
The route begins, gently, by hiking down the trail from Bear Lake to Glacier Gorge Junction and from there up the North Longs Peak Trail to the junction with the East Longs Peak Trail at Granite Pass.
The first few miles go by with seemingly little effort. By the time I reach Granite Pass I’m so eager to ascend the first peak I leave the trail and head straight up the North Slope of Mount Lady Washington.
August 1, 1982, 2:13am
I am standing on the highest of the many large boulders adorning the summit of Mount Lady Washington. The lunar-lit landscape is spectacular. The temperature is considerably cooler than it was at Bear Lake. I descend westward into and across the Boulderfield aiming directly for the next summit.
On top of Storm Peak, I brace against a stiff westerly breeze enjoying one of my favorite views of Longs Peak by moonlight. From the summit I head south along the east side of the ridge towards The Keyhole. The pale pinks and lavenders of first light are beginning to grace the eastern sky. The sun has just risen when I reach The Keyhole. I ascend Longs the same way I have many times before via The Trough and Homestretch.
I reach the familiar summit boulder on the flat summit of Longs Peak for the 72nd time in my life. Unfortunately, there isn’t time to pause and enjoy the view because the difficult parts of the traverse still lie ahead and must be finished during daylight.
I descend Homestretch, and instead of heading back across the Narrows, I continue on down towards the col between Longs and Pagoda Mountain. Having been this way three times before I know there is a short headwall part way down which requires a rappel.
I head directly for my previous rappel point, find it and use the same piton anchor I placed in 1970. The rappel is only about forty feet, so I’m soon on my way down to the col and up the East Ridge of Pagoda.
I’ve been moving continuously for thirteen hours when I reach the summit of Pagoda Mountain. Before beginning the descent of the West Ridge of Pagoda, which is the most difficult section of the entire traverse, I stop for a short rest and a bite to eat.
The West Ridge begins with about 150 yards of down climbing along the very narrow and exposed crest to the first in a series of vertical steps. At the first step I locate my previous rappel anchors, check them carefully to see they are still solid, replace the old frayed nylon runner with a new one, setup the rope, clip it into my figure 8 ring and ease over the edge onto Pagoda’s north face. This is an airy place. The floor of Glacier Gorge is over a thousand feet below. Just as I’m about at the ends of my rope I reach an almost hidden narrow ledge, which I know, is there. I recall the excitement of the first time down this rappel when I didn’t know the ledge was there and contemplating the possibility of climbing hand over hand back up the rope for 75 feet. Balanced on the six inch wide ledge I hold on to the rock with my right hand and pull down the rope with my left hoping that it doesn’t get caught. It clears the anchor and falls cleanly down around me and onto the face below. I put the rope in my teeth and traverse to where the ledge is wide enough to stand comfortably and recoil the rope. The next step on the ridge is almost a repeat of the last except the rappel is easier. After two more rappels and I’m at the beginning of an exposed ledge system that crosses the steep slabs of the north face heading to the col between Pagoda and Chiefs Head Peak.
At the col I meet another climber who has climbed up from Glacier Gorge and we hike together for a ways. When he finds out what I’m doing he says he is impressed, but in his expression I seem to detect he is harboring doubts about my sanity.
I reach the friendly summit of Chiefs Head, the third highest peak in The Park. After signing the summit register I follow the ridge downward as it curves northwest towards the next peak. At Stoneman Pass, where my companions and I had given up on two of the previous attempts, the temptation is strong to bail out again.
“I’m tired and thirsty,” my body is screaming, “rather than climb the remaining six peaks, it would be so much easier to descend to Black Lake and hike back out on the trail.”
This time love of folly triumphs over good sense and I begin the climb up the south ridge of McHenrys.
I’m standing in the beautiful late afternoon light looking down into the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge from the summit of McHenrys Peak. I’d match this magnificent alpine scenery against any in the world.
As I’m leaving the summit a loose rock rolls under my foot and I fall hard on my left knee. Shaken, I sit and examine the damage. Although, there is a nasty laceration the kneecap doesn’t seem to be broken so after applying some first aid I’m on my way climbing down into the McHenrys Notch. In 1966 when I tried the Traverse for the first time, we began with Flattop Mountain and were coming from north to south when we crossed the Notch. On that occasion we did a couple of roped leads climbing out of the Notch on the McHenrys side, so I’m anticipating three or four rappels to get down. Much to my surprise I’m able to downclimb almost all the way, using only one short rappel.
From the floor of the Notch I have just begun the scree and talus scramble up towards the summit of Powell when I find a trickle of water running from a snowbank. It’s time for something to eat and some much needed rehydration.
I finish the climb to the summit of Powell Peak. At this point all the technical sections are behind me, there are only four more relatively easy summits left to go, but it’s apparent I’m not going to make the Traverse in under 24 hours.
The hike from Powell to Taylor is a long mile across tundra and talus.
I summit Taylor Peak and, without stopping, hurry on down towards Andrews Pass. The sun is nearly setting and I want to get as far as possible during daylight.
I’m on top of Otis Peak. Without benefit of either daylight or moonlight I turn on my headlamp and set out towards Hallett Peak.
On the way I find another trickle of water and stop for a break. The moon is up now. The sky, clouds, shapes and textures of the alpine landscape are a study in soft shades of gray and velvet blacks. From this vantage point I can see most of the summits I’ve visited in the last 24 hours, and it finally registers in my tired mind, the Traverse is almost finished. There is an almost overwhelming sense of satisfaction.
It’s all downhill from here. I’m on top of Hallett Peak knowing all that remains is to descend around the head of Tyndall Gorge to the summit of Flattop and hike down the Flattop Trail to Bear Lake. Hallelujah!
I reach the broad summit of Flattop Mountain and immediately set off down the Flattop Trail to finish the remaining four and a half miles.
The sky, containing more clouds than normal for this hour of the day, erupts into a thunderstorm.
I’m thinking to myself Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor. I can hear her saying, “Okay smart guy, you just climbed eleven peaks, now let’s see if you can run a couple of miles to avoid being zapped by lightning.”
Desire for survival overcomes lack of energy and I run down to below timberline. The extra effort takes its toll. I’ve been moving for over 26 hours and the level of fatigue is becoming oppressive.
August 2, 1982, 1:08am
Finally, I’m back to my good ol’ VW bus at the Bear Lake parking lot. It has taken 27 hours and 50 minutes. To my surprise, my friend Howard Pomranka, is there waiting to make sure I return safely. Earlier in the day he missed connecting with me at Andrews Pass in hope of climbing the last three peaks together.
He knows the history of the five previous attempts. He looks at the tired smile on my face and his first words are, “You made it didn’t you?”
I reply, “Yes. It’s finally finished.”
The Traverse ascends in order:
1. Mount Lady Washington, 13,281 ft.,
2. Storm Peak, 13,326 ft.,
3. Longs Peak, 14,259 ft.,
4. Pagoda Mountain, 13,497 ft.,
5. Chiefs Head Peak, 13,579 ft.,
6. McHenrys Peak, 13,327 ft.,
7. Powell Peak, 13,208 ft.,
8. Taylor Peak, 13,153 ft.,
9. Otis Peak, 12,486 ft.,
10. Hallett Peak, 12,713 ft.,
11. Flattop Mountain, 12,324 ft.
It is 23.01 miles long and has an elevation gain/loss of 11,447 ft..
February 13, 2006