Longs Peak (14255')
via Glacier Gorge & The Trough
Feb 21, 2009
11.6 miles RT, 5200' gain
Participants: Steve Mueller, James Just, Jeff Shafer, John Balciar, & Kevin Baker
I've been wanting to climb Longs in winter for quite sometime now and this weekend was looking like the weather would finally cooperate for an attempt. A dayhike of Longs in winter is a tough challenge, but it can be reasonable if you have a broken trail for part of the way. I had never been up Glacier Gorge, so The Trough route from the west really sparked my interest. I hadn't hiked with James and Jeff in awhile, so I sent and invite and they bit. Steve is always up for a new winter 14er and this would be my first time hiking with John. I'm glad he came, because he did most of the work breaking trail up the Trough!
Steve and I crashed at my cousin's place in Broomfield for a few hours and awoke to a couple inches of snow on the ground. And we're supposed to climb Longs today? It was not looking good. We navigated the slick roads up to RMNP, passing by a rollover accident on Hwy 36 between Boulder and Estes Park. We all arrived a bit late due to the slow driving and the winds were howling at the trailhead, blowing spindrift all over the place. Our odds of summitting were looking very slim, but we went ahead and gave it a shot since we would be in the trees for awhile and the forecast was for improving conditions as the day progressed.
We headed off into the maelstrom at 3:35am with temps in the low teens. It didn't take long to warm up in the trees as they offered nice protection from the wind. We took the shortcut trail just past the 2nd bridge, which shaves off at least 3/4 mile. This shortcut rejoins the main trail near the intersection of The Lock/Mills Lake trails. Apparently we didn't take the same path as our descent, as the morning track was a bit higher. We were happy to find a broken trail and were able to get by without snowshoes all the way up to Jewell Lake. The trail breaking beyond Jewell Lake wasn't bad though, although we could tell the winds were still howling.
We took a break just below Black Lake and geared up for the battle that was imminent. Our morale took a huge hit when we arrived at treeline at Black Lake and were greeted with a freight train of wind stabbing us straight in the face with ferocity. Apparently the topography creates a funnel effect with the wind through here. We got above this small saddle and regrouped for decision time.
James began to waver on me, but I reminded him that things were due to improve according to the forecast and that the day was still young! He also forgot that he was hiking with Mr. Bluebird! We would also likely find a wind shadow on the south facing Narrows. We decided to head to the base of the Trough and head up from there if conditions improved.
Doom and gloom early on above Black Lake:
Sure enough, as we climbed higher the winds let up a bit and were now behind us, although we weren't out of the woods yet. The sun began to tease us as it was lighting up the east facing slopes, but it would be a long time until we would feel its warmth.
Chiefs Head and The Spearhead:
We climbed firm snow up the gully east of Black Lake and hung a right to the base of the Trough. As expected, it looked like the avy danger was going to be very slim on this day as the prevailing n.w. winds hammer this aspect regularly. Only the couloir itself held any snow. Steve had had enough of the wind and decided to call it a day.
We missed seeing the easy class 2 scramble to climber's left of the base of the Trough, and ended up having to pick our way up some sketchy slabs that took way too much time to navigate as the footing was unsure on shallow snow. We were all happy to be off that nasty stuff! That ended up being the crux of the day.
Finally in the Trough, we found pretty solid conditions for a snow climb in Feb. Generally you don't want to be on steeper snow in Feb in Colorado, but there are exceptions to the rule. The snow varied from postholing a foot or so to perfect, wind hammered conditions that were perfect for crampons.
The Trough is fairly mellow in terms of steepness as it is in the 30-35 degree range, but it is one of the longest snow climbs in the state at ~2000 feet! We made good time up it, and I had no problem being the caboose most of the way.
Heading up the Trough:
Video in the Trough
We made decent time up the Trough and it was actually looking like we were going to make it! We linked in with the standard Keyhole route and noticed one party making their way across. The snow was much thinner near the top of the Trough.
James joins in with the Keyhole route:
I started tanking near the top as I didn't want to take off my pack to dig out another Gatorade bottle and it seemed like we would never get to the chockstone. My feet were also getting pretty cold and I was sure looking forward to getting out of the shadows. We finally made it, and the scramble over the chockstone felt a lot different with crampons on! I popped through the notch and found the guys enjoying near tropical conditions, taking a break on the Narrows. The break gave us a second wind with renewed strength for the finish across the Narrows and up the Homestretch.
Jeff, James, and John enjoying the sun at last on the Narrows:
We were pumped for the final push, which turned out to be not much harder than a summer hike as what snow there was on the Narrows was very firm. We left our crampons in case there was any ice and found just a couple small patches that could be avoided.
Here's a great shot courtesy of Jeff Shafer of me on the Narrows that shows the conditions nicely:
I'm sure the conditions vary widely high on Longs throughout the winter, but we found them to be pretty reasonable on this day. I sure would not want to be on it with a significant amount of ice though. Once across the Narrows, the Homestretch revealed itself and the south facing aspect held little snow, not even enough for an ice axe to be of good use.
I topped out at 11:45am, elated to pull this off after such a gloomy start! The wind wasn't too bad on the summit with a temp of 20 degrees. Nobody had signed the register since 2/3, but I'm sure a few have been up there since then. We only hung around until noon and I was anxious to get in my first real glissade of the year on the Trough!
The descent of the Homestretch and traverse across the Narrows went pretty quick, and we took another break at the end of the Narrows.
Looking down the Homestretch from the top:
Traversing the Narrows:
The descent of the Trough went pretty quick as we picked our way down the thinner sections up top and plunge stepped the steeper portion. James and I got in a nice, controlled glissade on the lower portion. We easily found the way we should have came up to avoid the cliff band at the bottom and regrouped for the slog back to the trailhead.
The Trough (leftmost couloir) from the bottom:
This was my first trip up Glacier Gorge and now we got to take in the world class views that we missed in the dark coming up! This dramatic cirque is a worthy destination for the casual snowshoer as the trip up to Black Lake is pretty gentle. Ice climbing opportunities abound.
McHenrys & Arrowhead tower above us:
McHenrys & Black Lake:
It was downright warm as we descended, although the winds did pick up again later on. To save some distance, we cut straight across Jewell and Mills Lakes. This was my first time snowshoeing on a lake. Good thing I'm not fat, because the northern end of Jewell Lake was thawed! Nothing like snowshoeing through slush!
Crossing Mills Lake:
I left my snowshoes on all the way back to the trailhead, arriving at 3:55pm. Longs in winter is a true test of fortitude and perserverance, but with a little luck with the weather it can be a very rewarding climb. What a day on my favorite 14er!