July 1, 2012 -
The Glacier Gorge Traverse, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of Colorado’s “hard man” classics. It’s really difficult – 19 miles with over 10,000’ of elevation gain, most of which is above 12,000’, and all of which is gnarly and technical. I had been wanting to do it for years, but was never able to wrap my head around the technical crux of the route – the west ridge of Pagoda. This reputedly goes at 5.6-5.7, or some rappelling. It is so remote and difficult it is impractical to scout – you just have to go do it. This is probably why the Traverse might only get done once a year.
So when local legend Bill Briggs suggested we tackle the traverse together, I jumped at the chance. Bill might be the only person who has done this burly traverse more than once, having completed it several times since 1982, with a mind-boggling PR of 7:17. When someone like Bill asks you do join him for a rare gem like this, you are very well advised to agree!
I knew Bill would simply downclimb the tough sections on Pagoda, but since that scared the crap out of me I stuffed a 30M, 7mm rope into the prototype UD Adventure Vest I’m designing. The rope fit perfectly, even leaving room for my tiny C.A.M.P. harness, rappel device and a couple of slings for anchors. In the other pockets of the vest I stowed plenty of food, 72 oz. of water, a light rain jacket, and enough Vitamin I for a good, long day in the hills.
We started at 5:00AM sharp at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, ambling along the easy North Longs Peak Trail. After 40 minutes we left the trail and bushwhacked directly up the north slopes of our first of 11 peaks for the day – Half Mountain. We reached the diminutive 11,482’ summit easily, enjoying spectacular views of the rugged peaks and valleys all around. Another 90 minutes of easy but steep rock hopping brought us to Storm Peak, our first 13er at 13,326’.
We didn’t linger on Storm, traversing quickly to the Keyhole, an amazing formation in Longs Peak’s rugged north ridge. Here we met the hoards of Sunday hikers on their way up Longs via the standard (“Keyhole”) route. Longs is an incredible mountain with over a hundred routes to its monolithic summit, but over 99% of all ascents are made via this one route.
Bill suggested we use seldom-travelled Northwest Couloir route in order to avoid the crowds, and so that we wouldn’t have any back-tracking on our route. I happily agreed – I’ve climbed Longs over 45 times via various routes, but had never even heard of the Northwest Couloir (Bill had climbed it over 45 years ago)! The climb was beautiful, pleasant and direct, with some 4th and low-5th class scrambling. Far below we could see the conga-line of hikers in the Trough section of the Keyhole Route. We reached the summit (14,255’) at 9:20AM, a leisurely 4:20 into our hike. We weren’t going for any records here.
Pretty soon we set off down the Homestretch and across the talus to Pagoda (13,497’), which we reached about an hour later.
Pagoda’s tough west ridge becomes intimidating right away, dropping off steeply on both sides. Bill expertly led us through this complex terrain, zig-zagging across exposed ledges and slabs to avoid precipitous drops and towering gendarmes. The whole thing is “don’t fall ” territory – in normal running, a “fall” means you fall 3’ to the ground – here a “fall” means something else entirely.
Eventually we reached an unavoidable 70’ wall directly on the ridge. I broke out the rope and rappelled. Bill just tossed the roped down from the anchor, and then carefully downclimbed (my 100’ rope was not long enough to double for the rappel, and therefore could not be pulled). The exposure was so severe that I didn’t even want to watch. The thought of him doing this solo 30 years ago without the advantages of today’s sticky rubber approach shoes was sort of horrifying.
Complex, steep terrain, with difficult route finding and frequent scrambling continued over Chief’s Head (13,579’), and then McHenry’s Peak (13,327’). We ambled along, taking our time, enjoying the beautiful weather, incredible scenery, fun route and each other’s company. The final difficulty, the notch between McHenry’s and Powell, went well. Fortunately, we found our first good trickle of water coming from a snowfield on the ascent of Powell – I had been completely out of water for some time. Using bottles instead of a reservoir in the Adventure Vest made it dramatically easier to replenish.
After Powell the terrain becomes considerably easier, just pleasant tundra hiking and some talus hopping. Bill said he didn’t care about summiting Otis and Hallett – the day was getting long and he’d done this route enough times to cut some corners. This being my first time on the traverse, I wanted to dot all the “i’s”, so I upped my pace and pushed ahead to tag these easy summits.
Once on Hallett it was a big 3,500’ downhill back to the car. I cranked it out on the easy trail, feeling good. Even fully loaded with gear, the Adventure Vest rode so well that I barely noticed it. It was late on Sunday afternoon, and I didn’t see anyone until I reached Bear Lake. Another half mile back to the Glacier Gorge TH, and that was that. 19 miles took 13 hours! What a route!
“It doesn’t get any easier,” was how Bill summed up the route, 30 years after he first completed it.
Waypoint Elevation Time Miles
Glacier Gorge TH 9,200 0:00 0.0
Half Mountain 11,482 1:28 2.5
Storm Peak 13,326 3:43 4.4
Longs Peak 14,255 4:19 5.5
Pagoda Mountain 13,497 5:23 6.4
Chief’s Head Peak 13,579 7:13 7.4
McHenry’s Peak 13,327 8:59 8.9
Powell Peak 13,208 9:51 9.5
Taylor Peak 13,153 10:38 10.9
Otis Peak 12,486 11:23 12.4
Hallett Peak 12,713 11:54 13.5
Flattop Mountain 12,324 12:07 14.0
Glacier Gorge TH 9,200 13:02 18.7