By Matthias Messner
There is not much information about the LA Freeway. The most I ever found was in Anton Krupicka’s Ultimate Direction blog post, Schemin’ and Dreamin’. According to Krupicka’s post, Buzz Burrell, who named the route, was the only one to ever complete it. In two days. Nobody had ever completed in one day. I thought, no wonder, after reading the specs for the first time two years ago:
The LA Freeway is a true traverse of the Continental Divide linking the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park (Longs Peak, 14,255′) and the highest point in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (Arapaho Peak, 13,502′) and tagging 18 named peaks along the way…half a dozen instances of low-5th Class climbing and lots and lots of 3rd and 4th Class scrambling…endless talus-hopping and tundra-trotting…from Longs’ East Trailhead to Arapaho’s 4th of July Trailhead is approximately a 50K with at least 18,000′ of vertical.
First I thought, it is not possible. But it stuck with me, and the more I thought about it, the more I was drawn to this route. Since I was a little kid, growing up in the Dolomites, in northern Italy, I have spent my free time in the mountains. I have always loved moving in technical terrain. It has always seemed natural to me. And, of course, I have a competitive personality. So, why not?
August 5, 2017 was the day. I got up at 2:30 AM and drove to the Longs Peak trailhead. Coffee, water and everything else was already in the car. I wanted to reach the summit of Longs at sunrise, in order to maximize my daylight time.
I started at exactly 4 AM, at the car (a little ways down the road, parking lot was already full!), and passed the trailhead about 3 minutes later, wearing shorts, a long sleeve shirt, a light running jacket, a thin woolen hat, a baseball hat, gloves, a vest with two flasks of water (16 ounces each), six energy bars (about 200 calories each), and three gels. I planned to meet Sara, Cori, Caitlin, and Miriam on the saddle between Chiefs Head and Alice, and David, Nikita, and Will somewhere between Shoshoni and Toll to refill food and water.
Going up Longs, I took all the shortcuts I know of. I easily passed 50 people and two ptarmigans on the way. At the time, I was annoyed by how energized everyone seemed to be. A few said something to me but I was not in the mood to interact. The only mishap of the entire day happened before getting to Jim’s Grove trail. I had found my way through a super dense bush section so many times with daylight. But this time, I somehow got lost and didn’t feel like backtracking, so I forced myself though. It was not very elegant; I scratched up my legs and lost my sunglasses.
Once I hit the Cables (North Face), there was enough daylight to turn off my headlamp. The sky out east was completely fogged in, so the sunrise was not that spectacular. I reached the summit of Longs at 5:56 AM, touched the plaque and started my descent down the Homestretch.
I have done the traverse from Longs to Chiefs Head a couple times in both directions, so that entire section went smoothly, as expected. I stepped off the Keyhole route at the bottom end of the Homestretch, contoured over to the low point between Pagoda and Longs (there is a 3rd class passage down the ramp, other options are more technical), and climbed up Pagoda (6:28 AM). I started descending Pagoda by its south ridge. From there I stepped into the bowl, did the few required 4th class moves, walked down a scree field, and finally hit the grassy ledge which took me to the saddle between Pagoda and Chiefs Head. I climbed Chiefs Head (7:11 AM) and descended to the saddle where I was supposed to meet the girls. I saw them but they were still about 15 minutes (Sara says 10) down the ridge (I was half an hour ahead of schedule), so I decided to continue.
I felt good, had enough food, and knew there was a puddle of water on the other side of Alice I had drank from twice before. I climbed up Alice, which I summited at 7:57 AM, and refilled my flasks at the puddle a little ways down the back side.
While I paused for a minute, fog started coming in over the ridge from the west. The visibility was quite bad; at times I could not even see 50 feet ahead. Luckily, I had the Gaia GPS app on my phone, which proved to be well worth the $20 I paid for it. It helped me navigate through the fog.
This was especially important because this entire section, from Tanima to Paiute, was new to me. I cancelled plans to scout it a week earlier because of bad weather. But, on the map that section didn’t look too technical, so I thought knowing that it would go had to be enough. I had heard though, that Isolation notch could be tricky. In the notch, I found my way up a 5th class, west-facing, approximately 30 foot, steep scramble, then contoured back north on a narrow ledge to finally get out of the notch and reach the ridge again. The visibility all the way to Isolation had been bad, but once I got off Isolation (9:40 AM) it started clearing up. The sun came out and all of a sudden it made sense again to be out there.
The next peaks were Ouzel (10:17 AM) and Ogalalla (10:46 AM). From there I could see two gorgeous peaks and their ridges: Copeland and Elk Tooth. They are not part of the LA Freeway but they definitely sparked my interest for some later adventures.
On the map, the terrain between Ouzel and Ogalalla looked very runnable. I was excited to finally be able to cover a few miles a little bit faster. But nope, the grass up there provides very unstable footing. It’s almost as if you’re stepping on a sea of tennis balls — your ankles want to roll in all directions. That and a lot of pointy and sharp rocks forced me back into hiking mode most of the time. Actually, on the entire LA Freeway course, there is very little runnable terrain. Most of the time you will be moving on sharp rocks. Wearing shoes that protect your feet well is a very good idea.
The next ridge, before Peak 12277 (11:55 AM), was memorable. It felt like an ancient allee, flanked by big rock spires instead of trees, with Buchanan Creek on the west side and Envy Lake on the east.
Next, I tagged Red Deer (12:13 PM), went down Buchanan Pass, and started to get really thirsty. I only had 32 ounces of water since refilling in the puddle at Alice (about 5 hours prior) and a few more sips from random rain puddles here and there. I started really looking forward to meeting up with the boys on Toll. But that was at least another two hours away. I ate a gel with caffeine, which helped a bit. The next two peaks were Sawtooth (12:35 PM) and Algonquin (1:07 PM). Both look boring coming from the north. But Sawtooth looks really awesome from Algonquin — I understood why it got its name.
The ascent up Paiute, coming from the north, is also a gem. I got a bit lost on the ridge before dropping into the notch. I was too high and ended up standing on the edge of a sheer vertical face. I saw two vertical hand cracks about a foot apart leading to a lower ledge, about 30 feet down, which had an exit. I decided to not try that. Instead I scrambled down on the west side of the ridge until I was able to enter the notch via a narrow ledge going back east along the vertical face. Then I hiked up the scree towards the base of the summit faces of Paiute. There, I opted for the 5th class chimney between the spire on the east and the summit of Paiute (2:17 PM).
Next, I got on the ridge towards Toll and finally heard and then saw David, Nikita, and Will yelling from the summit. That gave me quite a boost, both physically and mentally. I have done Toll once before via the lower boulder field on the west side. I remembered that as not that exciting so I opted for the upper ledge on the west side of Toll and found another really fun 5th class chimney to the summit of Toll (2:44 PM) where I met up with the boys.
Until now, the weather had been good enough to stay safe on ridges and peaks. But when I came off Paiute, thunderstorms had started forming in the Winter Park and Granby area. Luckily they were not moving towards us. Still, on the summit of Toll, for a moment, I heard the buzzing and felt the terrifying signs of an electrical storm and was worried I would have to bail. For a moment I was worried I was going to have to bail. But looking south, towards the remainder of the LA Freeway, it was still clear.
Quickly, we got off the summit. I drank a Redbull and felt better fast. I stashed another two packs of energy blocks. By this time, I had a hard time eating anything that required a lot of chewing. I refilled my flasks with water and took also a tiny bottle of Coke with me. I figured the less the guys have to carry back down to Brainard, the better for them.
With the new energy, I decided to keep going. Overall, my body felt relatively good. My knees were a bit sore behind the knee caps from all the steep ups and downs.
And thankfully, Will agreed to accompany me for the remainder of the course. We headed up Pawnee (3:12 PM), over to Shoshoni (3:43 PM), and started the Kasparov Traverse. It started sleeting on us while Longs, long behind us, was in the sun. We did not climb the Chessmen but still tried to stay on the ridge as much as possible by meandering on its east and west side. We tagged Apache (3:44 PM), where we saw at least a dozen tiny birds glissading on a snowfield (seriously, I was not hallucinating). We headed down to the saddle before Navajo. The sleeting stopped and the sun came out again.
Navajo is one of my favorites. The scramble up starts with a fun 5th class dihedral which requires some stemming and ends with a fun 15’ hand crack to the summit (5:09 PM).
But the descent off of Navajo is one of the more awful ones. It is steep, long, and has soccer ball-sized rocks, which require very cautious footing. We stayed on the ridge for the most part, but in order to skip the Arikaree notch we contoured the glacier as high as we could (this is the Boulder watershed and we did not want to enter it) to ascent Arikaree via its northwest face.
After ascending and descending over 18,000’ at this point, my uphill legs started feeling really tired; on every steep ascent I had to stop every couple minutes to catch my breath.
After tagging the summit of Arikaree (5:58 PM) we continued south. As we passed the debris of the 1940 airplane crash, yet another storm rolled in and we started feeling the raindrops. We continued along the ridge until the last tricky section: the rock formation right above the glacier to the north side of North Arapaho peak. It features some southeast-facing vertical rock walls and, in my opinion, is the trickiest in terms of route finding.
The passage I found starts on a grassy ledge on a vertical wall about 30’ above the top of the glacier. We kept going as long as we could, then we climbed up a steep grass-filled dihedral. Once at the top, we moved a bit more south to climb another steep but shorter dihedral. Then we traversed a 10’ long exposed rock section which has good foot and hand holds. And finally we climbed another steep, grass-filled, 30’ long dihedral to get back on the ridge again. From there, all ways lead to the summit of North Arapahoe which we reached at 7:30 PM, at which time, the rain turned into a full-on, whiteout snowstorm. The strong winds and lack of glasses made the normally trivial traverse from N to S Arapahoe a painful experience. I was exhausted and freezing. This was the only time in the entire day I did not have the proper clothing.
Luckily, David — he waited for us on S Arapahoe for an hour and 15 minutes — had a jacket for me. We slogged down the ridge of S Arapahoe and as soon as we were off it, the weather got nice again. We saw a gorgeous sunset and I finally realized that I made it. From there we ran down to the Arapahoe Pass trail where we met up with Sara and Cori. They had also been waiting for an hour and a half on S Arapahoe in the snow storm for Will and me.
We got to the parking lot at 9:02 PM (I had guessed I would finish sometime between 7 and 9 PM). The last mile or so I sped up — relatively — because I realized I had a chance to finish in under 17 hours. In fact, the total time was 16 hours and 59 minutes.
Some people have asked me if I could have done it quicker. Yes, I think so. In ideal conditions — nutrition and hydration wise, no stopping for pictures and pressing the OK button on my Spot GPS device, no chatting with friends, perfect weather, etc. — but same fitness, I think I could have shaved up to an hour and a half off my time. Gauntlet thrown!
Longs TH 4:03 AM
Longs 5:56 AM
Pagoda 6:28 AM
Chiefs Head 7:11 AM
Alice 7:57 AM
Tanima 8:37 AM
Cleaver 8:51 AM
Isolation 9:40 AM
Ouzel 10:17 AM
Ogalalla 10:46 AM
12227 11:55 AM
Red Deer 12:13 PM
Sawtooth 12:35 PM
Algonquin 1:07 PM
Paiute 2:17 PM
Toll 2:44 PM
Pawnee 3:12 PM
Shoshoni 3:43 PM
Apache 4:44 PM
Navajo 5:09 PM
Arikaree 5:58 PM
N Arapaho 7:30 PM
S Arapaho 7:58 PM
4th of July TH 9:02 PM
36.5 mi; 21,022′
Editors Note #2:
I created the LA Freeway July 8-9, 2002. Here’s what I wrote then:
This evening I finally completed a long-standing project: hiking from
Longs Peak to Arapaho Peak, staying on the Continental Divide, and
climbing everything in between. Longs – Arapaho is an amazing route:
really long, continuously high, no trails of any kind or people of any
kind except at the beginning and end, quite exposed, constant summits to surmount, and miles and miles of tricky 4th class rock with some solid
5th class pitches thrown in to keep out the riff raff.
That’s all I ever wrote. The route is so pure and so obvious: from anywhere in east Boulder County, look up at the skyline – that’s the route! What more is there to say?
I’ve been all over the world and believe this is one of the finest routes of it’s kind anywhere. And it’s even in plain sight of one of the climbing and running capitals of the world. 15 years later, Matthias finally repeated it, in absolutely excellent style.
The gauntlet is indeed down! – Buzz
Comments welcome! What do you think? Want to have a go?