A Perfect Day on Meeker and Longs
Although I have backpacked and hiked for as long as I can remember, I have only gotten into mountain climbing in the last couple of years. I did my first fourteener (Quandary) last December, and while it was a great experience, the class-1 trail was less than inspiring. I don’t have the knowledge or gear for technical alpine rock. Hence, the term that drew me to Longs Peak was “mountaineering”–that mystical combination of snow climbing, exposure, scrambling, and route-finding.
I did not want to simply climb and downclimb the Keyhole route with the crowds. After researching route alternatives, I decided on the Loft Couloir and Clark’s Arrow combination because a June ascent of this route would allow me to practice snow skills that I learned in a CMC class and get away from the crowds on a still fairly easy route. It also promised all of those attributes that I considered to define “mountaineering.”
My dad agreed to an attempt on this route, and after checking the weather forecast, we agreed on Sunday, June 26–a day promising clear, calm weather from sunrise to sunset.
We set the alarm for 1:00 a.m., and after driving from Boulder to the trailhead, we started up the trail at 2:30. Just as we broke treeline, we passed a group of 3 climbers that were also headed for the Loft Couloir–we would meet them again on the Loft. We reached the Chasm Lake / Boulderfield trail junction about 2 hours after leaving the trailhead.
The sun was below the horizon but lighting up the sky with beautiful colors as we ate breakfast and some other people arrived at the trail junction.
The snow traverse above Peacock Pool was very icy and we used crampons to cross it.
As we entered the bottom of the Loft Couloir, the sun rose above the horizon, providing the first good view of the route ahead.
The moon over Meeker’s Flying Buttress:
We stayed on dirt and rock until 12,650 feet, where we put used crampons and ice axes to climb the snowfield at the top of the Loft Couloir. I led up old boot prints in the firm but not icy snow. Besides some practice on the St. Mary’s Glacier, this was my first snow climb. It was tons of fun, and the experience solidified my definition of “mountaineering” as incorporating some snow climbing.
At the top of the snowfield, the route traverses left to gain the exit ledges. Here’s my dad on the traverse at the top of the snowfield.
The exit ledges were easy to find, more or less dry, and fun to cross. The exposure was noticeable but the ledges were wide and easy walking except for two class-3 cruxes.
In this picture you can see the start of the ledges and two climbers coming up the Loft Couloir. They turned out to be the climbers that we passed on the trail in the dark, and our groups stayed fairly close on the route for the rest of the day.
My dad on the upper part of the exit ledges:
We reached the Loft at about 7:45 a.m. While my dad took a break in the lee of a big rock, I made a 40-minute round-trip to the summit of Mount Meeker. The lower part of the route on Meeker was a well-worn trail, but there was some talus in the upper part. I didn’t find the summit block as difficult as it might look–it felt like very easy class-3. I found a broken summit register (no papers). I continued about 300 feet across a tiny knife-edge ridge to another summit (not to be confused with the much more distant Meeker Ridge) since I couldn’t tell which bump was higher.
The summit of Meeker (13,911′) viewed from the east:
Longs from Meeker:
This picture shows me on the top of Meeker, viewed from the Loft:
Next, we headed for the Clark’s Arrow downclimb. We met the 3 people that were doing the same route as us; their leaders, who knew the route, had been unable to come. Since I had studied the route descriptions a lot and had a GPS coordinate for the “key cairn,” we agreed to show them the way down.
An existing report covers finding the downclimb very well, so I won’t repeat what they said. You can find this report here: http://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=10828
The key cairn–the downclimb starts on the west side of this.
The crux class-3 or 4 downclimb in the Clark’s Arrow gully.
Our exit from the downclimb gully, showing the route headed for Keplinger’s couloir.
We failed to find the painted Clark’s Arrow, which was a little disappointing, but we made it into Keplinger’s Couloir safely, which is really all that mattered. We contoured into the couloir on some ledges below the Palisades. Keplinger’s Couloir is full of loose rock and scree, and when we were there, there was a fair amount of ice as well.
On the ledges above Keplinger’s Couloir:
Looking down to Wild Basin:
At about 13,700 feet, the easiest route to the top from Keplinger’s Couloir turns climber’s left to traverse a ledge or a snowfield, depending on the season. We found the traverse section to be steep snow over a fair amount of exposure, and we crossed with crampons and ice axes. A section near the end was very icy, and axe placements were hard to find for this short section.
After the snow traverse, a short, easy scramble brought us to the base of the Homestretch, which was nearly dry. There was a little bit of snow, ice, and running water in places, but it was avoidable.
We were very happy at this point to have made it past the difficulties and to have successfully completed the Loft/Clark’s Arrow route.
Here’s a view back to our traverse around the Palisades:
We summited Longs Peak (14,259′) at 11:15 and took advantage of the superb weather to enjoy a leisurely lunch and rest on the top. The views were incredible, especially with the endless blue sky in all directions.
My dad and me:
Meeker and the Palisades from Longs:
And of course, the world-famous summit marmot:
The Narrows were exposed but very manageable and completely dry.
The Trough was holding enough snow that we used crampons to descend just because we had them–it was also possible to stay on mostly rock with only a little snow, and I assume that’s the way that people without snow gear went.
The Ledges were dry, easy, and not very exposed compared to the ledge sections on the Loft Couloir and in Keplinger’s Couloir.
Passing through the Keyhole:
At this point we were pretty tired and slow. Eventually we made it back to the trail junction to be rewarded with a view of afternoon light on Meeker.
Here’s a closeup of our route in the Loft Couloir:
The hike out seemed like it would never end. At least this waterfall was worth taking a picture of.
We arrived back at the car just before 8:00 p.m. for a 17.5 hour round trip. In total, the trip was about 14.5 miles and 6,000 feet vertical gain, which comes out to approximately 25 energy miles (1 energy mile is the effort it takes to walk 1 mile on flat ground).
The route was everything I could have asked for, and the weather was literally perfect. The wind was almost calm for most of the time, the temperature was neither hot nor cold, and we enjoyed bluebird skies all day. I think that I found a route that fits my current idea of non-technical mountaineering–snow climbing in the Loft Couloir, exposure on the exit ramps, route finding in Clark’s Arrow, and scrambling on the Homestretch.
I highly recommend the Loft route if you want a non-technical, non-standard way to reach the summit of Longs. It could be done later in the summer without any snow, but that was half the fun!