Slowly, I roll to the gate.
The Park ranger sees me from afar and returns to me only a tired stare. He himself walks slowly to the entrance booth, not resting his gaze. I now roll towards the booth even slower. Nervous. I feel as if I’m performing a border crossing, rather than just entering a National Park. The guard just continues his stare – his eyes looking right at mine; the rest of his visage saying absolutely nothing. I offer a hello, but get no reply. Meeting him at the booth, he continues his vacant look. Is he looking at me, or past me? I don’t know, but I hand him the entrance fee I just made change for at the coffee shop in town that I stopped at to regain feeling in my hands and feet after making that chilly descent into Estes Park. Having climbed out of town, I’m much warmer now. Unseasonably warm. Finally,
“Oh. Day Pass. Map?”
I accept, and that’s my entire interaction with this guy. It’s also the first time I’ve ever paid for entrance into the Park in my 5+ years of visiting it. It feel almost wrong. Some things, I ponder, shouldn’t be bought.
Inside, I immediately feel a sense of calm and quiet. I could almost be the sole person in the Park. It’s a weekday in November, so it’s not out of the realm of believably. I snap out of this calmness and realize: I think I’m lost. I consult my new map. I am lost. Shoulda used the other entrance. Bonus miles for me, making the approach to the trailhead a solid 50 miles. I like even numbers, so it’s fine. I have a lot of energy, still.
I make my way finally to Bear Lake Road with only a few cars passing me. I’ve never been to this part of the Park before, so everything feels new, and that makes me feel that youthful sense I originally got when exploring woods that abut next to the back yard I grew up in. Those woods had a gate, too.
Longs Peak already towers above me, and I can make out landmarks I know from being up close and on her summit. There’s Granite Pass, and Storm Peak. There’s the Keyhole, and the North Face. How many little adventures have I played out on just this one view? How many times have I’ve been too scared to move, or blown away by the wind? Or just, tired – but still needing to go down right away?
All of these little acts look like they took place a hundred miles away and maybe 100 years ago, but I know the mountain is closer and I’m not that old myself. Still, I need to be clear on the other side of the mountain, and I still don’t know how that’s supposed to happen. I can’t see a break in the ridge line that starts at Storm Peak. It looks a long ways around. I’m nervous, as the days are getting very short.
The path the road takes doesn’t lie, and before I know it, I’m at the shuttle bus stop, which feeds a small offshoot trail to the main trail I’ll follow all the way to Glacier Gorge. There’s more activity here than I’ve seen all day. A tourist groups is bustling near the restrooms. One looks concerned at me, asks me what’s on my back…
“Oh,” he finally sighs, a bit nonplussed: “an ice axe.” I don’t think people usually wonder about such gear lashed to a pack, but maybe it’s because I’m also riding a bike. That, I guess, is out of the ordinary.
I also had no real idea this place even existed, and only 50 miles away from my house. I feel truly transported I think, as I pass another low granite wall with semi frozen waterfalls trickling down. The groups of tourists have thinned, and the only two people I pass now are Park works, sawing down tree branches they find blocking the trail with hand tools.
“It’s a beautiful day”, I tell them. They echo back,
“It’s a beautiful day!”
The sheer granite walls of Glacier Gorge now rise all around me. The bottom of the gorge is without moraine – it’s just a floor of even more granite. I’ve been to many mountain cirques in Colorado, but nothing quite like this. People drive for hours, catch an expensive train and walk a few more miles to the Chicago Basin, but this really outshines the Chicago Basin. Especially today. The wind is still; the sky is cloudless. If it wasn’t for the dry, brownish color of the tundra, I could be fooled into thinking it’s summer, still.
I turn off the trail towards my objective, the Trough. I’ve never climbed from the very base, only having taken it as part of the Keyhole route, which starts you almost 1,500 feet above. Big couloir, in other words. It’s a sensational view, as the landmarks above me that I’m familiar with now look so very small; I am at 12,000 feet at the base, but have to climb almost to 14,000 feet to ascend to the terminus of the Trough.
Today thought, the Trough lacks any consolidated snow, so I take a line to the left, and start scrambling up onto a never ending series of boulders. I lament just a little bit that I forgot my rock shoes and chalk bag at home. I entertained ideas of soloing a technical route from the top of the Trough called the Southwest Ridge. It would make a more direct, aesthetic summit for today’s outing than sneaking around a bit on the Narrows and summiting via Homestretch, exactly how you’d do for the Keyhole route, but I’m retired to the fact that that’s probably a pretty bad idea, considering how there seems to be no one else on the mountain today – and what if something goes wrong? Still, it would make for a bit more of a cleaner, more unique line, and I’ve got twelve lines to try to string together for the year, why not cover as much ground as possible?
I take my time on the Trough, and can’t help but to absentmindedly warm up a bit on the larger, slabby boulders I find in my path, just to feel out how my climbing head is feeling, how sticky my feet feel, how good my eyes are at finding tiny nubins for footholds, and generally how coordinate I am today. Even though this burns time, and that’s not something I have a lot of, today. I admit sometimes I can be pretty clumsy, which is always in the back of my mind, even on easy solos. Something about my low blood pressure, my thick, syrupy blood (call it high altitude conditioning), call it one of my curses.
The altitude, or lack of sleep, or lack of fitness, or my asthma – or I dunno: something starts hitting me at around 13,000 feet, as it has been much of this year. My pace slows. I’m forced also to relinquish my boulder hopping, and have to traverse into, and climb up the unconsolidated snow. This is downright awkward, and I fall all over the place, as I can’t seem to find great places to move my feet up. Seem to always find the loose rock that wants to tumble over my ankles.
Still, I stare up at the Southwest Ridge. It’s a proud line, starting fairly vertical, then easing up to a curving slab that delivers you right to the summit. Moving so slowly, I have a lot of time to study it. I’m looking for snow and ice accumulation, and where the key weakness could be to gain the ridge proper. I think I may have an idea…
Once at the top of the Trough, wander up and see what I can see, still not very committed, but I’ve gone this far. I’m just wearing my trail runners, which are now at this point a little soaked from being plunged into the snow for the last hour. The start of my path is just scrambling over large ledges. These stop being so easy, but lead fairly naturally into a corner with a perfect hand crack that could deliver one a few more meters up. After that, I dunno – I can’t see what’s higher. One would just have to go for it.
I nibble my way towards the crack, after wiping the soles of my shoes as best as I can with my glove liners. “Stick!” I tell them. These shoes have been great, but they’re starting to show their age: the shoelaces are a mess, and the lugs on the bottom of the soles have been smoothed away from all those miles.
The base of the corner is covered in snow, so I gingerly start my stemming without touching the actual base, reaching my feet all the way from a much dryer stance to the left. I sink a hand into the crack, jam, and it’s solid. Upwards we go!
I’m deposited into another corner, and another crack to stem. This one even better – which is good, ’cause now there’s some air below my ass. As I turn the corner I am relieved to be on the very ridge itself with yet another beautiful crack to lead me up higher. It’s a sensational position to be at! I take in huge, heroic gulps of the rarefied air, happy to be exploring yet another facet of this mountain safely, and make my way up to the flat, lonely summit.
I take a few photos, and sadly, leave in a bit of a haste. It’s already 4:00pm, and I have only one hour to try to get to the bottom of Trough – a less than ideal place to have to descend in the dark. My time trying to descend the Loft a few weeks earlier on the other side of the mountain – and getting lost, repeatedly trying to find the right ledge system is still a little fresh in my mind. So I book it. Seems like a lot of work for 4 pitches, huh? Yeah, well, it is. The day started at 4:30 am for me.
Homestretch is done, then across the Narrows; each going by in a blink. I’ve repeated these steps many times before. Plunge-stepping plus the odd little glissade segment isn’t too bad. I stumble here and there, but at least I’m stumbled towards my destination. I get back to the part of the Trough I can just boulder hop down and feel both relieved I’ll get to the bottom of Glacier Gorge by nightfall, and a little fatigued at the thought that I’ll need to dash through the miles of the trail to the trailhead, ride out of the Park, then ride the 40 miles home afterwards. I’m in for a long night. I’ve got a few bars left in my pack.
Still, I feel an immense wealth of happiness, and I feel privileged that this is something I can even do, right from my doorstep. My mental endurance is as sharp as my physical endurance is getting blunt, but I’ve been in this kind of situation many times before, and I’ll get through it today.
Hopefully before midnight.
The trailhead is reached, and I transition into a few more layers of clothes, and my bike shoes. I freeze my fingers from the altitude loss, but I’m too lazy to change gloves until I’m in the town of Estes Park. There, I finally do pay attention to what my body needs. I also put on my bright fluorescent reflective vest – the kind used in construction sites, just to be that more visible. The first hill on the road out of Estes Park to Lyons always makes me a little nervous, as I’m going so slow, and let’s be honest: who is expecting some batshit-crazy cyclist to be on it, at this time of the year, at this hour of the day?
But the first hill is breached safely, and it’s almost all downhill to Lyons – one of the great road segments on the Front Range. I’ve got an array of lights and the legs are holding out, so I play a game of, “Try Not To Brake”, and I ride the kinetic energy wave I saved up in the morning down back to Lyons, wasting as little of it as possible.
I find Lyons quiet – almost lonely, and I’m soon riding the mile out of town and into the last 14 miles to Boulder. It’s an undulating path, but when the breeze is coming from the right direction – like it is today, it goes by well enough, even with 18 hours of almost constant movement I have already in the legs. I put on one of my favorite albums – In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, sing each and every word of every song, and I’m back home by the end of the album.
My November tick of Longs Peak by a unique route is complete.