No bike? No problem. Run to the gym, climb-climb-climb, run to the store, load up my @ultimatedirectionusa Fastpack 15 with goodies and comfort #food and do a quick #hypergravity run back home (and earn that ice cream!). No matter your situation: you can make it work, and you can fit it all in. Maybe I’ll do my next #ultrarace next month? #tootoughtodie #postaccident #utilityrunning
The GDMBR in yellow; alternative in red
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is without a doubt one of the preeminent off road touring routes in the US/Canada. Now that I’ve ridden the route essentially twice and have done some extensive touring within Colorado, I can’t help but think how one could enhance it.
Personally, I enjoyed my time more when the route stuck close to the actual Continental Divide, rather than opting to drop down into a relatively easy going valley or basin to gain some mileage towards the end goal (finishing!). I always greatly anticipated gaining the summit of the passes, then rocketing down. Knowing Colorado a little more intimately now, it’s a shame how much of Colorado is missed with the relatively easy path the GDMBR takes.
The GDMBR has many goals, and one of the most important one is to get a heavily laden bicycle and rider (cyclists on a mountain bike, pulling a trailer) eventually to the end of the route. If the route is too long, too hard, and/or with too many Divide crossings, it’s just never going to realistically happen for a good majority of people. If we throw these constraints out of the window, and focus on the goal of staying as close to the Divide as possible, while also keeping the route terrain somewhat similar: gravel roads to 4×4 trails, we start drawing out something a little different.
Below, I’ll be describing a route that takes you off the official GDMBR just before Ute Pass, and rather takes you up and over the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass, parallels the James Peak Wilderness as you travel south to Idaho Springs, then brings you back west to go up and over the Continental Divide again at Argentine Pass, finally depositing you once again onto the official GDMBR in summit county. It circuitous and it’s a whole lot of fun .
Slowly, I roll to the gate. The Park ranger sees me from afar and returns to me only a tired stare. He himelf 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.
Gerry Roach’s Longs Peak Radical Slam as described in his 14ers book: top out on 7 summits in the Longs Peak area: (Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, Storm, Mt. Lady Washington, Battle Mountain, Estes Cone), topped off with 50 push ups at the trailhead. I’m admittedly pretty terrible at push ups, and this has always been the crux of the day (if one can believe such snobbery).
The thought popped into my mind to do the Radical Slam as my October tick for my own Longs Peak Project (The Longs Peak Project: summit Longs Peak each month of the year, via a different route). But let’s change things up just a little bit. My Longs Peak Project is going to be self-powered from Boulder: I’m riding a bike, rather than driving a car the 40 miles from the end of town to the Longs Peak trailhead. That may not sound much, but it’s 6,000+ feet of elevation gain roundtrip tacked on to actually summiting the peak. To put that in perspective: you basically double the elevation you gain summiting the peak by starting in Boulder. FUN!
Also, I’ve actually done the Radical Slam already this year (including the bike approach/retreat). Why not do it the hard way: start with the lowest peak, and work up from there, counter-clockwise? That way, you’re well through the day when you need to tackle the toughest technical part of the route, and the highest summits on the list.
That’ll also keeps you honest – you know how easy it is to skip Battle Mountain and Estes Cone, and head straight to the trailhead, ticking off merely a Longs Peak Grand Slam? Easier than eating three breakfast burritos at Ed’s Cantina in Estes Park aprés doing the full-meal-deal Radical Slam, that’s how easy.
To add to this all: let’s also do this in the Fall (Oct. 30th), when the days are short, cold, and very, very windy, rather than on a perfect summer’s day. The chances you’ll become benighted are in your favor! Nothing is funner than descending the Loft Route than descending the Loft Route in the dark. Think you have a hard time finding Clark’s Arrow? What if you’re looking for it under a new moon with a failing headlamp?
Finally those push ups, hmm: how about we do a set of ten on each peak – on the very top of the peak, rather than just at the end? We’ll get 70 in, rather than the textbook 50. That will give me a little time to recover from the last 10, which may exceptionally imbalanced arms could use (talk to me about how many pull ups I can do in day!). I say the compromise I’ve set up is about fair, yeah?
The stage is set, the challenge… accepted? The bike chain is lubed, and the alarm has been programmed for some unrealistically early time. Are you ready, set,
Head on over to the Ultimate Direction Blog to read my Golden Gate Dirty 30 50k race report. Somehow, I managed to also bicycle 300km that same weekend, since you know: 50km just ain’t enough.
Thank you Ultimate Direction for your support, and giving me a chance to be a brand ambassador. Thanks to everyone behind the Golden Gate Dirty 30 for putting on an excellent event.
L -> R, Top -> Down: Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, Storm Peak, Mt. Lady Washington, Battle Mountain, and Estes Cone!
What a difference a few weeks makes. Last month, we seemed to have just flown through the window for a Winter conditions ascent of the Notch Couloir. Since then, the temps started rising precipitously. When I rode back to Longs Peak last weekend, most of the snow had already melted. Incredible.
On this day, I was considering going for a Longs Peak Radical Slam, which is a challenge outlined in Roach’s 14ers book: tag Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, Storm Peak., Mt. Lady Washington, Battle Mountain, and Estes Cone in one go. I’ve done it once before, but didn’t ride up and back in the same trip. So that’s what the challenge for today was. The meat of it all was the 20 miles – mostly off trail to tag all these peaks. Riding up always takes a little bit of the spring out of my step, and the ride down usually is an experiment in mental suffering and fatigue. But I got a rep. to keep, ya know.
My day started with a 3:00 am wake up call, and I was on the road by 3:36 am after eating… something. I think I just stuffed my face full of peanut butter and called it good. The bike ride up was pleasant and uneventful, although the sun seemed to rise so early, I had a slight bit of anxiety that I was going to get to the trailhead, “too late” – whatever that means. Seems I PR’d my ride up – a ride I’ve done now on this exact route more than a dozen times. Not sure why that was – maybe a great tail wind or something –
Or maybe it was those tri bars I have rigged up onto my 45 degree swept back Jones H Bars. The Dork Factor, in other words.
Wasted no time at the trailhead and simply changed from bike bibs into my running shorts in back of the Rangers Station. Did my best to remember the shortcuts up, before finally getting quite lost high up in the willows near the East Longs/Jim’s Grove Junction. D’oh!
The Loft Couloir was in fine shape – and mostly dry and really proved no problems in microspikes and an axe. I soon was on the exit ledges, and from there, I went straight up to the summit of Meeker, scrambling up the scruffy slabs and ledges. Even though the growth of lichen makes it slightly less appealing, there’s plenty of cracks to make the scrambling sound. Topping out on the summit block, I snapped a quick pic, then it was towards Longs, via Clark’s Arrow.
I know now exactly where the right gulley to descend down is, and away I went! Around to the west side of Longs, and straight up Homestretch. Took a breather on the summit of Longs (and another photo, of course), before retracing my route down Homestretch, and down some more towards Pagoda.
Although this route isn’t too technical, getting to/from Pagoda is probably the crux. Finding the right sneak through the cliffs isn’t supremely difficult. Some hints: when descending towards Pagoda, aim for the notch that’s created by the last ridgeline up to the summit of Pagoda, and the slight rise from its lowpoint – it makes an, “L” shape, like you make with you left hand with your index and thumb pointed at a right angle. You’ll run right into the sneak.
The correct gully will greet you with a cairn on top. The gully is quite beautiful, and spirals clockwise when see from the top. I stay to the left of the gully, and scramble down through its step-like ledges. Some of these ledges are higher than others, so you may find it easier to downclimb them, or simply jump! Once you get down to a section where the grassy ledges stop, and more looser terrain begins, traverse right (north), rather than continually going down, and you’ll pick up the scent of another series of cairns that will take you on a horizontal ledge system to the northern edge of the Keyboard of the Winds, where you’ll finally escape the ledges themselves. If you keep going downyou’ll most likely get cliffed out. Once out of the gulley, you just have a quick boulder hop up to summit Pagoda.
Descending Pagoda, the next goal is to actually get to the Keyhole. I retraced my steps, and took the gulley down right before this same cliffband I talked about above (no need to go back through the sneak). The scrambling here is somewhat slabby, with cracks to help you – and/or some loose terrain (but I’d rather stick to the slabs). You’ll cross over two small couloirs that you’ll swear are the Trough, until you get to the actual Trough, which is much larger. From there, you pick up the Keyhole route (and its bulls eyes), and onward! to the Keyhole.
From the Keyhole, I made a rising traverse to Storm Peak, where I slowly started to… fall asleep, even while scrambling up! I made it finally to the true summit, and passed out for a good 45 minutes. Old Man Justin, it seems. After waking up and feeling much refreshed, I glissaded down to the camp sites of the Boulderfield, picked up some water, and started my ascent to Mt. Lady Washington, just over on the other side. Felt wonderful, and descended towards Granite Pass for the weirdest of the highpoints: Battle Mountain, which sees little in prominence, but it’s part of the route, so whatever.
Onward east I went, cross country and surprisingly found a great line through the willows, then the bristlecones, to get to the lodegepole canopy, to attempt to hit Storm Passas close as I could (hint, traverse north more than you would think!). Got about 500 feet from dead center, which I thought was pretty alright!
Finally on a trail again, I powerhiked up to the top of Estes Cone, and with a sigh of relief, jogged back down to the pass, then back to the trailhead, which was mostly downhill, on trail, at a mellow grade. Ah!
Long day on the mountain! I started up from the trailhead at around 7:00am, and it was quickly approaching 8:30pm. I still had to ride back home! I again transitioned in back of the Ranger Station, and hopped on the bike, blinky-lights-a-blazin’. Another wonderful descent back on a route I’ve done so many times now, I could do it in my sleep. Nothing much to note, except the strange thought about how realistic this day would have been if I started with losing 5,000 feet of elevation gain getting to the trailhad, and would have to climb up 5,000 feet to get home. Yikes! Thankfully, that’s not the case.
Made it home at 10:15pm, enough time to shower and change and get to work the next day relatively well-rested. The Longs Peak Radical Slam Duathlon had been born!
Longs Peak in late Winter Conditions
Date climbed: 5/28/16
I’ve long since seen, “mountaineering” as the ideal stage in which to set my practice of suffering in the outdoors. Although I’ve certainly danced around mountaineering, I’ve done so only on its periphery. I borrow its terminology with jealousy as the basis on how I explain the other disciplines I practice. For example, Alpine Style: going light and fast. That’s exactly how I explain bike races I do, that take weeks to finish. I also describe no-holds, lightning-quick bike rides as, “Disaster Style”, which itself is coined by alpinist, Kelly Cordes.
But, mountain biking is not mountaineering. Nor is trail running really, nor even rock climbing in the classic sense. They all take a small aspect of mountaineering and focus on this one thing, disregarding the rest. Which is a perfectly fine thing to do. But mountaineering – I want to imagine at least, comprises a large set of skills to be competent in, to allow you to reach your objective and come back down alive.
So when Peter Bakwin and Kendrick Callaway invited me to climb the Notch Couloir with them – truly a classic mountaineering route on Longs Peak, I was excited to take it on, as well as relatively scared out of my little head. As much as others may want to believe, I’m not the boldest of climbers.
For the fourth time I’ve taken a ride in a motor vehicle this year (#1 bus ride to Denver and back to give back testing shoes (bike was broke),, #2 trip to Eldorado Springs to climb, #3 different trip to Longs Peak w/Peter and Kendrick), we all left for Longs Peak at some ridiculous hour – around 2:30am? Devastatingly early for a trio that likes to run up and down things such as 14ers. But the mountain was currently in Winter conditions – surprisingly, as it was almost June. Winter conditions meant a slow approach, which along with a late start at this time of the year would mean horrible snow conditions – even high up. We still had to move quickly.
Kendrick approaching Lamb Slide
We reached the base of Lambs Slide a few minutes after the sun peeked out from behind Twin Sisters to our east in dramatic fashion. It had snowed very recently, which gave me worry, as the snow could be unconsolidated and dangerous. We decided to go up the 800′ Lambs Slide couloir anyways to check out the conditions of the Broadway traverse, which we would need to take to make it to the base of the Notch Couloir itself. Our team had tried reaching the Notch Couloir just the week before, but found worrying conditions on Broadway, and we bailed.
This morning, conditions seemed OK enough, so we racked up, and I set out to lead a one very long simul-climb, with Peter and Kendrick following me. How I got literally roped up into this situation is somewhat a funny side story: both Peter and Kendrick believed I had the knowledge and experience with placing protection, as well as climbing steep snow . So, who better to lead all the fun parts of the Notch Couloir route for them than I?
I must be an incredible bullshit artist.
To wit: I currently own about four cams, and four pieces of passive pro, and have lead maybe a 5.8+ single pitch offwidth at Turkey Rocks – badly, as my crowning achievement in the world of trad climbing. If you asked me to knit you a hat, I’d probably have just the same amount of knowledge about the concept of knitting the hat, as I did with trad climbing competently, rather than possessing the skill to pull off something you can where on top of your head/lead you to the top of the mountain.
What I may have more understanding of – more than Peter and Kendrick at least, is building anchors and belaying a follower. Two things you can get pretty good at, even if you’re climbing easy stuff. My climbing partner was my ex-girlfriend, and well – it was someone I wanted to keep safe more than anyone, so I’d make sure my anchors were pretty alright. She taught me everything I know, and I’d list her as “extremely competent” when it comes to trad. climbing. Somehow, she was able to teach me a few things, without losing too much faith in my thick head.
Loaded down with gear, an ice tool in my hand, and a faint idea on where to go, I set off in unfamiliar territory. Even though I’ve crossed Broadway to get to the start of Kieners many times, it has all been in summer conditions, and Broadway looks completely different when absolutely buried in snow, as it was today. The snow, first layer being somewhat powdery was also very deep. Tiring to move in, as you would need to kick under it all, to find sure footing.
Focusing on the task immediately at hand, I moved forward in a simple rhythm of kicking steps in, placing my tool, and looking for opportunities to plug in pro – which I could every 50 feet or so. I wasn’t planning on falling, but the contingency plan if I did was a bit grim for a motley crew such as us. I brought along enough gear to put together a prusik system to haul myself up, but in actuality, if I fell, my partners would also get uprooted, and there we would have three people hanging below the 700 foot lower east face squirming to get up. And that’s if the gear I placed held us.
Photo on Broadway, taken while leading. Squint and you may able to see Peter and Kendrick by following the rope.
I didn’t have bandwidth to think about all this while on the mountain though, I just did my best to do the job and get to the start of the Notch Couloir. There were actually some pretty outrageous positions found en route. Traversing around the rock bulge made me laugh mightily. In summer conditions, it requires you to hug the wall, and find a hold for your right hand, before you shuffle your feet to the other side. You wouldn’t want to mess this up, as the exposure is incredible. Today, the entire block was buried in snow, and the, hug-then-reach-around song and dance wasn’t going to happen. Instead of hugging, I just walked right across the very temporary snow bridge that had built up besides the block, knowing full well there wasn’t anything but wishes keeping the snow under my feet together.
At another spot on the traverse, I was required to cross a pretty substantial and very steep snowfield, with no rock to put protection in. I nervously started to crossing it – obviously not wanting to lose my footing. It seemed a bit impossible until – of course! I remembered I had the snow picket!: A piece of angle-iron-shaped PVC plastic with a ‘biner on the end. More psychological protection than anything, but I sunk that sucker in deep and carried on. I only got a few footsteps, when there was yelling from my partners to hold up a bit. They were unaware, but they had me stopped in the very middle of this steep snowfield, wherein I was bombarded by small spindrift avalanches and other debris coming from above. I tucked in as best I could and just maintained until the rope came slack enough again to move forward.
Peter (foreground) and I (way in the back) stopping for a photo-op
After one more perilous (to me) snow traverse right across the Notch Couloir, I finally made a bombproof anchor, ten feet above the start of Kieners – such was the level of the snow. The Notch Couloir ends at a absolutely vertical part of the Lower East Face – the exposure was exciting to say the least. My partners greeted me, and we attempted to sort out the gear, and I was off again for a very long, very slow, and very run out simul-climb – this time ascending the entire Notch Couloir. Spicy considering falling down meant falling off the bottom of the couloir itself, which seemed worse than swinging on the Broadway traverse, but I’m not sure exactly by how much.
Starting up the Notch Couloir.
Again, I put in pro every 50 feet or so, until it slowly ran out, and I had to became creative. Rope drag became atrocious as I quickly ran out of long slings, but I could see the top of the bottom of the Notch after a long while, and with one more picket placement, I traversed over from the left side of the couloir to the right, and hip belayed from an enormous ledge.
The plan at this point was to do the Stepladder pitch, or pitches? We weren’t exactly sure. I was spent from the super long leads and offered the next lead to someone else, but got no real takers. It didn’t matter – the weather turned to all-hell, and none of us could tell where exactly to go. We opted, with a bit of reluctance, to go from the east side to the west side of Longs, and finish up the climb from there. Luckily for us, the top of the bottom of the Notch is a pretty convenient place to make this happen. With a quick squirm through a tunnel right below the low point of the Notch, we were on the west side. The work to get to the summit from here was at least an hour more of climbing and traversing on steep snow. We all lowered our heads and got to work, as conditions continued to deteriorate. Finally though, we got to the summit, with little fanfare. We snapped some photos and immediately started our descent down to the Cables route, not standing on the summit for more than 5 minutes or so.
The North Face of Longs was also choked with snow of course. I didn’t share my worry, but I didn’t know how easy it was going to be, to find the eyebolt to rap off of. Thankfully, Peter knows the location better than most anyone that’s not a climbing ranger for RMNP – this was, I think, his 67th lifetime summit of Longs Peak. We found very steep snow to descend to the eyebolt, and getting everyone down from there seemed to take nightmarish amount of time. Avalanches can and do happen in this very spot, in this very time frame we were in, and none of us, including me, were really following protocol on how to make sure everyone is safe and on indirect next to an anchor. Of all the time we spent on the mountain this day, I felt the most unsafe here. Accidents happen the most on descent.
But, we all made it down safely. It’s a wonder how different things become from the top of Cables, to its base. We now just had to deal with the long slog back to the trail head – no more technical climbing awaited us. I was a pretty broken man at this point, and Peter/Kendrick were able to go just a little bit faster than me downwards. I lost sight of them, then forgot to take the Winter shortcuts, making me lag even farther down. I began running in my enormous mountaineering boots, somewhat out of my mind with fatigue, but knowing full well that the trail ends, and ends soon.
I joined back up with Peter and Kendrick at Peter’s car. Both men were splayed out in back of the car, just laying down in the parking lot. I joined them, and instantly cramped up. The Notch Couloir had one more adversity for me to overcome.
We drove back to my place, and I said my goodbyes. I had enough energy to stuff 4 hard boiled eggs in my mouth, and find my bed, where I instantly fell asleep.
I’m only in Allenspark, and the sun has already risen. I feel as if I’m very late to my own party. Allenspark is only seven miles away from the Longs Peak Trailhead – my riding destination, but as I summit the last punchy climb and await the downhill just beyond, I conclude that the downhill won’t give me the rest I’m hoping for. The winds are strong today – strong enough that I’m fighting to stay upright as I crest the hill, and belaboring with my never-ending pedaling to simply continue going forward while I start descending. These are the exact type of conditions that even the hard men that have established such challenges have tried to avoid, because it’s madness.
I’m on my hands and knees looking intensely at my just-now broke bicycle, right outside of the main drag of Nederland, CO: elevation 8,228 feet. I’m only 20 miles away from home – 20 miles away from finishing a 300 mile ride. But, my chain has lodged itself between my largest rear cog, and the wheel’s drive side spokes.
And it won’t budge.
From right to left: Kelso Mt., Torreys Peak, Grays Peak, The Remarkables, Mt Edwards, and a few other bumps along the way.
The Front Range 14ers Grays and Torreys make an excellent beginner 14er hike – it was one of the first 14ers I ever did. Being so close to the Front Range Urban Corridor – less than an hour from Denver, it still affords some dramatic changes in environment, not the least because of the sweeping ridgeline going West to East to Northeast from Grays Peak, and ending essentially at I-70. When hiking up (or driving, I guess) up the beginning of Stevens Gulch, you can’t but feel that the world is closing in on you, and you’re now entering a different place altogether.
You may also, like me, have the urge to be on top of this ridge line. Not many obvious entrance points present themselves from the start of the Summer trail head to Grays Peak, to the summit of Grays Peak itself. The ridge is rocky and broken, with much rockfall danger. You could, and people have, find a weakness in the ridge to climb up, but I don’t suggest it. In this route, I outline what is sure to be a classic traverse over the entire Steven’s Gulch; bagging you two 14ers, a Class 3 ridge scramble, and at least 2 13ers – one of which (Mt. Edwards) is a Centennial. If that’s not enough, you’ll also go over a mountain that used to be labeled a 14er, McClellan Mountain – actually height: 13,587′ which faked out turn-of-the-century tourists!; as well as many smaller 12ers, in your hike to close out the loop.
Some stats of the route as I describe it:
- 14.5 miles
- 7,000 feet elevation gain/loss
- mostly off-trail, w/Class 3 scrambling
- no easy bailout point after Grays Peak
- crampons/ice axe recommended until late in the summer season
This route is not to be underestimated, and it’s a requirement to get an alpine start, and not be afraid to bail, if weather comes in. Be strong in your logistics game.