Solstice Traverse - Rocky Mountain National Park

Pogoda to Longs

June 21, 2006

Dave Svilar, Darren Rainey, Jared Vilhauer


Darren before (4 a.m.)

Darren after our outing examining foot ruffage.

Jared has long talked about a traverse in RMNP linking up five peaks that surround the Glacier Gorge basin.  In terms of potential for a good trip the stars were aligned: Jared was forced into an early return from Alaska because of a wedding, Darren was visiting from Seattle, and we were sitting on the longest day of the year - the summer solstice.  However, here in the Rockies, contrary to what I tell high school sophomores, the tilt of the Earth does not decide the length of a day.  No, there will certainly be copious amounts of light for lowlanders, but the afternoon cumulonimbus will decide the length of a climber's day.

A common theme runs through most of my outings with Jared - lofty aspirations and lowly results.  Jared figured we'd knock off Arrowhead, McHenry's, Chiefs Head, Pogoda, and top it off with Longs Peak.  No problem.  As we started up the Glacier Gorge trail Darren and I had our doubts.  Darren his sea-level lungs and I the weather.  Oblivious to our desires to undermine his grand traverse Jared hiked along with us at a quick pace arriving at Black Lake in just under two hours.  Picking my spot carefully, I approached Jared about cutting down on the traverse, and with little resistance we decided upon just Pogoda and Longs.  The forecast called for a chance of t-storms after 2 pm, which to me means get the (expletive) off any high point.  In other words, the traverse must end before the thunder begins.

Black Lake.

Our quick pace gradually slackened as we passed through the beautious meadows beneath Spearhead, around Frozen Lake where we crammed our packs with the day's last water, and finally up the steep gully between Pagoda and Chief's Head.  Half way up the gully Darren, moving like a Seattle-ite yelled "I'm bailing, see you guys at the car."  The thin air (above 12,000') was causing nausea and dizzy spells for Darren (and later Jared).  Retreat back down the gully would have been tedious, but preferable to making exposed 5th class moves under the influence of altitude on Pagoda's west ridge.  After a few minutes to catch his breath his outlook for moving upwards improved.

Scrambling up the gully between Chiefs Head and Pagoda.  Glacier Gorge in the background.

Gullies are never a pleasant experience and any foray into one of nature's most cruel features needs to be rewarded.  Ours came in the form of a delightfully exposed ridge adorned with a knife edge of some of the most enchantingly featured granite I'd ever fondled.  Darren awoke from his vomitous state with a gleeful squeal, "this rock is sweeet."  Jared, a little more subdued using snowboarder language described the ridge as, "sicky, sicky, knar-knar."

We stayed as close to the ridge top as possible once dropping to the north side of the ridge for a pitch of low 5th class climbing and then back onto the south side of the ridge for a bit more.  The ridge itself was studded with several overhanging steps that we negotiated by dropping below the ridge proper.  The last of these overhanging fangs of golden granite was bypassed by crossing over to the south side of the ridge, traversing 100 yards, and finally sneaking through a weakness in the cliff that put us back on top of the ridge for good.  As if to secure its claim as a RMNP classic the ridge flames out with 300 yards of a gently rising granite sidewalk equipped with a chickenhead-holds railing for handicapped climbers like myself.

Darren embarks on the west ridge of Pagoda and its fearsomely overhung gendarmes.


Ignoring dizzyness and nausea Darren ascends the ridge.


Jared sets out on the sharp end looking like a true mountaineer with ice axe in tow.


Darren scrambles the final granite sidewalk on the overhung ridge.


Jared pauses to look out at his beloved RMNP.


Colorado-native Jared points the way towards Longs Peak to Seattle-native Darren from the summit of Pagoda.


Jared rappels the north face of Longs at the start of the storm.  The overhanging fury of Longs Chasm cirque can be seen behind.

This classic ridge gets climbed rather infrequently, partly because of the technical challenges and mostly because Pagoda, a mere 13er, is not a 14er like its big brother Longs Peak.  Why climb a 13er when you can climb above 14,000' with 250 other Front Range "climbers" on Longs?  We scoped the way between Pagoda and Longs behind the Keyboards which looked like unpleasant scree.  Loose ugliness.  However, mountains aren't women, and as we approached what had looked unattractive from a distance turned out to be beautiful scrambling over solid blocks all the way to the top of the Trough on Longs.

To this point we had enjoyed eight consecutive hours in solitude, but as we scrambled the last 50 feet before merging with the Longs trade route a curious gentleman with shorts hiked far enough to display both powerfully built legs and well-defined package asked us 20 questions ranging from our route (yes, there is something else to climb besides 14ers!) to our favorite sandwich.  Around the next corner was the Narrows, followed by the Homestretch where three people were encountered sliding down near-horizontal terrain on their posteriors.  Welcome to Longs!  Even in his hypoxic state Darren was able to recognize the difference between the scene on a typical 13er (Pagoda) and a 14er (Longs).

We topped out on Longs, hesitated for one photo and proceeded down the north face cable route.  To this point the weather had behaved, but clouds roiled above our point, the highest in northern Colorado.  It wasn't hard to see that the sky was becoming angry and I was on the verge of becoming scared.  We hustled down chossy trail and located the first in a series of pins (route also called the cable route) drilled into the rock that would serve as rap anchors delivering us to safety at the Chasm View.  In harsh contrast to what had been t-shirt conditions minutes ago, the skies began pelting us with graupel/snow (snow on the solstice!).

Looking over the vertigo inducing perch towards the Diamond and Chasm Cirque.

In the order of weather-related events lightning was the most likely occurrence, but passing Chasm View without a long gape can be tough, even when the overhead cumulonimbus threatens with lightning bolts.  Several minutes of amazement ensued.  First a treacherous hole in the ground on the overhung cliff dropping several hundred feet straight down into the cirque.  Then a look out onto the Diamond, a dead vertical alpine wall shaped like... a diamond.  Several parties resided in various states of progress on the wall, none of them seeming as excited as us about snow on the solstice.  Our gaping was halted by a loud crack of thunder.

Time to descend.  The boulder field below isn't exactly a haven of safety in moments of weather related treachery, but we descended at a pace that suggested it was.  Darren, who now appeared to be sandbagging us in more favorable conditions sprinted down the boulder field leaving Jared and I in a his wake of panic.  I was equally scared, but just moved much slower.  The electrical threat passed swiftly, but the rain lingered.  Our fears that Darren had run right off the side of the mountain were relieved when we finally caught up to him squatting in the downpour beside the trail.  Together again we descended into the safety of the trees actually enjoying the long trail back to the Glacier Gorge trailhead watching thunderstorms that were now off to the north releasing their fury on the Mummy Range.

*side note: a man was killed on a motorcycle by lightning from the same cloud near Estes Park.  Lesson: you don't have to be the highest point around to be struck by lightning.  I'm not just a complete sissy about this stuff.  Get to safety before it gets to you!

A final analysis: splendid day, enjoyable company, and incomplete traverse.  I believe that traverses of this sort are my calling.  Call me an untalented version of Peter Croft.  Now that the mysteries of the west ridge of Pagoda have been solved it appears that the entire succession of peaks in the gorge are solo-able.  A link-up of these peaks is now the number one priority in RMNP.  Look for it here before we put Colorado in the rearview mirror.

Darren takes off his hood and enjoys the t-storms from a distance while walking through a lush alpine meadow.

-written June 2006

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