Flattop – :58
Hallet – 1:08:20
Hallet-Otis Saddle – 1:15:35
Otis – 1:24:55
Otis-Taylor Saddle – 1:33
Taylor – 1:57:30
Powell – 2:23
McHenry’s Notch – 2:37:15
McHenry’s – 2:50:30
Stoneman Pass – 3:03:10
Chief’s Head – 3:32:50
CH-Pagoda Saddle – 3:46:30
Pagoda – 4:12
Pag-Longs Saddle – 4:16
Longs – 4:42
Top of Trough – 4:46:10
Keyhole – 4:58:10
Storm – 5:10
Half Mt – 5:44:30
Glacier Gorge Trail Junction – 6:04:50
Bear Lake TH – 6:17:18
From Anton Krupika's Running Times blog:
POSTED ON 09/02/2012 1:35 AM
The Glacier Gorge Traverse in Rocky Mountain National Park is a classic that I’ve had in the back of my mind for the better part of a year now. The Glacier Gorge is the stunning, granite slab- and waterfall-laden basin in the center of the park bounded by the Continental Divide on the west and south and the Longs Peak Massif on the east. The rim of this basin consists of 11 peaks–Flattop Mountain (12,324′), Hallet Peak (12,713′), Otis Peak (12,486′), Taylor Peak (13,153′), Powell Peak (13,208′), McHenry’s Peak (13,327′), Chief’s Head Peak (13,579′), Pagoda Mountain (13,497′), Longs Peak (14,255′), Storm Peak (13,326′), and Half Mountain (11,482′) in the counter-clockwise direction, starting from the Bear Lake Trailhead–and completing the loop means covering 20 rugged, technical miles with 12,000′ of vertical ascent. Not a trivial undertaking, to say the least.
nce one drops off of the summit of Powell and into the McHenry Notch, things take on a quite airy, technical nature, with the crux probably being the west ridge of Pagoda, which everything I ever read reported as unavoidably going at a massively exposed 5.6-5.7. I am not personally yet comfortable soloing such terrain in running shoes at 13,000′, sight unseen. So, back on July 4th, Joe Grant and I ran up the Gorge itself to the Chief’s Head-Pagoda Saddle hoping to find a ropeless way around this obstacle. We were stymied, though–inexplicably only really looking on the north side of the ridge–and I wasn’t optimistic about being able to complete the traverse in a proper light and fast style any time soon.
Then, late in July, a friend forwarded a note from an acquaintance who reported there was actually a quite moderate “grassy ledge” sneak on Pagoda’s slabby southwest face that required only a minimal amount of 5.easy scrambling. After scouting a couple of pictures, I was re-heartened at giving it a shot, and the day after the Leadville 100, Nick Clark and I agreed to go take a crack at it after our race-weary legs had regained some pep.
So, this weekend we did just that.
Nick and I started our watches at the large wooden bridge just off the parking lot and started up the smooth, gradual trail that would lead to our first summit of the day–Flattop Mountain. Nick set the pace on this runnable ‘tweener grade and we enjoyed perfect weather, rapidly changing aspen leaves, and jovial conversation. Above treeline, the customary Divide wind kicked up but was overall reasonably calm. My acclimated lungs took over as I slightly gapped Nick on the talus hike to the summit of Hallet Peak, but it was on the sharp downhill from there that I could tell my legs had some good pep this particular morning and I resolved to put in a steady, no dilly-dallying effort as I knew that this was definitely the last chance I would have this season to get out and establish an honest time-standard on this line. Apologies, Clarkie, for not taking the time to explain that I planned on disappearing for the rest of the day.
The next three peaks–Otis, Taylor, and Powell–all passed surprisingly quickly as even though the footing was often tricky talus and boulder hopping there was no technical climbing and the route-finding was obvious. The line I picked, however, often took me to the very edge of the Divide and offered stunning views into the Gorge and of the rugged, aesthetic peaks yet to come.
The traverse became more engaging as I made the 3rd/4th Class descent into McHenry’s Notch and the day’s outing turned into a true mountain run. I’ve been a bit disheartened the last couple of weeks since Leadville; my current lack of flat running ability was unavoidably exposed there and it was frustrating to be judging myself with a task that I clearly was not properly trained for. High on the Divide, though, with sustained altitude, uneven footing and moderate technical climbing I felt completely back in my element. The surroundings were pretty inspiring, too.
Dropping into the Notch, though, I wasted some time route-finding–trying at first to descend on the left/north side of the ridge–and then ended up descending too far and having to climb approximately an extra 100′ or so back up to the saddle. The climb from the saddle to the summit of McHenry’s was at first very fun low-5th Class scrambling up the headwall, but I again erred by crossing over to the north side of the ridge and soon found myself confronted with a maybe 5.6 overhanging mantle move. Rather than lose elevation I stubbornly stuck to this line and inadvertently engaged in some of the most committing technical moves of the day. Once regaining the ridge, I could, of course, see that if I’d just stayed on the south side of the ridge the difficulties likely wouldn’t have exceeded 3rd Class.
The next bit of route-finding involved dropping down to Stoneman Pass–on ever-present talus/boulders, of course–and working up a 3rd Class gulley to gain the Class 2 talus-hopping that would lead to the summit proper of Chief’s Head. This proved to be one of the longer climbs of the day, but once on the summit I was excited to finally be able to scope Pagoda’s swooping southwest face.
Sure enough, there seemed to be a couple of obvious grassy ledges that might offer passage. The first ledge moved right on the face and descended ever-so-slightly. I followed this until it petered out, completed maybe 20ft of easy scrambling straight up to the next grassy ledge, and took this up and back to the left. The more vertical headwall partway up this ledge at first seemed to prohibit easy entry to Pagoda’s summit ridge, but once on it, it proved to be a fun series of high-4th/low-5th Class cracks and ledges. A few airy moves and presto I was able to step onto the ridge and make the short, simple hike slightly back west to Pagoda’s high point. Only four minutes later I was at the Pagoda-Longs saddle and on familiar ground that I’d already covered in my early-July scouting session.
My climbing energy started waning a bit on the grunt to the summit of Longs Peak, but it was still amusing to negotiate the few simple moves required to gain the Narrows ledge on Longs’ standard route–to the gaping awe of the throngs of weekend hikers on said route–and crawl my way up the Homestretch to Longs’ flat summit. I paused not at all at the high point boulder and instead turned around and blitzed my way down to the Trough and over to the Keyhole where I stayed high on my traverse over to Storm Peak. As it turned out, I stayed too high through here and was forced into maybe the toughest technical climbing of the day as I stubbornly refused to lose any elevation. In the end, I’m sure taking this higher line cost me a few minutes.
There’d been a ton of rock-hopping all day, but the descent from Storm down to Half Mt–the final summit of the day!–took the techiness to another level and seemed to take forever; I was relieved when most of the trees on the mountain disappeared as I descended off its north face. The bushwhack down to the North Longs Peak trail was surprisingly painless (don’t get me wrong, it was steep with technical footing, but the lashing from tree branches and shrubbery was relatively low) and before I knew it I was back on real trail and running as hard as I could back over to the Bear Lake TH.
When I reached the wooden bridge in 6:17:18 (12:49pm after a 6:32am start), I was surprised to see Clarkie already in the parking lot with Joel. Turns out that Nick got a bit off-route on Stoneman Pass and ended up calling it a day there, running back down the Gorge with Joel to finish out a still-worthy loop.
All in all, this was one of the more satisfying runs of my entire summer. The line is very logical and offers a spicy mix of tundra ridge running, talus/boulder hopping, magnificent alpine views, technical climbing, and off-trail navigation. It’s a true classic that I hope to return to in the coming years, and now, with a little route knowledge, maybe even push a little bit faster.