The idea for the Mt. Meeker to Long’s Peak traverse came to me last December after climbing Mt. Meeker on a clear, cool morning. Sitting on the Meeker summit rock, I looked over the Loft to Longs Peak and saw the potential for a beautiful traverse. At that moment, I decided I would come back to bag the two-summit traverse. The idea eventually grew into a quest to bag “Colorado’s greatest mountain cirque” (Roach).
Of course it is a long bit of hiking, but there is also a short technical obstacle to overcome: Mt Meeker and Longs Peak are separated by “The Notch”. The Notch is a gap in the rock approximately 75′ deep at the ridgeline and which continues as a deep and steep gully down each side of the mountain.
Nevertheless, where there’s a will . . .
The Great Circ Route
Brian and I were recovering from a full summer of rock climbing and related injuries, so I was able to convince Brian to do an alpine hike. To do the entire cirque, we chose to start the loop at the Longs Peak cut-off to Chasm Lake, which we would take toward the Mt. Meeker East Ridge, and after summiting on Meeker and then Longs, we’d return via the Boulderfield (about a 5 mile loop).
In total, the Great Cirque trek would take approximately 12 hours including the hike from and to the parking lot and would cover approximately 15 miles and an elevation gain of approximately 5700′.
Our plan had eight steps:
- Hike from Longs Ranger station toward Longs to Chasm Lake cutoff
- Hike past Chasm Lake and up through Iron Gates (class 2) approach to Mt. Meeker East Ridge
- Traverse Mt. Meeker ridge (class 3) to summit
- Descend to Loft & hike (class 2) to high point on Loft north side
- Descend Gorrells Traverse route (4th Class crack system) to Notch gully and ascend to Notch high point (class 4), and then climb to Longs ridge and summit using the 5th class rock finish to the Notch Coulior route
- Descend Longs North face via Cables route (two single rope rappels) to Chasm View
- Hike to Boulder Field
- Hike around Lady Mount Washington to complete circuit at Chasm Lake cutoff
Alternatives to avoid carrying ropes and difficult scrambling:
- Take Clark’s Arrow from Loft to join Keyhole route – avoid 4th class chimney and technical pitch
- Take Keyhole route from Long’s summit back to Boulderfield – avoid rappels
- Start hiking – 4am
- Reach bottom of Iron Gates – 7am (first light)
- Mt. Meeker summit – 9am
- Long’s Peak summit – Noon
- Reach car – 4pm
Brian picked me up at 3am. I was ready to go when he arrived, for a change, and we immediately headed out of Boulder for Lyons, and then the Long’s Peak Ranger Station parking lot. We arrived just before 4am to find a parking space right in front. A good omen. The cold weather a week earlier must have suspended the weekend cattle drive for Longs Peak.
We powered up the trail needing only long underwear to stay warm despite the high winds and temperatures in the 30′s. Around 5:30, still an hour or so before dawn, we reached a popular rest stop, the fork to Chasm Lake (left) or the Boulderfield (right). The frigid winds eliminated any thought of a rest and we hurried onward toward Chasm Lake to find some shelter. We found a suitable rock formation approximately 300 yards further where we could stop to put on fleece and wind jackets. My numb fingers made me regret leaving my regular gloves at home, and I would later find another reason to regret bringing only fingerless gloves.
The trail from the Ranger Hut below the Ship’s Prow (rock formation which separates the canyons below Mt. Meeker to the left and Long’s Peak & Chasm Lake to the right) to the Iron Gates is indistinct and generally over talus. We knew the Iron Gates gully ran up the left of the buttress which is to the left of Cathedral Buttress (the awe inspiring buttress which runs down from the Mt. Meeker summit to the canyon floor), but of course this is difficult to see in the twilight. Fortunately, a moment of hesitation allowed the sunrise to show us the path.
The Iron Gates gully proved to be a wonderful route to the Mt. Meeker East Ridge. At the top of the 2nd class gully, a short 3rd class scramble brought us to the ridge and the endless vistas of the Eastern and Southern horizons. More importantly, an eastern view brought us exposure to the sun on a cold windy morning.
We paused to enjoy the radiation, eat a quick snack and apply sunscreen. After a few minutes, we continued on our quest. This leg of the cirque led us west up the ridge toward the Mt. Meeker summit. The easiest path was the ridgeline itself, which slopes about 20 degrees to the south (left) and 90 degrees to the north (right). With the wind gusting up to 40 mph, we took care to avoid becoming a cliff diver and wasting all our efforts.
Our route from Meeker
In a couple places, the traverse exhibited a common 4th class difficulty: it was 5th class without good route finding instincts. We reached the summit at 9am with increased respect for the smaller sister of the mighty Longs Peak. The summit itself is an unlikely square block sitting about 4 feet higher than the surrounding rock. Underneath the block is an alcove that provided shelter from the wind and a nice spot for another snack.
The approach to and descent into the hidden Notch (dotted portion), then the ascent to the summit
We continued the traverse across the ridge and then down to the Loft, following the natural line. In order to find Gorrells Traverse route on the far side of the Loft, we angled toward the high point (North end) of the Loft that forms one side of the Notch. The Notch separates the Loft from Long’s Peak and prevents the easy hike to Long’s summit.
Gorrells Traverse route is a 4th class crack system that descends into the Notch gully, SW side.
Per Rossiter’s guide book, RMNP: The High Peaks:
Hike NW to the highpoint of the SE ridge above The Notch. Descend to the west and locate cairns that mark the tops of two chimneys. Downclimb the north chimney for about 200 feet to a broken platform that is about 100 feet above the gully leading up to The Notch. Rappel into the gully from the north end of the platform or traverse up and left toward The Notch until it is possible to scramble down into the gully.
Gorrells Traverse. Photo from a later trip.
As in all guide book ratings, the rating is right if your technique and route finding is up to snuff. There is also well-used rappel anchor for the unsure. We jammed down the cracks: blind feet and bomber hands. I got a tear in my wind jacket for the effort. At the bottom of the first downclimb, we traversed right and slightly uphill to reach another gully which we downclimbed. It was quite exposed but went rather easily as well. From the bottom of the downclimb, we turned right and scrambled up to reach the top of the Notch.
Our route from the Notch to Longs Peak summit. Photo from earlier trip.
From the top of the Notch, we could see down the Notch Couloir toward the Broadway Ledge. We also speculated on the feasibility of a tyrrolian traverse across the Notch without conclusion. Since the rock was still non-technical at that point, we continued scrambling and moved out of the Notch toward the summit ridge. We got to within 90 feet of the ridge before we ran out of scrambling terrain.
Since we brought rock gear, we didn’t feel compelled to stay with the Notch Couloir route (rated 5.2); in fact, we specifically wanted to find something more interesting…more memorable. Brian spotted a rappel anchor at the top of the Long’s side of the Notch, approximately 90 feet above us; we agreed to climb toward it over the moderate looking moves.
A view of the technical climb to reach the summit ridge
We roped up and Brian took off for the ridge, his hiking boots scraping on clean 5.5 rock. Our “mini-rack” of climbing gear was sparse enough to fit in a coat pocket, but it turned out to be ideal for a short pitch at 14,000 ft. elevation. Near the top, Brian decided to pull a roof directly above rather than take the obvious ramp to the left. When I questioned his intentions (with a yell from below), he explained, “you’ll thank me.” Later, after pulling over the top on monstrous buckets, I did.
All that was left was the short but interesting ridge scramble and then a walk to the summit marker, which we reached at 11:54am. We rested in luxurious bivy site and congratulated ourselves for a great trek. It was, after all, quite literally all downhill from there.
Our descent route to the Boulderfield. Photo from later trip.
The descent through the Cable Route was interesting as a result of snow and ice adding frictionless treachery to the loose rocks in our path. I lost my concentration on a relatively flat section and slipped on the ice. My fall on the rock sheared off the front half of my right thumbnail. This shockingly painful and bloody injury would cause me considerable grief during the rappels to come. We scrambled down to the lower rappel anchors and made it to the Boulderfield in good time.
The hike out of the Boulderfield is always a death march, but this time I felt so good about the climb that I didn’t mind it at all. We reached the car at 4pm and drove into Lyons for some Mexican food.
It was all good, I just shouldn’t have ordered fajitas. They’re too hard to roll with just one hand!
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