The last time Rick, Mike and I got together in Rocky Mountain National Park before this trip was a 17 hour epic on the Kiener’s Route on Longs. The climb was “as advertised” and for me, one of the better days I’ve ever experienced in the hills. I remember the bacon bleu burger from Southern Sun like it was yesterday. Fast forward to the summer of 2012 and we found ourselves plotting another masochistic stroll through the park. Ben and I had done 80 to 90% of the “Glacier Gorge Traverse” (depending on who you are talking to) from Chief’s Head to Taylor the summer before. This was a variation, as well as an extension to the route, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather.
The plan was to climb Thatchtop from Glacier Gorge TH, then traverse to Powell via a class 4/very low 5 ridge, then a tundra slog to Taylor, then Otis, then Hallett and then join up with Flattop Mountain trail back to Bear Lake, linking the spur trail back to Glacier Gorge – concluding, of course, with a massive meal.
We started up the all too familiar Black Lake Trail at dusk, trudging along by headlamp. Taking the short cut from the cracked rock, we make quick work of the terrain to the Loch Vale/Black Lake junction. After a few switchbacks up the trail to the Loch, we split off and made our way for the NW shoulder of Thatchtop.
The sunrise on this morning was no different than it has ever been on a clear day in the past. The Mummies to the north showed their true colors, and the gorges and remnants of what is left of the glaciers in the area glistened. It was going to be a good day.
We topped out on the broad summit of Thatchtop in no time and stopped for the first real break of the day. 3 gluttons on one summit is never a bad thing, and if my memory serves me right, all the major food groups were represented on this marathon of a day. The northern cirque of McHenry’s, its namesake Notch and the Solitude/Shelf Lakes below made for one of the finer views on the Continental Divide – if not the eastern part of the Colorado Rockies. The traverse came in to view and it went from gaper slog mode to game on in a matter of seconds.
The surrounding landmarks were distracting. How are you expected to give 100% of your concentration on a slabby, exposed traverse when you have spires like the Petit Grepon, Sharkstooth and Sky Pond to your North, and the geological wonder and dizzingly steep McHenry’s Notch and its namesake couloir to the South. I’m not sure that is possible.
The beginning of the ridge traverse, as seen in the previous pictures, was relatively straightfoward, but some unexpected twists and turns waited for our arrival below the summit of Powell. We got a crash course in slab traverse management, similar to that of the North Buttress route up Crestone Peak, except not as exposed. I can’t imagine anyone has, or would want, to do this traverse in the winter. You would definitely soil yourself, seconds before you ping pong down the face to Sky Pond.
After some stout class 3 scrambling and some moderate exposure below Powell, we reached the broad to the West summit and lounged for break #2 of the day, admiring where we came from, trembling at dropped off below and sighing at the long road ahead.
The stroll/straddle along the divide was nothing more than a class 1/2 tundra walk, but the views to the East made up for the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other.
We arrived on the summit of Taylor not too long after leaving Powell. It was just as I had remembered it from the summer before, only better due to being there at a much more reasonable hour of the day. The southeastern face is an abyss, a sheer cliff with Sky Pond and the Taylor Glacier filling in the rest of the canvas. Truly a remarkable part of the Earth to be able to visit – all within a morning’s drive from your house in Denver. If there is a place that reminds me of Glacier National Park – its Glacier Gorge (sans real “glaciers”).
Next stop was the 12er – Otis Peak. I had first heard of Otis years ago reading a trip report of the “Flower Power Couloir”, which drops straight down to Andrew’s Lake via a narrow, winding couloir. This obviously would be nothing more than a class 2 summer stroll, but a return trip with white stuff is definitely in the cards.
Longs was an unmistakable monolith of a plateau’d rock. It’s so incredibly prominent from just about any angle, it’s so easy to forget the Keyhole Route is one of the most crowded trade routes in all of the state. I got bored on the summit of Otis and decided to see how close up my zoom would get with the peak.
After a very windy jaunt over to Hallett, we stopped for our last break, and then finally exited the divide for the long, old dusty trail back to the car.
We were sure to continue to admire the views along the way (the Flattop Mountain trail is one of the most scenic in the park). 4.4 miles and some sore legs later, we limped back to the truck with burgers and fries on the brain. I have no idea how long or how much vertical this loop was, but if were to wager a guess, it would come out to around 13-14 miles and 6000 feet. Here are some nice parting shots…