– Mt. Meeker – 13,911′
– Longs Peak – 14,255′
– Pagoda Mountain – 13,497′
– Storm Peak – 13,326′ (unranked)
– Mt. Lady Washington – 13,381′
– Battle Mountain – 12,044′ (unranked)
– Estes Cone – 11,007′
Distance: 16-18 miles (Distance agreement tends to vary quite a bit on this route, for whatever reason)
Vert: Approx. 8,000 Feet
The Longs Radical Slam
As almost anyone who has ever climbed a 14er knows, Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners book is pretty much the bible for all things high in Colorado. It is the book that started it all for many of us and it guided us on many early trips during our mountaineering journeys. The second edition I own shows all the signs of nearly 15 years of use: the cover is coming off, nearly 50 pages are loose, the pages have been written on, and a good chunk of the material is now outdated. But in spite of its ragged condition, there is just something great about ol’ Roach’s insights that keep bringing me back.
I have used a lot of guidebooks for places all over the world and in my opinion, his book stands out. I don’t exactly know what it is, but it is probably some combination his great writing, attention to important details, personal experience, and the occasional ‘Roachisms’ that all add up to a really quality guidebook. I love and use online climbing communities as much as anyone, but this book is just so well done it is hard to give up on it.
I also like Gerry’s writing because hidden within these chapters lies the occasional ‘crazy’ route up one of our 14ers. These routes usually entail some ridiculous combination of peaks which go well off the bounds of usual standard approaches to the summit. He tends to slip them in at the end of some chapter as “extra credit” designed only for “hardy souls” as he calls them. Yet there they sit, just lying in wait for some idiot to come along who thinks it is a good idea to try out one of the epic days. One of those routes that has always stood out to me (the aforementioned idiot) is the Longs Radical Slam.
Eric Lee (thebeave7) once describe this route as a “sick concoction.” He is right about that. The basic outline is simple enough. The climb consists of tagging all seven peaks in the Longs’ massif in one big push: Meeker > Longs > Pagoda > Storm > Lady Washington > Battle Mtn. > Estes Cone (in that order). That equates to 16-18 miles and approximately 8,000 vertical feet of gain. But that distance feels quite a bit longer as a big chunk of this route consists of legit ‘off-roading’, taking routes far from an established trail. There is plenty of class 3/4 scrambling as well just to keep it exciting.
The more famous Grand Slam route consists of the first five peaks in this list (i.e. Longs, plus its four surrounding 13ers), but Roach decided to throw in Battle Mtn. and Estes Cone for those “left standing” after the Grand Slam. Oh and also, just for good measure, the day is not truly over until you complete the final two challenges:
1. Do 50 pushups
I had my eye on this one for the past few years, but I really did not take it too seriously until this summer. I have been doing a whole lot of road running, climbing peaks, and the occasional trial run to stay in shape. The Radical Slam seemed like a really cool way to ‘use’ some of that fitness. I had loosely planned on hitting it to wrap up the summer season. Plus it is in the Park, which is never a bad day.
So, with a Friday off work and forecast calling for perfect September weather, I found myself awake at 2:00 on a Friday morning and soon ready to get going at the Longs Peak Trailhead by 4:15.
Longs Peak Trailhead to Meeker Summit
The first portion of the day consists of taking the Loft Route to the summit of Meeker. This means that the first few miles covers the gentle and familiar terrain of the East Longs Peak Trail almost all the way to Chasm Lake before diverting into the Loft Couloir. I had originally planned to jog these first few miles, but as I started, my legs and lungs were just not having it this day. Couple this with the fact that I absolutely hate running in the dark, and I decided to give up on trying to jog anything after a quarter mile or so. I was not out there for speed anyways. A combination of factors made me decide at that point to just focus on completion: a lot of this route was new terrain for me (unwise to rush while solo), most of it was cross country (pain in the ass to try to go super fast), there was a hefty bit of scrambling (again, no need to push while alone), and I was suspect of the conditions. Ice had shut down the Keyhole and Loft Route just a week and a half prior to this, so I was not even sure what I would find higher up.
With all that said, I decided that caution would be the order of the day. I would hike it as fast as I felt comfortable, but focus more on completion over any sort of super fast time. I just wanted to enjoy the challenge as stress free as possible; it would be hard enough without trying to blitz it.
So, I pressed on for the first few hours alone in the dark. I passed a number of groups heading up to the Keyhole and well as the harder routes on Meeker and Longs. A few parties were headed for Kieners and another had set out to climb the Flying Dutchman on Meeker. Hopefully they all found success.
As for me, the first substantial (and useful) light hit right as I was nearing the exit ramp from the Loft Couloir. This was the section which had me most nervous as I knew ice had shut it down not too long ago. The route had been 100% clear to this point, so I was optimistic, but uncertain. Climbing the ramp, I soon found the ice, but thankfully I also saw that it was easily bypassed with a bit of care.
Having done the Loft before, I knew that I could cut some time by heading almost directly to Meeker’s summit once I exited the ramp. I am not exactly sure how much time this saved, but it certainly felt a lot faster as I reached the first summit of the day exactly three hours after starting out from the trailhead.
Meeker to Longs
The second section of the day continued to be repeat terrain for me, as it was a simple jaunt over to Keplinger’s followed by the Homestretch to the summit. However, I knew this would be some of the spicier terrain being solo. Again I opted to take it easy and not make any careless mistakes. I found a great climber’s trail off of Meeker and quickly found my way over to the descent beneath the Palisades, following the excellent cairns along the way. Beyond that, I easily found the class 3/4 descent gully to get to Clark’s Arrow.
Except I did not see it at first. I down climbed the gully with relative ease (again following great cairns) and was happy about how simple it had been to find. But then I found myself thinking about the elusive Clark’s Arrow (which I had yet to see) and pondered, “What a stupid marker. Why would they put a faded arrow in a place that no one can ever seem to find? It only makes this MORE confusing.”
In a bit of instant irony, I used the very next moment to stop and pee. Standing there, I proceeded to look up and the arrow was literally 10 feet in front of my face. For all my internal grumbling, I had descended literally exactly where I was supposed to go, and straight in front of the marker of the path. I chuckled to myself at this, enjoying the hefty shot of humble pie.
Anyway, the traverse into Keplinger’s was completely snow free from there, as was the couloir. This offered easy passage to the start of the Homestretch and on to Longs’ summit.
When I reached peak #2 – Longs – I had to do a double take. I was alone. It was early, but not that early. Yet still, I had it all to myself. I guess the solid pace, early start, and late-season weekday made for few people on the route. Whatever it was, I took note of this. I can’t imagine I will have too many other chances to enjoy Longs all to myself – even on a weekday climb of The Notch in “winter conditions” we met another party at the summit. I decided to rest for a few minutes and enjoy the solitude.
Longs to Pagoda
The traverse from Longs to Pagoda was the stretch that gave me the most worry going into this route. There were a few nuances that I knew I needed to get right. First of all, I was not entirely sure of the descent beyond the Homestretch. From there, there is a long cliff band with a hidden gully that hides the route to Pagoda. And finally, the upper portions of Pagoda’s ridge looked like a loose pile of suck. I was not looking forward to it. All I could do was tackle each obstacle one at a time.
As I descended to the base of the Homestretch, I paused to try to scope out the descent to the gentle terrain on the saddle. I did not find a great picture or description beforehand, so I was unsure. I found it was actually much easier than I had anticipated. Essentially I followed the Homestretch all the way down to where it splits right to the Narrows. From this point, I instead went left and down. The terrain begins on stuff similar to the Homestretch, but quickly eases in angle and difficulty. Veering slightly left to avid the cliffs of the Narrows, it is almost all class 2 (with occasional class 3) until reaching the large boulder field before the cliff band. If you find yourself in stuff harder than this, look around and try again.
With this first obstacle passed easily enough, I began to worry about that pesky cliff band. I knew that staying too far right would cliff me out, so I did a descending traverse veering leftwards as much as possible. The cliff line was much harder to make out than it had seemed from pictures. As I got closer and closer, it became less and less obvious where the correct gully might be. The line of cliffs is pretty sheer across the whole face, with only one class 3 gully that provides safe passage. I remembered reading that the correct path was near some darker rocks to the left. I saw these and they looked familiar from a picture as well. Although a bit uncertain, I decided this must be the way and pressed on ahead.
What I soon realized was that I was dropping much lower and much further away from the Longs-Pagoda saddle than I wanted. As I finally hit the cliffs themselves, my gut sank as there was not an obvious line at all. In front of me there were a number of different and non-obvious gullys. Any of them looked like they might work, yet none of them looked quite right. They were all fairly steep and I could not see the bottom of any. What’s more, there was a lot of water running down the slick rocks which appeared to be a substantial bit more committing than anything I had yet encountered.
I stood there for a moment, pondering the best course. As I did, I started to stress out a bit for the first time all day. “This must be the gully.” I thought, “I know it’s left, the dark rocks are right there, and I don’t see anything else that looks passable. It can’t be further up….” But I was still pretty nervous. Being alone, this was not terrain I wanted to mess up on. The rocks did not look inviting and I still could not see the bottom. ”
Eventually, I decided to cautiously descend the gully furthest to my left and see what it held. If I could just get a little bit lower I might see the best passage. But before going in, I reminded myself of the mantra I had decided to climb by all day: If I encountered any section which I was not 100% certain I could climb back out of, I wouldn’t take it. Originally I had decided on this as a way to mitigate any potentially hazardous conditions, but now it took on a whole new meaning. I also said a quick prayer. I have always firmly believed that we all climb in God’s grace, and I humbly asked for wisdom and guidance in this situation.
With all that done, I started the first 75 feet or so of the rapidly steepening gully. I soon found myself wedged on loose choss in the far corner. The terrain was still quite manageable to this point, but with each step it felt worse and worse. Finally I hit a spot I had been afraid of. There in front of me was a 12-15 foot down-climb over mandatory class 5 terrain. I was fairly certain I could get down it, but as I pondered the climb back up, I knew there was no way I could up-climb it without taking a stupid risk. Furthermore, I could hear loud water further down. “Is that a waterfall?” Waterfalls mean cliffs. With that, I knew it was time to turn back. I still wasn’t 100% sure I wasn’t in the correct gully, but I had seen enough to be pretty positive I had made a mistake. There was no way I was going to go any further. Instead, I decided to head back up and see if I could find the correct passage. At worst, I was ready right then and there to back-track all the way back over the Longs if it meant avoiding this. The risks just were not worth it.
As I ascended back out, I felt better and better with each step. It was a relief to not be in that narrow chute. I was happy to be away from the exposure. I climbed back up a few hundred feet, following the cliff band towards the Longs-Pagoda saddle. I stopped periodically along the way to peer over the edge, looking for the correct route. And finally, I saw it: across the way I spotted the cairn I had so desperately been looking for. I immediately felt a load lift off my shoulders as I further surveyed the area. This was absolutely the right way. I soon spied a few more cairns which guided me down the much, much easier terrain through the cliffs. As it turn out, the correct passage was much further right of what I had expected. Once I reached it, it was all too obvious that this was the correct route.
As I finally made it to the base of the cliffs, I was able to move quickly through the gentle boulders to the saddle. In no time I had passed underneath the ‘keys’ of the Keyboard of the Winds and was ready to make my way up the final 400 feet to Pagoda’s summit. But before I did, I looked back to try to figure out where I had gone wrong with the cliffs. Peering behind, I felt my gut sink. It was obvious now where I had gone wrong. But what really shook me was seeing the final outcome of my original descent path. It did indeed cliff out, and in dramatic fashion. Thankfully, I had turned around well before that, but had I not stopped when I did, the results could have been much more serious. Silly as it may seem to some, I took a knee right then and there to say a prayer of thanks and gratitude for getting me through safely and without any incident.
I also took the opportunity to reflect on my own mistakes that put me in that situation. As I see it, there is no one to blame for it but myself. We all make mistakes in the mountains, and I was certainly happy to have recognized mine relatively early, but that does not mean there are not some big lessons to be learned. For me, I think some of the key takeaways are:
- Always have a GPS and sufficient map available. I had a topo, but it was too zoomed out to be of any real use. I also had my phone, but did not get service in this area. With a better map, I could have easily re-routed myself.
- Always study sufficiently when going on new terrain. I had gone over this route dozens of times prior to venturing out, but in retrospect, I wish I had studied this area more closely. In particular, the lesson is to really know the key markers to look for in the most crucial moments. Usually I am very, very good about this, but I guess I got lazy on this day.
- Bring pictures of what to look for. This one hurt. I did not have any pics of the cliffs saved on my phone, choosing to rely on memory instead. When the terrain looked much more different than I remembered, I veered off course. Usually I always make a point to bring photos of the route and this time I didn’t. No excuse for that.
- Trust your instincts. I am happy to say this is one I got right. As I got closer, all the signs kept pointing towards my original route being incorrect. I’m glad I listened and turned back when I did.
- Never be afraid to turn around. Again, I got this one right. I think my objective standard of not climbing anything I could not come back up made a huge difference. When I hit that terrain, I knew without a doubt it was time to turn around.
Well, with all that drama now behind me, I was nearly an hour behind schedule. Thankfully it was still early and the weather was literally perfect – not a cloud to be seen. The climb up to Pagoda actually turned out to be a delight. From a distance it looked like a loose choss-pile, but it turned out to be quite solid. The rocks made for easy boulder hopping on class 2+/3 terrain. I found staying closer to the ridge offered really solid scrambling and a quick passage to the third summit of the day.
Pagoda to Storm
This next section was the other one which I was unsure of. Thankfully, it turned out to be much more straight-forward than the previous.
I made quick work of the descent back to the Longs-Pagoda saddle and headed for the first two ‘keys’, just beneath the cliff band. I felt encouraged looking down the gully as I could see all the way to the bottom on the relatively straight-forward terrain. From there, I knew the next step was to simply make an ascending traverse beneath the cliffs to the base of The Trough.
As I reached the keyhole, I finally took the chance to talk to the first people I had seen since early that morning. I borrowed some sunscreen from a fellow hiker and checked in on my water. Nearly out. I had drank 3 liters thus far, but my plan had always been to refill at the Boulderfield in between Storm and Lady Washington. Nearly there. I was feeling good and encouraged. All that work in the summer seemed to be paying off as my legs were still fresh. I am sure the even pacing throughout the day helped as well.
I saddled up once more and made yet another ascending traverse over to the top of Storm Peak. More boulder hopping. While most of them were solid, it still took longer than expected to make this traverse. The summit is a ways off from the keyhole. As I finally topped out on peak #5, I was getting thirsty, but I was enjoying the weather, which continued to be gorgeous.
Storm to Lady Washington
Finally….time for the easiest transition between summits of the day so far. I was pretty happy about this. Making my way off Storm, I stopped in the Boulderfield to refill my Camelbak. From there, the ascent up Lady Washington went surprisingly well. In a lot of the other TR’s I had read, this section seemed to drive a lot of people nuts. But to me it felt like it passed rather quickly. The stop for water probably contributed.
Sitting on summit #5, I decided to give myself more than 5-10 minutes of rest this time. The Grand Slam was complete, the weather was holding, as the Diamond was in fine form. A perfect spot to eat my Snickers and re-hydrate after a long push.
Looking back towards Storm Peak.
Lady Washington to Estes Cone (via Battle Mtn.)
With the Grand Slam complete, this was decision time. It would have been easy to descend from here to Chasm Junction and then back to the Trailhead. I was certainly tired, but I was not beaten. I knew there are not too many opportunities to have a full day to play on Longs. I was determined to continue on and finish what I came to do.
As I eventually reached Battle Mountain Pass, I chuckled as I put a single step on the Longs Peak trail. This was the first time in a long time I had hit a real trail, but I would be immediately leaving it on the way to Battle Mountain’s summit.
Thankfully, the ridge over was, by far, the most pleasant terrain of the day. I like this mountain. Its gentle ridge is flat, grassy, soft, and very beautiful. It made for quick passage and I was even able to jog a bit on the downhills. I stopped briefly to top out on the ‘summit’, which consists of little more than a crop of boulders mid-ridge.
The final real routing challenge of the day was the bushwhack to Storm Pass. After reading several TR’s, I decided the best path would be to go further north before dropping down to the trees. It looked straightforward enough.
I bypassed some willows before coming across something I was not anticipating – bristlecone pines. These short trees blocked easy passage at tree line. I had hoped for some simple lodgepoles, but the bristlecones made for a bit of a nightmare. For whatever reason, a single tree’s branches would interweave with its neighbors probability half of the time. All of this made for a nasty maze, complete with plenty of back-tracking and confusion.
Thankfully however, they did not last too long. Once I was able to drop a few hundred feet, the lodgepole pines began in earnest. This was much more pleasant as the spacing and density was far more favorable for a bushwhack. In fact, I think I was able to avoid a lot of the headaches that seemed to plague others on this route. As I continued down, the trees maintained a pretty reasonable density, which allowed for a remarkably swift descent. There were certainly many areas of deadfall and thicker groves, but each time I hit one of these, it as easily bypassed by a nearby opening.
I soon found the trail leading to Storm Pass, with the only real negative being just how large Estes Cone appeared to be from there. 7,300(ish) feet down, 700 to go. Time to put on the big boy pants.
The trail up to Estes Cone was, quite frankly, ridiculous. I had read that the trail started good, then quickly deteriorated, disappearing altogether near the top. Well, I am here to tell you that that has changed. I have no idea when it happened, but at some point very recently someone did some massive work on this trail. There is now an excellent path all the way to the summit.
But what’s funny is that this trail has more cairns than I have ever seen in my life. By far. There must have been over 200 cairns on the 0.7 mile stretch. At times, they were literally every 30 feet along the trial. And they were not little piles of rocks either. These were legit, neatly stacked, high cairns. At almost any given time, I could look and see probably 10 of them. It is almost as if some passive aggressive Park Ranger got pissed at how bad the trail was and decided to make a statement by building the most cairned trail in the entire world. Either that or too many gapers got off route and were eaten by the infamous RMNP gaper eating alpine pedo-panda, necessitating better markers.
Whatever the reason for them being there, I could not help but laugh at how excessive it all was. So much for leave no trace….
Anyway, the good path certainly made the final uphill push much more enjoyable. After 25 minutes or so, I stood atop the seventh, and final, summit on the day. Estes Cone barely pokes out above the trees, offering the perfect spot to lounge and look back at the day’s efforts.
Nearly there now. I was able to slow jog from Storm Pass back to the parking lot. It probably was not any faster than walking, but after being off-trail all day, it felt amazing to just be able to move on something relatively smooth.
And of course, one thing remained as I rolled back to the TH. There was the matter of those remaining push ups. Whether or not Roach wrote this line facetiously or not I do not know. What I do know is that these have ‘officially’ become a standard part of the route. I dropped down on the grass near some picnic tables and took two sets to knock them out. Deciding to take Roach’s advice literally, I proceeded to then collapse on the group and just breath for a solid 10 minutes. Felt gooood.
All in all, I drove home feeling very, very thankful and accomplished to have completed such a big day. As I mentioned, this was one of those challenges I had my eye on for some time. It felt great to finish it off and achieve a goal I had set for myself.
The day had also been a blessing. As I have opined before, I couldn’t help but feel that entire thing was a gift just for me. I loved every second of being out there, and it felt like a very fitting end to the summer. I was thankful to be able to do this and won’t soon forget my radical day on Longs.
Thank you for reading if you did – happy climbing!
PS: Oh….a special thank you to anyone who has ever posted a TR on this route before. I almost guarantee I looked at, so thanks for the beta an info. It was really helpful in putting together this day.
This route certainly can (and has been done) much quicker than this. But like I said, I was in it for completion on this day, not time. Also, I paused the watch at the summits and the two times I stopped to fill water, which added another hour to the ‘true time’ for the route.
Longs Peak TH to Meeker: 3:00
Meeker to Longs: 1:10 (4:11)
Longs to Pagoda*: 1:49 (6:01)
Pagoda to Storm: 1:33 (7:34)
Storm to Lady Washington: 52:00 (8:27)
Lady Washington to Battle Mtn: 49:00 (9:16)
Battle Mtn. to Estes Cone: 1:31 (10:48)
Estes Cone to TH (plus 50 pushups): 1:07 (11:55)
*This section could have been quite a bit quicker. I estimate I wasted at least 45-60 minutes on my incorrect route choice.