Plan A was pretty admittedly ambitious for an off-season: run to the farthest reaches of Glacier Gorge, scramble up the Pagoda-Keyboard Couloir, tag Pagoda Mountain, then “descend” via Longs Peak, the Keyhole, and the North Longs Peak Trail back to Glacier Gorge. No problem, right? But when dawn actually came, I was feeling mellow and wasn’t too upset when the weather dictated that a Plan B was in order. Pagoda was almost certainly a non-starter today. I’ve been in Glacier Gorge in plenty worse conditions, but overcast with strong winds is not the best way to start a big, solo day of mountain running. Time to moderate; run up the North Longs Peak Trail to tree-line and decide from there.
However, the loveliness of the North Longs Peak trail was ample reward for the marginal weather. Shortly before the Mills/Loch junction, it split off the main trail and headed east climbing across the massive north slopes of the Longs massif. Forest with occasional views gave way to views with occasional forest. The slope is steady at about 10%… not quite running territory for me in my current lousy shape, but I can see how it might be with a little work.
As I reached treeline, it was quite clear that no summiting of anything was going to take place today. Longs stood there bracketed between Mt. Lady Washington on the left and Storm Peak on the right… and then it wasn’t… and then it was again. Shreds of cloud whipped across the face in ten seconds. It must be really howling up there. But I persevered and joined the conga line of hikers on the standard Longs trail. People I passed spoke of 100+ mph winds on the west side (which I doubt) and zero visibility (which I don’t). Mostly people were headed down, but I joined a few others still going up and ran-hiked to the Boulderfield and then scrambling up to the Keyhole.
Despite my many trips on Longs, this was only my second time at the Keyhole and my first approaching it from this direction. Even if it’s not a summit, the Keyhole is a very worthy goal anyway. It’s a really cool rock feature and the sudden view into Glacier Gorge is jaw-dropping. The cloud deck started a few meters above my head and the wind was probably 40 mph on average. Even if I’d had the appropriate gear, I’ve been up Longs enough times that I didn’t need to do it again in these conditions. I admired the view for a few minutes, then retreated to the enigmatic little Agnes Vaille Shelter for a some lunch before starting my descent.
When I’d made it a few dozen yards from the shelter (too far to turn back, right?), my decision to turn the trip was underlined by a light rain that was now falling (if ‘falling’ is the correct word for rain that is traveling horizontally). Okay, things just got serious. In Vibram-soled hiking boots, wet rocks aren’t that big a deal, but running shoes are a little less grippy. A twisted ankle would be bad news. I was wearing all my layers already but was getting soaked through and a bit chilly. There wasn’t really anything to do in terms of shelter, so I pushed onward as fast as safely possible keeping warm by movement hoping to out-last the rain and make it down into trees.
Indeed, a quarter mile past the Boulderfield, the rain stopped and I had warmed up sufficiently to be more comfortable (though my legs were still mighty cold). At Granite Pass, I could see the next rain squall coming, so I pushed quickly down toward treeline (didn’t quite make it), got soaked again, this time going into the teeth of the wind. By the time I got into the trees, storm number two was over and the danger was a lot less. By the time I finished the descent, in fact, the weather was beautiful and getting even a little hot.
What a great trail! It’s certainly not the shortest way up Longs Peak, but if you’re looking for solitude on Longs Peak, the North Longs Trail is the way to go (I saw four other people and one moose in twelve miles of trail.)
Feeling pretty good, I decided on some bonus miles. Instead of straight back to the car, I continued on, headed up the “unimproved” trail to Lake Haiyaha (which was in the process of being substantially improved and was a whole lot easier to follow than last time I tried it), basked there for a little, then pounded over to Dream Lake and dodged tourists down to Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge.
20.7 miles. 4500′ of gain (give or take). Strong winds, cold legs, and a reminder that mountain running is still mountainy and requires a certain amount of gear.