| Two Shortcut Trails for Longs Peak
The next best thing to climbing itself is reading or writing about climbing. As this winter's snow accumulates and deepens, I thought I'd pass along (though late) this trip report.
This is not a trip report about climbing Longs Peak itself, but rather about two "shortcut" trails that climbers may find useful in either approaching or leaving the Peak. On this autumn trip, my buddy Randy and I used the two trails on our of climb Mount Lady Washington, one of the two 13ers (the other, Storm Peak) on either side of the Boulder Field.
The "Kneeling Camel" is a rock formation on the ridge between Chasm View (the beginning of today's North Face Route, and the old Cables Route) on Longs Peak, and Mount Lady Washington. The ridge runs along the southeast edge of the Boulder Field. The Kneeling Camel is plainly visible from the Boulder Field, but not so from Chasm Lake. National Park Rangers use the Kneeling Camel Ascent or Descent as a shortcut between the Boulder Field and the lake. Technical climbers who finish routes on the Diamond often leave the mountain by "rapping" down the North Face using old eyebolts still in place from holding the Cables--which were removed in 1973--as convenient and secure rappel anchors. They then take the Kneeling Camel Descent to avoid the long traverse around the shoulder of Lady Washington.
If your own personal goal is to climb Longs Peak only once, tick it off your 14er list, and go on to other mountains, you do not need to know this route. If, however, you are like me and enjoy climbing Longs again and again, the route is good to know. It's good to mix things up sometimes and climb a different way. If you plan on climbing the North Face, the Kneeling Camel provides the shortest approach. And the Chasm Lake Trail beyond Chasm Junction, with its view of Columbine Falls spilling down toward Peacock Pool, and the Diamond towering behind, is arguably the most beautiful and storied hike in the Park. Chasm Meadow provides this stunning view of the peak.
In our climb of Lady Washington, Randy and I used the Kneeling Camel as an ascent route. To get to the route, we first hiked to Chasm Lake on the Chasm Lake Trail. The trail is obvious, well-signed, and appears on all Park maps. The good trail ends at the new, gray-board sided, solar-powered Chasm Lake Patrol Cabin. The historic old stone patrol cabin, which had stood for decades, was totally destroyed in a massive slab avalanche a few years ago. Broken cinder blocks and posts from the old stone cabin now serve to mark and reinforce the trail through the delicate tundra grasses of Chasm Meadow. Beyond the Patrol Cabin, the zig-zagging trail is cairned up a glacially scoured brow of granite, to a great view of the lake. Scrambling here is mostly class 2+. Chasm cirque, with the lake and the East Face of Longs beyond, is truly a breath-taking place. The boulders above the lake are a good place to stop for a drink and energy bar. If you are lucky, you may spot technical climbers on Broadway (a big ledge that cuts a swooping horizontal slash across the face) or on the Diamond itself. Nearly always you can see climbers on the summit of Longs, looking down at you as you look up at them, across the airy distances.
To get to the route, circle the north side of the lake. There is a long tongue of water, that depending on the water level, must be bypassed by a long or short detour. Once around the tongue of water, the route around the lake is cairned. The problem is, just like in the Boulder Field, there are multiple cairned passages. No matter. They all lead to the same place. As a rule of thumb, I try not to sacrifice elevation in the route I pick, staying away from the water's edge as an obvious bad choice. The passage I like threads through some massive boulders pretty high on the slope. Sometimes enough raw dirt can be found in the talus to form a real trail, but mostly the going involves boulder-hopping.
Here is a photo looking back east at Randy on the peak side of Chasm Lake. The cairned route around the lake parallels the northern shore, above his head. The southernmost summit of Twin Sisters appears just over the glacial knobs that form the dam of the lake.
And here is a photo looking ahead west, toward Longs. The thready snowfield runs from Mills Glacier. Broadway plunges in a wide arc from the left margin, and the North Chimney–a class 4 access route to the wide ledge above–extends as the lowest shadow dropping toward the talus and snow.
As you circle the lake, you will find there are several gullies that seem to head up through cliffs toward the ridge above. Do not be tempted to stop circling the lake too early. The route follows the FINAL gully. Beyond the final gully, there are only cliffs. A small hillock of sparse tundra–the last sizable patch of vegetation you will see for a while–must be climbed to reach the final gully. Here is a photo of Randy climbing the hillock.
And here is a photo of the gully itself. Good landmarks to recognize the gully are the snowfield, which persists through most summers into fall and winter, and the horizon of sky.
Randy climbs up into the gully.
And here is another shot, looking down at Randy climbing up into the gully. Note that there is nothing but cliffs beyond this final gully. Note the persistent snowfield. Finding the proper gully is the key to finding the route.
Here is a photo of the top of the gully, where it emerges onto the slopes of Mount Lady Washington. The route passes over the rubbly scree between the two cliff bands. It is best to stay as close as possible to the base of the HIGHER cliff band in the photo. If you somehow fell off the rubbly scree and onto the lower cliff band, you would slide a long way before coming to rest. The head and the hump of the Kneeling Camel are visible for the first time when you reach the top of the gully. You can see the camel at the upper center of the photo, on the horizon.
Once above the gully, the boulder hopping begins again. Jump from rock to rock, aiming for the Kneeling Camel. In this photo, Randy is climbing toward the Kneeling Camel. The gully exit is over his head, and Chasm Lake is on the other side of the gully exit. It is good to remember what the gully exit looks like, in case you plan to descend the way you came up, or in case you ever descend the route sometime in the future.
This photo was taken pretty close to the Camel.
Once at the Camel, you have a great view of Storm Peak and the Boulder Field.
Looking the opposite direction, you have a great view of Lamb's Slide, Zumie's Thumb, and Mount Meeker. The day we climbed, we could see crampon tracks cutting broad zigs and zags up the Slide. We saw three climbers crossing deep snow blanketing Broadway at the base of the Notch Couloir. We continued to watch them as they started up Kiener's Route. We later found out that these three were training for Ama Dablam.
From the Camel, we worked our way along the ridgeline toward the summit of Lady Washington. Randy is barely visible below the closest pinnacle.
The scale of the surroundings is phenomenal here.
Randy on the summit of Lady Washington. Lady Washington has two summits, and standing on either, the other summit looks higher. We found and signed a register on the summit farthest east.
The second helpful shortcut trail is the Jim's Grove Trail. The standard Keyhole approach to Longs Peak takes climbers first to Jim's Grove Junction, then through a sheltered tundra basin to Chasm Junction, and from there around the shoulder of Lady Washington to Granite Pass. That is a fine approach, and probably the easiest. On the other hand, the ascending trail through Jim's Grove to Granite Pass is steep and direct. Park Rangers in top physical condition climb the Jim's Grove Trail as the quickest and shortest route into the Boulder Field. But for the rest of us, the trail is probably best suited as a time and distance-saving shortcut for the DESCENT. That's how Randy and I used it after our Lady Washington climb. Though the sky had been clear earlier, bad weather was moving in fast.
We took the switchbacks down from Boulder Field to Granite Pass, and beyond the Pass, strode down improved "stair steps" of stone that have been constructed relatively recently. The juncture of the main trail and the Jim's Grove Trail is not signed, and is difficult to spot. Just as the stair steps begin to curve to the right and lose elevation, look for two big whale-shaped rocks. Use your imagination! Doesn't the second rock look like a whale breaching? The rocks are pinker than the photo makes them look. Near the rocks, the Jim's Grove Trail branches left, eastward, and abruptly descends. It saves time and distance by heading straight down, without taking the long curving loop over to Chasm Junction. To find the trail from the stair steps, look for the whale rocks, and the stumps of a couple of old signposts that have been cut down, and a metal rod sticking up out of the ground. The metal rod is probably a grounding rod for the old telephone line, long ago dismantled, that used to serve for emergency communication between the Boulder Field and the Longs Peak Inn.
The Jim's Grove trail is interesting because it passes right by the site of the old Longs Peak shelter cabin. The cabin was taken down long ago, but if you look carefully near the lower end of the trail right before it joins the main trail, you will see where a number of limber pine branches have been sawn and damaged. There you can find some creosoted old round timbers that formed stairsteps leading up to the cabin. Joe Mills, Enos' brother, supposedly built the cabin. Enos took it over and managed it as the highest shelter on the mountain before the stone "climbers' hotel" and stable that used to stand in Boulder Field were built. From this wooden shelter cabin, after waiting for a storm to break, Agnes Vaille and Walter Kiener set out on their ill-fated first winter ascent of the East Face. And it was from this cabin that the subsequent attempted rescue of Agnes Vaille was launched.
Here is a photo of Randy at the start of our descent of the Jim's Grove Trail. Note the timbers that form steps, and the two pinkish "whale" rocks on the skyline above.
Randy descending the trail, which leads straight toward Jim's Grove, the highest grove of pine on the mountain slope. Jim's Grove is named after Rocky Mountain Jim, who camped there with the British writer Isabella Bird during their ascent of the peak in 1873. The grove is very fragile, damaged from years of firewood cutting and camping in the area before those activities were prohibited. Signs warn you not to leave the trail, or damage the vegetation further. The Jim's Grove Trail is now an "unimproved" trail, and it is not maintained, nor intended to carry the heavy foot-traffic of the main trail. Still, it is a good trail for climbers to know. In the photo, Twin Sisters is in the distance. Note the deteriorating weather, the ominous clouds.
Finally, Randy is almost enteriing Jim's grove. The clouds started to drop sleet and small bits of hail soon after this photo was taken, and I had to put my camera into my pack and was unable to take more pictures. The day really turned cold, and we had to put on our rain jackets. From this point, the trail enters the trees and threads through the grove, eventually crossing a stream on a wooden bridge to join up with the main trail at Jim's Grove Junction, which is signed. We hurried down the trail, stung by the sleet, chilled by the wind, and menaced by thunder, glad that we had known about this shortcut!
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