Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two Days in the Park

On Tuesday I got a last-minute assignment from Backpacker and quickly laid plans for a two-day traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park, via the summit of Longs Peak. The forecast was perfect for Wednesday and Thursday, and this late in the season I had no time to lose.

The idea was to walk from Grand Lake up East Inlet Creek, then over Boulder-Grand Pass to Thunder Lake in Wild Basin. After camping there I'd go cross-country to the base of Longs' south face, climb the peak via Keplinger's Couloir, and descend the Keyhole Route and north-side trails to return to the Bear Lake area. I wasn't sure how the cross-country legs would work, but the route came together beautifully. The East Inlet Creek drainage is my new favorite valley in Rocky Mountain National Park—maybe on the entire Front Range. The east side of the Park is dramatic, with all those glacial cirques, but the west side has a lush, wild feel, and East Inlet Creek is simply gorgeous, especially in fall colors. I had expected Keplinger's to be a tedious scree-slog, but it wasn't bad at all. On top of the 14,259-foot peak it was calm and warm enough to sit comfortably in a light sweater—remarkable for late September. I was the only one of seven people who summited that afternoon who'd brought crampons, and I zipped past everyone by plunge-stepping down the icy snow in the Trough. Then it was just a long easy walk out to the car, with the afternoon sun lighting up the russet and gold ground cover on Longs' broad northern slopes.

This hike comprised about two-thirds of a big loop that I'll describe next year in Backpacker. We'll be recommending four to five days to cover this segment, so doing it in two was physically punishing. But mentally—what a treat!

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