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Full Circle: The Rocky Mountain Grand Loop

Follow a long-forgotten loop in Rocky Mountain National Park across the Continental Divide, through moose-infested meados, and up Longs Peak via a rarely climbed route.

Avocado or peanut butter? I linger over the choice of bagel toppings, feeling no rush to smear, pack, and sprint for the summit of Longs Peak. On the opposite (northeast) side of the mountain, hundreds of storm-wary climbers undoubtedly left the standard trailhead before dawn, hoping to beat the inevitable midday lightning strikes. Not so for this lazy climber. I’m propped on a boulder by my tent, relishing the solitude. From my camp in the lonely southern side of the park, it’s just 1.5 miles to the summit, and I know I can top out by noon, even with a late start. Might as well slather another bagel with avocado and refill my French press. I’ve climbed a dozen-plus routes up Longs, but never from the south. Few people do–they’re scared off by the bushwhack approach and a 1,600-foot crawl up a scree-filled gully. But while researching a book about the 14,259-foot peak, I’d lucked into an infinitely more interesting way to reach the south face, one pioneered by two speed-hiking, Depression-era guides.

Hull Cook and Clerin Zumwalt worked at the old Boulderfield Shelter Cabin, a two-story stone hut at 12,750 feet, in the early 1930s. Every summer morning, they’d wake at 4 a.m., lead two summit climbs, and pocket $1 each. The routine was fun but grueling; it left the two little time to explore the rest of the 265,770-acre park. Until, that is, they schemed the ultimate mountain fix: a 43-mile loop across the Continental Divide and back, ending with a rare ascent of Longs from the south. The caveat? They only had one day. Like Cook and Zumwalt, I’d spent most of my 25 "Rocky" years climbing Longs and other peaks. Now ready to see the park’s remoter edges, I decided to retrace Cook and "Zumie’s" route–but not like those fast-and-lighters. Shouldering a 35-pound pack, I would savor every step of the journey, averaging a leisurely seven miles per day. The grand finale: an ascent of Longs via Keplingers Couloir.

Cook and Zumie wound down from the Boulderfield, the high camp on Longs’s mega-popular Keyhole Route. They crested 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain and the Continental Divide, and followed the 13-mile Tonahutu Creek drainage to the village of Grand Lake. After a quick lunch, they headed home along East Inlet Creek, recrossing the Divide via 12,061-foot Boulder-Grand Pass, scrambling up Longs, and descending back to the Boulderfield 24 hours after they started. I’ll take seven days to complete their loop, camping at four designated trailside sites and in one off-trail zone, resupplying in Grand Lake, and climbing Keplingers Couloir before descending Longs via the Keyhole Route.

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