Camel Gully, Longs Peak Cirque

29 Sep 2001 - by Doug Cook

In Rocky Mountain National Park, above the immense cirque NE of Longs Peak, the Camel is rumored to three rock bumps at 13,000 feet on the ridge between Chasm View and Mount Lady Washington. With a little imagination, from Mills Glacier (the area directly below the Diamond) the bumps resemble a kneeling camel. (It disappears if you look for it from the Boulder Field.) The ridge separates the Boulder Field from the Chasm Lake/Chasm View cirque NE of Longs Peak. Several guidebooks for technical rock climbs on the Diamond and mixed climbs on Longs (Keiner's, Lamb's Slide, Notch Couloir, and North Face/Cables route) vaguely refer to Camel Gully as a descent route from Longs Peak by traversing from the Summit down to the top of the Cables Route, rapping down the Cables Route, hiking down the ridge to the Camel, and downclimbing Camel Gully to Mills Glacier - a descent of 2,000 feet. The hike back to the Longs Peak trailhead would then be across Mills Glacier, around Chasm Lake, down to Chasm Meadows, and then following the trail 4.25 miles back to the TH. In effect, about a mile shorter than the interminable hike down from the Boulder Field; but a much more difficult and thrilling descent - as I was about to discover.

The immense expanse of mountain between Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, and Mount Lady Washington provide a complex array of climbing routes. This huge cirque, split by the Ship's Prow, include some of the most awe-inspiring, extreme mountaineering and technical rock climbing opportunities in the country, including the world-famous Diamond 1,900 foot vertical rock face. This area is so overwhelming, intimidating, and complex it has taken me several trips, along with help from friends, topos, and guidebooks, to finally be able to identify Dream Weaver, the Loft, Lamb's Slide, the Notch Couloir, Keiner's, and the Cables Route. After a few climbs of mountaineering routes on Longs and Meeker's (and many more anticipated through the years), this scouting trip was to hike from the TH to Chasm Meadow, up and around Chasm Lake, check out conditions on Lamb's Slide and Keiner's Route, scramble below the Lower East Face and across Mills Glacier, traverse the ramp under Chasm View, attempt to climb Camel Gully, and connect with the hiking trail in the Boulder Field for the six-mile hike back to the TH.

Hoping the two week-long Indian summer weather would last at least one more day, I left the Longs Peak TH Saturday morning at 7:40 AM and arrived at Chasm Meadows a little over two hours later. Several parties had left the TH between midnight and 4 AM for the Keyhole route. I was surprised so many people were still attempting the Keyhole route since the Ranger Station conditions report indicated that only a couple of weeks ago the snow was knee deep on the standard route across the West side of Longs and still held patches of snow and ice. Looking across at the Loft, the slopes were nearly entirely melted out with only a few patches of snow. Drools of ice were beginning to form on the upper ledges. The climbing trail to Chasm Lake is immediately to the left of the Park Service Patrol Hut. I missed the trail which is rumored to be about 50 feet above the Lake and lost time scrambling and boulder hopping around the Lake and up to the bottom of Lamb's Slide. The entire basin below the Diamond was nearly bone dry - the bottom of Lamb's Slide, below the Lower East Face, and Mills Glacier - looked as barren as the Boulder Field. The entire basin was melted out - quite a surprise when most of the guidebook descriptions indicate that Lamb's Slide and Mills Glacier is a permanent snowfield. Maybe it melts out this late every year - maybe it was an unusually dry Winter? A few thin patches of snow remained in the shadows on the broken rock on the Lower East Face on the left side below the Diamond.

Two parties of climbers had ascended Lamb's Slide ahead of me and the steps they kicked in the snow provided fairly solid footing but crampons felt much more secure. Lambs Slide was a very ugly ribbon of snow, rock, and "black ice" (per the Ranger's report). It too appeared to have entirely melted out before the last snowfall covered some of the dirt/rock. The left side of the couloir was 20-40 of "new" snow, completely unconsolidated and about 10-12 inches deep. An ice axe easily penetrated to the dirt/rock below. The snow was so loose that pickets or ice screws and an ice axe self-belay or simul-climbing were useless. The pick easily cut through the snow and self-arrest would be impossible. The right 20-30 foot wide band of black ice was less than an inch-thick layer of semi-frozen ice mixed with dirt. Although it was firm enough for crampons, it was too soft and shallow to hold my ice axe pick. After about a 100 foot climb up Lamb's Slide, I traversed down the shallow snow across Mills Unglacier until reaching dry rock and packing up the crampons. (I didn't see any even semi-flat spots anywhere in the Chasm View cirque. The only approved bivy sites, which require a permit, are Chasm View (6 climbers) and Mills Glacier (20 climbers). Anyone know where the overnight bivys are allowed - the only clue from the Park Service info is that you must sleep on rock or snow - which is everywhere in the cirque!)

The area below the Diamond is crossed by shallow moraines and, after a long scramble across the boulders and talus, I reached a high point where I could survey Chasm View Wall and try and anticipate the 4th Class route up the Camel Gully. Several long, grassy ledges traverse up and across the vertical Chasm View Wall. One ledge crossed a split in the broken rock which appeared to lead up to the low point in the Camel. All other ledges and routes appeared to be technical climbs or would end being seriously cliffed out - there seemed to be very few possible routes. I headed across to a grassy ledge running from left to right (facing Chasm View Wall) which, with great relief, became wider as I started the ascending traverse. The ledge was mixed rock and grass and wider than a car most of the traverse over to the Gully. However, some narrow sections on the ledge, with downward sloping ground over way too many feet of vertical exposure, would probably require a rope in wet or snow conditions. After about a 200 yard traverse, the ledge intersected what appeared to be the elusive Camel Gully. It was evident that the route had been climbed (or more likely descended) and after a dicey move around rock and into the Gully, the climb begins. The Gully is a zig-zag series of climbing up loose dirt/scree and exposed 4th Class rock climbing. There is no obvious route and I searched for sections which just seemed climbable. Four near-vertical 10-20 foot climbs definitely seemed 5.0-5.2 difficulty in addition to a 20-40 foot fall where you would probably be stopped on less vertical rock. The closest I can compare the Camel Gully with is climbing the Crestone Fourteeners where you ascend a maze of couloirs - except the Camel Gully is much steeper in sections and without the secure "chickhead" Crestones rock. The crux is at the top of the Gully where you can see the ridge above. I desperately pulled through a shallow dihedral and clumsily scrambled to reach the safety of the ridge. (Looking back down, a slightly easier section, also with evidence of being climbed, was about 10 feet to my right on the ascent.) When my breathing finally returned, I decided that this was definitely not an easy descent route. The first moves off what was indeed the low point in the ridge would be on a vertical section of rock where I would not venture without a belay or by rappelling. In fact, Camel Gully would be most safely downclimbed by a series of rappels - which would be time consuming due to the zig-zag route. Maybe technical rock climbers doing 5.7-5.10+ routes would find the Gully easy, but I wouldn't recommend climbing or descending it without a rope and belayer. If the rock was wet or snowy, the only safe descent would be by rappel. (If anyone has found an easier route in Camel Gully, please send me a private email. I'll consolidate any inputs and post them for everyone's benefit. Plus, I'd really like to know there was an easier way down from the Boulder Field to Chasm View!)

Only two tents were in the Boulder Field, and a few climbers were scattered out along the standard route back to the TH. After sunny, nearly breeze-free conditions and 50-55F most of the day, from about 2-3 PM a light wind developed and the skies darkened as light rain/snow intermittently fell from the dark cloudcover. This seemed more like typical Longs conditions. A few sounds of thunder echoed high in the clouds, without lightning appearing. The TH parking was nearly full and it appeared to be June or July with lots of tourist appearing folks wandering around and checking out the limited info on the TH bulletin boards. The Ranger Station is only manned on Fridays and weekends now and camping permits have to be picked up before 4:30 or you're out of luck, as I was warned by the Forest Service volunteer. Also, all water has been shut down for the year.

After a nine hour, 12 mile round trip with 3,700 vertical feet, I'd highly recommend this circuit route for awesome views of Meeker and Longs and to become familiar with the area. Camel Gulch would most safely be climbed as an easy technical rock climb with a rope and a partner to belay. The route could be reversed by visiting the Boulder Field first, but it's a pretty desolate area and the downclimb through Camel Gulch would be safest on rappel. Going via Chasm Meadows and around Chasm Lake provides a breathtaking panorama of the majestic rock formations as you continue on toward the Chasm View Wall cirque. Looking up at the sheer vertical face of the Diamond from below amazed me that anyone could climb (or want to be on!) the incredibly difficult looking routes. A venture into the area below the Lower East Face or the Diamond should be very short with caution as rockfall could occur anytime off the expanse of rock above, and climbers are on Broadway traversing across to routes alongside and on the Diamond. Hiking the route via Chasm Meadows also allows you to stop at any point, having seen the best of the route, and reverse your trip to return to the TH.

Resources which helped me explore this circuit route include an excellent, highly detailed guidebook first published this year by Bernard Gillett titled "Rocky Mountain National Park: The Climbers Guide, High Peaks;" the "Colorado Ice Climber's Guide" by Burns; "Colorado Ice" by Roberts; and of course the venerable Fourteeners Guidebooks by Dawson and Roach which provide complementary descriptions, maps, and photos.

Andy Donelson adds:

I was just reading your report of the Camel route from Chasm up to the Boulderfield. I'm not sure if you have read Gerry Roach's description in his RMNP guidebook but it describes the location pretty well. I have done the route and I found it to be class III at the worst. That was only because I didn't want to climb the snow which was pretty icy and I had no crampons, just an ice axe. I would guess that you were off route if it seemed that difficult. I just thought you might be interested in the experience I had. I liked the report! It sounds like it was a great day.

Doug Cook replies:

On my first attempt to find Camel Gully, as described in the trip report, I learned on a later scouting trip that I had not climbed the Gully but had ended up on another much more difficult gully, with some lower 5th class climbing near where the route tops out on the Chasm View. It had a cairn at the top to mark the gully route from above, but it would definitely require a rappel to downclimb the route. A few months later I found what I am certain is the Camel Gully, a much more easily climbed or downclimbed route I'd rate as 3rd class. I described the "real" Camel Gully in a June 7, 2002 trip report, http://www.climber.org/TripReports/2002/866.html


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