Saturday, September 11, 2010

Longs Peak

I climbed Longs Peak, elevation 14,255 feet, located in Rocky Mountain National Park in the Front Range of Colorado, on August 23, 2008. I climbed it with my son, Sam, my brother-in-law, David Kenison, and my nephew, Rick DeLong. I would rate it right up with Mount Rainier and Mount Shasta as one of my most interesting mountain climbs. I flew into Denver the day before and rented a large hotel room in Estes Park where we all stayed. Rick and his girlfriend (now wife), Kim, had been hiking in Colorado for an extended period of time, doing a portion of the Continental Divide Trail. Dave and Sam drove over from Orem, Utah and picked Rick and Kim up off the trail. We met in Estes Park and had a nice dinner. I had buffalo ribs for the first time and they were absolutely amazing. We got up early the next morning and drove to the trailhead, arriving shortly before 6:00 a.m. We had already been preceded by quite a few hikers and had to park down the road from the trailhead quite a ways (although nothing like what we recently experienced at Grays Peak). The trailhead starts at 9,400 feet.  I didn't have a camera with me so my pictures have come either from Dave, Rick or elsewhere off the internet. It is a 14 mile roundtrip and is pretty forgetable until getting to the Boulder Field before the Keyhole. From there on, to the summit, it is amazing.

It takes about 2 1/2 miles to get to tree line at about 11,000 feet. There are some pretty creek views along the way before leaving the trees behind. At 11,550 feet you arrive at a trail junction and a well-placed porta-pottey. The steep face of Longs Peak looms straight ahead and the open-air porta-pottey placed on stilts, surrounded by a small privacy wall provides access to some welcome relief. It is a throne with an incredible view: one of the best views of the entire trip.
You depart that incredible scene for a number of miles of pretty ugly walking while you trudge along the base of the rounded, featureless Mount Lady Washington, while you gradually trudge up to Granite Pass.  At Granite Pass is another trail junction. You stay left and go up a gentle slope and the view improves. In the distance to your left is Longs, albeit less spectacular than the earlier view, and to the right is Storm Peak. You walk quite a long ways across a relatively flat rocky plain until you reach the portion of the route that is composed of segments with Formal Names. From there all of the forgettable is left behind and the real adventure begins. It is just a little more than a mile to the summit, but oh, what a mile. At about 12,800 feet the trail ends and the Boulder Field (with a capital B and a capital F) begins.
It is the obstacle course you have to negotiate to get to the Keyhole (with a capital K), which is a notch in the ridge between Longs Peak and Storm Peak at an elevation of about 13,200 feet.
The Boulder Field does have somewhat of a route marked by cairns through it, but it is literally hopping between, around and over boulders as you go uphill to the Keyhole. As you go through the Keyhole you reach the other side of the ridge and enter a different world. You turn left and go through the Ledges.
There is no trail, but bullseyes (a yellow dot surrounded by a red circle) are spray painted on rocks showing the route to take. For those, like me, who have some fear of heights, this area produces some anxiety.
There is a pretty good drop below and the trail follows Southern Utah type slick-rock along the side of the ridge, at first gaining elevation, then dropping elevation. At times the route is hard to find. Then comes the Trough (below, from the Ledges, looking down into the Trough),
which you reach at about 13,300 feet. My first view up the Trough was mind numbing.
It is a steep gully full of rocks that looks nearly straight up and like it goes on forever. There were many people in the Trough when we entered and those near the top looked like ants.
There were sections where the rock was kind of loose, areas of snow that I tried to avoid, particularly closer to the top, and some sections that were rock climbing. Near the top there was about 30 feet of climbing up some relatively tough rock to enter the next section.
The Trough was tough.
It was a step or two, several breaths, then a step or two.
I was relieved to get to the top, to the right side of the Trough, only to realize sheer terror as I took a view of the Narrows.
The Narrows is a very small ledge that trends down along the south side of Longs overlooking an abyss.
A fall from there and you are history. It was particularly tricky when people were going both directions and had to pass each other.
I felt much more comfortable on the way back than on the way up, and forgot about much of my height fright.
Particularly on the way up, I appreciated the inside track on those encounters. At the end of the Narrows, following some more relief, was a rock ledge that had to be cimbed.
After negotiating the rock ledge I nearly died when I viewed the Homestretch.
It looks nearly straight up and much of it consists of slick rock with little in the way of hand and footholds.
I like the description on the 14ers website which says "A bit of concentration is...required in this area to keep the difficulty at Class 3." There were basically two cracks that provided hand and footholds and a whole slew of people negotiating them.
On the way up I was watching people going down crab style, hands, feet and butts on the ground, and one muttering "I'm going to die, I'm going to die." An image of slipping and rolling and hurtling into the abyss came to my mind on more than one occasion. Again, the 14ers website says, "Care must be taken to avoid a slide down the smooth rock." The Homestretch has an elevation gain of about 300 feet. I had to force my mind into positive thoughts. I took my time going up, getting plenty of rest when necessary, trying to dissipate my nervous energy. I was extremely happy after reaching the top
and immediately began thinking about how awful it was going to be to go down it. Belying the incredible hike up, the top of Longs looked like a football field, flat and unspectacular.
But there were some amazing views. Dave, Sam and I
ate lunch and enjoyed the rest and were happy that Rick joined us shortly before we were ready to head back down. On the way down the Homestretch,
I felt like my experience rock climbing with Gregg and Dave Palmer helped alot. They always talked about going down slick rock, saying to stand up straight,
which get more pressure on your feet.
When you lean backwards, you destabalize your feet and make it easier to slip. I focused on that idea on the way down and actually did pretty well. There were only a few times when I nervously went into crab mode on steep slickrock and slid a short distance to some nice ledges that were able to provid solid footholds.
The way back across the Narrows was also much less taxing mentally. I focused on the trail and thoughts of falling were not on my mind. As we got to the bottom of the Trough the weather started to threaten rain and thunder. As we neared the Keyhole, it started to hail. The Boulder Field turned treacherous as the footing got real tenuous on the wet rock. I banged up my shins several times and Sam slipped and cut up his shins pretty good. Then it was a long, tired slog the rest of the way back. Kim had decided not to attempt the summit and another of Rick's friends, a pilot for a regional airline, also decided to hold back. Rick, Dave and Sam waited for me to catch up and we enjoyed Rick's company on the way down as we talked about his experiences living in Ukraine. I was very happy to have done Longs. I was very happy to have it over.
I decided that Longs was about as difficult as I ever want to go. The exposure was a real mental struggle for me. I have since heard from several sources that Longs is considered about the fifth most difficult fourteener in Colorado. That has given me some confidence. I remember very little about about the hike to and from the Boulder Field, and remember signficant details between the Boulder Field and the summit. Longs is referred to as a classic climb and the tag is deserved.


  1. That sounds like a crazy hike, glad you made it back alive. Has there ever been a hike where you just said that was enough?

  2. Yeah, the next year Dave proposed doing Maroon Bell, which is even more difficult. I looked at the description and said "no way." We did Sneffels and had a great time.

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  4. Ha! I just did Maroon Bell(s) with the traverse. Going over your hiking posts to find some old Whitney photos. Great, great memories!