Dan mentioned briefly about Longs Peak in a previous post, but he wanted me to tell the story.
Longs Peak is the only 14er in Rocky National Park, and the rangers there do not like you calling it a hike, it’s a climb. Ranger Bob filled us in on the details, 15 mile round trip the first 6 miles is actually more of hike to what they call the boulder field. We could’ve hiked there then camped out and summited the next day, but that sounded like too much work and the boulder field sounded quite exposed so we opted for the 1 day event.
So Ranger Bob carried on and told to make sure we time ourselves to the boulder field and however long it took us to get there it would take approximately that long again to summit. What?!?! It’s only 1.5 miles to the summit from the boulder field, but Ranger Bob explained that this where the climb began. First we’d climb up the boulder field to the ‘iconic keyhole’, next we’d go along ‘the ledges’, up ‘the trough’, along ‘the narrows’, and finally up ‘the homestretch’ to the summit. Okay sounds good…..
morning middle of the night we set off at 2:15am, with a camping neighbour, Dave from Ohio, our headlamps set we hit the trail, the temperature quite pleasant. It was a pretty gradual climb, we chatted between pants and cheered when we crossed the alpine bridge which signified the tree line. We wouldn’t know it was pitch black out still. Eventually we could tell we were gaining height as we could see Boulder all lit up in the distance. We made it to the boulder field just as the sky was getting light, it took us three hours, I shuddered at the thought that the next 1.5 miles would take us about 3 hours.
We decided to press on up the boulder field and take a break before the keyhole where there was a little hut that a ranger long ago built, but my body decided to not co-operate. Half way up the boulder field I started retching and got very woozy. I finally told Dan I needed to stop, Dave went ahead and we sat on a boulder with me trying to eat and not vomit at the same time watching another beautiful sunrise. I really seem to struggle with the altitude above 11000 ft, we were both surprised that I still wasn’t acclimated.
Rested, fed and watered we pressed on. Just as we were about to go through the keyhole Dan stopped me and warned me that it was going to be very windy, like 60 mph/hr windy, he reminded me to have 3 points of contact always. Ok got it, I’m going over.
I can’t breathe and I can’t see as water pours from my eyes, I almost retreat to tell Dan there is nothing there and we should just go back, but then I see Dave waving at my from the left up on a rock shelf, shoot I have to go on. But seriously as you first go through the keyhole it really feels like there is nothing below you because there isn’t much. The wind was incredible, my eyes wouldn’t stop watering, I slithered over to Dave and there we waited for Dan. Looking along ‘the ledges’ things didn’t seem too bad but moving along them was another story, it was cold and windy and not very wide, there was some climbing up and some sliding down while trying to spot the next bulls eye marker reminding us that we were on the right track.
We then reached ‘the trough’ which is really just a loose rock and scree gully, straight up. So we climbed, I just focused on getting to the next bulls eye, it took us 45 minutes to get up that gully. Dave had found his groove and was probably already at the top. Next you go through another little keyhole with the same effect of feeling like nothing was below you and you are now standing on ‘the narrows’. Cue panic attack, I made the mistake of looking down, I’m not really bad with heights, I’m mostly bad with falling to my death. Poor Dan came around the corner to find me crying, leaning back against the granite wall as much I as I could. I managed to calm myself down and side step along, but the progress was slow and I was getting hypothermic by the minute. Dan took the lead now to help me find the best line and eventually we found ourselves staring up at ‘the homestretch’.
This was basically straight granite slabs, that you climb up (I seemed to be the only one concerned with going down). That part wasn’t so bad as you could lean forward into the rock, it was still slow and tiring and I still wasn’t getting any warmer. But then suddenly we were climbing over the edge to the summit!
It was freezing, the top of Longs Peak is flat and the size of two football fields (American Football) it is a great place for icy cold winds to whip. We wandered around the top briefly and took a few pictures, then I found two rocks to wedge myself between and eat another sandwich as even though I was cold, I was freaking hungry too. Needless to say no one was hanging around the summit very long so we headed back down.
The homestretch I just bummed slid the whole way, people coming up kind of looked at me strange but it was what I felt comfortable doing, then back along the narrows, much calmer this time because I knew what to expect, then the trough. This is where I thought I was going die. The first couple of boulders down are quite big, much easier when you are climbing up going down I couldn’t find a foot hold and then my hand started to slip I started to freak out and cry.* Dan was right there assuring me that I could let go and I wouldn’t fall but when you can’t see the ground and can only see 1000 ft down a gully it’s hard to believe. I trusted Dan and landed safely, hooray I get to live another day!
The rest of the climb down was uneventful but exhausting. By the time we reached the boulder field my legs were shaking. Once safely through the boulder field we stopped to eat again.**
Now we just had a 6 mile hike ahead of us, since we did it in the dark on the way up we were looking forward to the scenery, but sadly it was actually kind of boring and plain. Longs Peak is the only 14er in the area and all the other mountains are behind it so essentially we were walking away from the pretty bit.
Eleven hours later we returned to our campsite exhausted but happy and proud that we had accomplished Longs Peak. That evening we shared some beers with Dave from Ohio and stayed up into the wee hours trading hiking stories….just kidding after 2 beers I was asleep by 8pm.
*Most people have a “fight or flight” response to adrenaline. I have a “stand there and cry response”
**14ers are hard work.