Away from the Grind

Longs Peak

by Roger Ludwig

We climbed Longs Peak, Bob and I, late last summer. All week after the climb I felt something, something beyond the tight calves that hobbled my first steps each morning. Something deeper that lay beneath all the week’s normal activities. It wasn’t pride. It was just the knowledge that I had done something. It was solid, like real earth beneath one’s feet. 

Maybe that’s why so many are scaling fourteener’s, those 54 Colorado peaks higher than 14,000 feet. It’s for that feeling of simple accomplishment, a hard thing done. 

In all my mountain wandering I had only climbed one before, Pikes Peak, just above Colorado Springs. Pikes is just one long uphill walk, first through the trees, then on a rocky trail. No real climbing. It summits to a parking lot and a breathy stagger into a cheap cafeteria, green fluorescent lighting, noisy tourists and snotty kids. Surreal is an understatement. My son, Ryan and I, rather than walking down stood in the parking lot begging for rides. A couple of guys gave us a lift down. I think it ruined me for fourteener’s.

But Longs Peak is the real thing. About seven and a half miles up, a gain of nearly a vertical mile in elevation (5,100 feet to be exact), then seven and a half miles down. The top mile and a half are real climbing, lots of hands (but no ropes when it’s free of snow and ice) required.

And it is Longs Peak, that front-range sentinel standing with its slightly smaller twin, Mount Meeker, visible from all around, even from Cheyenne. On our southwest horizon it’s the second mountain from the left. It had been on my check-off of things that I just needed to do. It’s on many people’s bucket list. So, what’s keeping you?

Of outdoorsy things to do climbing a fourteen’er is different. It’s not so much about the scenery, which is amazing, but more like a view from an airplane than a mountain walk. 

And it’s a social event, not a private one. You are with people in front of you and behind, passing others and being passed, chatting, visiting, joking. It’s not bad. Just different. Bob and I did things we wouldn’t have done on our own. After all, all these people around us are doing them. So we figured we could too. And we did. And in a tight place or two it was helpful to have someone from above or below tell us to reach for that hold, or to step on that rock there.

It really is about testing one’s mettle against the measure of one mountain. It’s about physical endurance and carefully coordinated movement. It’s about mental control in the face of shear vertical drops, physical exhaustion and not enough air and little sleep. It’s about doing things you never have done before, exceeding what you thought were limits. And that is what gives that feeling of “I did something.” Everyone agrees on that. Climbing Longs Peak is something.

How it is done.

There are two ways to do it. Most people by far opt for the “fast and light.” Start early—around 3:00 in the morning–on the trail with a headlamp—summit around 8:00 or 9:00. And walk down, all in one go. It takes around ten to fourteen hours. The early start is needed to avoid being above tree line when early afternoon lighting storms move in.

The other way is to start the day before you plan to summit, backpack a tent and sleeping bag up six miles to a high camp called “The Boulderfield” at 12,760 feet. Then get up at first light, leave the gear, make the climb, pick up your camp on the way down and hike out.

Of course it’s a pleasure not to have to get up so early and hike in the dark. But carrying the pack down after all that work is something else. Who knows which is easier? There is no easier.

I do hate to get up early. So we opted for option two. I imagined a good night’s sleep. But really, who gets a good night’s sleep the first night of camping? In an exposed field of big rocks with wind gusts tearing at your tent? Not me. 

And the ranger told us the possibility of altitude sickness is greater sleeping at altitude, spending all that time up there. I don’t know if it was his power of suggestion or the real thing but I developed a piercing headache and some mild nausea during the middle of the night. It took a prescription pain killer to knock it back.

Next time, if there is one, I go for “fast and light.” But camping did give us the whole Longs Peak experience, so no regrets.

The Climb

The most traveled is The Keyhole route. In fact, according to the Park Service, it is estimated that 34,000 people made the attempt during July-August, 2013, an average of 550 people per day! Here is my simple summary.

The trail begins in a pine forest, crossing and re-crossing Alpine Brook. The trees get shorter and shorter until the trail winds out onto the tundra. At the turn to Chasm Lake there is a privy. While Chasm Lake is stunning few want to spend any extra exertion for the side trip. The trail continues up to Granite Pass, opening views into the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. At Granite Pass the route takes a left, switchbacking up to the Boulderfield.

The Boulderfield is just that, a huge flat slope of boulders. The trail gets fainter and then abruptly ends at the campsite and privies. Then it is a boulder-hop to the obvious Keyhole on the ridge. There are cairns marking a route but many just find their own way. It gets steeper and steeper as the Keyhole approaches. The real climb begins just below it. 

At the Keyhole is a small shelter perched on the rock like an igloo. It was built in honor of Agnes Vaille, the first woman to make a successful winter ascent of the east face, and the man who died in an attempt to rescue her after she fell on the descent, Herbert Sortland.

Going through the Keyhole is like walking through a window. The world of Glacier Gorge opens below in a breathtaking sweep. And you are out on the ledge, facing the next phase of the climb, appropriately called “The Ledges.” While The Ledges are not terribly narrow the exposure is great and some decide that the Keyhole is enough for them. All are respected. Knowing when to stop to climb another day is honored wisdom.

The Ledges begin with a left turn through The Keyhole. From here to the summit the route is marked with “bulls-eyes,” painted yellow circles rimmed with a red band, (think of the “C” in the Colorado state flag). Traverse The Ledges, 0.4 of a mile along the broken rim of some steep granite slabs. You gain some altitude and lose some as well. Then comes The Trough.

The Trough is just that, a steep, rocky avalanche chute, snow-free only after mid-July. Climbing up, switch-backing right and left over dirt and rock, this section has plenty of hands on, thigh burning exertion. Many climbers like to wear a helmet to protect themselves from rocks that may be broken loose by other climbers above. 

At the top of The Trough is the most difficult section of the route-The Crux- a narrow vertical passage that requires precise, planned moves. Traffic typically backs up here and others may help you find the way.

Now you are on The Narrows. It begins as a three-foot wide ledge with a wall on one side and a wild drop on the other. A hand on the wall is a comfort in the narrowest section. It expands and ascends to the The Homestretch.

In photos The Homestretch looks impossibly steep. These tilted slabs of rock, cut by narrow vertical cracks, reaching higher and higher to the sky, can be climbed quite easily with feet stepping into the fissures and hands on the slabs.

The summit is a sloping rock field, a couple of acres worth, with the high point an obvious boulder. Go ahead and stand on it and have someone snap the obligatory picture. You have done something. Rest, take in the views from the different sides, looking into familiar places from this new angle, Chasm Lake, or Glacier Gorge or the Wild Basin. 

Before you stretches the climb down and the long loping downhill walk. For the last few miles thoughts go inevitably to “do I ever want to do this again?” Too weary for much of a celebration, almost too weary to eat, most do manage a broad smile at the vehicle. And then there is tomorrow’s understated comment in the break room where you will casually mention what you did over the weekend. By that evening you will be planning your trip up the next 14’er.

If you go….

Even though Longs Peak is in Rocky Mountain National Park no entry fees are required. The trailhead is off CO 7 a few miles south of Estes Park. 

For those going for “fast and light” plan on a start time at the trailhead at 3:00 am or earlier. Parking at the trailhead is scarce and cars will be parked all along the Longs Peak road. 

The non-technical season, generally free of ice and snow, is from mid-July until the first snow in September. Essential information and updated condition reports are found at: http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/longspeak.htm.

There is a campground at the trailhead with 26 tent-only sites, first come, first served. The cost is $20 per night. If full when you arrive, try the Forest Service Meeker Park Overflow campground two miles further south on CO 7. It is also first come, first served, but has no water. Sites are $11.

If you wish to backpack to the Boulderfield campsite, or camp at either of the other two along the way, Goblins Forest (only 1.2 miles in) or Battle Mountain (a group site 2.8 miles in), permits are required and reservations, especially for the Boulderfield are usually necessary. For forms and information go to: http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm. 

Reservations are free, permit fees are $20. Your permits must be picked up at the trailhead Backcountry Office by 10:00 am of the day you hike in or they will be given to someone else. Bear-resistant canisters for food storage are required for backcountry campers. They can be rented by the day at sporting goods stores in Estes Park.

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