Standing boldly, the mountain dominates the sky at 14,259 feet. Its prominent size means that it attracts dangerous thunder- and hailstorms nearly every day in the summer. About half of all those who attempt to summit this monster fail to reach the top. On average, two climbers die in their attempt to summit this massive mountain each year.
Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, and perhaps the most infamous, fearsome and dreaded fourteener in Colorado. A popular goal for Colorado mountain climbers is to summit “fourteeners” (mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation). And Longs, despite its dangers, is the most well-known fourteener in Colorado.
In December 2014, this danger was proclaimed by Outside Magazine, which listed Longs as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.
For several months, I had felt some anxiety about summiting Longs. A friend down the street had told me he had run a marathon, but summiting Longs was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Would I be in good enough shape to do it?
Each time I hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs loomed menacingly on the horizon. Could I actually climb that angry beast? And what about all of the scary lore surrounding the mountain?
On Friday, July 26, 2013, I meet a group of adventurers at the crazy hour of 3 a.m. at the “Bustop,” a “gentleman’s club” located next to a major Boulder bus stop on North Broadway. We meet to take on the mountain, and like most climbers of Longs, our plan includes meeting at this early hour to reduce the likely chance of getting caught in a dangerous storm at the summit.
Our carpool reaches the Longs Peak ranger station and trailhead at the very early hour of 4 a.m. Already the parking lot is filled almost to capacity with climbers. “Are we starting too late?” I think to myself. Indeed, in 2014, an employee for Old Town Outfitters in Longmont CO recommended starting at 2 a.m. The weather forecast, which I had checked a number of times over the past few days, has gone from a 40-percent to a 50-percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Would they be early afternoon storms? Or late, after we have escaped the mountain?
My group starts heading up the mountain at 4:20 a.m. In front of us is 7.5 miles of rugged, sometimes treacherous trail. Our pace is torrid, as each of us is well aware of the importance of being off the storm-battered summit as early in the day as possible. Our anxiousness is heightened by the fact that NONE of us have ever summited Longs before, which I must admit seems troubling to me.
Ahead of us is an intimidating elevation gain of 5,100 feet. This will be the tallest mountain I have ever climbed. And surely the most physically demanding.
Each of us is wearing an LED headlamp, as this early hour makes the trail corridor leading into the pine forest utterly black.
By 5:30 a.m., we are above treeline (the trailhead is perched at just over 9,000 feet in elevation). We look back to see a gorgeous, bright orange sunrise coming up over mountains to our east. Our headlamps come off.
Soon we reach the trail junction that takes climbers either to Chasm Lake — which I had hiked to the foot of Longs last year. Or to Longs summit. We stop at the junction to use the “privy,” and to shoot photos in the morning sun, which is making Longs a glowing giant.
Here, we are quite close to the summit, and it seems that we can reach the peak in 15 minutes. But we know from our research that we are barely into the climb. That we have several hours of arduous work in front of us to reach the top. The trail to the well-known “Keyhole” (an extremely common gateway to the summit) takes one on a circuitous, back and forth route — much of which is over the large, challenging Boulder Field.
At a little after 6 a.m., we see the “Keyhole” on the horizon. Between us is the difficult Boulder Field. For years, I had thought that a large notch near the summit was the famous “Keyhole,” but today I learn otherwise.
A few nights before, my girlfriend Ann and I were providing a farewell dinner to a woman I had been good friends with in Upstate New York 40 years ago. She was the girl I had my first crush on, and we had coincidentally chosen to live in the same town (Boulder) many years later on the other side of the country.
Like others, we heard from her that when she summited Longs many years ago, a woman with her took one look over the ridgeline of the “Keyhole,” lost her nerve, and turned back, rather than try to negotiate a trail at the edge of a terrifying cliff hundreds of feet above a rock-filled valley.
Would I find the courage and press on after glimpsing over the “Keyhole” edge? Or would I fearfully turn around, like so many others have done?
“Hell,” I tell myself as we approach it. “If lots of others can find the gumption, so can I!”
We reach the “Keyhole.” Instead of terror, I feel exhilaration. Before us is a spectacular view of mountain ranges in the Rockies. And the trail on the west side leaving the “Keyhole” (known as the Ledges) looks much less narrow than I had been warned about previously.
It is here that we first spot the “bulls eye” red and yellow circles painted on several boulders along the trail. Descriptions I had read earlier led me to believe there was only one such trail marker, and it was in a boulder field near the summit. But we thankfully find a great many markers showing us the way. Without them, it was clear to me that I would make dangerous, mistaken guesses on to which direction to head in trying to find my way.
At the end of the Ledges, we reach a quite long, steep boulder field. I look up and decide the summit is surely reached just beyond this ascent. Near the top of this ascent, there is a quite steep little climb that one must negotiate. Like a number of other climbs we must overcome this day, the climb has few foot- or hand-holds. Somehow I manage to scramble up it. Once at the top, I learn that the Longs summit is NOT just ahead. Instead, we are at the gateway to the next trail section, which has the frightening name of “The Narrows.”
It is said that the final mile and a half to the summit is the most difficult part of the ascent. I soon learn why.
Instead of immediately starting on the Narrows, I must wait several minutes, as a long line of climbers are descending in the opposite direction from me, and the entrance to the Narrows is one-way in width. The group is moving exceptionally slowly, as the descent down the narrow, slick chute I had just ascended is a challenge for those going down this V-shaped passage.
Finally, the entrance is clear and I start on the aptly-named Narrows, which is quite tiny in width (only a few feet wide). And unlike the Ledges, this trail has a much more steep, almost cliff-like drop-off at its edge. It takes my breath away. “I’M GOING TO CLIMB ACROSS THAT????” Worried, I find myself deliberately leaning strongly toward the mountain to feel less like I’ll plummet to my doom down into the rocky valley hundreds of feet below.
Several times, I feel nausea. And vertigo. I think to myself about how dangerous it must be to be caught in a thunderstorm while traversing the Narrows. To top it off, I am gasping for air most of the way. Very little oxygen at the elevation we find ourselves at: well over 12,000 feet.
The Narrows turns out to be quite long. And extremely exposed (i.e., very little, if any, protection between the trail edge and the big drop-off). I had earlier convinced myself that this scary-sounding trail would be only 20 or 30 feet in length. But it actually turns out to be much, much longer than that (it seemed like well over a mile in distance to me). It is on the Narrows that one in our group of five tries repeatedly to climb a steep, slippery pitch, but is unable to do so. With deer-in-the-headlights eyes, she loses her nerve and hikes back to the keyhole. Five others could not find the courage either, as our original group of ten had narrowed to five at the trailhead.
Many of the smooth-faced boulders we climb are disconcertingly slick due to spring water issuing from the mountain. I find myself quite surprised by how treacherous some of the very tricky climbs are that I come upon during my assault. That’s me in the yellow rain jacket and Australian Barmah hat in the photo — a little worried about whether I can avoid slipping to my death.
Indeed, 20 days later, a 24-year old man plummeted 150 feet to his death during his traverse of the Narrows.
I had been ready for the tough physical exertion. But nothing could prepare me in advance for the Narrows.
Finally, I am at the end of the Narrows. Above me is about 300 feet of a very steep rock face (a section of the climb known as the “Homestretch”). But instead of feeling dread, I feel relieved. “Once I climb this, I will be at the top of Longs Peak!” I can already see the tiny figures of climbers looking down from the summit. A photo I shot of the Homestretch is to the left.
After almost an hour of hard climbing on the face of the Homestretch, I reach the goal. I am at the summit of Longs Peak — the Top of the World — at 10 a.m.! Slightly more than 5.5 hours after starting the climb.
The views at the summit are 360 degrees of fabulous mountain ranges.
But the danger is not over, as the descent from the summit along the Keyhole route is said to be the place where most injuries occur. I learn that on the descent on the Homestretch, the steep pitch dangerously coexists with a shocking amount of loose rock and gravel. For much of my descent here, I was surprised that me and other climbers were not starting large rockslides.
A minor hailstorm begins to rain down on us. I pick up my pace as it is not clear to me that minor will not transform itself into major…
We get back to the trailhead at 3 p.m.
An extremely physically demanding climb, and a number of surprisingly difficult sections that climbers must contend with. Incredible views.
An unforgettable experience.
Here is a description from Wikipedia:
Longs Peak is one of the 53 mountains with summits over 14,000 feet in Colorado. It can be prominently seen from Longmont, Colorado, as well as from the rest of the Colorado Front Range. It is named after Major Stephen Long, who explored the area in the 1820s. Longs Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in Colorado, rising 7,000 feet above the town of Estes Park, Colorado to the northeast, and 9,000 feet above the town of Lyons, Colorado to the east.
The first recorded ascent was in 1868 by the surveying party of John Wesley Powell. The East Face of the mountain is quite steep, and is surmounted by a gigantic sheer cliff known as “The Diamond” (so-named because of its shape, approximately that of a cut diamond seen from the side and inverted).
In 1954 the first proposal made to the National Park Service to climb The Diamond was met with an official closure, a stance not changed until 1960. The Diamond was first ascended by Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps that year, by a route that would come to be known simply as D1. This route would later be listed in Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s influential book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
Longs Peak has one glacier named Mills Glacier. The glacier is located around 12,800 feet at the base of the Eastern Face, just above Chasm Lake. Another permanent snowfield, called The Dove, is located north of Longs Peak. Longs Peak is one of fewer than 50 mountains in Colorado that have a glacier.
Trails that ascend Longs Peak include the East Longs Peak Trail, the Longs Peak Trail, the Keyhole Route, Clark’s Arrow and the Shelf Trail. Most days, no technical climbing is required to reach the summit of Longs Peak during the summer season, which typically runs from mid July through early September. Outside of this window the popular “Keyhole” route is still open, however its rating is upgraded to “technical” as treacherous ice formation and snow fall necessitates the use of specialized climbing equipment including, at a minimum, crampons and an ice axe.
It is one of the most difficult Class 3 fourteener scrambles in Colorado. The climb from the trailhead to the summit is 8 miles each way. Most climbers begin before dawn in order to reach the summit and return below the tree line before frequent afternoon thunderstorms bring a risk of lightning strikes. The most difficult portion of the climb begins at the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles into the climb. After scrambling over the boulders, climbers reach the Keyhole at 6.7 miles.
The following quarter of a mile involves a scramble along narrow ledges, many of which may have nearly sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet or more just off the edge. The next portion of the climb includes climbing over 600 vertical feet up the Trough before reaching the most exposed section of the climb, the Narrows. Just beyond the Narrows, the Notch signifies the beginning of the Homestretch, a steep climb to the football field-sized, flat summit. It is possible to camp out overnight in the Boulder Field (permit required) which makes for a less arduous two day climb, although this is fairly exposed to the elements. 57 people have died climbing or hiking Longs Peak. According to the National Park Service, 2 people, on average, die every year attempting to climb the mountain. In the summer of 2005 a Japanese climber was blown off a ledge after reaching the summit. On September 3, 2006 a man fell 800 feet to his death when some rocks let go while he was descending the Loft route. Less experienced mountaineers are encouraged to use a guide for this summit to mitigate risk and increase the probability of a summit.
Here are the photos I shot during the ascent. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left: