Posted by: joshrduncan | August 10, 2012

2011-08-12 Longs Peak

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds, awake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes to make it reality.” T.E. Lawrence

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,255 feet
  • TRAILHEAD: Longs Peak
  • ROUTE: Keyhole Route
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 5,100 feet
  • ROUNDTRIP LENGTH: 15.0 miles
  • ROUNDTRIP TIME:  10 hours, 15 minutes
  • CLIMBING PARTNER(S):  Charlie, Paul, and Eric

Longs Peak is a beautiful mountain that truly embraces the essence of Colorado and the 14ers I have come to enjoy, love and respect.   The mountain controls the Front Range with its sheer presence.  As the northernmost 14er of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, it is also the highest peak of Rocky Mountain National Park and Boulder County.  It proximity to the Front Range and location within Rocky Mountain National Park makes it an incredibly popular summit, which makes it not only one of the most prevalent 14er’s but it is also one of the most popular summits in the United States.  I’ve dreamed of stading on the summit of Longs Peak since the start of my journey towards climbing all of the 14ers in Colorado.

Long before hiking the mountain, Longs Peak had my respect. Longs Peak is not only popular to hike, it is a majestic, formidable mountain photographed. The photographs impressed me by revealing a beautiful, difficult mountain.  Then, conversations with fellow hikers provided firsthand experience of its complexity and attraction.  I also read stories on about the rescues and sad consequences that have occurred which made Longs Peak not just beautiful, but intimidating.  I knew the Class III designation and length of Longs Peak deserved respect.

I think Gerry Roach in his book Colorado Fourteeners – From Hikes to Climbs summed it up well:

Longs enraptures all but the most heartless soul.  Somehow, Long’s popularity makes people feel safer, but the opposite is the case. Many people believe the greatest climbing hazard today is being below other people.  Any route on Longs is a serious undertaking”

Although I wanted to climb Longs Peak in my first season of hiking (2009), I wanted to make sure I had gained experience, which included other less popular Class III and intro Class IV climbs.  This path was a little different than some as Longs Peak is the first 14er for many and most of them did not thoroughly understand what they were getting themselves into. In my opinion, Longs Peak’s popularity can result in a lack of respect for how difficult it really is.  You would be surprised that many people climb Longs Peak as their first summit and typically when they tell one about their first climb, it is conveyed with a deep breath and sigh as though they were lucky to survive.   I knew Longs Peak wasn’t going to be my first climb or even my twentieth climb; I wanted some experience first.

Going into this season, Longs Peak was on the top of my list for climbs.  I felt I acquired the experience that not only made me feel comfortable to deal with the terrain but to deal with what would likely be hundreds of people making the terrain even more treacherous.

This mountain required more advanced planning than any other peak I have completed to date.  I wanted to climb Longs Peak with my good buddy Eric from California.  We hadn’t climbed a 14er together and I wanted to share a summit with him because he is one of my closest friends.  We had talked about the climb the summer before and he wanted to make a trip to Colorado to join me.  There was one caveat, Charlie had to come.  I hate being the third wheel!  Just kidding of course. Eric and Charlie attempted Longs Peak almost ten years earlier when all of us were attending Colorado State University.  After a very early morning start and cold journey to the Keyhole, they were turned around due to snow, sleet and adverse conditions beyond the Keyhole.  Eric didn’t feel right climbing Longs without Charlie as they had unfinished business.  I have been blessed to climb several peaks with Charlie.  In fact, Charlie has been the climbing partner whom I have shared the most peaks with.   Charlie was in.  Furthermore, we wanted our friend Paul to be a part of our adventure.  I unfortunately didn’t hike any peaks with Paul the previous summer and I wanted to get back up on one with him.  It had been too long.

Our plan was to leave Denver on Thursday at noon and head up to climb the mountain on Friday.  We planned for a Friday climb to hopefully avoid some of the weekend traffic that Longs Peak is notorious for.  We also knew that the Boulder Field was unavailable after calling up to the ranger station, so we were hopeful to camp in Goblins Forest; which is a mile up the standard route.  It wasn’t far into the 7.5 mile hike, but at least it would shorten the hike a little bit and would allow us to back pack and camp away from the majority of civilization.  Camping at Goblins Forest is on a first come, first serve basis and one cannot reserve a spot over the phone; you can only acquire the camping permit from the Ranger Station. Although we left Denver a little later than anticipated, we were hopeful to still get a permit and not have to deviate from our plan of camping.

We made good time to the Ranger Station, which was located at the main entry into Rocky Mountain National Park.  At the Ranger Station, the rangers strongly communicated precaution, being prepared, and the risk of climbing Longs Peak.  A young kid, who was probably 16 or 17, was standing next to me and considering climbing Longs Peak.  He explained that he had hiked Pikes Peak the day before and then as he listened, the Ranger instilled a deep fear into him.  The Ranger bluntly stated things like “This is not Pikes Peak.  This is the most difficult 14er.  This is the most difficult 14er you will climb”.  Now, this kid did not appear prepared and I knew this was not Pikes Peak but “the most difficult 14er” is an exaggeration in my opinion.  However, his boldness worked to keep the young kid off the mountain. We saw him at the trailhead the following afternoon once we had descended.

With a permit in hand, our plan was now in action.  From the East Longs Peak Trailhead Parking Lot we were going to hike the standard route up Longs Peak.  The standard route is approximately 15.0 miles roundtrip, requires approximately 5,100 feet of vertical elevation gain, and overcoming some fun and exciting Class III climbing.  We would hike in 1.0 miles to Goblin’s Forest and camp.  From there, we would venture the remaining 6.5 miles through the Boulder Field, the Keyhole, the Ledges, the Trough, The Narrows and the Homestretch to the summit of Longs Peak on the following morning.  We planned for an early start at 3:00 am in order to be up and off of the summit early.  Longs Peak is slow moving after the Keyhole and notorious for adverse weather so an early summit arrival is critical.

We arrived at the East Longs Peak Trailhead Parking Lot at approximately 5:30 pm, mobilized and began our hike in at 5:50.  It didn’t take too long to reach Goblins Forest.  We set up camp at the first spot we saw.  We later discovered from a fellow hiker that it wasn’t an actual designated site, which was deceiving because it had bare ground as though others had camped there previously, trees designating a camping area and was the ideal camping location.  Through much deliberation we decided not to break down camp and move to a designated location.  I should publically note that Paul did not concur with our decision and would not take any responsibility in the consequences.  Since we were waking up at 2:00 am, we just decided to stay here and break down camp before we left.

We went to bed early in anticipation of the early rise.  To be honest, I had a miserable night of sleep; one of the worst nights of sleep that I can remember.  I sometimes cannot let my mind be at peace in order to get a restful night.  I struggled letting my mind relax.  I recalled that I forgot to send the maid of honor an email as part of Courtney’s bridal shower.  The frustration of not following through and letting people down bothered me.  To add to a restless sleep, after about 1 a.m. I could hear hiking parties already making their way up the trail.

Arising to a new day at 2 am, I felt tired but ready to begin our journey.  We quickly broke down camp, stored our backpacks in the woods, and began hiking at 2:50 am.  This was the earliest I have started hiking.  A full moon lit the path and we set a good pace from the start. I lead the way because my headlamp was so bright that it created a shadow for the people in front of me causing their headlamps to be useless.

After passing a couple groups, we ascended above treeline.  The view of the Front Range, completely lite up, was incredible.  I have only seen a similar view from an airplane and this one destroyed that. Hiking in the dark limited my perspective so photography was not a priority. I had my camera in my backpack and didn’t take it out.  However, I regret that now.  There are three shots I really feel I missed out on; the city lights, the multiple headlamps working their way up the mountain, and the beautiful full moon setting behind Longs Peak.  In the past, I have rarely not stopped to take a picture; I guess my lack of sleep was clouding my mind.

We were moving and pushed ourselves well ahead of several groups to where there wasn’t anybody in front of us that we could see.  We the made a wrong turn at the junction with Chasm Lake.  Luckily I recalled the topographic map in my mind and recalled that Mt. Lady Washington should be on our hikers left but as of now it was on our right. We decided to stop and verify.   The inclination was right and the wrong turn ended only as a minor setback.  When we got back to the junction we found a sign that pointed us in the right direction.

Back on the right trail, we were headed up Granite Pass.  At this point, the wind became much more noticeable but we just kept marching along.  On top of Granite Pass it was incredible looking back down and seeing so many lights under the dark sky now that the moon had set to the west of Longs Peak.  From Granite Pass, we hiked the remaining 1.7 miles to the Boulder Field.

The Boulder Field is so aptly named as it consists of just large boulders.  The Boulder Field is just big.  I found myself thankful that we didn’t backpack into here the afternoon before.  It would have been a long hike.  Hikers who had camped in the Boulder Field were beginning there ascent to the Keyhole as well.

From the Boulder Field, each segment of this hike is identified due to Longs Peak’s popularity.  The Boulder Field leads to the Keyhole, then the Ledges, the Trough, the Narrows, and finally to the Homestretch.

The Keyhole is a fascinating icon and a signature point on Longs Peak.  This is what I consider to be the critical location on the route to Longs Peak.  From here, one is approximately one mile from the summit.  The thrill of being so close to the summit is alive and flourishing in most.  However, from the Keyhole the hike changes to a climb and the risk increases significantly.  This is where one truly needs to assess all of the external and internal factors of the climb and decide whether or not to proceed.  One should specifically evaluate the weather.  Although your only approximately one mile away, it is a slow, tedious ascent where exposure and difficulty would only increase with adverse weather.  One also needs to assess their own personal physical and mental well-being.

The wind really started to pick up as we ascended the Boulder Field towards the Keyhole.  The Keyhole became a horrendous wind tunnel.  As the sun had not risen yet, we decided to seek comfort from the horrible wind in the shelter until sunrise.  As we approached the shelter, we were greeted by approximately 15 other climbers having the same idea.  As one climber exited the shelter, one entered until the four of us were all in the shelter.  After about 10 minutes in the shelter and the beginning of sunrise, Paul stated that we needed to continue moving in order to keep his knee loose.  We decided to proceed through the Keyhole and see how it was on the other side. I had my doubts and figured it was only about to get worse.

Leaving the comfort of the shelter into the horrendous wind was necessary but miserable.  It was brutal fighting the wind as we made the final push to the Keyhole.  The wind only further accelerated as we entered the Keyhole and I literally was holding on to the mountain to not be blown down.  I promise that I am not exaggerating that the wind was capable of knocking one over within the Keyhole.  Then, to the amazement of us all, the wind practically ceased once we were through the Keyhole and the suction funnel that was created adjacent to it.   I had figured the wind may keep us from the summit, but the wind basically ceased to a calm, blissful breeze.  It was truly fascinating; as we entered the difficult part of the climb, a peace from Mother Nature was bestowed upon us.

Once through the Keyhole, we were now on The Ledges and the remainder of the route to the summit is marked by yellow and red bulls-eye’s.  The Ledges provided some descent exposure and was a traverse hike in order to acquire the Trough.  The hike along the Ledges was manageable but there was one move with some descent exposure.  There was some pieces of rebar that were installed into the rocks to aid in overcoming the move; however, the rebar was very smooth so caution was important.  I believe these two pieces of smoothed rebar is where a climber feel to his death last year.  Recalling that made me be even a little more cautious.

We soon approached the Trough.  The Trough is a large gully that ascends southeast toward the summit of Longs Peak.  Prior to beginning our ascent, we stopped for a quick break and to refuel.  At this point, I felt a little fatigued and had absolutely no appetite.  In hindsight, I should have paid closer attention to my condition because it was the early signs of altitude sickness (hindsight is always 20/20).

Our ascent up the Trough began at an approximate elevation of 13,300 feet.  This is where the majority of our remaining elevation gain occurs with approximately 600 feet of climbing required to ascend the Narrows.  In my opinion, this material was steep and somewhat loose.  I have definitely experienced much looser material; however, the sheer number of people and the narrow corridor required me to constantly watch above while making sure not to dislodge a rock and send it below.  Towards the top of the Trough was a headwall that required a final 30-40 foot climb to acquire the exit.  This was the most difficult climbing section of the Trough and was fun.

Next came The Narrows.  Immediately, one understands why it is called The Narrows; it is only a small ledge with plenty of exposure.  This section required concentration and patience but again was manageable.  I found myself starting to operate at a much slower pace than usual and it was frustrating to be lagging behind some of my partners.

We finally reached The Homestretch.  This is the final segment in order to achieve the summit.  It is the final push.  In my mind it is liking rounding third base and heading home.  The Homestretch requires a climb of about 300 vertical feet.  The route is relatively straightforward but caution must be maintained in order to avoid sliding down the smooth rock.  Generally speaking, The Homestretch appears worse than it actually is; however, I do enjoy the fact that the pictures make it look like a very difficult pitch.

Bliss…we arrived on the summit of Longs Peak at approximately 7:20 am.  It was great to set foot on top of this mountain overlooking the Front Range.  This was also my 39th peak.  I was satisfied.

I of course completed my usual routine of saluting Fat Tire.  I also obtained the classic panoramic shot and summit shot.  This summit is huge too.  You could serious play a football game on the summit; you just have to avoid some of the car size boulders.

After resting for a little bit on the summit, I realized I was not feeling good.  I was not feeling remotely close to 100%; even 50% for that matter.  I now recognized that I had the signs of altitude sickness.  My head was pounding.  I felt fatigued.  I was sweating with the chills.  My muscles and body ached.  I felt like throwing up.  I needed to get down off the summit.

We began our descent at approximately 8:10 am.  I moved incredibly slow. I felt like I needed to take a break every 50 feet.   I felt vulnerable.  To be fully transparent and somewhat gross, I was gagging a lot.  A part of me was hoping to throw up just to stop it; unfortunately, I couldn’t.

My climbing partners were great through this.  They were patient and encouraging.  They were helpful.  They actually took my bag and camera to lighten my load down the mountain.  With my camera in their hands, they did try to seek a picture of me getting sick but I was lucky enough to avoid that shot.  However, they did capture this picture of me.  Although it is a little out of focus, I look back on it and laugh because I look like crap and miserable.

Despite being slow and feeling miserable, I made it back to the Boulder Field safely at approximately 10:00 am.  As I descended, I slowly began to feel better.  The best cure for altitude sickness is lots of water and less altitude.

The remainder of the descent was fairly typical.  It was a little slower than usual due to my condition but we made it back to our camp site around 12:30 pm and then back to the trailhead around 1:15 pm.

I arrived back to the trailhead realizing I had fulfilled my dream of climbing Longs Peak.  What I realized thought is that my dream (and yes, I did vividly dream) of climbing Longs Peak was truly different than my actual experience.  The real experience, although not what I had envisioned, was so much better.

A few things that I take away from Longs Peak:

  • Altitude sickness is miserable.  I had never experienced altitude sickness in all of the mountains I have climbed until I challenged Longs Peak.  It was truly miserable and took away from experiencing that mountain to the fullest.  In fact, despite how beautiful and interesting Longs Peak is, I took the fewest number of photographs that I have ever taken on climb; 168 photographs.   To put it into perspective, I took 290 photographs on Mt. Sherman, which is a fairly simple mountain both in difficulty and appearance.   I believe my altitude sickness was attributable to stress leading into the climb, fatigue and dehydration.  This is something I will attempt to avoid in the future and I also hope to climb Longs Peak again soon to truly enjoy one of the most spectacular mountains in Colorado.
  • Longs Peak lives up to the hype.  It is a difficult mountain that truly does deserve respect.  I agree with the experts that Longs Peak is deceivingly difficult and not revered for its danger.  I am grateful that I obtained experience on easier and other difficult mountains before attempting it.  I felt prepared and confident on Longs Peak.
  • My friends are amazing.  I love my friends.  I truly have some of the best friends a person could hope for.  I love our trips to the mountains guys.  I enjoy our laughs and humor.  I cherish our memories.  I appreciate that you are willing to help a brother in need.  I am truly blessed.  Thank you for not only journeying through the mountains with me but journeying through life.

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