Longs Peak (Colorado)

11-Oct-99

By: Bill Oliver


Colorado is God's country. Well, OK, Colorado and Utah are God's country. Utah has lots of slick rock and Colorado has lots of slick 14ers.

I came to Denver Saturday, 9 October, for a Sierra Club meeting - the Outdoor Activities Governance Committee. [I chair a subcommittee that has oversight over all Club outings that involve the use of climbing ropes and/or ice axes.] We actually met in nearby Golden, the home of both Coors and the American Mountaineering Center. The latter facility is the joint headquarters of the American Alpine Club and the Colorado Mountain Club, and we met in it. Our meeting went very well. End of that story.

Now, time to get serious and head NW two+ hours up to Rocky Mountain National Park. From anywhere near Denver, Longs Peak easily dominates the Front Range skyline. At 14,255 feet, it is the most northern l4er in the state and one of the most solitary among the 54. Named for Maj. Stephen Long, who in 1820 led the first "official" exploratory expedition to the area, it was not topped by non-natives until 1868. [It had previously been "unclimbable."] The gnarly inaugural ascent party was led by Maj. John Wesley Powell, the same one-armed dude who the following year made the gnarly inaugural descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Longs Peak is now one of the most climbed 14ers in Colorado. At upwards of 10,000 ascents a year, it must also rank as about the most crowded during the summer season! Among the easier l4ers, however, it is certainly not. The last mile on the "classic" Keyhole Route, the easiest path to the summit plateau, provides sustained, often exposed, 3rd class rock in mid-to-late summer. The rest of the year it is "technical" due to snow and ice. Then we have the old Cables Route on the north face - two pitches, 5.4; Kiener's Route, the easiest on the east face - multi-pitch, 5.4; and a plethora of other high end lines up Longs enormous nearvertical east face. The latter also encompasses the infamous, sheer, blank Diamond wall, first climbed in 1960 when the Park finally granted permission. I would be content with the mere goal of summitting!

September must be the most popular month to climb Longs, as the mid-summer threat of afternoon thunderstorms drops from something like over 75% to under 25%. Climbing in July and August thus requires about a 3 AM start to ensure that one is well on the way down when the thunder first barks. The Keyhole Route had officially gone "technical" a couple of weeks ahead of my arrival - after the Rockies' first heavy dusting of snow. Not much of this blanketing remained on the sun-facing slopes, but there was significant snow and some scattered ice in the shady upper reaches of the peak. Summer was somehow still hanging in there, however, as it was currently shorts and T-shirt weather throughout the state under near cloudless skies. Let us not dally.

A short walk from the East Longs Trailhead (9400'), the Longs Peak Campground (first-come, first served, $10) was now nearly deserted, and the piped water had already been turned off for the lurking winter. The ranger station was also closed. Less than 30 minutes away, however, the tourist haven of Estes Park still managed to be stuck in gridlock for the weekend.

Monday, Columbus Day, a little past 0500 1 signed in at the trailhead register and set off amid very mild conditions under a moonless, greatly starred sky. I abruptly emerged above treeline (10,600') about 6:30, as the yet unseen sun quietly struggled to awaken in the east. This boundary also signaled my crossing into a somewhat windy day. I was now in the realm of the tenuous elfin timber and fragile alpine tundra. Before long, as I approached the Chasm Lake junction, the great Diamond wall loomed menacingly ahead of me. I was quite content to be on the Keyhole Route, even though it meant making a wide detour that eventually would almost circle the mountain CCW. Total distance one-way is 7.5+ miles.

Although Longs is most commonly climbed as a dayhike (no permit then needed), there are three designated (reservation-only) camping areas near water on the way to the Keyhole. None appeared to be currently in use, although two climbers were observed to be quietly bivied at the Chasm Lake junction. [Rock climbers are supposed to have a special permit to bivy!] By 8:45 1 was past Granite Pass and at the base of "The Boulder field." There are remnants of the old cabin and stables, superseded by quite a few rock-walled tent sites. This was supposed to be my last chance for running water. Luck was against me, however, as the small creek was already hopelessly frozen.

The so-called "Keyhole" was now clearly at hand (13,150'), a distinctive slot in the steep headwall ridge above the Boulderfield. The route to it across the latter is somewhat ducked, but you can largely play it by ear. Immediately below the left edge of the slot is the Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter. This octagonal stone hut (-I O-ft inside diameter) was completed in 1927 in memory of Ms. Vaille, who succumbed to exhaustion and hypothermia on descent after she and her partner achieved the first winter ascent of the east face. Unfortunately, according to Longs climbing ranger Jim Detterline, when the peak won Wilderness status in 1973, the man-made shelter had to go.

They successfully evaded this somewhat by simply removing its door, thereby changing the character of the structure from a building to just a memorial. So, it still functions as a summer storm shelter, but fills with snow in the winter. [The code having been broken here, please keep this under your hat!] The Park also had to remove the cables referenced above - making a then-common route revert to 5.4. "You win some and you lose some," per Jim. Undaunted, I took refuge in the empty "shelter" for half an hour at 9:20, snacking up, readying my crampons and caching some gear.

Stepping through the Keyhole is the defining moment of the climb. One crosses from the north face to the west face, from an easy slope in the Boulderfield to a daunting wall high above Glacier Gorge, from the realm of the hiker to that of the mountaineer. Any hope that the winds would diminish around the comer was quickly blown away. The route finding from the Keyhole to the summit is seriously "aided" by red and yellow bulls-eyes painted on the rocks. These were not pictographed by the Anasazi! Sometimes you can see two or three ahead, sometimes they're just a tad elusive. They are always comforting.

From the Keyhole, a long mostly snowfree traverse with several ups and downs landed me at the base of "The Trough" - the upper 550 ft of a prominent couloir that would be only moderate Y class without snow. A couple of climbers were now on their way back from the summit, without the use of ice ax, crampons or bottled oxygen. While clearly doable, this meant carefully traveling on the mostly snow-free left edge of the gully amid steeper rock. Partway up, experiencing intermittent ice, I finally unsheathed the ax and affixed my crampons. The convergent head of the gully is guarded by an implacable chockstone. This sentinel, however, can be outflanked on either side with one or two sermhard moves.

Turning another comer now, onto the upper south face, one next encounters "The Narrows" - thin ledges with the most sustained exposure on the route, but currently snow-free. YES! Again, more up and down traversing. Ah, but surely I could smell the summit now; all that remained was "The Homestretch." Good grief! Another shady gully, shorter and narrower than the Trough but with steeper rock and snow and some ice. Avoiding the latter two by the edges was doable but non-trivial. While climbing I placed my pick in the firm snow several times along here and was glad I had the ax.

Five minutes to noon, two hours from the hut, the summit is under my feet. 'YES! It is startlingly flat, somewhat smaller than a football field, and somehow wind-free under a warm and cloudless sky. The Colorado Mountain Club stows its registers in plastic pipes. The current book was getting close to full, and I was surprised to note that it had been placed less than five weeks earlier yet now held about 425 names. Most names, of course, were entered prior to the route going "technical." There were nine entries on Sunday, and there would be another 8 or 9 today. [CMC registers allow one line per name, including your hometown and optional comments I When full, they are sent to their archives in Golden.]

Summit views from this part of the state are certainly different than those from the Sierra Nevada. Any glance to the east yields a disturbingly flat horizon - at least as far as Minnesota. About a hundred miles to the south, Pikes Peak stands out as another solitary l4er. Both Longs and Pikes belong to the Front Range of the Rockies, well east of the Continental Divide.

Following a solitary 40-minute topside vigil, I turned around at 12:35 and reclaimed the Keyhole hut by 2:30. This arrival was delayed a little when I idly misplaced the bulls-eyes and went for a prominent "false" keyhole notch. The trailhead was regained just past 6:00, about a half-hour ahead of sunset. I probably could have completed the climb a couple of hours sooner without the current snow cover. Guides generally reconunend allowing 7-8 hours up and 5 down. Disappointingly, I failed to spot any elk, bighorn sheep or even marmots, contenting myself instead with assorted little rock conies/pikas.

While descending the Trough with ice ax and crampons, I was startled to meet a young man ascending in shorts and running shoes. So, was I more alarmed about his safety or about his view of my wimpy style? This gnarly dude from North Carolina later caught up with me back near the Keyhole. Having reflected more about the concerns I had shared with him, he turned around short of the Narrows. A free spirit on a youth's odyssey, he had plans for heading up to Wyoming then Mexico, and sometime later hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I commented that he sounded a little like Chris McCandless. He understood me and said that he intended not to make the mistakes of the young man who perished in the Alaskan wilderness. [Refer to "Into the Wild," by Jon Krakauer.]

So, how does Longs Peak compare to, say, Mt. Whitney? Hey, don't be that way - they're both great peaks and offer a variety of fun climbs. I'll only add my observation that the Keyhole Route, the easiest path to Longs' summit, is comparable to the Mountaineers' Route on Whitney. When in the Denver area, head for Longs. When in the Lone Pine area, don't miss Whitney. End of story.

Longs Peak Web Resources:

Official RMNP site: www.nj2s.gov/romo/

Unofficial RMNP site: estes.on-line.com/rmnp/

Colorado Rocky Mountains Trip Reports:' net.indra.com/~stevep/CRMTR/

Colorado's l4ers: www.mountainweb.com/ [formerly: www.14ers.com]

Hiking in Colorado: www.hikingincolorado.org


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