Climbing Longs Peak
Sep 08, 2017
Back in January, I wrote a blog post about my experience trying to climb Longs Peak last year and spending a night camped in the Boulderfield high on the mountain. While vicious winds made that attempt unsuccessful, I did come away with a brilliant sunrise photo from our camp. I've had a history of failing to reach the summit with this mountain over the years, so I looked forward to another attempt this year and hoping to finally knock it off my list. I finally zeroed on on this past Sunday, September 3, as the day I would return to the mountain. The route conditions were clear, the weather forecast was perfect, and if I waited any longer I would probably miss the layman's climbing window for the season.
A 12:15 AM alarm is never something you look forward to, but I wanted to be to the trailhead at 2 AM and the hour drive up from home meant that's what it had to be. I pulled in to the parking area right at 2, and as is typical for this time of year it was already full of people setting out with the same goal of reaching the summit. Climbing Longs in the summer is always an experience you share with many others, it's estimated that around 10,000 people summit the mountain each year. Most of those do it in the few weeks in late summer when the route is free of snow. Even the hiking trail portion of the climb has the ability to burn you out, so I tried to take it easy as I made my way through the forest that covers the first two miles or so of the route. Once you climb out of the trees in the still dark hours of the morning, you can see the headlights of those ahead of you making their way up the trail, and eventually a look back will show you a line of lights following you up the mountain as well. It's kind of a surreal experience. After a snack break at the junction to the Chasm Lake Trail, I continued on up towards Granite Pass. Here the North Longs Peak Trail that climbs out of Glacier Gorge meets up with the route, this is the way I made my descent last year. By this time the first light of the day was starting to creep in on the horizon. The photo above was taken just above this junction on the way up the switchbacks that take you up to the Boulderfield. Soon the sun itself rose out of the haze on the horizon line, coming up above the Twin Sisters across the valley to the east. It is fortunate that I did this hike on Sunday, as by the next day the smoke from the wildfires to the north in Montana would have completely obscured the views. We've had enough haze from high ozone here on the Front Range over the last few weeks, that's what you're seeing in this photo. A few minutes later, working my way into the Boulderfield, the sun's light reaches the top of the mountain and its east face, the Diamond. While the colors aren't as deep as the sunrise I experienced last year, it's still a dazzling sight as you push on towards the end of the hiking trail and the mountain route beyond. This is the area where I camped last year, and while we scrambled up to the saddle between Mount Lady Washington and Longs Peak to look down on Chasm Lake, this was as far as I had been on the mountain previously. Another snack break was in order here, and then onward onto new ground.
Beyond the camping area, the trail ends and you work your way over and through the rocks as you gain 600 feet in elevation up to the Keyhole, an opening on the rock visible in the far right of the photo of the mountain above. This is your first taste of what lies beyond, and it is no easy task. The rest breaks become more frequent, and you start to give yourself smaller goals along the way of making it to the top. Once reached, the view through the Keyhole into Glacier Gorge to the west is enough to convince some people to turn back here. I saw this happen myself, and if you have a nasty fear of heights then that is probably for the best. Most of the route beyond has some solid exposure along the way.
The first section beyond the Keyhole is called the Ledges. From my research beforehand, I feel like this section is underrated in its difficulty. It feels like it goes on a long ways, and the undulation of the route up and dawn the walls of the cliffs makes it tiring both coming and going. You can kind of get an idea of what I'm talking about from the photo. This photo was taken at the end of the Ledges, where the next and most strenuous section of the climb awaits, the Trough.
This gully climbs 600 vertical feet up the southwest side of the mountain, at a very steep angle. It is also very rocky, with quite a few sections complicated by loose talus and scree. This was the section that almost broke me on this climb. The steepness of it is so tiring that I typically broke it up into sections of gaining 50 vertical feet, taking a break, and then continuing for another section. The steepness of it is unrelenting. This is a point where more turn back, and even many who succeed will spend at least part of the way up questioning their willingness to continue. I know I did! All those rest breaks do give you plenty of opportunities to admire the view back down into Glacier Gorge and the mountains beyond however, and it is quite spectacular. After what seemed like forever, but was probably around an hour, I reached the top of the Trough.
The next section, called the Narrows, works its way across the cliff face on the south side of the mountain. Now you're looking down on the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park, with the Indian Peaks and other mountains beyond. This section isn't called the Narrows for nothing, and the first few moves after leaving the Trough are pretty tight, but overall for me this was the easiest section of the climb beyond the Keyhole and I enjoyed it. While photos of it can be intimidating, it's really not as bad as it looks, and it ends up being pretty short as well. This section ends with a short climb up a gap between some rocks, and beyond it the final section awaits, the Homestretch.
While the Homestretch is steep like the Trough, it is much shorter. This tilted granite slab with multiple crack lines that ascend it is challenging on the way up mostly because of how fatigued you are at this point. It's actually worse coming down, when the exposure and the lack of places to hold on well with your hands makes it a slow descent with much trepidation. This section only took me about 20-25 minutes to ascend, and it may have been less than that if I hadn't waited for people coming off the summit to work their way down. At the top of the Homestretch lies the broad, flat summit of Longs Peak. Success!
I reached the summit at 11 AM, 8 1/2 hours after I left the trailhead. This was a beautiful sunny day, with not a cloud in the sky, as was forecast. I spent about 45 minutes on the top of the mountain, eating, resting, and taking it all in. While the haze in the air obscured the views somewhat, there is still so much to see from the top of the tallest peak for miles around. The descent of the mountain takes some time as well. As I mentioned, descending the Homestretch is tricky, with a dangerous runout if you lost control. While easier than climbing it, descending the Trough is a slow task as well, and the up and down on the Ledges when you're already exhausted from the climb is quite unkind. Getting back to the Keyhole almost feels like triumph, but you've still got to pick your way down through the Boulderfield before you regain the hiking trail, and then there's still 6 miles back down the mountain to the trailhead. My total time on the mountain was 16 1/2 hours, which is longer than average. I was taking it slow to conserve my energy, but I also haven't hiked as much this summer as I would have liked so I wasn't in top cardio conditioning either. While the altitude doesn't bother me much anymore, the challenge of this climb will whip you if you're not prepared for it. I am satisfied that I have successfully completed it now though, and I'll be happy to move on to the many other challenges Colorado has to offer as well.
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