All Alone on the Keyhole
All Alone on the Keyhole
Page Type: Trip Report
Colorado, United States, North America
40.25470°N / 105.6153°W
All Alone on the Keyhole
Jul 23, 2003
Created/Edited: Aug 3, 2003 /
Object ID: 169011
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NOTE: THIS IS A REALLY LONG TRIP REPORT. IF YOU WANT TO SKIP TO THE CLIMB, SCROLL DOWN TO PART 5.
Ascent of the Keyhole Route, Longs Peak, CO.
July 21-23, 2003.
I'm not sure when I first got it for this trip, probably back in the early spring, when work was piling up and my days were filled with worrying about raising my two young children and advancing my fledgling legal career. In between spurts of work to meet deadlines, I would find myself getting the itch to get back to the mountains, to get out under broad skies, and to leave behind trials, depositions, client meetings, endless telephone conversations, and piles of work.
In November of last year I had taken a trip to climb Iztaccihuatl in Mexico, hoping that this would satisfy my craving for adventure and allow me to refocus on family and work for a while. But the Mexico trip had only rekindled my desire to climb more, so, only several months after taking a week off from it all, I decided to get back to the mountains at the next possible chance. The opportunity presented itself in early June when a friend and coworker suggested that I accompany him in a few weeks on a flyfishing trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Immediately I thought of joining him for a day or two of fishing the streams of RMNP and then taking a shot at bagging the Keyhole route on Longs Peak. Longs Peak had been on my "to do" list for some time. It's at the beginning of Gerry Roach's Colorado's Fourteeners guidebook, and his description of the route makes it sound irresistible. A recent article on the Keyhole in Outside magazine had only increased my interest in the route.
But the June trip didn't work out. I read reports that RMNP received 130% of normal snowfall and that the Keyhole was still under quite a bit of snow. Even though I had a fair amount of experience with crampons and an ice axe, I knew I would be going at it alone. I knew the Keyhole was fairly challenging in dry conditions, so I figured a climb over icy third class rock was a bit much for a solo climber from Texas. I told my friend I wouldn't be joining him this time and began to set my sights for a later date.
June and early July were much the same: Lots of work briefly punctuated by a few days off and time with the family. I had never really stopped training after Mexico, and I kept up the running, mountain biking, and stair master regime in hopes that I would get the chance at bagging a peak.
In July, my chance appeared. My wife decided she wanted to visit her family in New Mexico for a week. She agreed to give me leave of paternal duties for a few days during this vacation if I wanted to go off on an adventure. And so I decided I would attempt Longs after a few days of breathing the mile-high air in Albuquerque.
2. The Roadtrip
On the afternoon of Monday, July 21, I kissed my wife and kids goodbye at the Albuquerque Airport where I picked up my wheels for the next few days: a candy apple red Dodge Neon rent-a-car. I threw my gear into the surprisingly large trunk of the Neon and sped off toward Santa Fe, where I planned to do an acclimatization hike on the trails below Lake Peak. I reached the parking lot of the Santa Fe Ski Area at about 4:00 and set off on the Windsor Trail. The skies were gray and threatening rain, so I donned the North Face Apex Jacket I got off an Ebay auction and shoved my Jagged Edge shell into my Lowe Vision 40 pack (also won on Ebay). I hiked up the Windsor trail for 1/2 mile until it intersected the trail heading up to Raven's Ridge, the starting point for the climb up Lake Peak. I followed the Raven's Ridge trail for a ways until I reached the first of several overlooks at about 11,500’. From here I could see Nambe Basin, Lake Peak, and Santa Fe Baldy. I took in the views for a while and, after feeling sufficiently winded, decided to head back down to Santa Fe for some New Mexican food. After all, I planned to reach at least Alamosa, Colorado that night, so I still had a few hours of driving ahead of me.
I drove into Santa Fe and ended up eating at a place called La Cocina (excellent Burrito!). I felt a bit awkward dining alone, but I occupied myself by studying Roach’s description of the Keyhole route, tracing my next day’s driving route, and downing a Negro Modelo with my burrito. After dinner I got back into the Neon and headed toward Alamosa on US HWY 285. The drive to Alamosa along 285 takes you through a beautiful section of Northern New Mexico with landscape the likes of which inspired many of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. I enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the rugged hills along the road. After dark I witnessed a massive thunderstorm off to the West and was treated to perhaps the best lightning show I had ever seen.
I rolled into Alamosa around midnight and foolishly checked into the first hotel I found, the Rio Grande Inn. I wasn’t expecting much for the paltry $43 I shelled out, but it turned out to be the worst hotel room I had ever spent the night in. The first treat was when I turned back the bed spread to find several locks of long, brown hair on my pillow. Feeling exhausted, I flopped into a pillowless bed and flipped on the TV. Letterman was interviewing the guy who sawed off his hand in the Utah canyon, so I started thinking of the perils of climbing solo.
I awoke the next morning at about 5:30, after a sleepless night on a seriously uncomfortable bed. A hairball floated up from the drain as I stood, half asleep, beneath the trickle of lukewarm water that was the shower.
On the way out of Alamosa, I stopped at a restaurant (the only one open at 6 am) and was treated to the worst Huevos Rancherso I had ever eaten. I know it’s hard to screw up Heuvos Rancheros, but this place managed to do it.
I left Alamosa, vowing never to return, and headed North on 285. Feeling deprived of sleep and full of nasty Mexican food, my spirits were a bit down at this point. After about half an hour or so, however, I passed Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle in the San Luis valley and my spirits were buoyed by the sight of these magnificent fourteeners. I knew I would soon behold a view of an equally magnificent mountain: Longs Peak.
3. Mount Evans warmup
My plan was to drive toward Denver and then take a detour for a quick hike up Mt. Evans, home of the highest road in North America, for some further acclimatization. I reached the turn off for the Mt. Evans highway about 11:00 am and was soon negotiating the dizzying curves of the beautiful Mt. Evans highway. I parked the Neon at a pull out about two miles below the summit and headed up the north slopes toward the observatory that I knew was near the summit. I immediately began breathing hard but I knew this hike would do me well for tomorrow’s climb of Longs. I had experienced mild AMS on Iztaccihuatl and I didn’t want to ruin my climb of Longs with a bout of nausea. I figured an hour or two at 14,000’ would be a good idea.
I hiked up the uneventful slopes, over rocks, flowers, and grass. At one point I encountered a family of wild mountain goats. They regarded me for a moment and then went about their business. I reached the parking lot near the summit about 45 minutes later and began the hike up the well worn trail to the summit of Mt. Evans.
From the summit I caught my first glimpse of Longs. From this far away it didn’t look too menacing, but I knew that would change as I got closer. I took in the views and visited with a couple of guys who had hiked the Mt. Evans loop. They had forgotten their lunches so I graciously volunteered the jumbo sized Snickers bar I had planned to enjoy on the summit. The crowds got to me after a while so I descended the summit trail, crossed the busy parking lot, and headed back down the North slopes to the Neon. In all, I probably gained about 600’ in elevation and spent about an hour and a half at around 14,000’.
4. The Night Before
I then headed toward Estes Park and took a brief detour to Boulder so that I buy a few last minute items at the REI there. I left Boulder and soon reached Estes Park, where I caught my first close-up glimpse of Longs. Roach writes that Longs captivates all who lay eyes on it, and that is exactly how I felt: captivated. I had seen many Colorado mountains in my life, but mainly those in the San Juans to the south. The San Juans are beautiful mountains to be sure, but Longs seemed to be on a different scale altogether. It reminded me more of the first time I had seen more massive peaks, such as Rainier, Hood, Iztaccihuatl, or Shasta.
I stopped in at the backcountry office at RMNP to get information on the route conditions. In addition to my normal hiking boots, I had brought my La Sportiva Makalus, crampons, and an ice axe. I hoped that the Rangers would help me decide whether I could leave all this heavy snow gear behind. The Ranger was not very helpful in this regard and could only tell me that he had heard there was still some snow and ice on the route. This much I knew from checking rec.climbing. I spent the rest of the afternoon flyfishing (read: losing fly after fly in the reeds) along the beautiful streams in RMNP.
Later that evening, I checked into the All Budget Hotel, right outside the entrance to RMNP, and then went into Estes Park to find the Safeway. I stocked up on food for the next day, ate a mediocre dinner at Subway, and repaired back to my hotel room. This time I shelled out $89 for the room and it was well worth it. The All Budget Hotel was clean, comfortable, and well appointed (for a motor court, anyway).
As I lay out my gear for the next morning, I began to feel the awkwardness of climbing alone. Usually the gear layout is a time filled with nervous energy and endless chatter between partners. But this time I didn’t have a partner to bounce ideas off of. Instead, I packed in silence, except for the mutterings as I debated with myself about what to take. It was kind of a lonely time, and I missed having someone to ask things like, “Hey, are you going to take gaitors with you?” or “Should I wear my thermals under these pants or pack them?”
As it turned out, I decided to pack pretty light. RMNP had experienced a heat wave for the last few days and tomorrow’s forecast called for more of the same. A clerk at a store in Estes Park said she heard that snow on the Keyhole could be avoided, so I opted to leave the big boots, axe, and crampons. I decided to wear REI Mistral softshell pants with only my hiking shorts beneath them, a Patagonia lightweight thermal zip-neck top, my North Face Apex soft shell jacket, and my leather Asolo hiking boots. In my pack I would carry some light glove liners, my shell parka, a baseball cap for when the sun came out, and my usual bag of “essentials”: map, sunblock, first aid kit, etc. I also packed two quarts of water, one quart of Gatorade, two tortillas with peanut butter and raisins rolled inside, two Snickers, three granola bars, a Slim Jim (need that grease now and again), and two Red Bull drinks for a quick energy boost. I would also carry the REI Summit poles I had purchased in Boulder earlier that day.
Before I knew it, the clock read 9:00. I planned to wake up at midnight and be at the trail by 1:00 a.m. so I knew I had better get to sleep soon. Despite having a miserable, fitful sleep in Alamosa the night before, I couldn’t get to sleep right away. As I lay awake, the seriousness of tomorrow’s undertaking began to set in. I had climbed many big mountains and considered myself to be a relatively competent climber. I had experienced little or no problems on climbs of the giants like Rainier, Hood, Iztaccihuatl and other Colorado 14ers. But this time I was doing it differently: I was going alone. On all my other big climbs I was accompanied by a partner with whom I would entrust my own life. Tomorrow I would venture out onto Longs all by myself with noone to aid me should I get into trouble. Roach’s admonitions kept replaying in my head: “Long’s is a serious undertaking, even in the best of conditions.” Sometime around 10:00 I drifted off to sleep.
5. The Climb
I awoke a few hours later, at 1:00 a.m., an hour later that I had planned to get up. Nevertheless, I put on my gear, ate a quick breakfast consisting of Red Bull and a Granola bar, and headed out the door of my hotel. The All Budget is the kind of hotel you check out of by simply leaving the key in the room. So when I finally shut the door behind me, I was committed to the climb. Any thought of slumbering away the rest of the night and wimping out with a day hike vanished when I shut the door behind me.
It was a beautiful, clear, and virtually moonless night as I left Estes Park for the Longs Peak trailhead. The temperature felt to be about fifty degrees. As I left the town of Estes Park, the landscape became pitch black. Occassionally I would pass the lights of a home in the woods, but, for the most part, the woods along the road seemed forebodingly dark.
Eventually I reached the turn off for the Longs Peak Trailhead and followed the winding, dark road to the parking lot. By this time it was about 1:45 and the lot was virtually empty except for about 4 cars. No other climbers were out, and only the dim lights of the bathroom and trail register cut the blackness of the woods.
When you’re sitting alone in a tiny car in the middle of the night at a dark trailhead to a foreboding mountain, many thoughts go through your head. Again my mind began to fill with thoughts of self doubt. My spirits were further dampened when I walked over to the bulletin board and read the rangers’ update on Longs route description. According to the update, many portions of the route were still coated with “snow and ice,” and, over all, the route was still a “technical undertaking.”
Remembering Roach’s warning that Longs is a serious undertaking even in good conditions, I again began to wonder what the hell I was doing out here alone. I thought of just hopping back in the Neon and heading back to Albuquerque, where my wife and kids were no doubt slumbering peacefully in a comfortable bed.
Just then a car pulled up, and five people got out and began fiddling with gear. Not feeling totally isolated anymore, I decided I would, at the very least, hike up to the Keyhole and reconnoiter the technical section from there. If things looked questionable, I told myself, I could always turn back safely at that point. Where the trail register asked for a destination, I wrote “Keyhole/summit?” I met the group of five at the sign-in station and learned they were from St. Louis. One of the group, who appeared to be the leader, said he had heard from a different ranger that all of the snow on the route was easily avoided. My confidence was boosted for a moment until he told me he had heard that, just two weeks ago, a man was literally blown off the route and killed. (I later learned this was an apocryphal legend that has been circulating about the Keyhole for years).
The St. Louis group seemed a bit anxious and apprehensive about the climb ahead, and they were thoroughly impressed that I was going solo and that I had put my return time at 2:00 p.m. (One person asked “You think you can make it back that early?!?”). From talking with them, I gathered they weren’t very experienced and that they regarded me as a real hardcore climber. Little did they know that, moments earlier, I had contemplated giving the whole thing up. Nevertheless, I began to realize that I was pretty experienced, at least compared to these people, and that I could probably handle the climb. I again reminded myself that, at the very least, I would reach the Keyhole and decide whether to continue from there.
And so I left the group from St. Louis and headed off into the darkness on the Longs Peak trail. The time was 2:00 a.m. and it was pitch black. Looking up, I could discern the tops of the pine trees from the faint light of the innumerable stars visible that night, but everything else was black. As I hiked along in the woods, I could see only the three-foot-diameter circle my headlamp illuminated in front of me.
I made good time through the wooded section of the trail. Thirty minutes after leaving the trailhead I passed a group who, according to the trail register, had left thirty minutes before me. I never saw them again and presumed that they never made much distance at that rate. After a little less than an hour I emerged from the trees and saw a sign which told me that I had already completed 2.5 miles of my 7.5 mile hike to the summit. From here, I could see the lights of Boulder to the Southeast.
I then found myself heading up into the broad basin below Mount Lady Washington. The good time I had made built up my confidence and I felt like I would probably make the summit.
My clothing system was working very well, as I was neither too hot nor too cold. My pack, which I had worn only twice before on short hikes, carried the load well. The poles I purchased the day before were beginning to become an immense help as I encountered the many rock steps along the trail.
I saw two sets of headlamps on the trail ahead of me, the closer consisting of three lamps, and the farther consisting of two. I knew I shouldn’t worry about other peoples’ paces and should simply follow the pace that best suited me, but I couldn’t resist the impulse to catch up to the group ahead of me. Perhaps it is the competitive cyclist in me. When I see a rider in front of me on a bike ride, I can never resist the temptation to try and run down the rider in front of me. So I picked up the pace a bit and, before I knew it, I overtook the group in front of me as they took a short trailside break. During a brief exchange, I learned they were a guided group (2 climbers, one guide), with the clients hailing from Georgia and Maryland.
I pressed on up the basin and eventually topped out at Granite Pass, where the wind was blowing at about 15 knots. I pulled off the trail for a short brake. While I snacked on a granola bar, the guided party passed me. It was now about 4:00 a.m. and I noticed that the sky to the east was beginning to take on the light gray hue that foreshadows the coming dawn. It was still dark on the trail and I still needed my headlamp.
I followed the trail as it switchbacked up the gentle slopes of Mount Lady Washington before gaining the Boulder Field. I overtook the guided party near the top of the switchbacks and then reached the beginning of the Boulder Field. At the Boulder Field, you leave the well-traveled dirt trail and begin stepping across a field of large rocks that has spilled down from the Keyhole ridge over the millennia. Route finding became a bit more difficult as the trail was now marked only by few cairns, which were difficult to locate in the faint light of the pre dawn.
I continued up the lower Boulder Field. Eventually, the sky to the east began to show more signs of dawn, and I could now begin to make out the awesome East Face of Longs against the early morning sky. Here is a photo of this same part, taken on the way down, in broad daylight.
I came across a few tents in the Boulder Field campsites and thought that it would probably be a neat place to camp. From the campsites, I could see the Keyhole and the steeper, upper Boulder Field that lay in my path. From this vantage point, the Keyhole appeared to be a good ways away, but then I saw a guy standing in the Keyhole and realized it wasn’t quite as big as it appeared. Strips of red and orange light now ran across the eastern horizon. I put away my headlamp and began the climb toward the Keyhole.
The climb from the campsite up the Boulder Field turned out to be easier than it looked. What appeared to be a jumbled maze of boulders was fairly easily negotiated by jumping from boulder to boulder. Only rarely did I encounter a shifting boulder and, when I did, I was glad to have my poles. Before I knew it I was within a few feet of the Keyhole and the sun was just beginning to rise in the East. The last few moves below the Keyhole approached third class. I crested the top of the Keyhole and was greeted to incredible views of Glacier Basin and McHenry’s peak awash in Alpenglow . Roach was certainly correct in stating that the view from the West side of the Keyhole is significantly different. On the east side, the side from which I had just hiked, the slopes are relatively gentle. On the west side, however, massive glaciers must have carved the deep valley that is now Glacier Gorge, leaving a steep drop off from the Keyhole all the way down to the valley below.
After taking in the awesome view of Glacier Gorge, I looked to the south and got my first view of the Ledges, which marked the beginning of the technical section. The route looked pretty exposed from this point, but I decided to press on. Immediately I began to feel the exposure of the route, but there was always plenty of room to work along the traverse. I moved along the ledges with ease, following the yellow and red bulls eyes that mark the route. At one point the ledges narrowed, but the Park Service had pounded in two steel rods that could be used as handholds. I didn’t really think they were necessary, as I found more difficult moves above this point without man-made handholds later on. Despite warnings from the rangers, I didn’t find any snow or ice on the Ledges.
After about 3/10s of a mile of third class traversing, I reached the bottom of the infamous Trough. There was a great deal of snow in the trough. When I tested it with my hiking pole, I found it to be rock solid. My plan to attempt step kicking up the trough would not work, but Roach’s route description says the snow can often be avoided by staying on the rocks to the north (or left). I began scrambling up the big, loose blocks of the Trough and quickly became winded. I realized that I would just have to take this section one step at a time. Roach’s description turned out to be correct, and I was able to avoid the snow by staying on easy, third-class rock to the left. At one or two points along the way I had to get awfully close to the snow because the rocks farther to the left were beginning to get quite steep. At one section I did actually have to traverse across about 10’ of snow and ice, but it wasn’t too scary. I just took it very slowly.
Eventually the snow petered out and I was able to get back on the marked route up the Trough. My progress seemed quite slow over the gravel strewn ledges of the Trough. It seemed I would take two or three steps and would then have to rest for a moment or two to catch my breath. However, I realized I wasn’t the only one slowing down, as I was quickly closing in on the two climbers above me (these are the same two whose headlights I saw earlier in the morning above the guided party). By the time I got to the Chockstone at the top of the Trough, I was only about 10’ behind this party.
The Chockstone is a large, 10’ high boulder that is wedged between the two walls of the trough where it narrows to a few feet at the top. To get passed it, you must either climb directly over it or skirt it on either side. Going directly over it looked pretty difficult, as did the route to the right. With my options narrowed, I proceeded to climb up the left side of the Chockstone. Roach writes that this is probably the hardest move on the route, and he is not lying. I worked my way up the crack between the Chockstone and the wall of the Trough and eventually pulled through to the top, grunting and panting the whole time.
I mantled over the last part of the Chockstone, rounded a corner to the south face of Longs, and then was greeted by my first look at the Narrows. The route from here looked nothing less than exhilarating. The exposure along the Narrows was terrific, with what appeared to be a several hundred foot drop from the edge of the route. You definitely didn’t want to slip here.
At this point a solo climber named Noah from Denver caught up to me. I had seen him gaining on me up the Trough, and I later learned he left the trail head an hour after me. He had made really good time up to this point. It was nice to finally have someone to talk with as I climbed. The adrenaline was beginning to pump, but we pressed on and began negotiating the narrows. (Here is a pic of the narrows as seen on the way down).
The Narrows were seriously exposed, but they were wide enough that it didn’t really get to me. In fact, I felt like the Ledges were a bit more difficult and exposed than the Narrows. This section was actually quite fun, because of its exhilarating setting. Above you is a sheer cliff several hundred feet tall, and below you is much the same. At times the route looks impassible, but a bomber foothold or handhold is always nearby. You couldn’t manufacture a more perfect route if you tried.
After the narrows I followed the route as it wound around another corner to the Southeast side of Longs. After a few more yards, the final obstacle, the Homestretch, came into view. The Homestretch appeared to be pretty steep, but the rock was solid and there appeared to be a lot in the way of handholds and footholds. I could see the massive cairn which, I knew from studying the route, marked the summit plateau. Knowing the summit was near, I began heading up the cracked slabs toward the summit. The rock was excellent, but the thin air began taking its toll on me. As in the Trough, I could manage only a few moves and would then have to stop and catch my breath. As I got closer to the summit, the route steepened a bit, but there were always plenty of holds available.
At the last 100’, an Asian man who appeared to be in his fifties began to catch me. I was amazed at this guy’s speed, as I had not even seen him below me in the Trough.
The party of two ahead of me pulled over the lip of the Homestretch and began hooping and hollering. I knew I was close! I got a surge of energy and cruised up the last 75 to the summit. I topped out and was greeted by a large, broad summit plateau that was awash in the warm morning sun, which was a nice change from the shadows I had been climbing in up to this point. I turned around and saw that the Asian man was right behind me and I instinctively reached out, gave him a high five, and said congratulations. He smiled and, in broken English, returned the congratulations.
From the top of the Homestretch, I walked along the broad summit 100’ or so to the official high point where the USGS marker is. I scrambled to the top of the highest rock and couldn’t help but belt out a cheer. It was now about 8:00 a.m., and, just 6 hours earlier, I was contemplating getting back in the car and blowing the whole thing off. Now, however, the monarch was mine!
One of the guys from the party of two in front of me snapped a summit picture for me. I returned the favor to him and his partner. I walked around the summit for a while, took in the views of the nearby peaks, ate one of my peanut butter tortillas, and downed one of the Red Bulls. On the summit, I met two younger guys who were spending the summer working at a camp in Estes Park, the luck dogs. They had just completed the North Face (the Cables) route. I had heard you could get a signal for a cell phone from the summit, but, when I tried to call my wife, I couldn’t get a signal.
After no more than 15 minutes on the summit, decided to get back down. I have always been slow on the descent, even when I was in my early twenties. Now, at 31, I could really feel the descent on my knees. I knew the descent of the Tough would be murder.
6. The Descent
I bid my fellow summiteers farewell and headed toward the Homestretch. I was glad I decided to leave early because I saw about a dozen climbers coming up the homestretch as I began the descent. Down climbing the Homestretch wasn’t too bad. It didn’t seem so steep looking down on it. I rounded the corner and traversed across the Narrows back toward the Trough. With the benefit of knowing that the Narrows were doable, the traverse back across then on the way down went much quicker.
Before I knew it I was standing on top of the Chockstone figuring out how to down climb it. It turned out to be pretty tricky but I made it down without incident. I began the descent of the Trough, and, as expected, began to feel the pain in my knees. My hiking poles proved to be invaluable during this part of the descent. I passed another half dozen climbers heading up the Trough and was again glad I had gotten an early start. It was a relief to see them huffing and puffing up the trough and knowing I had that part of the misery behind me. I was also a little surprised to see people so far back on the route so late. It was now approaching 9:00 a.m. and many of these people had at least an hour or so to go before reaching the summit. I’m a big fan or getting off of exposed slopes before noon, and I worried that some of these people might still be a ways above tree line when the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.
After what seemed to be an eternity of scrambling down gravel-covered ledges, I made it to the base of the Trough and began traversing back across the Ledges. I continued to encounter parties heading the opposite way and continued to wonder if they knew the dangers of afternoon lightening storms above treeline. About halfway back across the Ledges I encountered a short uphill section, which brought to my attention the fact that my legs were getting a little tired. So far I had felt fine along the climb, save for the usual nagging high-altitude headache, but I sure felt glad to have all the uphill behind me.
I finally reached the Keyhole and ran into that party from St. Louis. Despite leaving the trailhead at the same time I did, they had just reached the Keyhole, and had now decided to turn back. I gathered that the few third class moves below the Keyhole had rattled them a bit. I didn’t want to tell them it was probably a good idea in light of the slow pace they were making. They then told me that this was the first mountain for all of them.
Up to this point the entire route had been in the shade, but when I crossed through the Kehyole, I saw that the Boulder Field and the rest of the hike down was basking in the late morning sun. I stripped off my REI Mistral pants and TNF Apex jacket, put on my baseball cap and sunscreen, and headed down in my shorts and Patagonia thermal top.
Since about halfway down the Trough I had been paired up with the other solo climber I met on the route, Noah. It was a pleasure visiting with him, and our conversation helped pass the time as we descended the Boulder Field. Descending the Boulder Field was not too bad, especially since I had my hiking poles. It was beginning to warm up a bit, and I found myself getting thirsty more frequently. Near the end of the Boulder Field I told Noah to go on without me, as I am pretty slow on the descent and didn’t want to make him feel like he had to wait.
I reached the end of the Boulder Field and felt tremendously relieved because the trail from hear on out would be smooth and would make for fast hiking. It was now about 10:00 a.m. and I encountered another party who was considering a summit bid, despite being about three hours from the top.
I know I shouldn’t have thought this, but I did. I began making good time down the smooth section of the trail and hubris simply overcame me. I couldn’t help but think that, overall, Longs wasn’t too bad of a hike, as I was still feeling relatively strong. I knew I should have withheld judgment until I reached the parking lot, but I foolishly couldn’t resist. Longs would exact revenge from me later.
I continued to cruise down the well-maintained trail, over Granite Pass, and down the basin below Mount Lady Washington. The nagging little headache I had complained about earlier was beginning to get worse, and my stomach began to feel a little uneasy. I tried to eat something, but my appetite just wasn’t there. At the turn off for Chasm Lake, I was still making good time, but my knees and feet began to hurt a little, and my stomach was now becoming downright queasy. I continued to pass throngs of hikers heading up the trail, this despite ominous clouds forming above and on the range across the valley from Longs. This began to get old because of the trail etiquette that the downhill hiker should make room for the uphill hiker. It seemed that every 20 yards or so I would have to stop, get off the trail, and wait for a slow-moving party of tourists to make their way up the trail. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but I think I was really getting anxious to get off this mountain.
Finally I reached the sign that, several hours before, had informed me that I had already completed 2.5 miles. I was relieved to see the sign because I remember the first 2.5 miles being relatively easy. My knees and feet continued to hurt more, and my stomach began to feel worse.
You would think that the descent of the last 2.5 miles would seem a world easier than the ascent. Perhaps it is my knees. Perhaps it is the fact that, when I ascended this 2.5 mile stretch of trail, I was fresh and full of energy and excitement. But the last 2.5 miles felt like 20.5. After what felt like an eternity, I reached a point that I thought must surely be right around the corner from the parking lot. My eyes began deceiving me: I would spy something through the trees ahead of me and swear it was something man-made—the road, a car, a building—something to mark the end of the trail. But each time, as I got closer, it would be only a rock or a downed tree. On a positive note, the hikers seemed to get fatter and more pathetic looking. Several times after passing an out-of-shape looking “Reebok hiker,” I would think to myself “if this guy is here, I can’t POSSIBLY be far from the trailhead now!!!”
My spirits sank when I encountered the turn off for a camping area called the Goblin’s Forest. When I passed this turn off just after two this morning, I remembered it being a good piece up the trail from the trailhead. In fact, it was around here that I took my first mini-break to adjust my pack and retie my boot laces.
I plodded on, with my head pounding after each step. The trail seemed became much wider, which I attributed to a higher frequency of hikers (which meant that the trailhead must be getting closer!). At one point, I passed a man who appeared to be in his eighties, slowly making his way down the trail. Again, I thought to myself, if HE’S here, I CERTAINLY cannot be far from the trailhead.
About the point I would have bet my left arm that the trailhead was just around the corner, I passed a sign stating it was still another .5 miles to the trailhead. A HALF MILE!!!, I thought to myself. It felt like I had walked thirty since the sign saying the trailhead was only 2.5 miles ahead. By this time, I hadn’t stopped for water in a while. I noticed my voice getting hoarser each time I greeted a hiker coming up the trail until, finally, I opened my mouth to say “hello,” and nothing came out. Still, I pressed on.
Finally, I saw rooftops through the trees. I had finally reached the trailhead. I staggered up to the Trail Register and scrawled something to let the rangers know I wasn’t left for dead on the mountain. I had planned on writing some statement in the “comments” section of the Trail Register, but I was just too tired. Anyway, noone else would likely car about whatever droll words I could come up with. It was now 12:50 p.m., just under eleven hours after I set out the morning before.
I found my way across the parking lot, which was completely full now, and threw my gear into the trunk of the Neon. I quickly changed out of my Patagonia thermal top into a clean, cotton shirt, a ritual of mine at the end of every long climb (nothing in the world feels as good as a clean, cotton t-shirt at the end of a long day).
7. The Long Drive Home
I plopped into the driver’s seat of the Neon, started it, and headed out of the parking lot without even looking back at the mountain. Immediately the lack of sleep for the previous two nights overcame me and I felt as though I might fall asleep at any moment. I took a few sips of a Coke I had stashed in the frontseat the night before, but my stomach objected. I got on the highway and began to head toward Boulder.
Along the way I became so sleepy that I pulled off the road and tried to sleep for a few minutes. I probably slept for about five minutes when the heat and nausea overcame me. I popped up out of the reclined driver’s seat, opened the door, and emptied the contents of my stomach onto the gravel pull out, just as a car full of people came by, gazing at the spectacle I had made of myself. I felt better immediately and decided to head on toward Boulder, where I figured I might spend the night.
Eventually I made it to Boulder and decided to press on, hoping to beat Denver traffic and maybe reach Colorado Springs for the night. I got on I-25 (which would take me all the way to Albuquerque, where my wife and kids would greet me). I passed Denver without incident and was soon gazing at Pikes Peak above Colorado Springs. Still feeling strong, I decided to press on. I figured I could probably make Albuquerque by ten if I made good time, but I was afraid I might hit the wall and have to stop for the night. Before I knew it, I was in Pueblo, and then Trinidad. At Trinidad, I loaded up on coffee and a few of Mountain Dew’s version of Red Bull (these energy drinks really work for me) and pressed on. Before I knew it, I had passed Las Vegas, NM and was on my way to Santa Fe. From Santa Fe, Albuquerque was only about 45 minutes away, and I knew I could make it from there. Near Santa Fe, I got a second wind and felt really alert. I reached Albuquerque at 9:45, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I met my wife, turned to the bed and fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.
All in all it was a great trip: Something like 1200 miles of driving and two mountains in two and a half days. I am already getting the itch for the next trip.