InfectionI developed Summit Fever in September, 1980. It was the Longs Peak strain and I specifically remember when I caught it. My brother had just returned from a trip to Yellowstone, The Tetons and Rocky Mountain National Park. He arrived home proudly wearing his “I climbed Longs Peak” t-shirt and he had picture books from all three parks. I went to bed that night looking through the books and I had an immediate desire to head west to Colorado. I was a senior in high school, and while I should have been thinking about upcoming tests and where I would be going to college, I spent the evening tossing and turning dreaming about heading west and climbing in the mountains.
As Longs Peak is 1,200 miles from home and not readily accessible, climbing it remained a dream. A month long bicycle trip in 1982 through the southern Appalachians provided my first mountain fix. And while I thought this may help relieve my fever, it only made it worse. But as John Lennon wrote, Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans and the trip west didn’t happen and adolescent dreams went by the wayside. And while my love for the mountains never died, it wasn’t until the late 90s that I started hiking more frequently.
TreatmentFast forward to 2005. After eight years in a row of taking hiking trips to the Smokies I started getting restless. I wanted to explore other mountains and I decided it was time to climb Longs Peak. I informed my wife in June of my plans for an August trip to RMNP. My Longs Peak Fever had definitely returned and I told her that I was going to the Rockies even if I had to go by myself. I wanted to climb Longs and I wasn’t waiting another year. Fortunately my friend Chad Omo was interested in going, which alleviated some of my wife’s concerns of me traveling alone.
Chad had no interest in climbing Longs, so my plan was to wait until the last day to give it a try. I figured that would give me plenty of time to acclimate. We completed hikes to Emerald Lake, Bluebird Lake, Sky Pond and Flattop Mountain. I had felt good on all these hikes and outside of a constant dull headache I had no issues with the altitude so I felt confident about my chances at summiting Longs.
Wednesday August 17th was the big day. A day I had dreamed about for 25 years. I can’t remember if I got any sleep that night. I had set the alarm on my watch but that wasn’t necessary. Around 1 AM I rolled out of the tent to check the sky. Nothing but stars! Things looked positive, so I woke Chad up and told him I was going. Chad wins the award for going “above and beyond the call of duty”. He wasn’t going to try to climb Longs, but he still rolled out of the tent at 1 AM so he could drive me from Glacier Basin to the Longs Peak Trailhead.
Despite my excitement, I had my apprehensions. I had done plenty of homework beforehand and was confident in my knowledge about the route, but I would be hiking alone. And while I normally prefer some solitude when I’m in the wilderness, I had no interest in being on this mountain alone. From all my research I assumed I would see people at the trailhead, and I was quite relieved to see a large number of cars in the parking lot and to have a solo hiker start out right in front of me.
This was my first experience hiking in the dark via headlamp and I loved it. I remember stopping a few times, turning off my headlamp and looking up at all the stars. It was an amazing experience. I ended up being alone until I was above treeline. I was comforted there though by the long train of headlamps heading up the switchbacks.
About this time several hikers passed by me. I met an elderly gentleman that had been up Longs quite a few times and he was escorting a friend of his up the mountain. I spent some time talking with him asking some general questions and getting as much advice as I could from a seasoned Longs climber. His pace was much quicker than mine and he and his friend were soon well in front of me.
Shortly after passing Chasm Lake Junction, the winds picked up, clouds rolled in, and it started freezing rain. I brought several layers in case of cold, inclement weather, but hadn’t planned on having to put all my cold weather clothing on this early into the hike. I continued on towards Granite Pass when the elderly experienced gentlemen passed by me heading down the mountain. “No one’s going to summit today. The Homestretch will have ice on it.” If I knew then what I know now I would have turned around at that moment! Attempting to climb a wet Homestretch, let alone one covered in freezing rain was way beyond my skill level. But I wasn’t thinking very clearly that morning. I had waited 25 years for this moment and I wasn’t willing to throw in the towel this soon. So I ignored the wisdom of experience and I continued up the trail towards Granite Pass.
Before I even reached the pass, a small group huddled behind boulders trying to get out of the wind and rain. I joined them, and was in an emotional uproar. I wanted so badly to summit Longs that day, but I also knew that in these conditions, it just wasn’t going to happen.
Sitting behind that big boulder I decided that today was not the day, and dejectedly, I started heading down the mountain. There were still other hikers coming up and I stopped to talk to several of them. The rain had stopped by now so I decided that maybe things would get better, so I started back up the trail. Shortly thereafter, the rain started so I again turned around and started heading back down the mountain. Not to be melodramatic, but it around this time that I started to think “This is why people die on mountains.” Granted, I was by no means in any serious danger. I was still on a trail, not terribly far from treeline, but I realized that in my desire to climb Longs I was making some irrational decisions - probably no different than those of the climbers who so desperately want to climb some epic peak. Summit Fever takes over and poor choices are made.
On my way down I met another hiker heading up who had been up Longs several times. I’m sure she saw the pain in my eyes. I was so dejected at this point. She told me “You won’t be able to summit today, but you’ll at least be able to make it to the Keyhole.” As it had again stopped raining, I weighed my options, considered the experience level of this welcome stranger, and decided I’d at least salvage the day and make it to the Keyhole. So for the third time that day, I headed back up Longs Peak Trail.
It was now about first light and it was around this time that I ran into Chad and Chuck, a couple of young kids from I don’t remember where. We hiked together most all of the way from Granite Pass through the Boulderfield to the Keyhole. It was no longer raining, but the wind was brutal and the weather conditions were still less than ideal, so I felt much better being in a group as opposed to hiking by myself. There was a small group of us diehards that made it just below the Keyhole. With the high winds I chose to spend most of my time trying to stay warm inside the gazebo near the Keyhole. My curiosity got the best of me so I decided I would brave the winds and climb the last few feet to the Keyhole. The winds were so strong though and I was afraid of falling backwards, so I just peaked my head up high enough to glance into Glacier Gorge. It was a very quick glance, and then I went back to the warm confines of the gazebo.
By now the skies had started to clear, but again the winds didn’t let up. A dozen or so of us stayed in the area hoping that maybe the weather would change. It was still pretty early and I was desperately holding onto the idea that there was still a chance for success, so I hung out for probably an hour. But eventually I came to the realization that today was not the day and I reluctantly told Chad and Chuck good bye, thanked them for their companionship, and wished them luck.
Getting down the Boulderfield was hazardous. The high winds kept knocking me off balance. Several times my windbreaker became a sail, I would start moving downhill very quickly and would have to take several steps to regain my balance and slow my gait.
I was pretty depressed as I descended as I had put so much energy and the hopes of my entire trip on having a successful day on Longs, and that didn’t happen. At some point on my descent I decided to hike over to Chasm Lake to help salvage my day. It was too early to get back to the trailhead anyway. When Chad dropped me off I told him I would call him sometime after noon. I still had several hours to kill, so I figured I might as well hike some more. Chasm Lake was spectacular but the wind was still so high, and I was tired, so I got pretty frustrated as I was getting blown all over the trail.
I finally made it back to the trailhead and I called Chad to have him come pick me up. I got in his car and we headed back east. Longs Peak would have to wait at least for one more year. It was a long drive home!
Within two weeks of getting home I had my plans all set for another try at Longs in August of 2006. My friend Rob wanted to go and was willing to try for Longs. After my experience in 2005 I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend so much of my time focusing on Longs. Despite my disappointment at not summiting, I soon came to appreciate how great my 2005 trip was, Chad and I agreeing that the hike to Bluebird Lake was the highlight. This made me realize that there was more to the trip than Longs and that the 2006 trip would be great regardless of whether or not I was successful. I did a pretty good job keeping my promise, but I was no where near perfect.
August 2006 arrived and Rob and I made the 1,200 mile drive to RMNP. We were leaving Longs for the last day of the trip, and had two great hikes prior to that to Boulder-Grand Pass in Wild Basin and Green Lake in Glacier Gorge.
August 21 was the big day. We woke to a star filled sky, so we rolled out of our tent at Glacier Basin and headed for the trailhead. We signed in at 2:05 AM and headed up. Unlike in 2005, the hike up to the Keyhole was uneventful. The only issue I had was my apprehension about hiking beyond The Keyhole. Up until this point I had never been on a climb with any serious exposure. The idea of standing at the top of the Keyhole left me apprehensive. Several people had told me that the worst exposure of the day would be right there, and since I didn’t actually stand at the Keyhole the previous year I didn’t know what to expect. And I had seen enough pictures of the Narrows to expect serious exposure there as well. They must be called “the Narrows” for a reason?
I was pleasantly surprised when I stood at the Keyhole and looked towards the Ledges. The exposure wasn’t nearly what I had expected. I was relieved and my mood changed 180 degrees in a split second.
The Ledges were uneventful but the Trough was a different story. While there wasn’t any exposure to make me nervous, it was the toughest 45 minutes I had every experienced in the mountains. All I remember is climbing a few steps, my heart rate sky rocketing with every step up, stopping to rest for a few minutes and repeating an uncountable number of times until reaching the chockstone. I didn’t like the chockstone then, and I didn’t again in 2008. Having to work so hard to get to the top of the Trough, only to have to figure out how to get up and around that big rock!
The Narrows were also a pleasant surprise, for both the lack of exposure and for the spectacular views. Other than for one move, I felt that the exposure was overrated. Now for Rob, that was a different story. At the end of our day I was rambling on about how great I thought the Narrows were and I asked Rob what he thought of all the views from that ridge walk. “I was too busy working to get across it safely to notice.” This only goes to show that exposure is relative. We all have our comfort limits, and I would find mine shortly after exiting the Narrows and starting up the Homestretch.
Honestly, I was never completely comfortable on the Homestretch. It was a lot longer than I expected, but that didn’t bother me. The exposure made me nervous. I kept thinking, “If I start sliding, I’m going to slide for a long time!” I thought back to the comment that the elderly gentleman made to me on the way up the previous year, “No one’s going to summit today. The Homestretch will have ice on it.”, and at this point in the climb I understood what he meant. I spent all my energy focusing on my hand and foot holds, and while for more experienced climbers the Homestretch probably is no big deal, I was cautious. Fortunately I finally made it to the summit. I spent the first five minutes sitting right at the summit ridge, watching and encouraging Rob to make it up the last 100 vertical feet.
Rob and I headed for the summit rock and signed the register. I proudly wrote in the comments column, “check off life list”. I was happy that Rob was in no hurry to start descending. We spent at least 45 minutes on the summit, a good portion at the far end, towards Wild Basin, away from the 25+ other people up there at the time.
RelapseI naively believed that climbing Longs would completely cure my fever. It did for about one day.
That evening Rob and I sat around our campsite celebrating with a few good ales and recounting our favorite stories of the day. It really was a special day for both of us and our success led us to want more. On the drive home the next day we came up with our plan for our week long 2007 trip which included goals for climbing multiple 13ers.
Was the fever back? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that my passion to get to the mountains is still there. In fact, it is as strong as ever. But no, in the sense that I’m quite comfortable turning around on a mountain when I need to, as I learned on my 2007 trip. There is still some disappointment not making it to the desired goal, but I think more clearly now and make more rational decisions. It is only a mountain. It’ll be there another day. So from that standpoint, I guess Longs did cure my Summit Fever.