It had been a couple weeks since I had hiked to the top of Mt. Elbert, my first 14er, and after catching the bug I decided it was time to try something a bit more challenging. Elbert was a lot easier than I expected, and this time I was hoping to tackle a summit that involved longer distances and some scrambling. I wanted to do one that was relatively close to where I was doing my internship in Boulder, and after talking with some people at work who had hiked several Front Range peaks it seemed that Longs Peak was the logical choice. Besides, it was the perfect time to gauge the effectiveness of my training program. My only exercise the previous semester consisted of going up and down the stairs of the engineering building, but after jogging a couple miles each day for the past two months and also getting in some light weightlifting I felt I was ready to give Longs a try.
Top of the Rockies
Getting to the Top
The night before, I was pretty anxious about the hike, which resulted in getting only two hours of sleep. We left Boulder at 3 am, found a spot to park down the road from the already full parking lot at the trailhead about an hour later, and started our hike in the dark. Since I had lived in Provo, Utah before coming to Boulder (which is less than a thousand feet lower in elevation) and had made a conscious effort to get in shape beforehand the altitude didn’t affect me, but it was hitting David, John, and Manson (the other interns, who went to school at UCLA) pretty hard. John needed breaks every few hundred feet, but I did my best to make sure they were short. Although I had never experienced a Colorado mountain lightning storm firsthand, I had already talked with several who had, and I had no plans of being caught in one as a result of being above the tree line in the afternoon.
As with most hikes I’ve done that have started out in the dark the path up didn’t seem that long, but I was sure it would seem longer going back down. Before getting up to the branch in the trail that leads to Chasm Lake, we looked back on the Twin Sister Peaks and were able to see a breathtaking sunrise.
Shortly thereafter, we caught our first glimpse of the Diamond Face. I assured the others that we would be taking a much easier way to get to the top. The hike through the boulder field was pretty uneventful, with some class 2 moves required as we got closer to the Keyhole. That's where the fun starts.
Upon reaching the Keyhole and peering over the side, a large gust of cool wind hit me, which was actually quite refreshing. The views into Glacier Gorge were amazing, and the exposure was exhilarating. I thought we would get to the Keyhole by 8 or 9 am at the latest, but unfortunately we didn’t get there until 10. After passing most people on my previous hikes it was frustrating having to watch other groups pass us, but I decided it was best to stay with the others. John was feeling a bit dizzy and lightheaded at 13,000 feet, so he decided to wait there while David, Manson, and I continued on to the summit. There were already several other people who decided that the Keyhole was as far as they were willing to go, so it was an ideal spot for them to stop for lunch and enjoy the views before heading back down. From what I had read earlier, it was about a 2-hour scramble to the top from the Keyhole. Since the sky was clear and David and Manson had not had as much trouble as John up to this point, I figured that we could get up by noon, and then come back down after a short stop on the summit.
The scrambling up the Trough was fun, and the rock quality was quite good. Unlike the easy walkup I found Mt. Elbert to be a couple weeks ago, the scramble up Longs Peak required more physical exertion. The route-finding was easy enough with all of the yellow & red bullseyes dotting the route, and none of the class 3 moves were that difficult, but the elevation made the scrambling a bit harder. Every few dozen feet or so, I’d have to pause briefly to catch my breath before moving on. There was still some snow in the Trough, but it was easily avoided by making a slight detour around the bullseyes leading up the mountain. We were making good time, but near the top of the Trough a group of 6 were bottlenecked at a chockstone and weren’t moving for anyone else. I climbed up a steeper way to get by, but David and Manson decided to wait until the other hikers were out of the way, and it took awhile for the congestion on this part of the route to clear up.
The exposure on the Narrows was substantial, but since the path along the side of the wall was a few feet wide there was never any danger of falling off as long as we stayed close to the wall. Looking up at the steep vertical wall leading up to the summit from the Narrows, I wondered if anyone had ever attempted it. Definitely not something I’d try. At this point David and Manson were pretty tired, but I told them that the summit was just a few hundred feet above us. We slowly made our way across the Narrows, with drop-offs of over 1,000 feet only an arm's length to the right, and after rounding a corner the final portion of our ascent came into view.
The Homestretch actually wasn’t as steep as it had looked in the pictures I had seen, but David and Manson were a little hesitant. Looking up from certain angles at the bottom it appeared that the incline was at least 60 degrees, but in actuality it was only about 45 degrees. There were two obvious “tracks” leading up to the top, with grooves in the rock which could be used as handholds. Luckily there weren’t that many people on the Homestretch at this time, which surprised me after some of the train wrecks I’d seen in pictures on Summitpost. I was excited to get to the summit so I only took one break on the way up, and before I knew it I had reached my goal.
Upon reaching the summit however, a nagging fear of mine was confirmed. Because the mile-long scramble from the Keyhole had involved circling around the mountain’s steep summit walls, it was impossible to see what the weather conditions were like on the other side. When we left the Keyhole the skies to the north were clear, but there was now a large, ominous storm cloud approaching. It was 12:30, so I told David & Manson that we had to get back down immediately. The big, flat summit of Longs is the worst possible place to be in Rocky Mountain National Park during a big storm. Since the mountain is so much higher than the other peaks and there are no other 14er’s close by, it acts as a lightning rod.
The StormThe climb up had really sapped the energy out of David and Manson, and I found out that they were very low on water. I had warned them beforehand that this would be a very physically demanding hike and that they should bring at least 2 liters of water each, but they had brought only about 1 liter each. On top of that, they were both feeling dizzy and said they needed to take a quick nap to regain their strength. I was starting to freak out because I knew it wouldn’t be long before the lightning came, so after some prodding and encouragement we finally left the summit at 1:00. They wanted to stay and rest, but it was obvious they both had altitude sickness and the best thing for them would be to get back down to a lower elevation.
I remembered that when we left John at the Keyhole he had been feeling the effects of the altitude as well. There was one other group leaving the summit at the same time as us (the smart ones had left much earlier), so I asked them if David and Manson could tag along with them while I ran back down to check on John. I then proceeded to descend down the mountain as fast as I could. Despite the storm clouds nearby, the sun had been beating down on us all day, and at this point I began to feel a little fatigued. By the time I got back down to the Keyhole an hour later, John was gone and there was no one else in sight. It slowly started to rain and when I looked above me the clouds were a grayish black color. As I sat there trying to decide what to do, a trail runner appeared out of nowhere (must have gone up by the Loft route, down by the Keyhole route) and mentioned that it would be a good idea to get below tree line. I was surprised to see that he had no pack at all, just some light hiking boots, spandex pants, and a T-shirt. He shot off down towards the boulder field, and after figuring that John had probably gone back down a long time ago and that David and Manson would be safe with the other group, I decided to do the same.
Right when I got to the flat part of the boulder field below the Keyhole is when it began hailing like crazy and the lightning started. At this point I was pretty scared because there were no good spots to find cover. The trail runner was about 100 yards in front of me, so I decided that my best bet was to stay as close behind him as I could. This is when my fitness would be put to the test. I sprinted all the way through the boulder field and down the trail towards the Chasm Lake turnoff as fast as I could, and as the lightning intensified I worked my hardest to keep within 100 yards of the trail runner ahead of me. Despite all of the rain and hail I was able to avoid slipping or getting my feet caught between any boulders, which was fortunate because at the rate I was running I probably would have broken an ankle or leg. The hail was really starting to hurt my neck and arms, but the lightning was my biggest concern. Several times I saw flashes and heard thunder just a split second later.
A few hundred feet above where the trail branches down toward Chasm Lake, just when I knew I couldn’t run any farther, I saw John poke is head out of a pile of rocks a few feet off the trail and yell towards me. I ran over and right as I reached him I felt the back of my neck tingle and the hairs stand on end. As quickly as we could we dove into the ditch/rock covering that John had been hiding in, and just then a bright flash lit up the entire area. I don’t know how close that last strike had come to hitting us, but it was definitely close. After realizing that we were okay the adrenaline started to wear off and I began to feel tired from my long run down the mountain. Even though the tree line was only about a mile away, we decided to stay in the ditch (which provided better cover from the storm than anything else I had seen on the way down) and wait out the storm. Fortunately the rain and lightning stopped about 15 minutes later.
John and I then began the remainder of the hike down, stopping along the way to catch one last glimpse of Longs Peak’s impressive Diamond Face. John felt much better at the lower altitude, and I only hoped that David and Manson were feeling better also and were safely making their way down towards us. Originally we had decided that if we had enough energy we would go to Chasm Lake on the way back down, but after our exhausting ordeal on the mountain we just wanted to get back to the car. John and I got back to the trailhead a little before 5 pm, and waited for David and Manson. Since I had gone down the mountain quite quickly (summit down to Chasm Lake turnoff in under 2 hours), I figured it would be a couple hours before David, Manson, and the other group of 4 they were with showed up.
Two hours turned into three hours, and then four hours, and at this point I began to suspect the worst. What if their altitude sickness had caused them to lose their balance and fall off one of the steep sections of the Narrows or Trough? What if they’d been struck by lightning? I called 911 and was transferred to a ranger at a different ranger station in Rocky Mountain National Park. I told him the situation, and he said to wait one more hour and if they still hadn’t arrived then to call 911 again. Of the few hikers who had returned to the trailhead after us, none said they had seen anyone matching the description I gave them of David and Manson. Most of the hikers who were coming down after us were at Chasm Lake during the storm, and had not gone up to the Keyhole at all. Just when I was about to call the ranger again, David and Manson showed up at around 10 pm, looking completely exhausted. Manson was badly dehydrated, but I was relieved that they were all in one piece. Apparently, the group of 4 they were with at the top had hiked up from Bear Lake, so after waiting out the storm with David and Manson somewhere in between the Keyhole and the Trough, they split up and took a different path down. Thankful to be back at the car safely, we drove to the nearest gas station to get Manson some liquids and some food for the rest of us, and then continued on back to Boulder.
Longs Peak was a more epic climb than I wanted it to be, but it taught me several important lessons; and two in particular. First: Being off of a Colorado 14er summit by noon isn’t just good advice, it’s a requirement. I hope I never have to go through a lightning storm like that ever again. Second: Hike/Climb with people around the same skill and fitness level. The people I hiked with weren’t ready for Longs Peak. As a result I felt frustrated for much of the hike, and when the storm came all of us were put at risk. It also caused us to split up, which wasn’t a good idea either. A lot of what happened was my fault as well for not giving the others a better idea of the potential dangers to expect.
Climbing Longs Peak made me more cautious, but it also increased my desire to be in the mountains. The views along the scramble from the Keyhole to the summit were fantastic, and I looked forward to climbing other great mountains in the future.
Longs Peak StatsDISTANCE: 16 miles roundtrip
LONGS PEAK TRAILHEAD: 9,260 feet
SUMMIT ELEVATION: 14,259 feet
ELEVATION GAIN: 5,000 feet
DIFFICULTY: Class 3
TIME: 13 hours
Two weeks later we had an opportunity to apply the important lesson we had learned on Longs Peak. We were hiking up the north ridge of Mount of the Holy Cross when some dark clouds began forming over the peak at around noon. We waited lower on the north ridge close to the tree line to see what the weather would do, and fortunately for us it eventually cleared, granting us access to the summit. We realized that no summit is worth the risk of getting struck by lightning, especially since the mountain will still be there waiting the next day, next week, and even next year.