The story of my Longs Peak climb actually started in March 2001. My Father passed away on the 18th and while reminiscing after the funeral my oldest sister Sue had the idea to get a family reunion/vacation planned. We had a few different locations in mind but my 1st choice was the Estes Park/Rocky Mountain National Park(RMNP) area. I casually mentioned that maybe some of us that were interested could climb Longs Peak. There were about ten people interested.
At this point I really knew nothing about Longs except that it was the tallest mountain in RMNP. As time passed I learned more and more about the adventure and challenge that was in store for us. I started to read trip reports on the Internet and learned about all the different sections of the hike whose names are so familiar now... “the boulderfield, keyhole, ledges, trough, narrows, and the homestretch. Each of these names bring back a different mental picture and memory that I doubt I will ever forget. I also learned for the first time about the Fourteeners of Colorado.
We were able to make reservations at the YMCA facility near RMNP for the week of July 14-20 2002. As I started to plan the events and activities for the week I decided to give us as much time as possible to get acclimated yet also make it possible to have a second attempt if weather became a problem. Thursday the 18th was the day set for our attempt. If weather was a problem we could have Friday the 19th as a backup.
In June 2002 my wife and 4 kids headed to Estes to spend a week camping , hiking and scouting the area with a view to planning the upcoming reunion. On vacation I always try to have at least one “mama hike” planned for myself and my older kids. This hike is one that is designed to challenge my kids to achieve a goal that stretches them a little. We decided to set Chasm Lake as our goal. This is the lake situated below the face of the cliff of Longs. My 11 year old son and I made it to Chasm over snow and some fairly strong winds. This was my 1st close up view of Longs. Standing near Chasm you can’t really grasp how huge Longs is until you see a person on or near the face. In my case there was a couple of hikers on the far side of Chasm near the base of the face. They looked like
small ants. I then had a small glimpse of the task set before us.
As the time got closer the “Longs Peak Assent Team” (as we called ourselves) consisted of 6 people. My nephews Greg(40) Sean (23) and Matt (18) my niece Kristin (22) my son CJ(11) and myself (40). Greg had climbed Mt. Whitney and some other mountains. My son CJ and I had hiked quite a few mountains but this was our first fourteener. Sean, Matt and Kristin had never even hiked ANY mountains before!
I emailed some of the best trip reports to the team in order to prepare them for the hike and some of the possible situations and dangers that could come our way. I also emailed articles on altitude sickness and lightning safety. We talked about the equipment needed, getting in shape, and different things we had read and heard about Longs. As time moved along the anticipation, excitement and for me the apprehension was really starting to build.
As far as getting in shape, I hiked Omaha’s local nature center trails consistently and did a lot of treadmill work. On hikes I loaded my pack with extra weight in order to work out a little harder. As I thought about the our hiking team I realized that physically I was probably the weak link. Even my 11 year old son would probably fair better than me because I planned on carrying the bulk of the food and gear.
We arrived in Estes and on the days before Longs we took a couple of smaller hikes. We hiked to Ouzal Falls on Monday and Lily Mountain on Tuesday. Wednesday we took it easy by going horseback riding and having a family cookout.
As we were getting ready for the cookout we noticed that the air was getting kind of foggy. We then realized it could be a fire. We turned on the radio and learned that a fire had broken out 9 miles SE of Estes Park. The name for this fire became known as the Big Elk Fire. We were very concerned not only for the possibility of not even getting to attempt Longs but for the danger this posed for all the people and property in the area. Highway 7 was totally smoked in and that was the highway that we needed to travel to get to Longs.
Thursday we woke up before midnight and listened to see if they were going to close Longs, Hwy 7 or any part of RMNP. The wind had changed so the smoke of the fire was now mainly blowing North Northwest away from us. Highway 7 would probably be clear so we decided to give it a go unless they stopped us at the trailhead. Our goal was to arrive at the trailhead by 12:30AM, get everything together and be on the trail before 1:00AM. The parking lot was pretty empty when we arrived. We were maybe the 3rd or 4th cars to get there. We got started about 20 to 30 minutes later than our intended time.
We had read so many trip reports that encouraged us not to waste too much effort on the lower section that we set a pretty slow pace. They let me lead and I set my pace based on my breathing. If I started to breath hard enough that I could not carry on a normal conversation I slowed down. This pace made the trail so enjoyable. It was probably a little slow for the others but they didn’t complain or grumble. It was really fun to hike through the pine forest at night with only the light from our head lanterns. We rested a few times and drank plenty of water.
As we started to get near treeline we could see the stars and the lights from Boulder (I think it was Boulder.) We also noticed that every so often a tiny snowflake would fall. The higher we got the more of the tiny snowflakes fell. In reality these were not snowflakes at all but soot from the Big Elk fire. We started to add clothing because of the lower temperatures.
As we cleared the trees we came to the Battle Mountain tent camping sign...the sight of our only navigational error. Earlier in the year when my son and I hiked Chasm we thought this must be the split in the trail to Longs. I thought maybe someone had taken down the sign that would identify the trail to the right as the one leading to Longs. Since we were going to Chasm at the time we turned on the left fork and made it with no problems. I even called the Park after I had gotten back to Omaha to see if this was the case. I was probably not clear enough in my description because they assured me that I was at the correct fork. He said he would have someone check to see if the sign fell down. Here we were standing at what I thought was the fork of Chasm/Longs. Even though I had checked with the Ranger earlier in the year it did not feel right. Because of the apprehension we felt, we hung around until another group came by. It was their 1st time also and I think they might have been going to Chasm. After a few minutes and with no other groups in sight we took the right fork. Wrong! We hiked about 20 minutes and then stopped to eat a power bar and get a drink. It just did not feel right so we talked about what to do. At this point we saw a couple of headlamps up the mountain to our West. We ended up yelling to them to see if they were on their way to Longs. After yelling a couple of times, and feeling absolutely stupid in doing so, they finally heard us and acknowledged that they were going to Longs. I am glad it was not windy or they would never had been able to hear us. We turned around and lost maybe an hour. Better late than never as they say. As things would end up it was better VERY late than never.
Later when we arrived at the actual fork of Longs/Chasm there was a beautifully clear sign marking the trails. When CJ and I had gotten to this point on our Chasm hike it was late morning and fully light, how could I have missed it? Here we were in the dark using headlamps and the sign was as plain as day! Thinking back I realized we did not see this sign because there was a group of people resting in front of it on the way to Chasm and on the way back I didn’t even look for it.
We were able to remove our headlamps 1/2 way between the Chasm/Longs fork and Granite pass. Sunrise was at 5.46AM so it was probably around 5:00AM. It was great to be able to see where you had been and where you were going. Unfortunately I waited too long to put down my memories on paper so I have to make educated guesses on exactly how long each segment took.
By the time we reached Granite Pass we could clearly make out the enormous mass of smoke billowing from the Big Elk fire. The cloud of smoke was rising up then moving North towards Fort Collins. It was a spectacular site.
One of the comical (comical now, not at the time) parts of the trip was how often we had to stop for my son CJ to put on his gloves, then take them off, then go to the bathroom (2 minutes after we stopped as a group) then put on a sweatshirt, tie his boots et.... It seemed like every time he stopped for these he had to totally readjust his hiking sticks and gloves to perfection. I was very patient because I wanted him to enjoy the hike. I also knew that if he couldn’t make it I wouldn’t make it. I would have to stay with him while the others finished. I did end up laying the law down about a mile past Granite Pass. I told him he had to start thinking ahead and at least try to go to the bathroom EVERY time the group stopped. I also explained that he did not have to stop every time he needed to adjust equipment or was a little uncomfortable but he must tough it out until we stopped as a group. He did fantastic after our little talk.
We stopped for a bite to eat and to use the privy at the boulderfield camping area. My legs were just starting to feel the climb. Every one else in the group was feeling great. CJ did have a small relapse and decided to have a Power Bar just as we put on our packs and got up to go.
I really enjoyed the boulderfield. I pictured the boulders as rounded, and so was a little surprised that they were so flat. It reminded me of a big field of huge peanut brittle pieces thrown all over by a big giant. We picked our way until we arrived at the Keyhole. The view was awesome!
I was expecting the wind to increase on the far side but it was still very calm. We met an older woman who had climbed Longs before. She shared that a woman had been killed at the keyhole the previous year by being blow off by the wind. She pointed out the direction of the Ledges and the Trough. The Ledges were mostly out of sight because of our particular vantage point. The Trough was in open view and didn’t look too bad. It was about 9:30 or so and we asked her if she thought we would make it by 10:30 to the summit. She kind of laughed and said it would probably take longer. She then pointed out the hikers who were making there way up the Trough. WOW!!! They looked to be the size of table pepper! The Trough now became HUGE when contrasted with these hikers. Even though I was prepared for a challenge I started to think this was going to be a little more difficult than I thought.
As we proceeded along the Ledges I started to really have fun. I loved picking my way along this stretch. We went a little ways and Greg was leading. We came to a spot where it was required that you climb approximately 5 feet over a rock that was situated in the center of the ledge. Greg climbed up and peeked over the top. He then sat back down and started to rest. Since we just rested at the keyhole a few minutes ago I asked if it was bad on the other side of the rock. All he said was he needed to get ready for the next section. I then asked if it was steep or dangerous? He replied that he just needed to get ready for the next section. After a very short rest we again moved forward. After I crossed the rock it looked about the same as what we had just passed. I would not understand until later why Greg needed to gather himself at this time.
We kept picking our way and I thought it was going great. A hiker who had passed us up earlier was already heading back. He said there was a spot that was too exposed for him and he was done. We proceeded along until we came to a spot in the trail where you kind of had to climb over one rock while making sure your head didn’t hit another one that was hanging over the trail. At this point Kristin accidentally hit her head. She sat down and it was here that we realized that she was having a major battle with fear. She was afraid of heights and she was not mentally prepared for what she was experiencing. She kind of lost it for a minute or two. We all encouraged her and said we were willing to head back if she couldn’t take it. She gave us a look filled with determination and said she would NOT give up and that there was no way this mountain would cause her to turn back. Wow !!
We made it to the bottom of the Trough without any problems. We started up the Trough and about half way up I started to feel the work my legs were doing. Kristin had another small battle with fear and overcame it just as before. I needed to take quite a few rests tackling the Trough. This was the only section of the trail where my expectations were way off base. I knew it would be physically demanding but I did not think the Trough would be this enormous. We made it to the top and the view was again awesome.
As we started to make our way over the Narrows. It was noticeably a much steeper cliff we were to pass over. I was concerned for Kristin but she did great. The Narrows ledge feels very safe because it is wider than most of the areas of the Ledges and it is also fairly flat. Now at this point Greg was in the lead and CJ was behind him and I was following CJ. Greg was leaning heavily against the wall as he made his way. I couldn’t understand why he was being so extra deliberate and careful. I assumed he was either exaggerating trying to be safe so CJ would see him and take extra care over this stretch or that the footing was allot worse than it looked. I then asked him how the footing was. He turned around and his eyes were as big as silver dollars! He then told me that he was not kidding about being afraid of heights. He said he was really having a tough time with the height.
I was totally surprised. As I mentioned earlier he had considerable experience climbing mountains. He is also very fond of joking around so I always thought he was messing around when he said he was afraid of heights. It then dawned on me why he had to get mentally ready back at the beginning of the Ledges. He turned around and kept going until we made our way around the corner to the Homestretch.
When I first laid eyes on the Homestretch, I pulled Greg aside and mentioned that Kristin might not be able to mentally handle this section. We stopped to let everyone rest up for the final push.
Kristin broke down and we told her she had nothing to prove. She had been facing her fear since the Keyhole and she demonstrated her character and courage in making it this far. Having said that, I couldn’t help but follow that up with the fact that this was the last section. I encouraged her to at least try to go 10 feet at a time. Then if she got to a point where she couldn’t go the next 10 feet to call it quits. Again she dug down deep and started up the Homestretch. She gave all of us a lesson in bravery. She looked her fear right in the face and refused to give in to it.
CJ wanted to have a power bar before we tackled it. Clouds were starting to form so Greg decided to start up right away so we could summit and then get started back down quickly. Kristin also wanted to get this last stretch over with. So CJ and I watched as they started to make their way up the Homestretch. After the first 10-15 feet Kristin stopped and it seemed she was not going to be able to continue. Greg stepped to the plate and told her he would talk her through every step, every hand hold et.. Sean and Matt encouraged her and followed close behind to help give her a sense of protection. This worked out great. Greg was able to keep his mind on talking Kristin along and Kristin didn’t have to think about what to do. She simply had to follow the instructions Greg gave her.
CJ and I started up about 10 minutes after they did. This helped because now I could concentrate on making sure CJ made it up safely. We ended up passing them about half way up. CJ was the first to summit. I took pictures of Greg, Sean, Kristin and Matt as they summited. WE ALL MADE IT!!!
The time was about 12:30PM! Greg called his wife Wendy. I couldn’t get through to my wife. We hung around for about 20-30 minutes, signed the register, ate, took pictures and headed back down.
When we got back to the top of the Trough we talked to a few hikers. We realized we could have a chance at a new world record climb. We might set the record for the longest time ever. One guy asked us when we started. When we told him, he asked us what state we were from. When we told him we were from Nebraska he said “Oh low landers. That’s probably why its taking you so long.” He said he had started 4 hours ago. When we asked where he was from, expecting a Colorado address, he said New York! And he called us low landers!!!
For me going down the Trough was more difficult than going up. Most accounts I had read said you wouldn’t need hiking sticks anywhere past the Keyhole. I listened to that advise too long. About a third of the way down I took them back out of my pack. It relieved allot of stress on my knees and legs after I started using them again.
By the time we made it back to the Keyhole I was terribly tired. Kristin was getting altitude sickness because she stopped drinking water so she wouldn’t have to let go of anything. Greg had to go to the bathroom (#2) since we were on the summit.
Greg thought the privy was fairly close to the Keyhole so when he finally passed through the Keyhole and saw the little spec way down at the end of the Boulderfield which was really the privy he couldn’t rest for even one second. Meanwhile I laid down on a rock and fell asleep in literally 30 seconds. Kristin rested in the shelter. Sean Matt & CJ took a break.
When they woke me up they said we would meet at the privy. I remember getting up and being so physically tired I just looked ahead and went into kind of an auto pilot mode. The next thing I new I was getting close to the privy. I turned around and saw Kristin, Matt & Sean had only traveled 1/4 of the way from the Keyhole. It turned out that Kristin threw up and Matt fell into a crevice between two rocks. CJ went ahead to the privy.
After gathering near the camping area. We took a nice long rest. We ate some trail mix and filled up with water. Kristin gave me one of her Salted Nut Rolls. I definitely got my second wind. We trudged our way back without problems except for CJ’s pack started to dig into his shoulders. We transferred some of the weight out of his pack and he toughed it out for the remainder. It seemed like that last mile or so took forever. We finally finished after 17 1/2 hours!!!! Yes that is not a misprint 17.5 HOURS !! It was almost 7:00PM. Could we have set a new world record? I would be too embarrassed to find out. All I care is that we finished.
I have had a lot of people ask me if I was scared to let CJ attempt Longs. I thought I was going to be very nervous but he handled himself with such maturity, he was so deliberate, thoughtful and careful in his movements that at no time during the hike did I get tense or worried about his safety. He did great.
It has been a few months since Longs and I have set a new goal of all the Colorado 14ers. Sean has the 14ers bug also. Kristin is actually already open to the idea of trying Longs again ...someday. As I write this Greg is attempting Kilimanjaro. I hope this trip report encourages you to try Longs. It has been the most rewarding accomplishment I have achieved. I know now that I have to train a lot harder for my next 14ers.
P.S. 3/5/03 Sean and I are going to guide another Longs trip for some friends and family who want to try it. Just got my confirmation for a boulderfield camp site. Can't wait !!!!
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe