What a great way to experience Longs Peak without dealing with the masses that usually climb it during the summer season. This route takes you from the Copeland Lake Trailhead at 8320' to the Longs summit at 14255'. All said and done, this equates to almost a 6000' gain in elevation. Easy trail walking ? Yes. Bushwacking through heavy forest over boulders and streams ? You bet. Great scrambling from base to summit ? I'd say so. Probability of not seeing anyone else after leaving Sandbeach Lake ? Very high. In my mind, Keplingers Couloir is arguably the best way up one of the most noble fourteeners in the state.
October 1st, 2005 looked like it would turn out to be a great day. There wasn't a cloud in the early morning sky, nor was there a breath of wind. My climbing partner and I tumbled out of the car, organized our gear and then headed off on the Sandbeach Lake Trail. Most of the aspen had already turned and the trail was blanketed with yellow leaves as we made our way westward. Aspen quickly gave way to dense pine as we slowly climbed in elevation. The trail walk to Sandbeach Lake was uneventful, although an abundance of fresh bear scat kept us scanning back and forth into the forest. After arriving at the lake, we both had a beef jerky snack and a few drags of water before continuing on. The section that followed consisted solely of buskwacking through relatively dense forest. Since my GPS chose to pick up only one satellite, it was rendered useless. A compass heading of about 340 degrees ended up working just fine. We met up with Hunters Creek after about a mile. Being the expert creek crosser that I am, I gracefully fell into a deep hole on the downstream side of a small waterfall. Oh well. That's half the fun, right ? Highly refreshed, we both continued up the northern side of the creek, following a tiny game trail as we went. The 11000' mark saw the forest give way to krummholz groves and boulder strewn fields. An unnamed lake serves as a drainage for stream runoff from the south slopes of Longs. We decided to stay well to the east of the little lake, seeing as the area around it was extremely marshy. We chose instead to climb up a small ridge, more like a hill, which is mostly just an offshoot of Meekers south ridge. After this, we followed the base of Meeker westwards to avoid the still marshy tundra that dominates the whole basin in between Pagoda, Longs and Meeker.
We were eventually faced with a bit of a decision. I wanted to keep the climb as close to the original route as possible, but I really didn't want to fight the extremely loose rock that makes up almost all of Keplingers Couloir. Instead, we chose to stay about 1/4th of a mile east of the couloir and climb straight up towards the Loft. This proved to be one of the best scrambles that I have found inside RMNP. We followed a large fan that runs down from the Loft and discovered it to be filled with extremely solid blocks of granite, which gave us some great scambling options. The lower part of the climb yielded hard 3rd class mixed with easy to difficult 4th class moves, with most all of it being relatively exposed. After climbing through 12600', we angled Northwest toward the Palisades and the climbing became sustained, moderate 3rd class on slightly smaller, but still solid chunks of granite.
We ended up arriving right at Clarks Arrow, though it was through dumb luck and not precise navigation. This was the first time that I had seen the actual painting of the arrow on rock. ( I never found it during other climbs). We joined up with the obvious ramp that leads up to the Homestretch. We both found ourselves slipping and skidding a little bit more as the rock became looser and our legs began to protest. Ice flows had already begun to form and we had to take great care not to step on the hard to see sheets of ice. Joining up with the Homestretch, we made our way up those wonderful slabs of granite to the summit. I don't think that I'll ever be able to climb Longs enough to get sick of that football field sized summit. It never ceases to astound me.
After lunch on the west side of the summit, we headed back down. We chose the standard Keyhole Route since we had a shuttle set up to take us from the Longs Peak ranger station back to Copeland Lake. What surprised us the most on the way back down was the amount of snow. The south slopes of the entire Longs Peak massif were completely snow free. The Trough was filled with the white stuff. Even more amazing was the amount of people still headed upwards, even though the route had gone technical weeks before. We passed a guy in shorts and flip flops who was making his way through about a foot of snow. He had no gear to speak of either. Making our way down the Trough and over to the Keyhole was uneventful and we stopped again at the bottom of the Boulderfield for snacks. The hike back down the rest of the route was a great one, as it always is, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
This was my last climb of Longs for the 2005 year, but I already have the urge to go back up again for a snow climb up the North face / old cables route. See you there !