The ClimbersDennis Sobeck-Lisle, Il
Dan Molitor-Lockport, Il
Keith Michalek-Lemont, Il
Dennis Wertzler-Las Vegas, NV (scouting trip)
The DreamThe dream to attempt to meet the challenge of Longs Peak (14,259 ft) began in June of 2003. We had already successfully climbed Snowmass Mountain (14,099 ft)-August 2001, Grays Peak (14,270 ft)-July 2003, and Torreys Peak (14,267 ft)-July 2003. Snowmass is a very challenging mountain and I think under rated, but that's another trip report which would include getting chased down on one attempt by lightning and saying a lot of Hail Mary's. Most of you fellow climbers know Grays and Torreys Peaks are moderate. But, if planned correctly, you do get to bag both peaks in one day.
My dear friend and fellow climber Daniel had shared our climbing experiences to a colleague who had climbed Longs Peak successfully and thought this would be a good next step and challenge for us. As his colleague put it, "Of all the 14'ers I've climbed so far (16 was his total I believe) Longs Peak was by far the most exciting." His personal record on Longs Peak was 2 for 4, getting turned back by bad weather twice.
My group of friends and climbers are very unique. We have all known each other all are lives, some since the age of 5, and all hail from a small suburb of Chicago named Lemont. We had always went on different adventure trips. So expeditioning trips turned to rock climbing trips, and eventually trying the big ones in the Rockies like the 14'ers. We have spread out through the country now via marriage, kids, careers, but at least once a year we try to get away from the routine of the regular grind of life and visit/climb a new challenge. I am afflicted with the climbing bug and once you have it, it never really leaves you.
In mid-September of 2006, myself (Dennis), Dan, and another friend and climber Dennis (another Dennis) flew to and met in Colorado and drove to Estes to spend a short 3 day scouting trip to see what Longs Peak looked like up close and personal. I had already been reading several trip reports and calling Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) about the mountain conditions. Longs Peak had went to technical status about two weeks earlier as snow was gathering in the Trough.
Since this was only a scouting trip, I did not have aspirations of flying in from Chicago and try to make a summit attempt within 36-48 hours, as this would have put us at serious risk of altitude sickness. I was also in no shape to make this very strenuous attempt, as my mother was very ill and in a deep struggle with Alzheimers/Parkinsins disease and I had been helping my father care for her 4 times a week, along with my engineering career, and had little time to train. For those of you who have experienced this devasting disease to a loved one, my heart goes out to you. I remember telling a deep friend of mine, as my Mom's awareness was fading, that I knew going through this experience with my Mom and my Dad would be one of my most difficult personal climbs of my life.
Our first day, we drove south up Highway 7 to the Longs Peak trailhead. For those of you making a summit attempt, the turn off to Longs Peak trailhead is at mile marker 9. This will simplify things if you note this, as you will be driving to the trailhead in the dark and very very early in the AM.
Scouting TripAt the trailhead ranger station, there are various photos and a really well made to scale model of Longs Peak and surrounding peaks (Mount Meeker, Mount Lady Washington, Storm Peak, Battle Mountain) so you can look and study the routes to visualize the Boulderfield, Keyhole, Trough, Narrows, and the Homestretch. After checking in with the Ranger about weather, advice, etc. we hit the trailhead (9,405 ft.) and procceded up about 8 AM.
While hiking below the treeline and up you pass through and up a very nice Alpine Brooke Falls winding down from the surrounding mountains. We hiked up, breaking the treeline about 1,500 ft to the 2.5 mile marker (10,800 ft) talking to various climbers along the way. We did not want to hike any farther due to acclimation. As we were hiking up, I was trying to visualize what this terrain would be like hiking up with a headlamp on an actual summit attempt. From the info we got from the other climbers, it did not seem like Longs Peak had allowed very many passage to the Summit the past couple of weeks.
Day 2, once again we hit the trailhead about 7 AM and proceeded up. We had some aspirations of trying for the summit of Mount Lady Washington (13,281 ft). However, shortly after we broke the treeline, we were all of a sudden in the middle of 60-70 MPH winds and the temp fell about 30 degrees in about 5 minutes. We layered up with all we had and took shelter in the camping areas of Battle Mountain deciding what to do next. Because we still wanted to scout the route further, after a short break, we proceeded up the trail heading to Longs Peak but the wind was still mindblowing. I got thrown down on the rocks twice it was so bad. While still going up, we ran into a group heading down who had stayed at the Boulderfield. They said it was a crazy windy night holding up their tents and getting no sleep.
We did keep proceeding up and made it to Chasm Lake at 11,800 ft. to look up close and personal at Longs Peak and it's prominent East Diamond Face.
It should be noted that at Chasm Lake Junction (3.5 mile marker/11,400 ft) the trail splits with one way heading Southwest and up to Chasm Lake (0.7 miles further), where you can look at Kieners and Notch Couloir Routes, and the other way heading North traversing Mount Lady Washington and toward the Boulderfield, and toward the North Cable and Keyhole Routes. This is marked but easier to note than to mis-read your chosen route on a Summit Attempt climbing with a headlamp.
Day 3 we just did some exploring around RMNP and then headed back to Chicago and Vegas. I felt we had learned alot about the mountain on this scouting trip with the little time we had. The hike to Chasm Lake (4.2 miles/elevation gain-2,400 ft) is a nice challenging hike and the views are awesome being so close to the peak.
Winter Expedition, Loss, Study, and PlanningIn December of 2006, all The Usual Supects, my friends and fellow climbers met in Arizona for a Grand Canyon Expedition. We descended all the way down to the Inner Gorge, explored for 2 days, and climbed out. This is like climbing a mountain in reverse, by ruining your knees on the descent, and then wondering how in the hell you are going to get out of this huge hole.
Unfortunately, shortly after this trip my Mom slid deeper into the abyss of her devastating disease and passed away in Febuary 2007.
As early spring of 2007 was approaching, my friends were starting to itch about our next upcoming challenge. I did not expect Longs Peak to be on the agenda for this year, even though it was on my personal list for the future. But as the phone calls and e-mails started flying throughout spring it became apparent this year's team would be smaller due to various family commitments. However Dan and I began to plan to try to do this correctly this time and make a Summit Attempt on Longs Peak in the late summer. Dennis, who had been on our scouting trip, and a strong dynamic for the team, could not meet the dates planned, but we had to move on. We decided on early August depending on the mountain conditions. Longs Peak's window normally goes to non-technical (and this only means in the summer with regard to snow/ice climbing, especially in the Trough) about mid July and goes back to technical around late August/early September. However the Class 3+ climbing is always there, even on the standard Keyhole Route.
In early summer of 2007 we made a firm decision on the first week in August and to hopefully make our Summit Attempt on Thurs. August 2nd, mountain depending. Also, my friend and climber Keith (K) had agreed he wanted to go, so our team was now 3.
As summer drew on, I kept on studying the peak by reading various trip reports from Summit Post and calling RMNP (970-586-1206) and the Backcountry Ranger Office (970-586-1242) to check mountain conditions. Also, Dan and I were checking Longs Peak's web cam daily which gives you a good view looking southwest at the peak, looking at the North and East Faces. By mid-July, Longs still had a lot of snow and ice in the Trough, and reports from the rangers did not look promising for an attempt. The Trough is like that piece of your backyard which never gets sun and is so steep that avalanche danger may be present, be it snow or rock. When covered with snow and ice, ice axe and crampons are a must in the Trough. But Dan and I agreed we were going to make this attempt regardless, via the Keyhole Route (8 Miles/Elevation Gain 4,854 ft), of course with due caution.
However about 4 days before we left for Colorado, the rangers reported the mountain was showing positive signs. So we were on our way.
The ApproachKeith (K) and I arrived in Colorado on Sat. July 28th and drove to Estes to establish our tent (actually a rented condo on Fall River-nice tent). On Sun. we just walked around Estes as we were still acclimating at having come from Chicago (1,000 ft) to Estes (7,500 ft). I highly recommend staying at least a few days at these higher elevations before any summit attempt to avoid acute altitude sickness. Dan was afflicted with this on Grays and Torreys Peaks. On Mon. we drove to the Longs Peak Trailhead (9,405 ft) and hiked up to the 2.5 mile marker (10,800 ft). This was important hike for us to do to show K the terrain of what we were going to climb in headlamps on the summit attempt. Also, we ran into several climbers who had successfully made the Summit that day. Mother nature was kind that day on the peak, even though an afternoon storm still did show.
The image below shows Longs Peak getting buried by weather again. I cannot stress enough that this happens almost every afternoon during the summer months of monsoon season. This is why it is imperitive you are off the higher elevations of the peak by this time. Longs Peak is the northern most of the 14'ers and creates it's own weather even more than most mountains. Typical afternoon storms can create severe lightning, snow, coatings of veraglas, and hail. Longs Peak is also the windiest in Colorado. Also, the coldest average temperature year round in Colorado is.......you guessed it...Longs Peak Summit. With mountain climbing, it is always important to remember that the mountain may be the Sentinel, but Mother Nature is the Gatekeeper. Proper planning is one form of respect. And Longs Peak demanded the respect of our previous scouting trip and planning and study. And of course training, as when we returned to Colorado, I was not carrying 10 extra pounds up as on the scouting trip.
On Tues., K and I drove from Estes to Denver airport to pick up Daniel and back to the condo. Although before heading to Denver, we did stop at the trailhead to talk to other climbers about mountain conditions. A storm hit the peak early that day and we were told the Boulderfield was getting pounded by snow and hail. Some of the climbers seemed pretty shaken up.
On Weds., Dan, K and I decided to do a light pre-hike up the Twin Sisters, however I did not want to push it too much as we were going to leave for our Summit Attempt in 14-16 hours. We hiked up about 1,000 ft and did get this awesome shot looking directly west from the Twin Sisters.
After this pre-hike, we went back to the condo and Dan made a huge pasta meal for us (good food for the summit attempt). We needed to get to bed as our start was going to be early. My goal was to hit the trailhead (9,405 ft) at 2:00 AM.
I made one last call to the rangers to check the latest weather report/mountain conditions. All week the forecast had been scattered T-Storms, which is the norm during monsoon season. But the ranger said a new weather pattern was rolling in and there was a 60% chance of showers/T-Storms for the night and 60% for Thurs. day. These types of forecasts typically mean it may be far worse on the upper elevations. This was upsetting. The ranger said if we wake up early and don't see the stars it is better not to go. Although this ranger, and I had spoken to them all, seemed to always give me the most generic answers in the past, as she is very cautious. I was not going to give up that easily after all the training and study.
After packing our gear to get ready, we tried to get to some sleep about 7:00 PM, but I really didn't sleep. As with every Summit Attempt, the night before, while tossing in bed, is filled with anticipation of what may come to pass the next day. Would the weather hold?....... Would I have enough stamina to pull this off?....... Would we get chased down?........ Could we make the Summit? And of course checking the Weather Channel (we left the TV on mute) every 8 minutes to see if this pattern changed.
After really maybe 1-2 hours sleep total I got up at 12:30 AM and checked the weather report, which reduced the chances of storms to 40%, but it was presently raining and cloud covered. I woke Dan and K (who had slept like babies) but I think they thought I was crazy looking out our deck at the rain. The ranger was right that going up in bad weather is not recommended but I thought if we tried and it cleared in the morning, we might have a window shot at the Summit. So we packed our gear and drove to the trailhead as the rain got worse. While winding up HWY 7 to the trailhead, Dan and K were looking out the windows at the weather and then giving me the fish eye. But as we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, there was about 8 cars there. So I thought at least we were not the only ones who were crazy.
We signed in at the trailhead register at 2:35 AM, set with our gear, and proceeded up climbing with our headlamps. It was still raining, but lighter.......no moon......dark sky........
After the trip, Dan thought we looked like deer in the headlights in these pics, but I was determined to make the attempt. Now it was up to Mother Nature, the mountain, and our inner selves, if we going to make the Summit.
To the BoulderfieldOnce again we proceeded climbing up the Longs Peak trailhead, only hopefully this time making it all the way to the Summit. Temps were in the low 40's. My blood was pumping with excitement as we were actually on the Attempt. The rain lightened up as we wound up the trail but there was still no moon or break in the clouds. We set our pace and began to steadily get into the climbing zone, where your body and breathing begin to match. I found climbing up with a headlamp very calming, as we could now only hear Alpine Brooke Falls this time, as we continued up. Our pace was not fast but steady, with breaks to a minimum. Dan and I kept looking up to see if the clouds were breaking as I had hoped. We broke the treeline and arrived at the 2.5 mile marker-10,800 ft at 0400 hrs and took a short break for a few minutes. This is the point in the trail where the high steps really start, some more than a foot. We continued on to Chasm Lake Junction-3.5 mile marker-11,400 ft and took a 15 minute break to try to eat something at 0445 hrs. I forced down a power bar but it was not pleasant, as the upper elevations never agree with my appetite. Longs Peak now loomed in shadow in the distance but the clouds were starting to break above! It is really cool and surreal when you are at this point on the climb looking at headlamps bobbing in the distance from climbers above and below you. We then proceeded on the trail where it splits at Chasm Lake Junction and went North to the right (the sign points to the Boulderfield) traversing Mount Lady Washington.
Eventually, after winding up through Granite Pass we turned the corner and saw the Boulderfield for the first time. We could now turn off and pack our headlamps which had served us so well. Seeing Longs Peak in it's Alpine Morning Glow is truly a blessing. The weather had cleared and we hoped it would hold giving us a window shot at the Summit.
The Boulderfield stretches from 12,600 ft up to the Keyhole at 13,150 ft and these pics do not show the scale of course.
By now, we had accomplished some good work as we made it to the Boulderfield (12,600 ft) proper in about 4 hrs at 0630 hrs-6.5 miles-Elevation Gain 3200 ft. However K started coughing up chum due to the elevation and elevation gain. Dan and I were a bit worried as this is a beginning sign of acute altitude sickness.
Now it was time to strap my hiking poles to my pack that had served me so well. We could now see our next target, the elusive Keyhole-13,150 ft, of which we had only seen in pictures. This is an obvious unique looking Keyhole opening in the mountain's North Ridge west of the Boulderfield. Climbing up the Boulderfield, the climbing transitions from Class 2 rock hopping, scrambling, bouldering, and to all hand and foot climbing of Class 3 as you continue to climb up to the Keyhole.
In the middle of the Boulderfield there are 8-10 tent sites made up of about a 10 foot wide circles of rocks piled about 5 feet high. Staying here is an option on a Summit Attempt but the prevailing winds coming through and down the Keyhole may make this a very exposed propostion. Passing one of these sites and climbing up we came across 2 Native American Indian ladies staying in one of these and Dan asked them "Where are the cairns?" They said, "They just may give you the least path of resistence but to save your strength guys, you're going to need it." This turned out to be quite the prophesy and premonition.
There are also a set of solar powered toilets up there (pretty wild), even though that was the furthest thing from my mind and body at this altitude. No thank you.
And of course, even though it seemed we had a break in the weather, time was still ticking on the mountain. Clear weather on Longs Peak never lasts and can change quickly.
The KeyholeOnce approaching the Keyhole, K was still giving back to the mountain. The Keyhole is the major transition from the East to the West Face of the mountain. We finally climbed up and through the Keyhole-13,150 ft about 0725 hrs and were amazed by the sight as you are looking out at the open expanse of Glacier Gorge dropping below. All the elevation gain we had climbed up to that point (3,745 ft) just drops away below you all at once. There are immediate over 1,000 ft falls from this point. Temp and wind changes dramatically as you pass through the Keyhole. It is truly like walking through a door to this different and amazing world.
Once through the Keyhole, we layered up with all we had except for raingear (5 layers). Once again, immediately passing though you are faced with a shear 1,000 ft drop off and there is little space to even sit. 3 or 4 other climbers were there and 2 turned back once they looked across the Ledges and what they entailed. As they put it, "There ain't no f***ing way I'm doing that!" Dan was a little pissed off at these guys because they were blocking our way and there was only one exposed way to go on. We could see the bottom of the Trough way off in the distance to the south. How to get there, we don't know yet. Although from here the route is marked with painted bulls-eyes at various points.
The Keyhole is truly the Go or No Go point of this route and climb. You have a clear view of the weather coming out of the west. Unlike my decision to leave from the trailhead in bad weather to the Boulderfield, you cannot do the same from the Keyhole. This may be a fatal decision as you are now really on the upper elevations of the mountain and the rest of the route is very exposed. If you go for the Summit from here, you won't get back to the Keyhole for at least 5 hrs so you better be sure. That's a lot of time above 13,000 ft, especially on Longs. Fortunate enough for us the weather looked clear at present with some clouds looming way to the west, of which I would keep a constant eye on.
We proceeded from the Keyhole onto the Ledges at 0738 hrs. Only 1 mile and 1,109 ft to go. Sounds easy.......not.
The LedgesThe Ledges....very aptly named. The Ledges traverse south on the West Face of the mountain. Here you have lots of exposure and are in awe, excited, and raises your awareness because you cannot make a mistake here as there are immediate 1,000 ft or more drop offs in several places.
After proceeding out of the Keyhole, which is one exposed lane, I took the lead and immediately mis-read the rock and was funneled to a very exposed lane too high of the correct route. Dan and K took the correct lower lane at the beginning and I fell in behind them but almost fell into Glacier Gorge trying to get back to the correct route. Whew!
Obviously, you have to be very careful while traversing and climbing through the Ledges. The mountain's West Face terrain really dictates your speed here, as you are making Class 3 and 3+ moves.
There are parts of the Ledges where you actually have to put your hiney out over the exposure while hanging on to the rock and making a set of moves traversing to safer ground. Dan said to me a few times as he was beginning one of these moves "Oh Dennis! You're going to love this one!" He was so right. That'll wake you up in the morning! On one of the more dangerous spots, the rangers actually have a short spike driven into the side of the mountain. And you have to use this by putting your foot on this and making a move to safer ground. If this gives way, you are going to fall for a long time!
The Ledges last for about 1/4 mile and are no path at all. It moves up and down in elevation by 200 ft or more with the mountain's West Face falling away from you into the abyss as you try to traverse and adjust constantly. From one bulls-eye to the other, the route between the two is never a direct line as you have to look and piece together how to get to the next one. I learned that lesson early on in the Ledges and still put myself in spots not too comfortable.
At one point on the Ledges, while waiting for K to make his next move so I could proceed, I turned back to a climber who was crouching about 10 ft behind me and said, "Pretty hard core uh!" He turned to me, eyes as big a saucers, looks down into Glacier Gorge and stutters, "No sh*t, this is f***ing hard core!" He was one of the climbers we had met from the Keyhole that did not turn back but he was terrified. Somehow, I never saw that climber again.
We completed the Ledges in about 30-45 min and it was now 0822 hrs. Meanwhile, the clouds were starting to form below us and time was ticking on the mountain.
The TroughAfter braving the Ledges, which gain and lose elevation, we ended up back at about 13,150 ft (same elevation as the Keyhole), and at the bottom of a huge couloir known as the Trough.
The Trough run east up the West Face of Longs Peak and like everything else on this climb, it is loonnngg. It spans 800 ft of very steep and loose rock, coupled with very large boulders to navigate/climb over or around. A fall in the Trough could be very bad. There are not the immediate drop offs as in the Ledges but a fall could still make a climber continue to tumble for a very long time. Climbing up the Trough is really a war of attrition as you are trying to make strenuous moves above 13,000 ft. Every move in the Trough is up, unlike the Ledges and their up and down. There are no breaks here. This is all straight tough elevation gain. You have to be especially aware of rockfall danger here from climbers above you, and to not set anything loose and tumbling down on climbers below you.
While climbing the Trough, you just try to get up one move at a time. Your pace slows as does the oxygen going to your body. There were times in the Trough when I would lose myself in mini-blackout after making a move and I would just have to hold on to the rock and wait for my body and head to come back........and then make my next move. Dan also said that a few times, when he would look up to check our progress, that this would happen to him as he would lose himself for a bit.
Dan, K, and I did not talk much in the Trough, just climb, as this would have wasted needed energy. Breaks were only to let your body come back as we still had a window shot at the Summit.
This was definitely the most strenuous and steepest climbing, other than roped rock climbing (and that at much lower elevations), we had ever done so far considering the rock and the elevation.
The Trough starts out pretty wide but narrows as you go up and eventually funnels to the Chockstone at the top. These are very large boulders viced in at the top of the couloir. To get over this, you have to make your most difficult Class 3 + move yet as this obstacle is about 12 ft high. There is an obvious crack to your left and a toe hold to your right about chest high. This may be an easier move if you are taller.
Dan reached the top of the Chockstone first and put his arm down to help me. I told him, "No way Dan, I have to do this myself." He just smiled as he knows to this day he would have never let me live it down if I took his hand. So I viced in on the left crack, raised my right leg as far as it would go, and pulled myself in a postion to make the top. It felt like I dislocated my hip making these moves but I made it to the top.
Wow! We had completed the evil and relentless Trough! It was 0915 hrs and we were just under 14,000 ft elevation. The clouds were building more below us to the west. Now we were headed for even more excitement as we passed around the very amazing and airy corner to the Narrows.
The NarrowsThe Narrows.........once again, very aptly named. At the top of the Trough and the Chockstone we turned the airy corner and were thrust into another amazing sight. While rounding this first very narrow corner to proceed onto the Narrows, I had to look to make sure no one was coming the other way because there was no way two can pass each other from here. But once around the corner, there are more than severe drop offs. The sight is just jaw dropping amazing. However, we could now see the weather also coming out of the south as clouds were building below there too.
The awesome pic below is taken by Dan, who took the lead in the Narrows, looking back at K and I. K is in the black hat right behind me.
The Narrows run east with the South Face of the Mountain rising up to your left in a shear cliff face above and shear 3,000 ft drop to your right. Wow!
There are little options as far as route goes, which can narrow to less than 2 ft in places, but I found I could adjust my moves somewhat.
While going through the Narrows, I just kept concentrating on my hand and foot placement, and not the impending doom if I made a mistake.
Once again, like the Ledges, there are moves where we had to put our hineys out over in the exposure while traversing to safer ground. The shear drop is more severe in the Narrows than the Ledges, but we had been in all this exposure for hours now and somehow you get used to it.
Once through the Narrows, at the end, there is a set of boulders about 8 ft high to get over with some simple Class 3 moves. The Narrows lose and gain about 100 ft of elevation and we ended back at just under 14,000 ft. It was now 0930 hrs and we were looking up our next challenge, the Homestretch.
The HomestretchThe Homestretch.......not very aptly named at all. Do not be fooled by the name as this is the most difficult stretch of technical climbing yet, with Class 3+ climbing bordering on Class 4. I don't know who in the hell named it that. I think it must be some kind of sick climbing joke. But I had studied this route and was prepared for this. Although, I could definitely see the Homestretch may be near impossible in bad weather.
Once braving the Narrows, we arrived at the bottom of the Homestretch at just below 14,000 ft. Here you climb North up the South Face of the mountain. This is over 250 ft of very steep granite slabs and steeper than the Trough. This was definitely the steepest rock any of us has ever climbed without ropes. But at the top of this is the Summit, and there was no way I was going to back down now. This was the moment.......and I knew now was time to put all of my previous climbing experience to bear.
The pic below of the Homestretch is great to zoom in on and look at the various climbers. There are two obvious crack lines going up. The two climbers on the right crack are having problems early.
We spoke with a climber coming down and he said he took the left crack up and it looked right to us. Dan started up the left crack but early on seemed caught in a set of impossible moves. I went up the right crack line early but traversed to the left crack line before the two climbers having problems and proceeded up.
The best way I found up was to use the left crack as your left handhold and put your body spread on the rock. You don't have a right handhold, so you quickly pull up from your left hand hold and move your feet quickly before they slip and use your right hand on the flat slab for balance (and you had to be quick or all limbs would slip)..........and reset for your next move.
This was again very strenuous trying to make moves this technical above 14,000 ft. And once again we were experiencing the mini-blackouts.......but we kept climbing on. About halfway up the Homestretch, Dan got caught behind this really nice but really, really terrified girl from Minnesota climbing with her boyfriend. As I was passing her, I tried to give her advice to show her how I was getting up the steep slope and proceeded up. With Dan right behind her and her boyfriend, she tried to make a move but apparently was not quick enough, and all her limbs spread out and she started sliding down the mountain, almost taking Dan and her boyfriend with her. She literally slid down and through her boyfriend's arms, (he was also spread out on the slope), under him, and through his legs and caught his foot with her arm going by. Whew! When she came to a stop, she just burst into tears. I guess she was really rattled, bordering on hysterical, as Dan was encouraging her, "You're doing great hon! You're gonna make it!" However, Dan could not wait any longer and proceeded up.
This slope is very steep and you could slide right off the South Face of the mountain.
Meanwhile, I kept climbing on with my blood pumping with excitement. We were close to the dream being realized. And on Thursday-August 2nd-at 1000 hrs I pulled myself over the last move and reached the Summit of Longs Peak!
The SummitI had been dreaming of reaching the Summit of Longs Peak for 4 years.......and all of a sudden I was there. When I pulled myself over, I was overwhelmed with emotion and could not speak. Thurday, August 2nd at 1000 hrs in 7 hrs 25 min......8 miles.....4,854 ft elevation gain.....Summit Elevation 14,259 ft.
My first moments on the Summit were wierd as I did not expect to be there by myself. There were about 8 other climbers on the Summit but my best friends were not there yet. For some reason those 2 minutes seemed like the longest in my life as my emotions were filling my mind with the shock I was finally on the Summit.
While waiting, I found the Summit's highest point (about 100 feet straight ahead from the last move), and looked around. The Summit of Longs Peak is actually quite large, about as big as a small football field. However my friends were about to arrive and I had my camera ready to capture their last steps to the Summit.
Dan arrived first followed by K a few minutes later.
Now it was time for me take care of a personal and heartfelt Summit mission I had planned. In my pack was my Mom's memorial card (who had passed away the previous February) that I had sealed inside of a film container. I looked around the for the right rock and kneeled down, dug a hole, and buried this on the Summit to honor my Mom. I knew my Dad would be proud, as I asked him permission to do this. I bowed my head and said a short prayer and asked her to look out for us on the descent. As I stood up and turned around, wiping my eyes, I looked over at Dan and K and they were just staring at me. I have known these guys all my life and they never look at me like that. But I think they knew they were watching a moment.
Meanwhile, the clouds were rising from below from the South and the West. But of course we had to look around, set our manly poses, and take our pics from the highest point.
The other climbers on the Summit were real quiet, as were Dan, K, and I. When on a Summit, I never try to get too pumped up as I am always worried about the descent, as really we were only half way through with the climb.
As with most Summits, there is a Summit log in a weather proof container and attached to the highest point, of which we all signed. Shortly after this, we were happy to see the Minnesota girl and her boyfriend had made it.
The weather was nice on the Summit with temps in the low 40's. Dan had delayered to a T-shirt, but he is on a different body thermostat from the rest of the planet. But there was major weather visible coming up from below.
One pic I had to take and experience was to walk to the edge of the East Diamond Face. I asked K if he wanted to look over the edge down at Chasm Lake, which is straight down 2,859 ft, but somehow he was not game. The amazing pic below is from that point, looking down at Mount Meeker. If I walk 3 more feet, there is going to be a problem.
After my Summit mission, exploring, taking in the views, and more pics, we had to prepare for the descent. I had used all my water from my 3 litre Camel Back, and K helped me pour my last 2 litres of life in. My hands were shaking and I did not want to spill it. This had to sustain me for the descent. The clouds seemed to be really rising quickly now, and after 30 minutes on the Summit, it was definitely time to go.
The DescentAfter spending 1/2 hr on the Summit, it was obviously time to go. The clouds were really building and rising from the South and the West, which is exactly where we have to go back down. Quite the daunting feeling. At 1030 hrs we left the Summit and began down climbing the Homestretch. Going down the steep rock was not easy as you had to down climb crab walking on all 4's on your butt or turn around and try that way. You have to take it slow and think through each move.
After many careful moves, we made it down to the bottom of the Homestretch at 1055 hrs (almost the same time as getting up this stretch). Dan looked up on the descent to take one last awesome pic of the Homestretch. K and I can be seen down climbing if you zoom in.
Next we had to brave the Narrows one more time, heading West on the way out. Going through the Narrows again was not that bad as we were used to the exposure and putting our hineys out over the edge. Here I have an awsome pic of the Narrows from the descent. If you zoom in you can see K (in black with blue backpack) and Dan (with green backpack) ahead of me with the cliff face falling straight down 3,000 ft to their left. Dan is actually climbing up the cliff face to let the other climber go by. Once again, you cannot fall in any of these spots.
After braving the Narrows for the last time, once again we were faced with the 800 ft couloir of the Trough, climbing west down the West Face. The Trough was just murder on my knees going down. And once again, I had to try moves backwards, on all 4's and all of the above. This took a long time as you would step on a group of rocks that looked stable, but gave way and you're slipping down the slope. More than once, I thought I sprained my knee. The rough steep terrain, coupled with Newton's Law reaking havoc on my descent muscles, ligaments, and tendons, was really bad math on my body. Now we were climbing straight down into the clouds. Because I am such a slow down climber, Dan and K were pretty far ahead of me, and with the clouds so low, I lost sight of them and the bulls-eyes. I was getting worried I would not see the entrance to the Ledges to begin climbing North toward the Keyhole.
Finally, after countless down climbing moves, I arrived at the bottom of the evil and relentless Trough. Dan and K had waited about 10 min for me and I arrived a little worse for wear.
We then proceeded North to brave the Ledges and their Class 3 and 3+ moves for the last time. The Ledges once again move up and down in elevation with mountain's West Face falling away into Glacier Gorge with 1,000 ft or more drop offs in several places. I did not want to lose my concentration now. We proceeded climbing up and down along the face. And I had to use that damn spike driven into the side of the mountain again. Dan just laughed as I was beginning this move and said, "Come on Den!.......There's no way that's going to give way!" Even I had laugh as I was making my move toward safe ground.
By now we were really getting tired of all the up and down, so it was time to lighten the mood, as later on the Ledges Dan turns back to K and I and bellows, "Now why in the f*** are we climbing down again when the Keyhole is way the f*** up there!" At that time I almost did fall into Glacier Gorge I was laughing so hard. But the Ledges are as frustrating as they are dangerous. And by now, the clouds were really rising and enveloping the mountain with an impending storm.
We finally made it out of the Ledges and arrived at the Keyhole (13,150 ft) about 1250 hrs. We made it from the Keyhole to the Summit in 2 hrs 22 min and on the descent from the Summit to the Keyhole in 2 hrs 20 min. The terrain of this route does not allow you to descend any quicker than you can climb. There is no running off this mountain, especially on the West or South Faces.
Once we passed through the Keyhole we were faced with getting down and through the Boulderfield for the last time. Considering my knees were already trashed, this was a longer process than planned. Dan and K were moving down the Boulderfield quicker than me to the point where I could not see Dan at all and K was off in the distance. As I was down climbing what seemed like endless boulders I did take a moment to look around and reflect. Absolutely no one was in sight anywhere, as if I was the only person on this planet. The Boulderfield really makes it seem like you are on Mars with its vast boulders and looking down and turning into a vast sea of talus. However, many trip reports had told me this is not the place to be with an impending storm brewing on the mountain, as the Boulderfield is very exposed to the weather coming down from the Keyhole. The Boulderfield is still hours from the treeline. I finally did come across two climbers coming up, a man in his early 50's and a woman in her early 30's. I looked up and wondered why in the hell they were heading up this late in the day on the mountain. As I was passing them going down they could see I was struggling on my bad knees. As we were standing on our respective boulders about 50 fards apart, the man asked me if I wanted any Ibuprofin but I said, "No thanks. I have to take the pain and get through this." The woman just laughs at me and yells across, "I suppose you believe in natural child birth too!" You meet the strangest people in the mountains.
Meanwhile the clouds were enveloping the mountain.
Dan actually got really far ahead of K and I and sat down in the lower Boulderfield at the tent sites to wait for us for about 1/2 hour. Dan also met a couple of climbers, who were packing their gear from a tent site. However, they seemed a very close couple....and both men. As in Seinfeld, not that there's anything neccessarily wrong with that. They just were not on our team. Once again, you meet the strangest people in the mountains.
And meanwhile, the mountain was getting buried quicker now. I really wanted the climb to be over but we had to keep moving down as quickly as our bodies would allow, as Longs Peak takes no prisoners.
We eventually made it out of the Boulderfield and were on an actual trail for the first time in about 8 hours, even though this has very high steps (1-2 ft) which were not good on my taxed and struggling knees. We never saw the mountain after that even though she was close, as we were traversing Mount Lady Washington (which also disappeared) in the Alpine Tundra. Now the clouds were right upon us. Dan's profile would fade away if he was 10 ft in front of us. K was really hurting at this point between the altitudes all day and the physical demands of the climb and descent. Every once in a while I would hear K stumble. I'd turn around, "You alright K?" And he would just reply softly, "Just rolled my ankle again, I'm OK".......and we'd continue on. I would have to stop at each high step, set my hiking poles, and brace for impact. But we had to keep moving, as the mountain was about to let it's weather go.
Just as we were approaching Chasm Lake Junction, the clouds we were in the middle of for endless directions began to down pour. K was so wiped out he did not even take the time to get out his raingear. He insisted he was wearing enough layers and that the rain (and it was really downpouring) would not get through. We had to get K off this mountain soon.
After leaving Chasm Lake Junction and still 3.5 miles and 2,000 ft to go, we continued down in the weather. We felt like we were on an endless march down those last 2,000 ft. The rain was steady and heavy, fortunately with no lightning, but did hear thunder. The weather was so low though, we could not tell. Even though this was miserable, I was damn glad we were off the upper elevations of the mountain. It could not have been pleasant up there. But eventually we reached the 2.5 mile marker and shortly after breaking the treeline, which was a relief. While hiking down below the treeline, we still had to be careful as the trail was very slick and had mini waterfalls winding down the switchbacked trail. K had run out of water, but Dan had an extra litre to give him. We made it down to Goblins Forest at 1.2 miles and finally the .5 mile marker. And I had just ran out of water. That was a long .5 miles as I had to remind K we still had 300 ft to go. I didn't want anything to happen when we were so close. As we were approaching the Trailhead and making our final steps, it just began to rain harder. We unloaded our gear, got in the car and even Dan wanted the heat on, as we were drenched and cold. At that moment, with the climb finally done, and everybody safe, Dan let go of his emotions and loudly proclaimed, "We did it!!" It was now 1730 hrs. The whole climb and descent took us 14 hrs 55 min.
But we had one last task to complete and as Dan reached into our homemade cooler and pulled out a well deserved Flying Dog and handed it to me, I could see it was icey cold! Wow! Even our homemade cooler had survived this test (keeping it cold since 1:30 AM the previous day). Mission complete! Damn! Not quite yet, as I had to go back up the trail and sign the register in the driving rain, so the rangers would know we were safe. And even K came to his senses and had a beer with us as we began to reflect on this amazing climb!
AfterwordThat evening, we were so wiped out we just ate the leftover pasta for dinner. We all called our families to tell them we had made the Summit, but most importantly that we were safe. As I was dozing off to ESPN, I heard Barry Bonds had tied Hank Aaron's home run record (damn cheater).
The rain continued through the night and by morning Fall River had risen by over a foot. I highly doubt anyone made the summit of Longs Peak that day Friday. Both Friday and Saturday we relaxed in Estes, explored RMNP, and looked up at Longs Peak in the distance, of course tipping our glasses every once in a while. We did try a small hike in RMNP on Saturday, but shortly after another storm hit the area and the mountain was buried again.
We did plan this climb correctly, and for that I am proud, but as with any tough one, you need a bit of luck. That luck was when the weather cleared briefly that Thursday morning, giving us a window shot at the Summit. As for water, I definitely feel this is a minimum 5 litre climb. Dan went through 3-4 litres, K about 6 litres, and 5 litres for me. As for food, I recommend eating early in the climb if you can. But the upper elevations never agree with my appetite. And most importantly, as this trip report shows, an early Alpine start is a must.
Longs Peak is an amazing mountain, and I feel fortunate she gave us a pass that day to climb her. What a peak! I now can see her in the mirror every morning while shaving.....and smile.
In closing, I'd just like to say the same as I signed while on the Summit of Longs Peak.......I LOVE YOU MOM!.......This one was for you.......