A long, long time ago, I can still remember...
I suppose most everyone has that one peak that was their inspiration to go strap up a pair of hiking boots and head for the summit. For me, hands down, it was Longs, and it was a long long time ago, all the way back to the fall of 1980, after listening to my brother talk about his successful summit. To say it lit a fire under my ass would be an understatement. But despite the desire, it would be 25 years before I stepped onto her slopes, and thanks to the weather, failed. But attempts in 2006 and 2008 proved successful, and by 2009 I was ready to move onto other areas of Colorado. Yes, emotionally, I was over Longs and the annual summer trips out west would take me to other areas of Colorado, as well as Washington, and the list of other peaks to court grew longer and longer, and the embers of my fiery passion for Longs slowly burnt out.
By late in the winter of 2015 it was time again to think about where to head for the 2015 summer trip. After a short return trip to RMNP in 2014 (with no attempt on Longs even considered) my mind drifted towards the North Cascades and the Winds…
Like Father, Like Son…but then the phone rang! It was my son Andrew calling, “Dad, Dave’s playing in Denver this August! How bout’ we plan on hiking in Colorado for the week and then hit the show(s)?” And the rest, as they say, is history. How does a father say no to a son who asks to go hiking with him for a week in Colorado? He doesn’t of course! This wouldn’t be the first time Andrew and his friends have used a DMB concert to determine the course of my annual summer hiking plans. And as of this writing, that is the plan again for late August, with a trip back to the North Cascades all but booked. I can handle a week of hiking and camping with my son and his friends, and finishing the week at a concert. It’s OK…life is good!
Back to the phone call…we didn’t decide on a specific place right there and then, but the more I thought about it, it just seemed to make sense to head back to RMNP again, for a few good reasons. Andrew and I had hiked together in the Elks, the Sawatch and the San Juans, but never RMNP, so it was time he covered some trail miles there. Then there were the logistical reasons. Several of Andrew’s friends were making the journey to Denver, as well as hiking with us, and I, as well as Andrew, wanted something with a close proximity to Denver. So again, RMNP just made sense.
Now that we had a destination picked, all that was left to decide was what summits to go after. Of course, Longs was sitting out there, like the beautiful sore thumb she is, and despite being over her, with really no desire to ascend her slopes again, I had to at least consider it for Andrew. So what does a father do? Well, I did what any self-respecting father would do and sent Andrew a link to my Keyhole Route photos and asked “How bout’ Longs?”
Every year there seems to be one peak that becomes the focus of our annual week long trips. Unlike his father, Andrew seems to be content with just getting one significant summit in over the course of a week. In 2009 he was content with his first 13er. In 2010 it was Snowmass, and in 2011 in was Sneffels. In 2015, it would be Longs, and he was all in! For me, I was a bit greedier as it was Alice, as well as Longs. Alice, for reasons I have written about ad nauseum here on SP. For Longs, it was strictly a fathering thing. I knew how important it was for Andrew to tag the summit, so I focused all of my planning on giving him one good shot.
Like me back in 2005, leading up to my first trip to RMNP, Longs became Andrew’s obsession. Over the course of the summer all of his focus and training was on this one objective. Yeah, we were going to get in some other hikes, but whenever we started discussing plans for the trip, the discussion always seemed to make its way back to Longs. While I had lost that passion for Longs many years ago, I could empathize with his. The passions of youth are easily forgotten!
He often asked for recommendations regarding his training, but in reality, how does a Chicago-land desk jockey get ready for a big peak like Longs? I gave him the same advice I give all of us flatlanders. “The best way to train for hiking in the mountains is to go hiking in the mountains!” Considering that is not a realistic option for either of us, I just told him to train the way he had in years past. That was good enough to get him (and I) up some pretty awesome peaks in Colorado, and hopefully it would be good enough to get him up Longs.
And Then There Were ThreeMy goddaughter Olivia attends college in Colorado and as soon as she heard I was heading to RMNP for my summer trip the inquiries about her joining us on Longs started coming early and often, from her but more so from her parents. The timing was good for her to join us on the weekend for a hike on Sunday, but with classes starting on Monday morning the timing for her wasn’t the best for joining us on Longs. Her father asked me once about just going on Sunday so Olivia could go with us. I love Olivia most dearly, but I told John matter of factly that there was no way in hell I was going to climb Longs on a Sunday. Way too many people up there on weekends!
For a number of reasons, it worked out that Monday would be the best day to try for Longs, and this would end up helping Olivia’s cause. She ended up camping with us on Saturday night and hiking to the Gorge Lakes with us on Sunday morning. She knew we were heading up Longs the next day and I could tell it was eating at her that she wouldn’t be joining us. We discussed it a number of times over the course of our day on the slopes near Mount Ida. Being the excellent student that she is, she didn’t want to miss the first lab of an important class for her major. Fortunately a text came through from her father telling her she couldn’t miss the opportunity to climb Longs with her godfather. Classes could wait a day! With the worrying over, she was all smiles! She would get to bag Longs…and from what I understand, still got a passing grade of an A in that class.
The Long(est) Day
I was hoping for my traditional 2 AM start. While we didn’t oversleep, we didn’t get going quite as early as I’d hoped so we were at the trailhead at 2:30 AM instead. We took our time from trailhead to the Boulderfield. We stopped fairly often, including taking time for one of my traditions of turning off the headlamps so we could look up at the sea of stars, which there were a plethora of on this crystal clear morning. And while we by no means moved fast, I was happy that we made it to Granite Pass at first light. We finally got that first look of Longs east face right at dawn, so we were on schedule.
I was very happy to finally reach the Keyhole and get that amazing view down into Glacier Gorge.
The scramble across the Ledges is always a good time, at least on the way up, and Andrew and Olivia as expected had no issues.
I remember not much liking my first visit to the Trough. My nephew Dave didn’t much like his first visit to the Trough either back in 08’. Andrew sort of followed suit. About half way up he started to feel the altitude, as well as the long steep hiking. It always seems the Trough is what tests the effectiveness of your training program! And then there’s that damn chockstone at the top before exiting to the Narrows. I believe I have written before that I hate the Chockstone. Still do, as I’m not the best climber!
The Narrows were uneventful, and the relatively level crossing gave Andrew a chance to rest up a bit before the final push up the Homestretch. The three of us all took our own pace up this last stretch. Olivia pushed on ahead and then myself and Andrew followed. He was pretty bushed at this point, so he took it slow and came up behind me, just like Rob in 06’ and Dave in 08’. Olivia seemed to just coast up the Homestretch and greeted us at the summit cairn, shooting lots of pictures of our final bit of suffering and joy. The Homestretch did seem longer – and harder - this time around. I’m sure that extra seven years and now being on the dark side of 50 hasn’t helped my cause (LOL).
We spent a good 30 to 45 minutes on the summit. We made sure to get a large number of summit shots together and Andrew and Olivia made sure they signed the summit register. They took their break near the true summit area and I as usual made my way to the far end, where it’s much quieter (yes I had the area to myself), and allows me to enjoy all those wonderful views out into Wild Basin and beyond Glacier Gorge.
It was finally time to descend and it would be a slow one. Olivia was a bundle of energy but Andrew and I were a bit slower and kept our own pace behind. During the hike down I had plenty of time to organize my thoughts about Longs, and compare it to some of my other days in Colorado since my first summit of this peak, now nearly 10 years ago.
Reprise: Of Crowds and Cairns
On this day, the volume of scrambling from the Keyhole to the summit came as a surprise. I had forgotten how much scrambling you do on this route! Other than North Maroon and maybe Sneffels SW Ridge, I have never used my arms as much as I did this day. Once we hit the Keyhole the scrambling seemed to come in earnest, for a good portion all the way to the summit.
I now realize that back in 06’, on my first successful day on Longs, I showed her nowhere near the respect she deserves. While we were descending I kept thinking, considering the large volume of people that climb this route each summer, it’s surprising that more people don’t get into trouble. While none of the moves are particularly hard, it’s just the amount of time one spends far above treeline, back and forth from the Keyhole to the summit. Even after getting back to the Keyhole, it’s still a long haul to treeline!
Comparisons to other routes I have done, like Snowmass or the Red Gully on Crestone Peak, are difficult, as I didn’t do those in a day but as part of an overnight backpack. In one long day, Longs was physically much more exhausting, and the scrambling much more sustained. Sneffels SW ridge and North Maroon were more difficult, but only from the mental standpoint. Neither was as physically challenging, but with the loose rock and route finding, I was mentally exhausted at the end of those days, particularly on North Maroon.
So, do the crowds and cairns matter? Damn straight they do! All those people, and all those bull's-eyes – makes this very difficult route seem a helluva lot easier than it really is. Negotiating the Ledges, as well as the exit/entry between the Narrows and the Homestretch could be much more dicey without those bull's-eyes.
Yes, if I knew in 06’ what I know now, I might have showed Longs a bit more respect!
Epilogue: The Forgotten Passions of Youth
Yeah, I remember it like it was yesterday, the first time I learned of this mountain referred to as Longs Peak. And I still remember the pain I felt knowing it was going to be a long time before I would ever get to see her…
Andrew and Olivia would give me a gentle reminder of this, leading up to and during the hike, and again later at Christmas.
For Andrew, I don’t ever remember him talking about a particular peak the way he did Longs. Normally he seems content to follow Dad’s lead and whatever crazy plans I come up with. But not this time! Longs may have been my idea, but I heard it in his voice all spring and summer, and the closer we got to the trip, the more he talked about it. The passion for Longs was there. Yes, for Andrew, there was something special about this peak. It was a summit he definitely did not want to miss.
I was very happy for Andrew! It was a tougher day for him that he had expected but he pushed through, and bagged what I still think is physically the most difficult of the ten 14ers I have summited. Several years ago Andrew and I ran the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon together and I warned him leading up to Longs that that half marathon was nothing compared to what Longs would offer. After this day, he completely agreed with me. Maybe time has a way of helping us forget how difficult some of our days are in the mountains, but Andrew was pretty adamant that nothing that he had bagged in Colorado compared to Longs. Not Snowmass, and not Sneffels SW Ridge! I would concur with him.
For Olivia, I could hear it in her voice from the moment she showed up at our campsite. At that time she wasn’t expecting to get her shot at Longs and the disappointment was obvious. She kept talking about Longs, as well as a number of 14ers. Trust me, I have nothing against 14ers, but over the course of our two days together I did try to reinforce to her that there are so many good peaks out there, most of which have an elevation of < 14,000 ft., including a special few right in front of our faces. I suppose some would say I was forcing my own opinion. I’d say I was just passing on some wisdom to a passionate newcomer to the game.
When I talked to Olivia’s dad about her day on Longs, apparently her words were “It was awesome, but brutal!” I was very happy that it worked out for her to join us, and very happy that she loved it so much. I can see Olivia getting a lot of peakbagging done before she finishes up school in Colorado. Just the week before Longs she had completed the Decalibron, so she was familiar with some of Colorado’s 14ers.
When Christmas came around, Andrew and Olivia again reminded my how special this day was to them. Andrew and his fiancé Jami got me a nicely framed poster of Longs. A few days later I received a nicely framed photo of our summit hero shot from Olivia. Both of which fit rather nicely in my home office. I sent Olivia a text thanking her for the picture and I received a rather emphatic response of “No, thank you! Best hike I’ve done in my life so far.” Yes, Longs is a special mountain, and how easy that is to forget. Thank you to Andrew and Olivia for the reminder!
So, will this be my last stop on Longs? I believe so, but with my propensity for being a creature of habit, let’s just say, all bets are off. Happy trails…