My wife and I were planning a road trip for the family in which we would visit many of the National Parks in the Western United States. It was to be a pretty quick trip (about 18 days) and cover about 4,000 miles, so we really had only one or two really good days in each location. Well, when Rocky Mountain National Park showed up on our itinerary, my son Matthew and I knew that we would have to find a worthy hike. Long’s Peak, via the Keyhole Route, became our choice. I knew it was going to be a difficult hike, and the anticipation of it loomed over the first part of our trip.
We rolled into Estes Park at about 5:00 pm on August 13, 2002. After a quick drive to the park visitor center for some information, we ordered pizza and tried to get some sleep. I like getting early starts, and this hike definitely called for one. Unfortunately, it is always hard to get to sleep before a big hike. After lying awake for several hours, I dozed for what seemed like 5 minutes and the next thing I knew the alarm clock was ringing at 12:00.
One of the things that surprised me on the way to the trailhead was the number of deer we saw around town. They were literally everywhere- on the road, in yards, etc.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 12:30 and were soon on the trail. It was a very dark night, and as we walked we could hear constant scuttling of small animals along the trail and in the bushes nearby. The temperature felt like it was in the mid 60’s or so, and I almost stopped to change into some shorts. I was glad that I had packed light.
We kept up a fairly fast pace and before long we were out of the forest and in an area with only scattered vegetation. The night was still very dark. I don’t think a moon was out, and the stars were awesome. I seem to remember that it was so dark that it was difficult to tell where the horizon was. We could just make our where the stars left off and solid darkness prevailed. Well, not quite solid. Looking in the direction of the valley we could see a few headlights bobbing along, looking like stars that had become loose. Soon, we were in an area that was all rock. At this point the trail seemed to disappear. The only way we knew we were in the right area was by the cairns. We would frequently have to stop at a cairn and then slowly scan the area with our headlights, looking for the next one. We found ourselves following water paths, thinking we were on the trail, more than a few times. This was becoming nerve-wracking, but we slowly made our way closer to the Boulder Field and the horizon that we knew included the keyhole. At this time the wind was very strong and very cold. I live in the high desert of California, so I am used to wind, but this was hard to bear. The wind had to be blowing close to 50 miles an hour, with gusts much higher. There were times when I went to take a step and was blown away from where I intended to put my foot. The cold, too, was unbelievable. At this point I was wearing some light Gramicci pants, a t-shirt, and a light fleece jacket. It’s all I had. My son had on pants, a t-shirt, and a windbreaker. We were freezing and could not stop shivering.
When we got to the boulder field, at about 4:00 am, we decided to hunker down and wait for the sun. Some people that were camping at the Boulder Field asked us if we wanted to join them in their tent, but we decided to wait it out behind some rock wind shelters. The cold just would not go away. Within about 20 minutes, a solo hiker came by and began making his way up the Boulder Field. Tired of waiting, and not getting any warmer anyway, we followed. It seemed like after just a very short time of boulder hopping we were at the Keyhole. The horizon was beginning to lighten. I went over the ridge and began to negotiate the ledges. It soon became clear that, in order to do this without backtracking, I would have to wait until it became lighter. Matthew and I decided to wait in the small stone hut near the Keyhole. We were soon joined by two parties of two, all of us waiting for the sun to light our way. One of the others had been on the route several times in the past, and he confirmed that it is seldom this windy. No one had a thermometer, but the consensus was that, with the wind chill, it was well below freezing. Everyone else was dressed prepared for the cold.
When the sun had just begun break, we made our way back through the Keyhole and began once again to head for the Trough, an 800 ft. slope leading to a ridge. The Trough was steep and I was running out of breath, but the scenery was so awesome I didn’t mind the breaks to catch my breath. Matthew was, as usual, cruising the route as if it was flat. Elevation, grade, nothing seems to matter to him. When everyone else slows down at 13,000 ft, he doesn’t even seem to notice. Matt was waiting for me just on the other side of the ridge. This is where the area known as the Narrows begins. It’s really just a narrow path along the side of the mountain; nothing scary or even dangerous. There was one icy patch, though, on which Matthew slipped and scraped up his legs.
By the time we began the Homestretch, the sun was just rising above Long’s, exactly at the spot we were supposed to emerge. This made it very difficult to follow the route. Every time I looked up, I was blinded by the sun. I wasn’t wearing sunglasses (they always seem to give me a headache). I also started to notice that my eyes were stinging and my vision was becoming blurred. By the time I made it to the top, I could hardly see and my eyes were very painful. I felt like I was looking through a dirty windshield into the sun. We found the log book, took some pictures, and sat down for a break. I was hoping my vision would come back before we headed back down.
After an hour or so, I became impatient and we headed back. Coming down the Homestretch, and negotiating the other obstacles along the way with very limited vision was an adventure to say the least. The route had become quite crowded by this time, which helped in a way because I could make out shapes moving and this helped me stay close to the right route. By the time we got to the bottom of the Boulder Field my eyes were getting worse. I came to the conclusion that the cold dry wind was the culprit, and that my eyes would feel better over time. We waited for a couple hours at the Boulder Field for them to clear up. Still no luck, and I just wanted to get back, so off we went. I warned Matthew that I couldn’t see and that he would have to stay very close so I could tell where to go. I was seriously worried about how to get back to the campground. Matthew was 14 at the time and did not feel comfortable about driving the car himself.
Fortunately, by the time we got to the car, my eyes had cleared up some and I could see enough, just barely, to drive. I am looking forward to doing this hike again sometime. Despite the problems with the wind and cold, we did have fun. Next time, though, I will know how to dress and take better care of my eyes. I feel like I missed so much; it was dark on the way up and I was blind for most of the way down.
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