What Would Shakespeare Do?
Longs Peak: “To climb or not to climb—that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously unfit and unprepared crowds or to take boots against that sea of troubles and, by opposing, pass and ignore them.”
--Generally attributed to William Shakespeare as he contemplated the climb of a popular but majestic peak in Scotland; later, inspired by the idea of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, he adapted this for what became the world’s greatest play.
Enough of that.
But does someone who loves the mountains but feels distinctly differently about tourist-choked trails climb a mountain like Longs or not? Its stature, size, splendor, and variety of routes all say to climb it. The traffic jams on certain parts of the standard route, plus the noise and deflating effect of a crowded summit, say to stay away.
But look at it. Read about it. How can you NOT climb it? Experienced Colorado mountaineers who have seen much of the state’s very best still return to and love this mountain, so it’s more than just a very popular hunk of rock.
Broken Appointments Finally Kept
The east face above Chasm Lake
I first saw Longs Peak in July 1996. I first passed on a chance to climb it the next July. In August 2001, I passed on it again, opting to spend an extra day around the Wind River Range before returning to Denver to meet my wife. In 2003, I procured a backpacking permit for the Boulderfield Campground—a place that lives up to its name perfectly—at about 12,200’ and 6 miles along the 8-mile, 4800’ standard route up Longs Peak. Questioning my desire to put in all that work just to share the peak with the crowds the mountain attracts all summer, I time and again came close to canceling my permit and settling for something else instead.
But Longs Peak, in addition to being a prominent and challenging mountain, is also the northernmost Colorado fourteener and the highest peak in all the national parks of the Rockies (Canadian parks included), and there is no higher peak in the Rockies proper north of it. To someone like me, not climbing it despite ample opportunity to do so would be more than a shame; it would be a sin. I climbed it, and I am glad I did. I endured the crowds (and totally avoided them when it really counted) and conquered this great peak. I’d be kicking myself now if I had passed on it once again.
It’s a little hypocritical, I know, to expect solitude on a popular mountain when yours are yet another set of feet on it, but that’s me. When I broke camp a little before six the next morning, there was already a steady stream, more like a small army, of headlamps coming up the trail. Back at the trailhead, I checked the register and counted almost 80 groups on the mountain that day, and most had three or more people. Had I done Longs as a day hike, I’d have had to have dealt with from 200-300 other hikers on the way up. I can’t imagine how frustrated I’d have been hiking with, past, and hurriedly ahead of all those people, especially up the Trough, the long, steep, and narrow couloir that puts one in position to reach the summit pitch.
Throwing the Dice, and Turning Up Snake Eyes
Instead, I summitted in the late afternoon. I started at about 9:30, reached the campground around noon, got a nice rest, and found I had the time and energy to try the summit that afternoon instead of the next morning as originally planned. The only question mark was the weather, but it held; although storms threatened much of the afternoon and thunder and rain briefly visited around lunchtime, the skies, often overcast (but the clouds were high and the views therefore still good), cooperated.
From Chasm View, one of the best scenes that most day hikers on Longs never see, I traversed rubble to reach the Keyhole, where I picked up and followed the standard route up the mountain. The route comes with a lot of warnings, probably a good idea because of the altitude, the climb, the length, the weather, the Class 3 climbing on the upper part of the peak, and especially the many inexperienced or unprepared people who have no business on this mountain but try it anyway because of its fame and accessibility (every year, there are deaths and/or serious injuries here). I thought it was easy, though; only the rain-caused slickness in a few places, most notably (and dangerously) on the Homestretch, gave me any real concern. But my decision paid off not only because I made the summit that day but also because I had the mountain all to myself from the campground to the summit and back.
Ignorance Is Bliss
Not interested in taking the Keyhole Route back to camp, I did what I often do—found my own way back down. I headed straight down the north face of the peak, headed generally toward the towers near the Keyhole, then turning when the going seemed a little too difficult, and heading for Chasm View.
Several months later, after buying and reading Gerry Roach’s guide to the 14ers, I discovered I had followed parts of the Keyhole Ridge and North Face routes, including the hardest parts (5.4) of the latter, which involved stretching and sliding my way down some wet slabs. At the time, I never would have knowingly tried a 5.4 route unroped, especially as a downclimb, again illustrating my belief that it’s often better NOT to know a route’s difficulty and instead just get out and try to do it.
Sometimes the description and/or rating can intimidate a climber when he is actually capable of completing the route.
Back at Chasm View, I took another look at the spectacular Diamond, the sheer east face of Longs Peak, and then returned to my tent for dinner, a cold beer (stashed earlier in a shady cranny still holding some snow), and the night. It was a fitting end to an epic seven-week trip through the Rockies from northern Colorado all the way up to Jasper and back-- the Last Hurrah, so dubbed because of my wife’s plan to introduce a child into our lives before the next summer (it took longer, though, allowing the Last Hurrah II the next summer-- Ha!). The next morning’s hikers got the better weather, but I got dawn at Chasm Lake all to myself, and that was a great way to say goodbye to this magnificent peak.
Ships Prow and Chasm Lake
Take Me Back
Like Utah’s Timpanogos, Longs is one of those mountains that attracts big crowds for some very good reasons. It’s simply a great mountain because of its character, location, and views. I doubt I’ll ever do the Keyhole Route again until my children are old enough for it, but I’d love to try the classic Kieners Route or the Loft in conjunction with Mount Meeker. It’s rare that I want to do any particular mountain more than once; living in the East and being a teacher, my trips to the West’s great mountains are mostly restricted to the summers, so I try to do different things each time I go. But Longs is one of those few I want to meet again.