Longs Peak (attempt)
Route: East Longs Peak Trail
Distance: 12.12 miles
Elevation Gained: 3755 feet
Hikers: Jarrett and Mark Rodrigues, Sam Polzin, Adam Gervasio, Connor, Barrett and Gordon Wood
The parking lot was almost full when we arrived at 4:30 am. We had only been awake for about thirty minutes, and after a few last minute preparations we were on the trail. A sign at the trailhead gives the elevation as 9,405 feet, meaning we had over 4,000 vertical feet to climb to reach the summit.
The trail is wide, well maintained, and climbs gently up to the junction with the Estes Cone Trail. After that, the trail begins a set of rocky switchbacks up the slope. Through gaps in the trees, we could see the faint red glow of the sunrise lighting up the clouds behind Twin Sisters Mountain. Jarrett and I, who are both interested in photography, wanted to reach treeline in time to get a shot of the sun rising between the two peaks. That didn’t work, but the view was great when the trees thinned out.
The trees don’t stop at tree line, but after crossing a stream, there was a plaque warning hikers about lightning, and the fragility of the environment. A few feet past the plaque we spotted a snowshoe hare. The trail runs south towards Mills Moraine, and parallel to Longs. It doesn’t actually come to the crest of the Moraine
The trail turns west again, and comes to the junction with the Battle Mountain campsite. We paused there, and looked up the trail. There were several groups up ahead, traversing the side of Lady Washington, and two men in short shorts and long sleeve shirts jogged passed us heading downhill. We could see the sheer east face of Longs in the distance.
After a break, we continued uphill. There were great views east, and the only trees were tiny, stinted spruces mixed with hardy little bushes. Around halfway to the Chasm Lake spur, another group passed us. It was a family of five, and the looked as they had gotten onto the mountain accidentally. All the kids had T-shirts, the mom had an old looking windbreaker and sweatpants. The dad had nylon windpants that were about two inches too short, a similarly fitted windbreaker, and a St. Louis Cardinals trucker hat that had seen better days. All of them had sneakers. They had two waterbottles, one walking stick, a camera, and a tape recorder.
Several of us needed to use the bathroom (fairly badly), but there was nowhere to dig a hole, and no cover, so we power hiked up to the Chasm Lake spur, where the map indicated a bathroom.
We arrived, but relief turned to horror when we saw the line. There was a fairly large group of hikers, all of whom appeared to need the bathroom. The mom of the Nerd Family (it became their name) was in line.
When her turn came, she walked over to the bathroom, and instead of opening the door, she stood next to it. “Bob,” she said “get a picture of me.”
Her husband searched his pockets, and failing to find the camera, pulled out the tape recorder. “Ready, Linda?” He began recording. “Okay, here we are at Linda’s favorite portapotty,” he narrated. After ten seconds of filming, his son handed him a camera.
“Bob, make sure you can see the overhang,” the woman instructed, as she shifted her position. After at least three pictures, Mrs. Nerd decided she should actually use her “favorite portapotty”.
Frustrated, nearly constipated, and furious we left ten minutes later. Mrs. Nerd still hadn’t left her favorite portapotty.
The trail climbs up across the side of Mt. Lady Washington towards Granite Pass, and provides a good view of you progress. We took a break, and looked back. Tiny puddles and streams shimmered in the light. It was around 8:30, and the sun was warm, and the sky perfectly clear. It was tempting just to observe the view, but turning our attention to the rocks around us we saw several skittish pikas among the rocks. As we rested, the Nerds passed us again.
We started up a few minutes later, and prayed for a localized lightning storm above the Nerd family. It was a beautiful day, and it seemed unfair that we were prepared for almost anything, and the Nerds were prepared for nothing, yet both of us had such a nice day to hike.
At Granite Pass, we were hit by heavy winds which dropped the temperature ten degrees or so. The view is great however, as the whole park is revealed. We could see Bear Lake Road, Moraine Park, and the imposing mountains of the Front Range. We added layers, ate some granola bars and continued.
After Granite Pass, the next feature is the Boulderfield. Or that’s what is always listed. To reach the Boulderfield, there is a set of very rocky switchbacks. The switchbacks here are more frustrating than those at the beginning of the trail, because there is nothing to hide them. It is impossible to hope that you’re almost done, because you can see that you aren’t. The switchbacks do end, and you are rewarded with a strange but amazing view. After climbing several thousand continuous vertical feet, there is a flat plain.
The Boulderfield does go up, but until the end, the climb is almost imperceptible. The trail virtually disappears. There is a small stream that flows down through the rocks, and can be followed up towards the Keyhole.
The beginning of the Boulderfield is grassy with rocks mixed in, but as you continue, the proportions are reversed. As we hiked, my dad spotted several White-tailed Ptarmagin, a chicken-like bird that only lives far above treeline. Because of its habitat, it is fairly rare bird. We also spotted several marmots, all of which were named Mr. Marmalot by Adam.
We also spotted an angry looking guy who looked vaguely like Sylvester Stalone with a gigantic knife clipped on the shoulder strap of his backpack. We gave him plenty of room.
The hiking through the Boulderfield was frustrating because there was no good combination on clothing to wear. I would get hot from the exertion, but cold from the wind. I tried every combination possible with my fleece and shell, and settled on unzipping all of the vents and pockets on my shell. Part of my problem was my style of hiking.
Adam, Sam, Barrett, and I chose to hop from rock to rock, and following the invisible path of good boulders. This was harder work, and fairly jarring on tired legs, but fun.
Jarrett, Gordon, and Mark followed the faint path, or the stream, both of which were flatter, and easier to hike.
I took us nearly an hour to travel from the beginning of the Boulderfield to the Boulderfield campsites, and the most advanced portapotties any of us had ever seen (there would be a picture, but that would be too similar to the Nerds). Like the one at the Chasm Lake spur, it was a roofless wooden square. These however, had two steel cables anchoring each corner. Large PVC tubes ran out the bottom to a steel box with a solar panel.
The trip from the beginning of the Boulderfield takes longer than you would think, because there are no recognizable landmarks. There is no sense of scale. Once we reached the bathroom and campsites, the Keyhole loomed large, but it was still a good climb away.
We rested a little ways up the rocky slope to the Keyhole. It was steep enough to require the use of hands, and the boulders were very large. This is the first Class 3 section of the hike, and it was a welcome change from hiking. Mark, Adam, and Jarrett rested, while Gordon, Barrett, and I continued up the slope.
The climb up to the Keyhole looks deceivingly easy. The lack of identifiable features on the mountain distorts it. The Keyhole appeared as a tiny chip out of the mountain from the Boulderfield, and once we were what seemed to be close it loomed large. But even from the base of the climb up to the Keyhole it isn’t truly represented. The only thing to give proportion to the area is the stone emergency shelter at the bottom left side of the Keyhole.
The Keyhole also acts a bottleneck for the hike. Both the North and East Longs Peak Trails meat at Granite Pass, but hikers have the entire width of the Boulderfield to spread out. We saw people working their way down the rocks, and heard crying from above.
I ended up bypassing the sound, by Barrett and Gordon found the source: the children of the Nerd Family. All three of the kids were clinging desperately to the rocks, tears streaming down their faces. Barrett, Gordon, and another hiker passed the children to the edge of the slope to the shelter.
Sam was the first to the Keyhole. I was next. When I finally came to the crest of the ridge, I was hit in the face by wind. The wind was blowing at least 50 mph at the Keyhole, but that seemed minor compared to the view. We were at nearly 13,000 feet, which put us at eye level with the jagged peaks directly to the left. Every crack in the rock was accented with snow. Tiny alpine lakes dotted the valley floor below, and mountains formed imposing walls opposite to us. Behind the valley walls, jagged mountains stretched off into the distance, forming the horizon.
The steep walls of the valley could be put in the Himalayas, and nobody would notice the differance.
We lingered as long as possible at the Keyhole, buffeted by the wind, to admire the view. However, large clouds were beginning to obscure the perfect blue of the sky.
We had already decided not to attempt the peak. It was rated technical, and we had seen the hordes of “adrenaline junkies” as Sam called them, descending, with ice axes and crampons hanging from their backpacks. They had reported black ice all along the upper part of the trail. We climbed back down from the Keyhole, and made our way towards the bathrooms.
As we passed near the bottom of the large snowfield, a small brown bird hopped up onto a rock near us. Gordon, Barrett, and I all snapped our binoculars onto it. It was a Brown Rosy Finch. Rosy Finches only live in the loose talus below snowfields far above timberline. It is one of the rarest birds in the US.
A large group of hikers was passing us, and my dad pointed the small bird out to as many of them as he could. We weren’t sure where they were from, but they all had on a sweatshirt with the logo of a school on the front. After the bird was gone, and the school group departed, we had the mountain to ourselves.
I don’t know if it’s good or bad timing to be the last ones off a mountain with clouds approaching, but we enjoyed the hike down.
We passed one man at the bottom of the Boulderfield who had departed from the trailhead at 2:30 am. We had been proud of our departure time until then.
We made good time down to the Chasm Lake spur. We rested there to regroup, then continued down. We reached tree line around 4 pm, and descended back down the switchbacks through Goblin’s Forest. There was a brief pinecone war, but the trip down was generally uneventful.
We returned to the ranger station proud and tired. But mostly proud.
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