Planning to Go or Going to Plan?
Longs Peak from Emerald Lake Trail
I must begin by saying, I did not go to Colorado just
to hike Longs Peak. My entire family had planned this trip to Estes Park, Colorado, which I suggest visiting if you're ever in the area. I told my wife that when we're in Estes Park, I WILL be hiking Long's Peak. She was pretty agreeable (until she saw some pictures...then she was a bit more hesitant). As a child, this mountain was always seen as my family went to this particular area for about 16 years in a row (if not more). I had hiked the Bear Lake, Emerald Lake, Flattop Mtn area many times. Longs Peak was always looming on my list of area mountains to reach the summit. I just never thought it would be this easy to plan the trip since the family was going. To top things off, the home we rented for the week, was positioned in plain view of Longs and the Boulderfield. Now don't get me wrong, I didn't just show up and hike. I viewed pictures, read hiker logs, studied maps, and, oh yeah, I did much walking and biking months prior to this hike. I consider myself to be in decent athletic shape. To add to the furry of hiking Longs Peak, I invited anyone else in my family to hike Longs with me. I provided detailed information regarding this hike including terms like, "physically and emotionally strenuous," "difficult," "you may not live," etc. all in the sense of reality and humor. The four who "volunteered" to go on this hike had never done mountain hiking before. I repeat, they volunteered to go.
Early Morning Start
Todd, Nathan, Brandon, Christopher, Uvaldo (left to right) Beginning the Hike at Night
On August 11, 2006, my two brother-in-laws, Uvaldo and Todd, and two nephews, Brandon and Christopher, set out at the Longs Peak Trailhead (elevation 9405 ft.) at 4:17am via the Keyhole Route (15 miles round trip - 5000 ft. elevation gain from trail head to summit). We signed in the hiker's registration and noticed that there were 5 other pages of hikers before us, the first hiker signed in at 12:10 am. It was dark and about 45 degrees. All we had to light our paths were our headlamps. This would be an experience that none of us would ever forget. We kept using the saying, "We are all in this together." We took breaks together and constantly checked in with each other as we headed down our dimly lit path. There was an eerie feeling as we knew there was an assortment of wildlife from bears to mountain lions in our presence, or so we thought. We set off through Goblin's Forest (elevation 10,120 ft. - first 2 miles).
Sunrise Doth Break Strangely
Sunrise over Twin Sisters
We decided to push each other without burning each other out. Uvaldo works out several times a week while Todd often works out several times a day (he's gotten better though). Brandon and Christopher did not prepare whatsoever for this hike but I must add that their father, Todd, made them go on this hike for the experience. They did their best to not grumble too much. By 6:00 am, we were above the treeline and observed a magnificent sunrise above Twin Sisters. It was only by accident that we saw this as we were not planning on taking a break at this point. We just had to stop to see this though. From the treeline to Chasm Lake Junction is 1.5 miles. At this point, we were still over 5 miles away from our destination of 7.5 miles.
Taking a Break...Got Oxygen?
Taking a Break
We continued on our path and noticed that the trail difficulty increased. It was those man-made "stair steps" that kept getting in our way of a smooth trail. The steps were every third step and just higher than a normal step. This, we noticed would cause us to wear down quicker than we wanted. We also noticed that the longer we stopped on our breaks, the harder it was to get going again. I recommend short and less frequent breaks and sit only if you have to. Breaks are good...just space them out. In the picture to the left, at least everyone is still smiling.
Chasm Lake Junction
Looking East Towards Denver Chasm Lake Trail with Peacock Pool in foreground
It still would be one hour from our sunrise viewing before we got to our first real milestone - Chasm Lake Junction (elevation 11,600 ft. - total distance from trail head is 3.7 miles). Here the view is once again magnificent, with Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak before us, we could barely make out Peacock Pool nestled in the foreground. Chasm Lake cannot be seen although it is only .7 miles away. Here is the first "real" bathroom we ran across. I can't say the privy was much of a "privilege" but when ya gotta go, ya gotta go. At this point, it was 7:00 am and we knew we needed to be off the summit no later than 1:00 pm, which was 4 miles away. We needed to pick up the pace a bit so as to make our destination. However, Christopher and Brandon were already showing signs of fatigue. They were determined to go as far as the Boulderfield (yet another 2.4 miles away). Todd did not want to send them back to the trailhead by themselves either. We continued though.
Off the Beaten Path
Christopher and Brandon Off the Trail
Here the elevation gain was cozier across Granite Pass (elevation 12,080 ft. - 4.2 miles of total hike. As we made our way around Mt. Lady Washington, which to the naive hiker, seemed to be the long way and the wrong way, we would find the terrain not changing much, let's just get around the mountain because surely Longs Peak would be right there. Well, soon enough it would be. Granite Pass seemed endless and those stair steps (remember those?) were somewhat cumbersome and tiresome. Brandon and Christopher decided that in spots it was much easier walking next to the trail as opposed to on it. I tried it a few times and found the theory to be true.
View Before Longs Peak/Boulderfield
Longs Peak Peeking Over Ridge Our Final Picture Together. Estes Park in background
Finally, Longs Peak was peeking over the ridge. We were very excited although it was premature. The winding trail caused only greater agony for Uvaldo as a workout "injury" was starting to cause him problems. He decided to allow the four of us to continue. At 8:21 am, he told us to go on. His goal was the Boulderfield and he would make it there at some point. We felt bad about our group separating as we had developed a group bond not only together but with other hikers as we kept passing back and forth between rest stops. The view was spectacular as we grew closer to the mountain we had been seeing all week 7 miles away from the house in which we stayed. This was even more exciting to me as I had planned this whole hike for many months.
Halfway Through Boulderfield
In the Middle of the Boulderfield
At 9:43 am, we had reached the middle of the Boulderfield (elevation 12,760 ft. - 3/4 of total elevation gain - 1.7 miles long - 5.9 miles rom trail head) and there we took our final rest together. Brandon, Christopher, and Todd made the decision that they would venture back to the trailhead. They had decided Longs Peak was the conqueror that day. Another quote we had tossed around had been read at the sign at the trailhead, "The mountain does not care." We would live this quote.
Closer Look at the Keyhole
Looking Up to the Keyhole
As I decided I would venture further to my summit goal, we could see Uvaldo fast approaching our rocky rest resort. He made his goal of reaching the Boulderfield despite the pain he was experiencing. We were very happy about this. Todd contemplated continuing on with me to at least the Keyhole, but he was experiencing some aches and pains of his own. I told the boys when they got back to the Ranger's Station, take the van back to the house. I would call for a ride back to the house when my hike was done. So at 9:54 am, I left the group as they cheered me on. They knew what this hike meant to me as they saw the excitement and exuberance throughout the morning. As I got closer to the Keyhole, I did not expect the steep embankment of rocks. This was a new part of the trail as I found myself actually "plotting" my route, climbing, hopping, and shuffling. I reached the Keyhole at 10:42 am. Like I mentioned earlier, I had studied this trail as best as I could but hiker logs and pictures cannot prepare you entirely for this hikeï¿½neither could it prepare you for the view once in
the Keyhole (elevation 13,160 ft.). I met up with 20 other hikers in the Keyhole and I was not sure how we all fit in the space. I must tell you, I am not typically afraid of heights but as the view opened up before me, I do believe my words were, "What the crap?" Briefly flashed across my mind also was, "Whoa, perhaps if I turn around now, I can catch up with the guys" and "Now I can see why so many people only
go this far." But no, I couldn't, shouldn't and wouldn't stop here. I made a deal with myself to get to the summit. I was determined! I wanted to see things that others have seen up there, to take this challenge and conquer it, to be able to tell others "Yea I made the summit alright." I would continue. I hooked up with a Colorado man who made the summit 10 times. His last name, incidentally, was Long. He was with his boy, 11 years old, who was on his own personal challenge, to get to the summit before age 12 (the following week) when his father first summited Longs Peak at that age. What an inspiration! I became a coach to him as we cheered him on his path.
Shuffling Through The Ledges
Pointing the Way
I did not find The Ledges particularly difficult. The Ledges held its own challenge though as I had to meander this way and that way in an attempt to follow the yellow and red bullseye trail targets. At times, they could not be seen. I was just hoping I was still heading the right way. I could easily see the next destination at the bottom of The Trough. We got closer and closer. Every once and awhile I would look back to see where I came from. It didn't seem that was the path I took but somehow it was.
Bottom of The Trough
Me in the Trough
Finally, we reached the bottom of the Trough (a 1000 ft. 45 degree ascent). Looking up, we could see all the hikers that were coming down. It was amazing to see all those little dots filtering down through the very loose rock. Was it too late?? They were all coming back and I knew I still had another hour or more to hike. I felt pretty good though and I knew I had the stamina and ability. However, I also trusted my hiker companions, one of which had been on this mountain before many times. We looked out towards Glacier Gorge behind us and there was saw something I did not wish to see...storm clouds. "These were not supposed to come today," I told myself, "This was the day I was supposed to conquer this mountain." Ever since I was a youth, I decided I would hike this mountain...no matter what. At that point after seeing flat-bottomed dark storm clouds, we knew we weren't safe continuing up The Trough for fear of getting caught in a storm we did not need to be in. I had been caught in a snow storm with my dad on Flattop Mountain...not cool! We got almost half way up The Trough and it still was an amazing sight to behold. I've never hiked this altitude before. We estimated being about 13,600 feet in elevation. I was very extremely disappointed to put it mildly in not making the summit that day and at 12:08 pm, I turned around and headed back. Before I did, I called my wife and attempted to tell her the "bad" news. When she answered, I could not speak but somehow she knew of my disappointment.
A Final Look
On my way back (which by the way was not much easier than ascending), I called my wife and told her to meet me in the parking lot at the trailhead. I told her to be there at 5:00 pm and we were within 5 minutes of getting to the parking lot at the same time. She of course met me with sympathy and understanding. All I could think of was, "Thanks for bringing me a Mt. Dew" and "I've never felt soooo exhausted in all my life." This day on Longs Peak will never ever be forgotten!! It is a day that I knew the mountain did not care if I made the summit. But it was also a day I vowed to come back though and hike this extreme trail. I am making this journey another time...July 2007. I am going by myself and not inviting anyone else. I am camping in the Boulderfield and maybe, just maybe, I will conquer this great mountain...Longs Peak...and I will care more than the mountain that day!