On Tuesday August 17, 1999, I got my first taste of hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, as my friends and I hiked Estes Cone. More importantly, I saw Longs Peak for the first time. It was love at first sight. Two days later we hiked Deer Mountain, again putting myself into the position to stare off into the distance at the Monarch of the park, and it burned itself into the back of my head. Jeremy, my friend who introduced me to Colorado, dreamed of one day climbing Longs Peak, and that dream now manifested itself in me. Our vacation soon ended, and we went back home to Indiana, but now we had a goal and something to look forward to.
Two years later I returned to Colorado in July of 2001. Jeremy had been sidelined, as he and his wife had just had a son. My cousin Dave this time was along for the ride. This was Dave's first time to the Rockies, as it had been mine two years prior, so I did not even fathom that we would be climbing Longs Peak this trip. But in the meantime, I wanted to get more experience hiking and to get a closer look at Longs.
On my previous trip, we had stayed in Boulder which did not afford as much time in RMNP as I would have liked. So, this time Dave and I parked ourselves in Moraine Park Campground in the the park itself. Our tent was on site #152, which had a wonderful view of Longs, as per my request. Early in the week we hiked to the summit of Hallett Peak (12,713 ft.) Both Dave and I handled the altitude relatively well, so I new that we could go higher. I got out one of my guidebooks as we sat by the campfire, and we talked about what we should try next. I wanted to get closer to Longs and Dave wanted to go higher, so we settled on attempting Storm Peak (13,326 ft.), which sits on one side of the Boulderfield and is one of the two buttresses to Longs (Mount Lady Washington sits on the otherside of the Boulderfield and acts as the other).
We left the Longs Peak Trailhead at 6:00 A.M. Once we got abov treeline and headed towards Chasm Junction, Longs really began to show itself...what a manificient sight! Dave asked me, why don't we try that one, Longs that was, as he pointed off, awe struck, in the distance. Having read many guidebooks, I knew we had started way too late to make an attempt at Longs because of afternoon storms. Another factor was that I had told Jeremy before I left that I wouldn't do Longs without him. Still, I didn't completely rule out the idea. Storm Peak followed the same route as Longs until the small camping area in the Boulderfield. I figured we could go until this point, which would give us some time to talk it over, and then we could see how we were doing physically at the Boulderfield and more importantly how the weather was holding up.
We took a right at Chasm Junction (If you go straight it will take you to Chasm Lake at the foot of Longs' massive east face, the Diamond) and headed around Mount Lady Washington towards Granite Pass. We reached the Boulderfield and the Keyhole came into view off in the distance. Like a tractor beam in Star Wars it just sucked us right in. We abandoned our attempt of Storm Peak and headed through the massive boulders towards the Keyhole. All the while, clouds were starting to stack up quickly in the sky, and I was developing a headache from the altitude. As we got closer and closer to the Keyhole, it became larger and larger. We peered inside the Agnes Vaile shelter which is situated just below the Keyhole and then made the final scramble into the Keyhole itself. It was 10:30 A.M. The Keyhole at 13,150 ft. is a notch in the Longs' ridge that makes it possible to traverse from the east to the west side of the mountain without having to actually climb up and over the ridge. The views from the Keyhole were breathtaking or maybe that was just me sucking wind at altitude! You look down into Glacier Gorge and up to the Trough on the way to the summit. We didn't know how long the traverse to the summit and back would take us. As next year would prove to us, it takes a lot longer than we had thought.
Dave and I thought we were almost there. We only had 1 1/2 miles to go, yet there was still 1,205 ft. in elevation to gain. As we chatted with the many people who had crowded at the Keyhole trying to make the very decision we were trying to make, the clouds continued to pile up and were moving in quickly. Thus, our decision was relatively easy--Go Down! Others pressed on but we wanted to play it safe. Sure there was dissappointment from having to turn around, but I rather be dissappointed than dead. Dave and I told ourselves that Longs wasn't what we had set out for in the first place and that we were happy to have made it to the Keyhole, which was true to some degree! As these thoughts were racing through our heads, we were racing down the mountain. We made our way down through the Boulderfield while clouds swept in from the west engulfing the mountain. I looked back to find that the peak was no longer visible. We tried to out run the weather, but we lost that race big time!
The last 5 miles back to the trailhead were spent being miserably wet in the downpouring rain, squishing are wet feet along the trail--next year I'd have Gore-Tex! Luckily there wasn't any lightning. Along with being wet, flying down the mountain had intensified the headache I started to get on the ascent. For some reason, on the way down is when altitude seems to really catch up with me. My head was pounding. Imagine a bad hangover. You got it? That's an altitude headache! We arrived drenched back at the trailhead around 2:00 P.M. My hands were so cold I could barely get my fly undone to take a piss!
We changed into some dry clothes and went into Estes Park to eat some pizza at the Village Inn Pizza (They have damn good pizza!). Over dinner, my headache began to subside, and just as with the case with hangovers I soon forgot what had caused it. The next day was the last day of our vacation before had to drive 1100 miles back to Indiana, and Dave suggested that we give Longs another shot--Dave hates defeat. Although I knew that I was going to climb Longs Peak someday and that it didn't necessarilly have to be tomorrow. Oh what the hell..Let's do it! We ran over to the laundromat and through our hiking clothes and boots into the drier, stocked up at the grocery store, and went back to the campsite to plan it out. I got out my guidebooks and read about the Trough, Narrow and Homestretch, all parts of the climb we had yet to see. I also told Dave how we have to get an earlier start, as he now understood with what had already happened to us.
We set the alarm clock for 1:00 A.M., as we were planning to make a 2:00 A.M. start. Although we had good intentions, when that alarm went off Dave looked at me and I looked and him and we said not today and went back to sleep. As it turned out that day we had gorgeous weather. We didn't see one cloud come even close to Longs so we definitely missed a golden opportunity. But I didn't regret it...who am I kidding, yes I did! However, we were both dog tired from the day before so we might not have made it despite the good weather. We talked about it on the drive home to Indiana. Trust me we had plenty of time.
We decided to come back the following year and to make Longs the sole focus of our trip, and this time Jeremy was going to come with us.
A year later we packed up and got on I-80 once more and headed for Estes Park. Dave and I resided in Moraine Park again, while Jeremy, who was accompanied by his wife and son, stayed in a nearby hotel which came in handy for showers! We used Hallett Peak early in the week as a warm-up and to gauge ourselves at altitude. Everyone did relatively well considering the lack of time for acclimitization, so we decided to give Longs a go.
We took the following day off to rest up for the big climb and decided to all crash at Jeremy's hotel the night before to get as good of sleep as possible. 2 A.M. was to be the trailhead time, which meant we'd have to get up at 1. With last minute gear packing and preparations, we didn't end up going to be until 10. I don't think I slept a wink that night with all of the excitement of the follwing day running through my head. I felt like I did as a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for the next morning to open my presents! Bagging Longs Peak would be one hell of a present!!But instead of watching "It's A Wonderful Life", I watched "Climb Longs Peak" on Estes Park's Channel 8, as I lay there restless.
I waited for and watched as my alarm clock went off, then got up the others for our middle of the night departure. We headed up Hwy 7 and arrived at the trailhead right on schedule. Hiking in the dark was a new experience. Accompanied by our mini-Mag lites we set out on the trail. Once above treeline, gazing up at the stars in the clear sky was amazing. Equally amazing were the lights that intruded from nearby cities. Yet another fantastic sight was the trail of headlamps that slowy crept its way up the trail.
We made it to Chasm Junction, and rounded Mt. Lady Washington and Granite Pass at dawn. We arrived at the Boulderfield just as the sun was rising. The Diamond lit up red and was an awesome sight. We took our time enjoyuing the sunrise and meandered up to the Keyhole, arriving at 6:30, four hours earlier than the previous year.
Back then we had thought we were almost there. Now we would find out that it would take us another 2 hours to traverse that last mile. Colorado had suffered a severe drought in the summer of 2002 which was bad in terms of forest fires. But for us, it meant there wasn't a trace of snow to be found in the Trough which made the route non-technical. The Trough was long and painstaking and the Narrows weren't as bad as they are often perceived to be. We got to the Homestretch and looked up at the steeply inclined cracked slabs and thought that couldn't be the way...but it was. So we got on all fours and followed the cracks up to the summit, arriving at 8:40
There were no storms building in the sky so we took our time relaxing, snapping photos, and taking in the views...an F-17 even did a fly-by on the summit which was awesome! We headed down a little after 10. The way back was grueling. The Trough seemed like it would never end, and once to the Keyhole the tents in the Boulderfield seemed so far away. It was refreshing to soak my head in Alpine Brook once below treeline. We found our way back to the trailhead at 3:30, and soon thereafter crashed at our respective hotel and camp site.
Surely there will be other mountains I climb, and before the writing of this report there have already been. But, Longs will always be my first love...at least as far as mountains go!
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