Training in the mountains all summer, I was prepared for any hike in Colorado. For months people told me that Longs Peak was very difficult and that often times people fail to summit due to the length of the trip and the conditions. I was determined to reach this summit.
I set my clock for 2am. I got as much sleep as I could. I knew the drive wouldn't be too long, but I had to find the trailhead. Now this wasn't that difficult, but it did take a little bit of time. Prior to the trip I borrowed my neighbor's walkman. Mine had broken and I knew that I needed some music to take me up the first, long stretch of the mountain.
Coming into the park early, I didn't have to pay an entrance fee. I could barely see anything on the drive up since it was so early in the morning. It was still dark when I reached the trailhead around 3:30am. There was still plenty of parking on this late-August morning. I planned originally to do this hike alone, hopeful to find other hikers on the way.
I left from the Longs Peak Ranger Station at 3:45am. The first part of the hike was dark and through the woods. I just listened to some music; even a comedy tape of Bill Hicks. Finally the trees thinned out and I was hiking through some alpine bushes just below tree line. Finally I reached a high crest. I hiked up the gradual incline until I saw a sign I thought pointed to the Keyhole Route. At this point I can reveal a secret never disclosed to all of you on SP. I ended up climbing the Clarks Arrow route...BY ACCIDENT!
Obviously missing my chance to do the technically easier Keyhole Route, my saving grace came when I ran into another hiker. He told me that the Keyhole Route was the other way, but he was hiking up the Clarks Arrow which takes you up to the ridge below Mt. Meeker, typically referred to as the Loft. Of course, I didn't know any of this at the time.
On the trail below the Class 3 route up to the Loft, first I was frustrated, but then I somehow managed to convince him to let me go with him. A nice gentleman, he obliged. After a short hike to the base of the climb, we were ready for some Class 3 up about 2,000 feet. We didn't exactly know what other challenges were ahead. However, he probably knew a lot more than I.
Now climbing on my hands and knees, I was getting a little ahead of my new climbing partner. My dilemma was that weather would be rolling in during the early afternoon, but he was my only hope of reaching the summit. I soldiered ahead, but he went a different direction near the top. I crossed over with some difficulty, but we finally reached the ridge some time after 7am if memory serves me correctly. We both went seeking the way to Clarks Arrow. Like an idiot, I climbed the Notch, not knowing about the huge drop off between it and Longs Peak's summit. Fearing I lost my climbing partner, I scurried down from the top of The Notch in about 10 minutes. He was still wandering around. He said he found what he thought was the right way. We walked around The Notch and he told me the awful truth. "We have to descend to get to the Clarks Arrow and then climb back up". It was tough, but I figured I got this far, it was easier (and safer) this way.
From the edge of the ridge, we followed cairns and descended nearly 1000 feet so we could climb up the southside of Longs Peak.
has a great diagram of this route.
Clarks Arrow is where green connects to red. Great photo by Mountain Jim
Finally, we spotted Clarks Arrow. This painted-on marker tells hikers where to connect to Long's diamond-shaped summit block. Looks more like Devil's Tower to me than a diamond, but oh well.
From here the way to the summit was straight-forward. Go up! We climbed a grueling 1700 feet of class 3 rock climbing, and we eventually joined up with the keyhole route at the “homestretch.” From here, there was not much left, and 20 or so minutes later, I was on top of Longs Peak.
Me on the summit
The descent and conclusion
After spending 30 minutes or so on the wide, crowded summit, I descended via the Keyhole route. I left my climbing partner, thanking him for his help. At times I really thought I wouldn't reach the summit and I was elated to have not having to go through this failure.
I followed some other hikers down the class 3 descent back down to the Keyhole. Just before reaching the Keyhole, we started getting hailed on. Corn-pop sized chunks of hail built up on my jacket and on surrounding rocks. It was freaky, but we soldiered on down the mountain. Just through the Keyhole, several of us took shelter from the hail. Then, we descended the boulder field down to the long gradual trail below. I knew I had a few hours still to go to my car. I put my headphones on and headed down.
Not long after, lightning began to strike. Rain began to fall. Not hard rain, but not light rain. I was tired, but fortunate to be heading down.
I finally reached the woods and had some cover from the rain. I got down to the parking lot, got in my car, and then an instant later it looked like someone turned on a shower full blast. Both hail and rain fell down on my car. I hurried out of the parking lot back to civilization. I couldn't help but thinking about the hiker that helped get me up the mountain. He was probably 45 minutes behind me. He was experiencing this rain/hail nightmare at that precise moment. I felt bad. I am sure he has told this story himself since.
As I noted, the weather became quite violent throughout the Front Range and Denver after I left. Lightning storms in the mountains were horrible as I headed into Boulder. I am surprised I heard of no deaths nor injuries from those trying to camp on the mountain in such a relentless and dangerous storm.
Now, the Keyhole route is much easier, although longer, than the Clarks Arrow route. This whole hike took me over 11 hours. I climbed over 6,300 feet, mostly on my hands and knees. Whether you hike the Keyhole or not, Longs Peak is a great mountain hike. I think the Clarks Arrow route is a lot more fun than the Keyhole route, particularly because it is not as crowded, and you have to do some routefinding on your own. There are cairns, but sometimes you really have to look for them. I really enjoyed climbing this mountain. However, I am pretty sure that I'll never climb it again.
SEE A VARIETY OF MY COLORADO TRIP REPORTS WITH PHOTOS ON MY OWN WEBPAGE