Sunday, September 11, 2016

Longs Peak

Longs Peak
When you think of the mountains of Colorado, Longs Peak is usually at the top of the list. I’m not sure what the allure is about the mountain, perhaps that it’s a lone giant, the long history of ascents or that it is simply part of Rocky Mountain National Park. Living in the Denver metro area, Longs Peak is a part of the skyline to the north I see each day. Climbing Longs has been considered a classic and put on the list of many climbers, even before moving to Colorado I was aware of the allure of the mountain and was drawn to the idea of summiting it one day. I have been in Colorado for five years now and have for a long time contemplated the idea of Longs, on Thursday I convinced myself it was time to attempt the giant.
Longs Peak in no way is an unobtainable mountain. In fact through this report I hope you see that it is not a hard or technical mountain to climb at all. I think the naming of many of the features such as the ledges, or the narrows that create a lot of concern for people. I’m not sure exactly why I put it off so long, but I like to tell myself it was because of the route being nearly 15 miles and having to start around 2am. Over the past two weeks I couldn’t decide what mountain to climb, but the idea of Longs was always there. Late in the week I texted Cole and told him I decided on Longs and he agreed to join me, even though that required a midnight wake-up.
The Keyhole
The Longs Peak parking lot is notorious for filling up before 2am on any weekend. Even though the weather was going to be clear, we wanted to avoid as much of the traffic on the trail and still be able to park in the main lot. We decided a 3am start would work for us. I left my place at 12:30am and picked up Cole. The TH is located off of HWY 7 that runs in-between Lyons and Estes Park. We arrived around 2:30 am and snagged the last spot in the main parking lot.
As we were gearing up at the TH the temps were very cold and the wind was breezy. I decided to pack my heavier parka instead of my light one, which was a wise decision. We didn’t take too much time and were off along the trail by 2:45am. I was feeling pretty good considering the hour and lack of sleep. I told Cole to let me know if my pace got out-of-hand, he never complains and always keeps up. I had set break points along the route so I could ration my water/food, wanting only to carry only what was necessary.
The pace was more on the fast end, where we hit the Chasm Lake junction in an hour and half covering about 3 miles and 2,000ft. We took ten minutes to take in some fuel/water. The parkas were much needed as the wind was howling. The one bonus were the stars, you could not quite see the full Milky Way, but with a little less headlamp pollution it may have come through. I could not get a picture to come out showing the headlamp trail from all the climbers, but it looked like I70 on a ski weekend in the dark.
The next break was the Keyhole. The Keyhole is where the trailed section of the trip ends, about 6 miles into the climb. My goal was to be there for sunrise at about 6:30am, so far we were moving better than expected so I was confident we would make it to the Keyhole for the sunrise. From the Chasm Lake junction there is a long traverse to Granite Pass. From the pass there was almost a paved path of granite slabs, quite unusual, but made our travel very efficient. Not long after the pass the boulder field starts. We could gauge where landmarks were in the dark based on the line of headlamps in front of us. There is a trail through most of the boulder field, but good luck keeping to it in the dark. We probably made better time hiking more directly towards the headlamps just under the Keyhole than staying to a meandering trail anyway. We arrived at the Keyhole about 6am and the winds were howling at what felt like at least 40mph.
The Ledges
There is a memorial shelter just below the Keyhole and it was packed with people. I found a hole for us to crawl into so we could take in some calories. We started to freeze from the wind almost instantly, I wanted to see how Cole was feeling about moving along the route. He decided to stay at the Keyhole and I would push on the summit by myself. I knew I needed to get moving before I got any colder. Even though I wanted to stay and see the sunrise I knew I had to get a move on it. I put on my helmet and took off on the ledges.
For the scramble part of the route I had an idea of what to expect, but you never really know what it’s like till you are there. I figured it was a thousand feet over about a mile, so I planned on about an hour and a half to get to the summit. There are four sections: The Ledges, Trough, Narrows and The Homestretch. I started out along The Ledges with nobody in sight as most people were apprehensive to continue with the windy conditions. There are bullseyes along the route to follow which takes a lot of the challenge of a class 3 route away. Since I was running solo, I was almost on a trot during some sections as I didn’t want Cole to have to wait out the cold winds longer than was necessary. I’ll be honest, The Ledges are a cakewalk. But bear in mind I have quite a bit of experience, for someone that is more accustom to trails they would not see it as I do. For the most part I thought there was a trail, where you would occasionally pull yourself up over a rock, nothing to get concerned about. I would say The Ledges took me 10-15 minutes max, and this section leads to The Trough.
The Trough
The Trough is as bad as the word sounds. By far the worst part of the climb. It was not difficult or dangerous, just annoying. As one would expect with a high mountain gully there was a lot of loose rock to deal with. Lucky for me there was only one group a few hundred feet above me and nobody below me. I would recommend a helmet just in case someone knocks down rocks, but I didn’t have to worry about that in my case. The crux of the climb in my opinion is the climb up the rock that takes you out of The Trough. It’s not that difficult, but it is something that you should take care with on the ascent. Once over the crux The Narrows begins.
I want to say I was looking forward to The Narrows. Don’t get your hopes up, it’s a disappointment, or at least it was for me. This section reminded me of the hype for Chicken Out Ridge on Mount Borah in Idaho. A lot of hype, but when you get there, it was nothing more than a ridge climb. I caught up to the three guys taking a break before starting The Narrows, I chose to keep moving. For the most part The Narrows are not so narrow, there is a crack that is about a foot or so wide that you can walk in or the surrounding rock that gives plenty of room (many feet) to walk. To give you an idea on my descent I passed people breast-to-breast and didn’t even think about exposure. Stay on route and there shouldn’t be any issue. The Narrows leads to The Homestretch which is the last 300 feet of the climb.
I can handle exposure, climbing crappy rock, but the one thing I hate is slick rock. In my mind that was what The Homestretch was. As Lee Corso says: not so fast my friend. The rock is slick, yes, but very manageable. There are many cracks that flow directly to the summit to ascend. This section is steep, but for the most part you can climb upright with a hand down here or there for balance. Don’t get intimidated by the hype yet again. I spent maybe 10 minutes ascending this section. This leads you right to the summit.
On the Summit
At 7am I reached the summit, from the Keyhole it took me about 45 minutes. I had the summit all to myself, which I though was amazing considering the amount of people on route. The summit area is huge, a football field at least. I’m not sure what it was, most likely a huge sense of accomplishment, but summiting Longs gave me one of the best feelings I’ve had on a summit in a long time. I think it’s been one of those mountains I’ve wanted to climb for so long, and mentally I probably thought it was beyond my ability. Not so much I guess. What a great climb, and a rewarding summit. I gave Kristi a quick call to let her know I was on the summit, guess I woke her up . The guys I passed on the narrows summited maybe 5 minutes after me. It was nice having my few minutes of solitude up there, but I enjoyed chatting with the group of three while I was up there. I walked around enjoying the views, I only wish I could take a decent picture, but I still have all the clear ones in my head. I was able to text Cole and let him know I was on top, so there is cell service (AT&T) at the summit.
Summit Benchmark
After about 20 minutes I started down. I wanted to beat the conga line down The Homestretch. I got lucky and there was only about 10 people on the ascent through The Homestretch, I was easily able to avoid them. Keeping your weight over your toes is the trick to not slipping on the slick rock. This worked for the most part, but I sure wouldn’t do this if the rock was wet. I almost wish I had a clicker to count the crazy amount of people along the route leading back to the Keyhole. Everyone wanted to know how far, how long, how scary it gets. I tried to be helpful and gave what information I could. The Trough was the busiest section. I had no problem passing people along the route, and I thought that would be rather difficult. Somewhere around 9am I made it back to the Keyhole and found Cole.
We had a good time talking about my climb, and I took the time to eat and drink up. The hard part was over and we only had a 6 mile hike out. After a good rest we started our descent. This was one of the better descents I’ve had in a while, there was great conversation with a good friend and the sense of accomplishment that fed me energy. We made good time and were back to the TH just after noon. Both of us had cold beer and pizza on our minds so maybe that was some added motivation to get back to the truck.
Longs Peak is a great climb, if this is something on your list don’t get intimidated by the feature names. Get out there and give it a shot. The purpose of adventure is to live and learn, build your skills and then test them. The mountains are there for us, and they do give us a sense of freedom when we let them. Enjoy it…till next time.
Date: September 10, 2016
TH Elevation:  9,400 feet
Longs Peak Summit: 14,255 feet
Total Ascent:  5,043 feet
Total Distance:  14.7 miles
Class:  3
Moving Time:  6 hours 45 minutes
Stopped Time: 2 hours 50 minutes
Climbing Partners: Cole
GPX Track
Photo Album

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