"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity..." --John Muir, 1898

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hike: Longs Peak Ascent

Longs Peak Ascent
Keyhole Route
September 6, 2008

In my cubicle at work I have an 8 ½ x 11 printout of a map of the state of Colorado. On this map are tiny triangles representing each of the (arguably) fifty-eight fourteen thousand foot peaks in the state. More succinctly, they represent fifty-eight challenges I would like to conquer in my lifetime. Although I know somewhere deep in my psyche this goal is less than tenable, it remains an implacable aspiration. Also, as a man frequently disposed to unhealthy comparisons, I remind myself there are folks that have climbed them all, solo, in winter, and still others have climbed them all in one season. But I also know that when I am standing on a slab of granite, staring down the fear of the next pitch of rock, the only challenge that matters at that moment is the one between me and the mountain.

Gerry Roach, author of the quintessential guide to 14er climbing and hiking, Colorado’s Fourteeners, calls the climb up Longs Peak an “arduous ascent on a high, real mountain”. He wasn’t kidding. It may be the most challenging climb I have attempted in both strenuousness and technical difficulty. To put things into perspective, last year I hiked Pikes Peak, round-trip, for a total of 26 miles in about 12 hours. That hike has the greatest base-to-summit elevation gain in the state: 7,400 feet. Also last year I climbed the Sawtooth between Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans, my first Class 3 climb. Rating and quantifying the difficulty of a hike or climb can be a bit of a subjective task, but I’ll stick to my instincts and say Longs Peak wins the contest. The following is a “brief” trip report of the highlights of the climb.

John, Tom, and I got a hotel in Loveland Friday night and woke at 3:00 AM to make the forty-minute drive to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Longs Peak trailhead. We were on the trail with headlamps at 4:45. It was cold, dark, and breezy. In a couple hours, we saw hikers returning, saying they had turned around due to the wind. Above tree line, the wind began to really pick up and the temperature was dropping. At the Chasm Lake junction (about 3.5 miles in), we stopped and rested at the base of the giant, breathtaking cirque between Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak. John was feeling ill, suffering the effects of AMS (altitude sickness) and decided to descend alone. Tom and I continued, circling the base of Mount Lady Washington. Hikers were still descending, claiming they were forced to turn around at the Keyhole due to high winds.

We had put on our shells at the Chasm Lake junction and it was a good decision. The winds were getting pretty strong and gusty, and the temperature had dropped into the thirties. We rounded the relative protection of Mount Lady Washington until the north and east faces of Longs Peak shot up into view. Apparently, there had been a storm within a few days prior and fresh snow lay on the ground around us and covered the flanks of the now-rising Longs Peak, spindrift swirling in the wind over the sheer cliffs of the Peak.

We approached the Boulder Field, the first bit of Class 2 scrambling of the hike. The wind was strong, but the disappointed hikers descending from the Keyhole said we’d seen nothing yet. “Wait ‘til you get to the Keyhole,” they said, “the wind is unbelievable.”

They were right. Tom and I ascended the boulder field to approach the Keyhole at about13,200 feet. The Keyhole is a slot in the cliff that separates the east and west sides of the ridge and one must climb over it to get to the west side where the more serious, Class 3 terrain begins. We scrambled up to the top. It was like a wind tunnel. I’m no good at estimating wind speeds, and we heard lots of opinions anywhere from 60-100 mph. Let’s just say I had a hard time standing up straight. There was no way I was going to drop over that Keyhole in those gusts. Before the trip I read that several people had been injured and died due to the wind on this route, so I was feeling tense and extra cautious. Tom was too and, although most of the hikers were turning back, we decided to wait it out in the stone warming hut just a few yards down from the Keyhole. It was a good decision. Nearly an hour later the winds were still strong but had died down enough for us to feel more comfortable (i.e. less terrified) climbing over the ridge.

At this point in the hike, the trail guides read like a treasure map: solve the Ledges to get to the more difficult Trough; make it through that and you’ll find yourself on the formidable “Narrows”; pass the Narrows successfully and you’re at the daunting “Homestretch”; and if you can survive the Homestretch, the summit is yours!

The Ledges made me nervous. It was slow-going, exposed in places, and there was snow and ice on the trail. After passing those, Tom and I asked each other “Why?” a few times before proceeding to “The Trough”, a couloir full of loose rock and, at this time, packed snow and ice. Before heading up, though, I had to take a break and massage my feet. They were so numb I couldn’t feel them anymore, and I was actually worried (justified or not) about frostbite.

The Trough was a mix between strenuously steep hiking and Class 3 climbing. At the head of the couloir, the infamous Chockstone gave us a little puzzlement, but with some work (and unnatural stretching) we unraveled it in the end. Leaving the Trough we arrived at “The Narrows”. This required further Why’s and a little “regrouping” for me before I ventured out onto the narrow shelf, the cliffs plummeting thousands of feet to my right. It was indeed a psychological game I was playing to keep one foot in front of the other. I was already feeling a little sick to my stomach, not from AMS, but from hours of constant mental tension.

Finally the Homestretch. Tom and I looked up from our vantage point at the end of the Narrows. “That’s not possible,” I said. “I mean, I don’t see how that’s possible.” Tom agreed. “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” we said. The guidebook said “it looks worse than it is, although water or ice will make it much more difficult.” I think on that day it probably fell into the latter category. At least it makes me feel better to say that. In any case, there was no stopping now. We found some cracks to grip and headed up, checking each foot- and handhold before committing. About 300 feet and it was over. We had summitted.

Honestly, I felt more relief than euphoria, although the nagging thoughts of having to descend the Homestretch were eating at me. It was below freezing up there. The lowest Tom’s digital thermometer read was 27 degrees. We stayed for about 15 minutes before heading back down. The Homestretch was the most difficult part. We were on our backsides most of the time; it was nerve-wracking for me.

The Narrows seemed less of a challenge after tackling the Homestretch, and we were able to enjoy some of the dizzying views on the way back. The Trough was slippery and we were on our backsides a good part of that too. In fact, Tom ripped a giant hole in the seat of his pants from the excursion.

The Ledges were so much easier on the way back, with one exception. Tom slipped and fell once, tumbling a few turns and scaring the crap out of me. Luckily he stopped without going much further down the mountain and got up with no injury. It was no real surprise, as we were both so exhausted and our legs were shaking like jelly from all the downclimbing. We resolved again to pay more attention and stay focused.

The Keyhole was still pretty windy; we took extra precautions here. We stayed in the warming hut for about half an hour to rest, rehydrate, refuel, and prepare for the long slog back down the mountain.

And what a slog it was. The adrenaline was wearing off and the pain was flaring up. Over six miles and three hours later, we found ourselves a half mile from the trailhead in the dark. John came up the trail looking for us. “I was about to call the Ranger, but I thought I’d hike up a little ways looking for you first,” he said.

No, we weren’t the last ones off the mountain, but pretty close. Fifteen miles and fifteen hours later, we dropped our packs at the jeep, raised a few high-fives, massaged our wind-burned faces, and let out some well-earned groans…

Here are some snapshots. I forgot my camera, so we all kind of shared John's point-and-shoot.

Sunrise on the trail.

Sunrise near the cirque (Chasm Lake junction).

Approaching the east face of Longs. You can see the tiny Keyhole on the far right.

A (crappy) panorama of Longs and the Keyhole at the right.

The Boulder Field leading up to the Keyhole.

More of the Boulder Field and the Keyhole.

Spindrift on Longs.

The Keyhole and the warming hut.

Some spindrift over the warming hut, taken from the Keyhole.

A short video clip at the Keyhole. You can't hear a thing I'm saying; the wind is blowing too loudly across the microphone...

Somewhere on the Ledges. The bullseyes (one of them in the foreground) keep hikers on track.

Looking back at the Ledges from the bottom of the Trough.

The Trough. Notice the hikers at the very top of the Trough. It's a long way up there.

The party in front of us hiking up the trough.

Me hiking up the trough.

Panorama from the top of the Trough.

The last climb before the Homestretch. The Homestretch is just beyond the hikers in the foreground, and continues up to the summit. You can see hikers on the Homestretch near the top of the photograph.


Marker (just some more proof that we actually made it!)

The lunar landscape of the massive summit.

Before heading back over the Narrows.

Me on a non-narrow part of the Narrows.

Some gendarmes on the Ledges

Back at the cirque that evening.

Before dropping below treeline; fog over the valley.


Carrie N said...

WOW Kevin! I could almost feel the cold wind...nice read!! Congrats on the climb!

Anonymous said...

Kevin, is your mama reading this blog? Ha, ha. I remember one of your first "height" climbs in Sand Canyon outside of Cortez, CO. Remember how challenging that felt? Wow, look at you now. I love hearing your stories and miss you! Come up to Vancouver Island and we'll show you the mountains up here...glaciers and everything!