The title sums it up…. what a mountain. Denise had plans for climbing Longs Peak for many years since living in Colorado but had never gotten around to the mountain. I had eyed it since arriving in Colorado last fall. Who has not heard of the famous Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park? It has been the sight of over 125 years of climbing, countless rescues, and thousands of people who have made it to the top. I had been saving it for the end of summer to climb after I had refreshed my skills on other 14ers after moving to Colorado just a year ago. We decided to climb the mountain with a Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) outing on a moonlight hike beginning at the trailhead at midnight.
One would think that fact alone would place us in the front of the line for getting to the top first, eh? As I sat in my car at the IMPROVED trailhead complete with a lighted map and cautionary instructions. (The light should have been my first clue) I watched first two climbers head up, then two more, and then finally a family of 4 leaving a few minutes before midnight… this is already unusual from my experiences. We formed our group of 8 led by Wally from Ft Collins and started up the trailhead at 0015 with a full moon shining her spotlight through the trees to guide us down the wide easy path. Most of us did not even use our headlamps as there was enough light to clearly see the path. Clearing tree line, the moon gave us complete lighting, albeit 2 dimensional. The grand east face of Longs Peak reared above us at the Chasm Lake trail crossing. Although the east face soared above us, it was difficult to fathom the magnitude in the moonlight. There was an ordinary port of toilet there for use by hikers. Obviously this was going to be a long day, we had come 3 miles already and the sign read, “Boulder field 2.7 miles”
The Boulder field is the start of the class 3 climbing on the Keyhole Route that leads to the summit. I asked Wally just for reference where the route wandered, and was dismayed to find that we had another little mountain/ridge to “go around” 2.7 miles, and over an hour later we approached the Boulder field. Denise had kept us awake by telling stories from her recent adventure to Scotland doing some hiking and ridge running; other jokes and stories abounded. The bad thing about hiking at night is that you lose all sense of time and as I kept my altimeter watch in my pack to accurately record the temperature, I could not keep very good track of the time. At the boulder field, yet another civilized convenience appeared in the form of an outdoor privy consisting of 2 separate stairs leading up to 2 separate “thrones”. The seats are open air with walls only about 4 feet up forming a cubicle. You can easily continue with your conversation with a friend in this setup! There are solar panels behind the johns that assist in the decomposition of the waste… a fantastic setup.
There were some mountain tents nearby and even though we were quiet at 3 or 4 in the morning they began stirring to be first up the route. “First is a relative term here” as will become apparent.
We started up the steep part of the Boulder field to the Keyhole that was clearly illuminated by the moon on the ridge… a truly awesome spectacle! It is like you are going through the keyhole to reach another world. As soon as we got to the keyhole we got hit my wind… on came the gloves, hats and shells. In terms of climbing, going through the keyhole does put you in a different world. You have been hiking, then boulder hopping and now traversing on rock ledges on the north face is your fare. The famous red and yellow bull eyes that are painted on the rock to mark the way now appear.
My Petzel Artic headlamp with a halogen bulb became the most popular piece of equipment as it was able to light both the way and pick up the bulls eyes from a distance. The scrambling is all class three but the face does drop away quite impressively in some places. Other factors that begin to play are the lack of sleep (we had all been up since Sat morning and now it is Sunday morning at 5:00am, tiredness from the hike, the now the exposure in places. But eh… in the dark it doesn’t look so bad!
We got across the face to the bottom of the “trough”. You can’t see it all from the bottom as it doglegs to the right. One of the members of the group was slower and Wally stayed back to work with her so the rest of us made our way up, and up, and up. Seems a lot longer than 700′! Denise kept it interesting by dislodging a bowling ball size rock that fell down the center of the couloir, missing those of us climbing the left. The trough continues forever and in the dark it’s even more interesting. At the top of the trough there is a good bouldering move depending on the way you do it and then you are thrust out onto what I think is the west face with another long drop off below. At least you get to see all sides of this mountain! The Narrows begin immediately and cross the west face on a ledge system to a keyhole of sorts that finally deposits you on the Homestretch or south face. The narrows are interesting but not difficult as long as you don’t misstep. Same with the Homestretch, the only way available to reach the summit short of technical climbing. The Homestretch is composed of columns and slabs of rocks worn smooth by the passing of so many climbers.
We encountered some water and some small areas of ice so you just had to pay attention. If this part gets completely wet or iced it is called the Bobsled Run for obvious reasons. Denise was already on top and she snapped our pictures as we pulled over on the summit. On top the sun had broken over the eastern horizon as I think we got up around 6:30am. There were people on the summit that had arrived at 3:00am and bived on top! The temperature was 21 degrees, no wind, but the sun was not strong enough to warm you much as we munched on top. Wally arrived with the slower climber and we took pictures while Wally replaced the summit register. This is a pretty common occurrence as I’ll explain later. Denise and I started to get downright cold so we made motions to descend and walked over to peer down the Homestretch. Looked just as interesting as it did looking up! We scrambled down the slabs safely reaching the Keyhole to the Narrows. We took lots of pictures on Narrows then made the bouldering move into the Trough. It was amazing… there was a steady stream of people moving like an ant line up the couloir. And these were not people who looked experienced.
This was the most exposed 14er out of 25 I had done and these people looked like they were on their first climb ever! No packs, no jackets with a 7.5 trip to get safely back. I asked a lot of people and it must be the lure of Rocky Mountain National Park and the fact Longs is so famous… everyone must want to climb this mountain! We stayed to the right down climbing so as not to dislodge a rock as we would have taken out 30 people! Back across the face, through the keyhole and to the sun where we could warm up. Denise and I changed into shorts and t-shirts and rested in the sun for about 30 mins for our group to reform. Down to the Boulder field we just had to get a picture of the open air johns, best view of any bathroom I have seen! We used Denise’s new binoculars to spy on the big wall climbers on the Diamond… what a grand scale!
We told Wally we were headed down at a quicker pace due to the long drive back to Colorado Springs and we lengthened our stride. The views on the return were stunning … the east face magnificent. Back at the Chasm Lake cross trail, we still had 3 miles to the finish. They were a long 3 miles… both us were mumbling, one more coherently than the other… Arriving back at the trailhead we tore at the cooler for a cold coke and washed up a bit at the large restroom. After we felt human again, we visited the climbing ranger station where we chatted with the older volunteer rangers manning the store. That’s what I want to do when I retire! We looked through the old climbing gear and their photo albums of the different routes. Ed showed us the jacket with the big hole in the back of it where lightning struck the guy who was wearing it… he survived. Ed also said that with the register that Wally was going to give him, it would be well over 4,000 people who had been up Longs Peak since Jan 1st.
There had been about 60 rescues (many rock climbing ones from the Diamond) just this year and the tally board at the trailhead said 43 people have lost their lives on the mountain since they started to track that sort of thing. The objective danger for this mountain in my book is the enormous about of time you stay above tree line (12,000). If the weather turns nasty and you are caught off guard or not prepared, there is no quick moving on the scrambling sections. But unprepared people get lucky all of the time, hence 650 people may climb this peak in a week according to Ed. Last Sunday there were 176 recorded people on top! At any rate, climbing it at night is an adventure and it truly is a “classic” climb that tests your endurance and sense of adventure. The crowds? … well it is Rocky Mountain National Park!
Distance: 15 miles (rt) Elevation gain: 5,000′ Class 3, Time: 13 hours