LONGS PEAK, 14,255 ft. June 16th, 1994. By Mike Dallin.
Route: Keyhole, 15 miles round trip.
Class 3 climbing (scrambling required).
This was my first attempt of climbing Longs Peak, and sadly, we didn't make it. We did, however, view some spectacular scenery, and despite having to turn back, we still had a great time climbing.
We started up the trail at about 4 in the morning. We were kind of depressed, because it was obviously overcast as we drove to the trailhead. Because of the cloud cover, we had to use flashlights for the first 45 minutes or so, until the sun had risen enough to give us some natural light.
We continued up the trail, past the Goblin's Forest (so named because the trees in the area are 'mangled' due to phototropisms, according to our trail book), until we came to a bridge crossing Alpine Brook. The trees were thinning at this point, and it was now light enough that we could see some distance. Lo and behold, we had hiked above the clouds! The sky was a pristine blue above us, and it seemed like nothing would stop us. We ate a bit at the bridge, crossed the brook, and read the 'lightning kills' warning sign. Ever so boldy, we hiked about 30 meters, and took another break - not to rest, but to take some pictures of the area towards Longmont which was obscured by clouds.
After taking pictures, we continued down the trail. Eventually, we finally overcame treeline, and had our first views of the east face of Longs Peak, directly west of us. We continued along, passing by several huge cairns and even a snowbank, until we reached the turnoff to Chasm Lake. The view of the east face of Longs , called the Diamond, is tremendous from this point. We also had our first real views of Longs Peaks' neighbor, Mt. Meeker (13,911 ft), and of the Loft (the saddle between Longs and Meeker) - which unknown to us at the time, would be the route we would later take on our first successful climb of Longs.
The turnoff to Chasm Lake has another famous feature, an outhouse near a cliff. For those contemplating this climb, I strongly suggest you skip this outhouse, as the smell alone is enough to kill small animals (and probably humans, too). However, there are a few nice-sized boulders here, offering plenty of places to rest and snack before the climb to Boulderfield.
Ah, the climb to Boulderfield. This is one of the parts of the trip that people remember most about the climb (aside from the Trough, and of course, the summit). This next bit, which traverses Granite Pass (and a few snowbanks), and circles Mt. Lady Washington (13,281 ft), drags on. Also, with the early summer melt in progress, several portions of the trail were underwater. However, we viewed this as an excellent opportunity to clean off our boots a little bit (thank goodness they are waterproofed), and we continued above the pass.
From the pass, we could see into the mid-section of the Park, including Beaver Meadows, Estes Cone, the Mummy Mnt Range, and of course, the continental divide peaks (Flattop, etc). Low clouds were still covering the area towards Loveland, but they were slowly burning off. From the pass, where the trail meets the North Longs Peak Trail (the trail from the Glacier Gorge trailhead taken to climb Longs), we turned south and headed for Boulderfield. The north face of Longs, known as the old cables route (due to cables bolted on the mountain face, which used to be the standard climbing route - which were removed in 1971), loomed before us. We could also see the Keyhole ridge, which gets its name from a keyhole-like rock formation, next to which is a shelter cabin. However, we still had to cross Boulderfield to get there.
Naturally, the boulders got bigger as we entered Boulderfield, and the trail became less and less defined (except by occasional cairns). To the east of us was Mt. Lady Washington, and to the west was Storm Peak (13,326 ft). Directly before us, below the north face of Longs, was a campground. The campground marks the site where an old horse stable used to be. Now, it is several camp rings, with two nearby solar-powered outhouses. We stopped in an empty ring, and rested for about 20 minutes, before gaining enough energy to climb to the Keyhole.
To climb to the Keyhole, we had to climb over numerous car-sized boulders. There is now set route to the Keyhole; climbers are to pick their best route. Once at the Keyhole, we find the shelter cabin, filled with snow. However, it was a nice clear day (above us, at least), and we sat outside and snacked.
The cabin is in memory of Agnes Vaille, one of the first people to successfully climb the Diamond in the winter. However, as her group descended the north face of Longs, she had to be left behind, in a blizzard. Her partner made it to the lodge, and a rescue effort was launched. When she was found, she had already died. One of her rescuers ran into some troubles while returning, and ended up breaking his leg. He died from exposure just several hundred meters from Longs Peak Inn.
We enjoyed our views of Boulderfield, now below us, and of Storm Peak to the north of us, and then crossed the Keyhole into Glacier Gorge. The views from this vantage point above Glacier Gorge were tremendous. The crystal-clear day also helped. However, the wind from this point was strong - we had to carefully pick our way over the cliffs for the next several meters.
For those who don't know, Glacier Gorge is a huge glacier-carved gorge (hence the name... ;) ), surrounded by some of the park's most impressive peaks: Including Storm Peak to the north of Longs, McHenrys Peak to the west of Longs, along with Pagoda and Chiefs Head Peak to the southwest of Longs.
We quickly located the famous red and yellow "bull's eyes" that mark the trail to the summit. The next stretch was a fascinating climb above Glacier Gorge, on several precarious cliffs. We eventually made it to the base of the Trough (which is a long couloir, famous for being a challenge). Here we made our critical decision. Despite the gorgeous day, it was getting late, and the Trough was filled with snow (meaning we would have to don crampons). Also, we were starting to suffer pretty badly from altitude sickness (which is rare for our group), so we decided to turn back, and return again a month later. Before we left, we rested for a while and snapped some more pictures (including one of Wade Gustafson below the Trough).
Later, we learned that the Trough melted out enough for regular (non- snow) climbing exactly one week later. We weren't disappointed, however, because the views - and the spectacular weather - made the climb more than worth it. We did return one and half months later, however, and successfully climbed the more difficult (and less crowded) Loft route.
Longs Peak is a great mountain to climb, which explains the huge crowds. However, due to the Trough being crampon-only climbing, hardly anybody was to be seen. I highly recommend that experienced climbers climb Longs in late May/early June, before the Trough melts out. If you don't like using crampons and ice picks, or you don't know how, keep in touch with Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park, they will tell you when the Trough opens. Try to go as soon as it opens, because the crowds are still rather light, and the Colorado Monsoon (which brings storms every afternoon, especially at 14000 ft) is still a few weeks off.