Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs Peak


LONGS PEAK, 14,255 ft. July 28th, 1994. By Mike Dallin

Route: The Loft Route, ~14 miles round trip.

Class 3 climbing (scrambling required).

This was our return attempt to climb Longs Peak this summer. However, this time we decided to try out the Loft Route, since we had already attempted the Keyhole route earlier this summer.

The Loft is a broad plane that lies between Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, at an elevation approx. 13,500 ft. A large snowfield is ever-present just below the Loft, making this route easy to spot. The Loft route has a few advantages over the Keyhole route: You get to visit Chasm Falls and Chasm Lake, and climbing Mt. Meeker adds only about 1/2 mile to the round trip (though we didn't climb Meeker this time). However, the most noticeable difference between the two routes is that the Loft is uncrowded - until we reached Homestretch, we saw only one other climber.

We decided to start this hike early, around 1:00 am. We had also planned on taking several rests along the way, each lasting an hour or so. So, with flashlights going, we groggily started up the trail. However, the moon was out and the skies were clear, so we soon decided to forgo the flashlights and hike by the moon.

Both routes started the same (see my report of the Keyhole Route for further details), until we reached the Chasm Lake turnoff. Whereas the Keyhole route turns north to climb over Granite Pass at this point, the Loft route heads towards Chasm Lake. At this point (2:30 am or so), it was still dark, so we didn't dare take pictures of Chasm Falls. The trail meanders along the southern face of Mt. Lady Washington, and some areas appeared to be a steep dropoff from the trail. We eventually arrived at a cabin used for storage, just below Chasm Lake. At this point, we took our first rest, for about 15 minutes. We then climbed up to Chasm Lake, and rested for the next 45 minutes.

Chasm lake rests at the foot of the east face of Longs. With the dramatic face towering above it, the lake is understandably a popular hike destination. Today was no different, as several rather noisy climbers hikers arrived about 20 minutes after us. We decided to lounge around for a few more minutes, then set off for the Loft.

By this time, the sky was started to brighten with the incoming dawn. The colors were gorgeous, and the view towards the Twin Sisters was breathtaking from this vantage point. We hiked around a large outcrop called Ships Prow (also known as the Beaver, which cuts directly through the Meeker-Longs cirque). At this point, we finally got our first close-up views of Mt. Meeker, whose northern cliff-marked face would be a challenge to many technical climbers. However, our route continued west (and up!). From this point on, we were climbing on talus - much like the climb from Boulderfield to the Keyhole (only 3 or 4 times as long!). The climb was steep in several places, and slipping was common (Climbing the Loft is comparable to climbing the Trough at this point). It was still early enough in the season for snowdrifts reaching from the Loft down to the base of Ships Prow, though they didn't cover the trail - in fact, due to lack of cairns (though there were a few), following the snowdrifts became a convenient way to keep on the trail (and avoid running into some nasty cliffs on Meeker. ;) ). Half way up the Loft, we saw our only other climber for the day, a man soloing the Loft who, like us, wanted to try a different route up Longs. We talked for a few minutes, and went on our way.

Of course, the closer you are to the top of the Loft, the steeper it gets. Soon, climbing over boulders and rocks was replaced by climbing on cliffs, much like those between the Keyhole and the Trough. We took another brief break to take some pictures of the sunrise, and continued on. Now, the real fun started.

For those of you familiar with the Keyhole route, you know about the boulder you have to climb at the top of the Trough - that is, a boulder about 6 or 7 feet high. The Loft at this point is similar - except you have to climb about 4 or 5 boulders. This area is as close to techinical climbing as you can get. We helped each other up (and down a few wrong turns), until we reached an area where we could climb no further. This is just below the Lofts' snowfield, where the cliffs ARE technical climbing. Of course, being a class 3 route, we weren't supposed to climb these cliffs (especially because they were wet with the snowfield's runoff). We located some cairns which led us south along a ledge about 2 or 3 feet wide. The view from this point - which included an early-morning Estes Park - was spectacular. Looking down towards the speck that was the storage cabin was a sobering thought - we had climbed up THAT!?!

The ledge continued on for several yards, and eventually widened. However, the ledge then dead-ends, with the cliffs of Meeker beyond. We had to climb over another large boulder, then we took a sharp turn to the north west, following cairns the whole way. We finally made it to the Loft!

As I said before, the Loft is a rocky, broad plain. To the south is the trail to Meeker's summit (which, due to fatigue, we opted not to climb), and to the north is a talus-covered slope appearing to lead to the summit of Longs (which we could see people on). However, the Notch is a significant barrier between the slope and Longs - in other words, we weren't done yet.

We continued northwest across the Loft, and enjoyed the view into Wild Basin. At this point, we were supposed to locate some cairns, and actually climb down some gullies several hundred feet. However, the cairns were hard to spot, and we ended up going down the wrong (the northern-most) gully. This gully contained 3 or 4 dropoffs, each around 6 or 7 feet. We inched our way down, all the while not exactly sure of the trail. We were looking for Clark's Arrow - an arrow painted on a west-facing rock, pointing south (of course, since we were coming from the east, we would not see it until we were at it). We eventually found it, and took the opportunity to rest. Using a map, we traced where the real route - that is, the correct gully - led. We figured that we actually saved several hundred yards of climbing by taking the wrong gully. ;) Once everyone was safe, we headed due north - below the Palisades, several large vertical cliffs. We could see the rest of our route at this point - another gully to climb (ugh), leading to the Notch. We climbed it slowly, and watched as a marmot followed us up from below. ;) Compared to the Loft climb, this was nothing, but fatigue and alitude were catching up. We reached the Notch, and decided to have our last break of the climb - a 45 minute break, where we ate and rested. We could see climbers on Homestretch to the north of us, and wondered if they could see us. Gathering our things, it was time to make the final climb to the summit.

At this point, cairns appear everywhere. The climb from the notch is easy, as well. We simply followed the slope up towards where the Narrows end, and the Homestretch begins (As an aside, people have told me that this is a good point to head West, below the Keyboard of the Winds, to climb Pagoda - as opposed to the usual Wild Basin/Glacier Gorge routes). However, the usual traffic jam was blocking Homestretch, so we stayed below and talked with some climbers (some of whom were impressed that we climbed the Loft - evidently the rumor is that the Loft is much harder than Keyhole route, which I only somewhat agree with). Eventually, the crowds lessened, and we made our way up Homestretch to the summit.

To make the summit visit brief, we ate lunch, rested, took pictures, signed the register, and talked with a park ranger. The ranger climbed Longs in 3 hours (I wish I was in that good of shape!), and was replacing the register (needless to say, the register fills up quickly on Longs). After 1/2 hour, we started our descent.

To make our trip a Tour de Longs, we decided to descend via the Keyhole route. By this time, clouds were coming in, so we picked up our pace. Needless to say, climbers were still attemping the Trough by the time we were descending! We silently hoped that they wouldn't be caught in a storm (it did snow briefly as we descended Homestretch), and we continued on our way. By the time we reached the bottom of the Trough, fatigue took its toll, and I decided to rest again. My three climbing partners wanted to continue on, and we agreed to meet at the Keyhole. After a few minutes, however, a storm appeared over McHenry's Peak, across Glacier Gorge. Needless to say, this new development gave me the energy to head for the Keyhole (faster than I ever have before). Halfway there, I could here the tell-tale crackling of electricity in the air, somewhere above the summit of Longs. Light rain started falling, and by the time I stepped through the door of the shelter at Keyhole, the rain turned into hail.

About 10 of us spent the next 45 minutes cramped inside the shelter. Some of the other climbers told their stories of storms in the park, while others sat back and slept or ate. Nobody even mentioned the 20 or so climbers who were still stuck somewhere between the Trough and the summit (I genuinely felt sorry for those folks). After 30 minutes, the rain stopped, and 15 minutes later, we all decided that the rocks leading to Boulderfield were dry enough to climb down. In all, on our hike back to the trailhead, we were caught in about 5 rain storms, though none as violent as the one at Keyhole. By the time we reached the Chasm Lake turnoff, our energy returned, making this one of our fastest descents ever. In all, including rests, the trip took us 17 hours (yes, that seems like a lot, but we also rested for about 1/4 of that time).

Of course, on the climb down, everyone was convinced that they would never climb a mountain again (what can I say, Longs isn't easy!). However, in retrospect, every person who I went with have become true believers in the Loft route, even though it is harder than the Keyhole route. Already I am scheduled to lead the same group back up the Loft in the summer of '95, but this time only to climb Mt. Meeker. And my impressions of the Loft? Yes, it is a bit harder than Keyhole. Yes, it tends to take about the same time as Keyhole, though it is about 1 mile shorter. And yes, sometimes the trail is hard to find. But, I would definitely recommend this route over Keyhole, unless the climber is not in good shape (in which case they shouldn't attempt Longs in the first place, unless they don't mind having to turn back).