Longs Peak trip report

by Brian L. Rachford rachford@sparky.uwyo.edu

August is sort of a lazy month as a grad student here (of course, I'm not getting paid for the month, either), so I've been climbing 14ers in Colorado; Bierstadt/Evans on the 8th, Torreys/Grays on the 15th. After these climbs (both involving scrambling), I decided to do Longs.

I knew what I was getting into with regards to the length of a climb of Longs, and I planned on leaving Laramie at 2am to be able to start up the trail by 5am. Unfortunately, I had a very hard time getting to sleep the night before. Miraculously, I managed to sleep from 12:30 to 2:30am, otherwise I would have cancelled. I didn't leave until about 3:15 so I didn't reach the trailhead until 6am. Despite being a Tuesday, the parking lot was full; fortunately there is a shoulder on the downhill side of the road just below the parking lot. It's right across the road from a 'No Parking' sign, but those of us on the shoulder were off the road, so I took my chances and ended up not getting ticketed or towed.

By the time I got my stuff together and signed the register at the trailhead it was 6:10, later than I had planned, but the weather was beautiful. I noticed that there were quite a few 'midnight runners' signed up. The hike to the Boulder Field is plenty long, but was mostly uneventful, except for the amazing view of Longs' impressive east face. I passed about ten people in the first couple miles, but by the time I got a little ways above treeline, I was going at about the same pace as most people and only occasionally passed anyone. The campsites below the Boulder Field were mostly full, but there was at least one empty site.

After 5+ miles of hiking, the boulder-hopping up to the Keyhole was a nice change of pace. I reached the Keyhole at 9:20 and there were about five other people here and everyone was admiring the tremendous view here. It was chilly on the way up even in full sunshine and light winds and I already had my gloves on. At the Keyhole, it was only in the upper 30s with 20mph winds, and in the shade so I put on my shell jacket.

One person at the Keyhole looked at where the route was heading and decided he had made it plenty high enough, and until I caught sight of the first of the red and yellow bullseye I wasn't sure where the route was. After about 15-20 minutes at the Keyhole, I headed onward across to the Trough. As soon as I got out of the Keyhole, the wind abated, and although still in shadow, I removed the jacket. At this time, the route still wasn't very crowded, the sky was still absolutely clear, and I was becoming more and more glad that I hadn't had to cancel on this day.

The Trough is tough. The climbing is class 2-3, but 600 feet of it after 6+ miles is very strenuous. It was still cold enough in the shade that there were a few small skins of ice over running water, but the rock was >99% dry and not a problem. I was feeling the effects of the long hike and the altitude at this point and a couple groups passed me going up the Trough. The bouldering move at the top of the Trough was a little tricky; I went up the right side, your mileage may vary. And suddenly I was in a different world as I burst out into bright sunlight and rounded the corner to the Narrows and once again the views were remarkable. This isn't difficult, but there's some pretty good exposure.

Finally, I reached the famed Homestretch, and it immediately becomes clear why this is so dangerous when wet, as it's a smooth ~45 degrees angle cracked slab. However, under the still perfect conditions this was pretty straightforward (actually, if you had excellent traction you could just about walk up it). I was feeling better by this time (adrenaline?), and there were only about 15 people here, so I made pretty good time, and reached the summit at 11:10am. The summit plateau is huge and there were 25 or so people here. I was just the 36th person to sign the register for the day (more than a hundred people will summit on a summer weekend day). I had a nice conversation with someone who was originally from Nebraska (I grew up in Iowa) and had spent some time in Laramie. The weather was still unbelieveable with a few small cumulus clouds just starting to form and light winds so I spent about a half hour on the summit relaxing and soaking up the scenery.

I started the downclimb at 11:45. This is my mountaineering strength and I made good time to the Keyhole, even though I had to occasionally wait for someone to reach a good place where I could pass. Although I didn't think it was difficult, the exposure while descending the Homestretch unnerved a few people and it took them a while to inch down.

By the time I reached the Keyhole at 1pm I had passed about ten people. Here I had another nice conversation with a man who had came up with his adult son (I think it was his son, anyway) and had decided not to go past the Keyhole, while his son did. About 10 minutes after me, his son showed up and the climb up and down the summit had really put the fear of God into him. As he was describing it, about every sentence contained the 'f' word as an adjective for the difficulty and exposure. Although I was polite and didn't laugh, it was quite funny, especially since I hadn't seen anyone in real trouble anywhere on the route.

I left the Keyhole at 1:15 and boulder-hiked down the Boulder Field at a good clip. I passed some more people in this area and around 2pm I suddenly realized that I was at least a quarter mile from anyone else and couldn't see anyone. A lot of this part of the trail had running water on it, so I took advantage of the solitude and sat on a boulder with the soles of my boots in the water. The wind was a dead calm at this point and the only sound was the gently flowing water. I sat here for about five minutes, before the analytical part of my brain suggested that since I still had five miles to go and I was tired, I should hit the trail. This worked out nicely because just after I started hiking, the group behind me got close enough so I could hear their voices and the wind picked up a bit.

Although I was tired and the three blister spots on my toes were starting to act up and my legs were starting to ache, I pushed myself onward, knowing that I was running low on food and water. The last two miles I was behind a park ranger leading two llamas, but he was moving pretty fast and I was still about a minute behind them as I reached the trailhead at 3:45, 9 hours and 35 minutes after starting. I had wrote down an arrival time of 4pm on the trailhead register, and I was really pleased that I had estimated my time correctly, especially since I spent a fair amount of time enjoying the sights during the climb. It was still only about 30% cloudy at this time, and it was quite warm for 9400ft.

There were about 20 people here and the parking lot was still full. I walked down to my car, changed shoes and socks and walked back to the ranger station to look around. It was crowded so I didn't talk to any rangers, but I talked to a couple people about the Keyhole route in front of the pictures of the different sections of the route on the wall and the scale model of Longs in the middle of the room.

I couldn't imagine better conditions for a climb of Longs. Although I expected to see lots of people completely unprepared for this arduous climb, I didn't. Some people didn't have enough clothing, but this was one day where you could get away with that sin (and actually, in retrospect, my clothing wouldn't have been the greatest if it had rained). Of course, I finished way ahead of a lot of the people I summited with, so I have no idea if these people had the endurance or the supplies to make it down easily. Personally, I should have had a little more liquid with me. I had a two quart canteen of water, and a 6 ounce pouch of juice, and I still had to ration the water a bit on the last couple of miles. Also, even though I was wearing a cap and a beard, I came close to sunburning the exposed parts of my face. I would have brought sunscreen but I couldn't imagine having a full day of bright sun while climbing Longs.

I heartily recommend climbing Longs at least once in your life if you're able.