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September 13, 2005

TravelBlog: Making the summit of Longs Peak

Weekend before last, over the long Labor Day weekend, I trekked north to Rocky Mountain National Park with friend Adriane Irwin, Lauren Meyer and two of their friends Shawn and Cheryl. Our intention was to summit Longs Peak, the tallest non-technical summit in the lower 48 states. Longs Peak's summit stands at 14,259 feet (4321 meters) above sea level. This elevation is significantly higher than my usual elevation of roughly 5,314 feet (1,610 meters; and I'd only been at that elevation for about three weeks since prior to that, I'd been at sea level in New York City), and I was not positive that I would make it to the top.

And yet, I did. Longs Peak was my first 14'er and probably not my last. As I mentioned to my friend Jen from the climbing gym this evening, I've been interested in doing serious outdoors stuff for a long time, but have simply not had a set of friends who were also interested (this makes me wonder if for some other reason I tend not to be selective for crazy adventurous friends). On the other hand, as I mentioned to Keith and Angie this afternoon, I'm much more interested in having good company along for those adventures than I am in crossing them off some abstract list of accomplishments. Still, it will be nice to have both!

Our summit attempt of Longs Peak began after we lucked out and landed a camp site in the small camp ground near the trailhead. We prepped our gear, had a snack and then hit the sack for a few hours. We set the alarm for 1:10am, although I slept restlessly and ended up awake at 12:50am, waiting for go-time to arrive. After assembling our gear, we picked up our two new friends Jake and Luke (brothers who had driven-in the day before from Indiana), and made for the trailhead. Adriane, betraying her excitement, set a quick pace for the first few miles of the hike. As we crossed the tree-line, we could see the lights from Denver in the distance, and the looming darkness of Longs Peak miles away above us.

It wasn't long before I volunteered for lead-duty. This was partially on account of Adriane finally relinquishing the position herself and partially because I wanted to set a slower pace. Above the tree-line, the steps of the trail were tiring, and I was a little concerned that the altitude would wear me out quickly. And so, I led our group of seven along the trail as it snaked its way up the mountain, through the lower tundra. At the break for Chasm Lake, we rested briefly before pushing on to Boulder Field. The cold of the night air and the heat of the hiking kept the girls constantly shifting their layers. I was comfortable in my polypro and nylon layers, content to roll-up or roll-down my sleeves in order to shed a few extra degrees of heat.

Although this hike was filled with spectacular visuals, one of my favorites was, from near Boulder Field, looking back down the trail during the blackness of night. Tracing the twists and turns of the trail were a train of bright points, bobbing with the motion of hikers as they made their way over the foothills. The quietude of the moment combined with the solemnness of the dancing lights made me think of a pilgrimage, in which dutiful worshippers made their way to the mountain sanctuary to offer their prayers to the gods that live within the mountain. Although I doubt any of the hikers on the trail was doing that exactly, among those serious enough to summit Longs Peak (or otherwise revel in the beauty and ruggedness of nature), I can't help but feel that there was a subtle religious subtext to our trek.

At the Boulder Field rest stop, we spotted the sun beginning to peak over the horizon, and our surroundings were visibly more light. We hardly needed our headlamps as we began to pick our way through the large rubble toward to Keyhole. It was near this milestone point that the sun finally broke away from the shadow of the nearby mountain and seared the night sky with orange, red and yellow fire. Given my surroundings, it was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and had I not been with company, I likely would have found a comfortable rock to park myself upon so as to soak it up for a spell.

As we turned through the Keyhole, I laid eyes on the beginning of the difficult part of the hike. James had described this section as being a three-foot wide ledge with a thousand foot drop on one side - it wasn't nearly that bad, but the steep slope off to my right certainly made me more cautious as we began to pick our way through the jagged rocks, hugging the slope while following the painted bulls-eyes that led us forward. From here-on-out, I was careful with my hands, making sure that I always had my balance, and always had one good hand-hold in case I lost my balance. It was also at this point, at 13,000ft, that I began the feel the altitude in earnest. I developed a slight headache and a slight shortness of breath, both of which progressed as we climbed the remaining 1200 feet to the summit.

The bouncing bulls-eyes led us to what's known as the Trough, which is truly the worst part of the hike. With an elevation gain of perhaps close to 700 feet, the Trough is filled with boulders, gravel and dirt, and the footing was significantly less sure than on the jagged but solid rock we had just crossed. It was here that I began to fall behind the rest of the group, and here that Adriane and Lauren began to push ahead. Deciding that being safe was more important to me than keeping up with the group, I let the distance grow until it was only Luke and I at the top of the Trough, while the rest were on to the Narrows. Luke and I hadn't spoken much on the hike up, but as we sat at the top of the Trough, gazing out at the breathtakingly beautiful and immensely expansive landscape, we commiserated about the difficulty of the altitude and the Trough. I could tell he was reluctant to go on, and so I consoled him. Finally, he said that this was the most beautiful spot on Earth he'd ever seen and that he was going to stay right here.

Resolving to push on myself, I bid him farewell and said that perhaps we'd meet up again at the Keyhole on the way down. And then it was into the Narrows. James' description was slightly more accurate here, but still there were plenty of outcroppings and formations to pick your way through - I never felt in danger, but still, I respected the distance between myself and the bottom of the mountain to my right. For this section, I was joined by a young woman who came up behind me in the Trough. We would hike for a period and then rest, then hike and rest, etc. We chatted amicably occasionally, commenting on the altitude. Finally, at the point where the Narrows meets the Homestretch, she pushed forward, and I was again left behind.

The Homestretch is much like the Trough, except without the loose footing. Another 600 foot vertical rise on a steep slope. Slowly, with hikers from behind passing often enough to remind me that my body was suffering, I neared the summit. At about 8:40am, I reached the top and found the rest of the group in high spirits, having been there for a little more than half an hour already. We snapped the requisite group photos, shots of Chasm Lake from above, pictures of the clouds rolling in, and a few more shots of each other. As the weather turned cold and the summit was enveloped in a white fog, we began our descent.

Although going up the mountain was difficult on account of the physicality of raising your body nearly a mile, going down was difficult for the pounding on the knees. It was made no less complicated by the large number of people we met going in the opposite direction - Jen, who has done Longs before, said that starting at 2:00am was excessive, but I'm glad we did because it made the ascent significantly less crowded. With the lightness of day around us, I took many pictures of the descent, chronicling the way-points and landmarks and vistas. It wasn't until about half way down the lower tundra that my knees truly began to ache from the constant pounding on unforgiving stone, and I began to take more frequent breaks.

Again, I fell behind the group as a result. This time, however, it was more intentional. When I'm out in nature like this, I like to take a little bit of time to be completely alone and simply soak it all in. To try to open every pore of my body and absorb the beauty and serenity that surrounds me, to try to store it up for all the days I'll spend away from it, imbedded in a complicated and noisy jungle of concrete and asphalt. Satiated, I wore a big and goofy smile as I bounced down the trail after the group ahead of me. We were briefly reunited at the break to Chasm Lake, where I captured a nice panorama Longs. Finally, at close to 2:15pm, twelve strenuous and exhausting hours later, I made it back to our campsite, tired but happy.

-- Pictures from the Trip --

posted September 13, 2005 10:37 PM in Travel | permalink


Long's Peak is a great hike and I like your photos. On that same weekend (Labor Day) I climbed up adjoining Mount Meeker and summited at about the same time you summitted Long's. The clouds enveloping Long's were fascinating. Here's what they looked like from where we stood.


Posted by: Fritz at September 16, 2005 01:39 PM