Just over a month ago, I, and 6 of my friends, embarked upon a journey. A journey of modestly epic proportions. A journey that many have done before, but none of those people were us. We were going to hike Long’s Peak.
We had all traveled to Estes Park to celebrate, our friends, Rob and Julie’s wedding, and after the wedding, we took a week to enjoy Colorado. During the week leading up to our hike, we had been discussing whether or not we would attempt Long’s Peak. If you don’t know about Long’s Peak, it is the only fourteener (where the summit is above 14,000 ft above sea level) in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ll let wikipedia describe the Keyhole route for you.
The hike from the trailhead to the summit is 8 miles (13 km) each way. Most hikers begin before dawn in order to reach the summit and return below the tree line before frequent afternoon thunderstorms bring a risk of lightning strikes. The most difficult portion of the hike begins at the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles (10 km) into the hike. After scrambling over the boulders, hikers reach the Keyhole at 6.7 miles (10.5 km).
The following quarter of a mile involves a scramble along narrow ledges, many of which may have nearly sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet (305 m) or more just off the edge. The next portion of the hike includes climbing over 600 vertical feet (183 m) up the Trough before reaching the most exposed section of the hike, the Narrows. Just beyond the Narrows, the Notch signifies the beginning of the Homestretch, a steep climb to the football field-sized, flat summit. It is possible to camp out overnight in the Boulder Field (permit required) which makes for a less arduous two day hike, although this is fairly exposed to the elements. 57 people have died climbing or hiking Longs Peak. According to the National Park Service, 2 people, on average, die every year attempting to climb the mountain. In the summer of 2005 a Japanese climber was blown off a ledge after reaching the summit. On September 3, 2006 a man fell 800 feet (244 m) to his death when some rocks let go while he was descending the Loft route. Less experienced mountaineers are encouraged to use a guide for this summit to mitigate risk and increase the probability of a summit.
CAUTION! ACHTUNG, BABY! This is a very photo heavy post. Click at your own risk. There are dozens of photos in this post, so those on a 56k modem should probably join us in the 21st century and get some hi-speed internet! (j/k but, you know, seriously, it might take a while to load.)
After reading something like that, it leads a person to really reconsider whether or not this is a task worth undertaking. The article doesn’t mention that the total elevation gain during the hike is 4,850′, with the summit at 14,256′. If you’ve never been to Colorado (or anywhere a mile above sea-level), you probably wouldn’t know what it’s like to hike where the air has less oxygen. You really don’t notice it until you realize that after climbing one flight of stairs, you find yourself breathing heavy. This also doesn’t include the potential for altitude sickness, if you don’t allow your body time to acclimate. Last year, I was in Estes Park rock climbing with some friends, and decided not to hike Long’s Peak at that time. A few other friends had went ahead with the hike, and although they all reached the summit, one of the girls suffered from a real bad case of altitude sickness, causing her intense headaches, vomiting, and severe nausea. With that in mind, I, and a few of the others, were a little hesitant to undertake this ordeal, while a few others were a little more gung-ho.
As my longest hike had been about 5 miles (with an elevation gain of ~3,500 ft), and I was extremely sore for the next few days, I wasn’t sure a hike of this caliber was within my capabilities. Luckily, my friends encouraged me, and a couple days before we were tentatively planning on hiking/climbing Long’s, we did a warm up hike with Flattop Mountain. It’s a 7 mile round trip hike, starting at 9,475 ft, with the summit at 12, 354 ft giving an elevation gain of only ~2,800 ft. This hike took us about 8 hrs to complete, with some intermittent rain during the ascent. The hike went well, and really gave us a good understanding of the pace we wanted to go, and how the altitude would affect our body. Additionally, it gave us a good understanding of how much water we needed to bring, and snacks to keep our energy up. I felt pretty good after the hike, and it gave me confidence enough to know I could at least make it to the Boulder Field, and then at least attempt hiking Long’s Peak.
REI Traverse 30L backpack
REI Taku Jacket
REI Adventure Pants
Platypus Big Zip SL 3.0L Reservoir
Patagonia Capilene 2 Zip Tee
Ex-Officio Boxer Briefs
North Face Bambeanie Hat
North Face bamboo gloves
REI Hybrid Light Hiking Quarter Socks
Salomon Fastpaker Mid Hiking Boot
Chili’s Polarized Sunglasses
Nalgene 1L bottle
Nikon D700 & 20mm f/2.8 & Sigma 12-60mm f/2.8
Ultrapod 2 Mini Tripod
The reason I think it’s worth listing my gear is that without these items, the hike would have been a lot more miserable than it already was (even writing this over a month later, I still haven’t forgotten how taxing this hike was). The night before, we assembled all of our gear, made sandwiches, and filled our hydration packs, and water bottles with a 50/50 mixture of gatorade and water. From the warm-up hike, I knew I’d need at least 4L of water. We went to bed around 10:30pm on wednesday night, and got up at 1:30am on Thursday in order to get to the trailhead by 2am, giving us ample time to get up and down below the treeline by early afternoon to avoid exposing ourselves to thunderstorms with no cover. We ended up getting into the parking lot at around 2:10am, and found a dozen or so cars were already parked, and people on the trail. We got our packs on, adjusted straps, adjusted our layers for the weather. We finally hit the trail at around 2:20am or so, and by the time we had hiked .4 miles, we were stopping again to readjust our layers. It was 60 degrees, but with the hiking and altitude, we were sweating in no time.
The nice thing about bringing a camera with you is that it gives you an excuse to stop and catch your breath. You just pretend like it is a good spot to stop for a photo, and then you don’t look like a wimpy idiot stopping every few minutes to catch your breath in front of your friends. But seriously, we had gotten a good pace by the time we cleared the treeline. We were stopping every hour or so to make sure we drank a little bit, and had a granola bar to keep our energy up. By then, I was leading the pack and setting the pace. Which made it easier for me, because I could go at a speed I was comfortable with, and not at someone else’s speed. And considering my pace was pretty slow anyway, it worked out for everyone else. Once past the treeline, you could kind of see the half-moon illuminating the landscape around, although it was hard to really appreciate it when your eyes are basically glued to the trail looking for good footing, and you are counting out your hiking pole swings-to-steps ratio and trying to keep your breaths-to-steps ratio even. It takes your mind off of how grueling the hike is, and how you attempt to convince yourself you’ve gone further than you’ve actually gone. “Man, we’ve got to have gone X miles by now. We should be seeing [insert some landmark we read about online] any second now. I swear we are close.” And each time that thought crossed my mind, it was not close, and you just had to stop thinking about it.
At one point during our hike, we had started to get higher than our surroundings, and we really started to feel the wind pick up and the temperature drop. As we crossed over one ridge, we had to stop to hide out behind some boulders in hopes that the 40-50 mile an hour winds would die down. We stopped put on additional layers, put on hats, zipped our jackets up tighter, and huddled together as we took the opportunity to munch on some clif bars and sip on our Gatorwater mixture. A few other hikers joined us in huddling behind boulders to escape the wind.
After about 10 minutes, it became obvious to us that the wind wasn’t dying down, and we were only getting colder as we had stopped moving. Our only choice was to keep going, and hope that the wind was less severe as we crossed over the ridge. We had gone about 20 minutes, just over the ridge when we finally felt the ridges around us giving us shelter from the wind. The sun was just starting to peak up over the horizon, as we decided to stop and admire the beauty of nature, and have a couple of bites. Forcing ourselves to stop and make sure we were eating a bit and drinking a bit was helping us keep our morale and energy up. During this stop, I was able to set my mini tripod and get some more long exposure shots going. The stars were out, and the skies mostly clear. The moon gave enough light to illuminate the landscape for these shots.
After stopping for a few moments, we continued on. With the sun coming up, we hoped we were nearing the Boulder Field so that we could remain on pace with our schedule. As we looked down the trail we had hiked below us, we saw a stream of bobbing headlamps coming up the trail, which just looked awesome. There is just something about knowing there are probably hundreds of people hiking this trail along with you that gives you a sense of ease and unspoken camaraderie. Capturing these bobbing lights in a photo translates into some neat squiggly light streaks.
We finally approach the Boulder Field, and we start to see the Diamond face, as well as the Keyhole ever so small in the between the ridges.
As we cross the Boulder Field, you find out just what you are getting yourself into. The 5 miles up to this point were nothing compared to the remaining miles, as those would be accompanied by the steeper elevation gains, as well as more exposed routes. As you hop from rock to rock, you keep wondering why the Keyhole is so small, and so damn far away.
Once we got to the Keyhole, I found myself feeling pretty good. Up to that point, I had given myself the option to stop, and turn around at anytime, but now with us having made it to the keyhole, I had finally convinced myself that I could actually potentially make it to the summit. Once you get to the Keyhole, you feel as if the strong gusts of wind might blow you off into the endless abyss (so to speak, you could actually see the bottom, it was just really far below, and full of pointy, painful looking rocks). But, once you get around the corner to the other, you breathe a sigh of relief, as it’s relatively calm. Then you look ahead at the “trail” only to find you are now on The Ledges. You realize you may have sighed too early, there’s no relief yet to be had. But the only redeeming factor was that it wasn’t going to be as steep for a little while, but it will be scrambley (as in, full of scrambling).
This is the only photo I have of the homestretch. After crossing the Notch, I looked up at the Homestretch, and while for every other part of the hike, I felt I could continue, the homestretch was really where I began to doubt that I would finish. Prior to this point, we had no idea how difficult this part would be. Earlier, as we were still coming up to the notch, a lady was already on her way down. We made some conversation with her, and she had made it all the way to the Homestretch, but only to take one look, and she turned around without summiting. She was fit and in great shape, as she had made much better time than our group, but the exposure of the homestretch was too much for her. And until we got to this point, I couldn’t understand how you could get to the Homestretch, only a hundred yards or so away from the summit, and turn around.
We had given ourselves a time table, so that we could complete the hike (by 10 am), spend some time on the summit (until 10:30am), and potentially be down below the treeline (by 2pm) before the afternoon thunderstorms typically start. With that in mind, and knowing I would have to be scrambling on all fours in order to stay on the wall, I didn’t want my camera dangling, swinging, and banging into the rocks (I gotta draw the line somewhere). I put my camera in my pack, and for the next 20 minutes, I made my way up the wall. My legs were weary, and I could feel my legs began to tremble with each step. And with each step, I found that I had to keep convincing myself that I could make it, even though I was breathing heavier than before. It’s hard to explain how the altitude leaves you gasping for air, as well as how tired your body gets after almost 8 hours of non-stop activity, with each step requiring your stabilizing muscles in your legs to help you maintain your balance, but it becomes more of a mental thing than anything at that point. I pushed on. Some spots were nothing but slabs, with only a thin crack with which you would have to wedge your boot and hands into to try to get up the next 6 foot stretch. The wall was angled just enough that there was not enough friction to smear you soles on the wall and walk up, but you actually had to find some handholds and footholds to make your way up. The wonderful part is, that as you are coming up, you have to stop to allow people to come down. Everyone there all provided words of encouragement, seeing how weary we were (at least how weary I was; the others had gotten ahead of me by this point). With a lot of “You’re almost there!” and “You can do it!” and “Keep it going, you’re doing great!”, I managed to finally drag myself up to the top, and breathed many rapid and deep sighs of relief. I managed to congratulate myself as I made it up saying something to the effect of “I’ve done what no man has done before! Except for all you guys, and everyone else before me…”.
We were relieved to make it to the top. We signed the summit register, and ate some food, and took some photos. I felt pretty good, although, I felt really gassy, and had a slight headache. Brian and James didn’t fare quite as well, as they had pretty bad headaches and nausea… (Above is a shot of Brian sprawled out on the summit. Brian and James only stayed about 10 minutes and headed back down, while, the rest of us hung out for about 25 minutes or so.
Descending from the summit is much harder than you think. Sure, it’s all down hill, so it’s not too strenuous, but at the same time, if you want to descend carefully, you have to go slowly and more controlled, otherwise, I’m sure it would be much easier to go tumbling down the mountain. I don’t have as many picture of the descent, because by this point, the sun was overhead, and not quite as dynamic, but also, we just wanted to get the heck off the mountain. My left knee was starting to ache at this point, and my legs were definitely weary. We slid on our backsides, and scrambled down. And each stretch seems twice as long as it seemed on the way up. I’m sure it was a combination of thinking that going downhill would be so much easier, our eagerness to get off the mountain, our minds subconsciously blocking out how long it took us, and the twilight making everything pleasant tricking us into thinking the hike up was shorter and more enjoyable, but every stretch seemed to be twice as long on the way down. More than a few times we said muttered to one another, “I don’t remember it taking this long.” (Especially on the Ledges)
We met up with Brian and James at the bottom of the Boulderfield, where they had taken a nap for about an hour. They had gotten off ahead of us, as they didn’t feel well on the summit, and as we started hiking again, they got ahead of us again. With about 3 miles to go, I was sick of hiking, and knowing my knee was going to ache regardless of how fast I went, and my legs were going to be tired, I started setting a rapid speed hike down the trail even old mallwalking grandma’s would be impressed with. We finally made it down by 4:30pm and we were exhausted.
We expected to find Brian and James in the parking lot, but as it turns out, they were so sick of the hiking, they had called their wives to come pick them up. (The story goes that about an hour before they got down, they had minimal signal on the mountain, and were just able to leave a voicemail message before their battery died, so they had no idea if their wives would even be there when they got to the parking lot, but i think Brian had even said it was one of the happiest moments of his life to see his wife waiting there in the parking lot for him.)
After 14 hours of hiking, we were finally done. We received no trophies or medals, but we got to experience nature at it’s finest, and even accomplished something which I never thought I would be able to do. We rewarded ourselves with Chicken McNuggets and Subway, although, I only ate half my sandwich, and 2 nuggets before I couldn’t eat anymore. For a few weeks after the hike, I had some weird joint aches, and the arch in my right foot was achy. But other than that, I guess I can now say, I survived Long’s Peak!
Disclaimer: This post may be modified in the future to add in more details, or correct spelling, grammatical, factual or sequential errors. That hike took a toll on my mind as well, so that way if something occurs to me about the hike, I’ll add it to this post. Thanks for reading!