Andy in the Rockies

Trip reports, videos, and photos from hiking, climbing,
and mountaineering adventures in Colorado and beyond.

Longs Peak - Keyhole Route
July 20, 2002

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Photos [hide]

The sun rises over Battle Mountain, 4.5 miles into the climb....Me and Michael at the beginning of the Boulder Field.  The Keyhole is right...Michael nears The Keyhole....Me in The Keyhole....Michael begins ascending The Trough....Michael makes the last couple of moves up The Homestretch to the summit of ...Me and Michael on the summit of Longs Peak with the Big Elk Fire raging off...View of Longs Peak's long north ridge....I took this shot of The Narrows on our way down....
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Trip Report [hide]

Mark, one of my classmates from school, invited me to climb Longs Peak with one of his buddies. It sounded like fun to me and I invited Michael. Mark's buddy wanted to leave the trailhead at 3:30 so we were going to have to start out really early. I thought 3:30 was earlier than was really necessary, but I went along with the plan. Michael came up the night before and spent the night (if you could really call it that). We awoke at 1:30 in the morning, made our last minute preparations, and Mark and his buddy picked us up at 2:00 and we were off.

I dozed in the car on the way up and it seemed we reached the trailhead in no time. We got all our gear together, signed the registry, and hit the trail at 3:30. During the first few minutes of the hike we passed several groups of hikers that were reconfiguring their gear, and several groups of swifter hikers passed us. After the first mile or two however, the groups of hikers seemed to sort themselves out and we were basically on our own. As we wound our way past tree line I looked back down the trail and I could see a long line of perhaps 20 headlamps coming up the trail.

At 4:45 we arrived at the turn-off for Chasm Lake Trail. By this time it was light enough to turn the headlamp off. The trail turned to the north as we made our way around Mount Lady Washington towards The Boulder Field. After hiking for another 45 minutes we took a break to watch the sunrise. From where we were, just below The Boulder Field, the sun rose right over Battle Mountain. It was very pretty. I think the smoke from the Big Elk Fire might have helped to make the sunrise even more red than usual.

We made good time through The Boulder Field and arrived at The Keyhole at 6:45. After crossing through The Keyhole we took a break and adjusted our clothing. It was a little breezier on the western face of the mountain, and of course it was in the shade. We all put on more clothing. There were perhaps twenty other people doing the same thing at The Keyhole. After a quick snack we set off again.

After the relatively steep ascent to They Keyhole, the stretch of trail along the western face of the mountain seemed flat and easy. This was also where the "bull's-eyes" started. These are red and yellow bull's-eyes painted on rocks along the trail designating the route. In no time we made it to the bottom of The Trough.

The Trough is a long, steep couloir. This section of the climb was really tough for me. It was like climbing a twenty-story ladder. It seemed that steep. The couloir was also filled with loose rock and scree. At the bottom, there was a rough trail through the scree, but higher up the trail disappeared and you just had to choose the best path possible. I had trouble finding a rhythm and ended up making twenty-foot sprints up The Trough and then stopping to catch my breath. Mark's buddy seemed to be doing much better by taking a nice, slow, steady pace up The Trough, but that wasn't working for me. Eventually we made it to the top of The Trough at 7:50. We took a much-needed rest at the top and enjoyed the expansive views to the south and west.

Next after The Trough was The Narrows. This section of the route is a narrow ledge that stretches across a very steep face. The exposure is considerable, and some overhanging rock makes the first several feet a bit challenging. I was a little freaked out by this section and it took me a few moments to prepare myself mentally for the large drop and the narrow trail. I could see that I wasn't the only person struggling with this section because several hikers had dropped there packs here so that they would be more comfortable controlling their balance.

Once I'd crossed the narrows, the final portion of the hike was The Home Stretch. This was a steep several hundred-foot climb up a rock slab with a couple of cracks for hand and footholds. Luckily the rock was one solid slab so I didn't have to contend with loose rock. We all reached the summit at 8:30. The conditions on the summit were perfect. The weather was beautiful. There wasn't a breath of wind and the sun was shining brightly. I took off my extra shirt and enjoyed the sunshine. There were perhaps 30 people already on the summit and more were arriving all the time. For the first time we noticed the Big Elk Fire. A large plume of smoke was rising from directly east of Longs Peak and it was drifting south. At this time, the fire had already claimed the lives of two pilots, burned 4000 acres, and was zero percent contained.

After spending an hour on the summit snacking, resting, and enjoying the scenery we headed back down at 9:30. While we were on the summit it seemed like the wind must have shifted because the smoke from the fires was drifting slowly west toward Longs Peak. The traffic coming up The Home Stretch was pretty heavy now and we had to wait our turn to descend the most obvious routes. Apparently Michael was a little less patient than the rest of us because he was soon a hundred feet farther down the mountain than the other three of us. Oddly enough, The Narrows didn't frighten me at all on the way down. I guess I got used to the sheer drops and was more comfortable maneuvering myself along the ledge. At 10:00 the three of us reached the top of The Trough. There was another traffic jam at this bottleneck and we again were forced to wait our turn. As we descended The Trough Michael was out of site. We wouldn't see him again until we arrived back at the trailhead. On the way down The Trough, we had to be careful not to dislodge any rocks and send them crashing down the couloir. I don't know why this didn't seem like a problem going up, but it was something we had to pay attention to on the way down as several rocks were dislodged by other hikers. Luckily none of them caused a big rockslide and nobody was injured.

At 11:15 the three of us arrived back at The Keyhole. The smoke from the Big Elk Fire was definitely drifting towards us. For the first time we smelled smoke. Fortunately it wouldn't get much worse that that. As we descended the top part of The Boulder Field I had a momentary lapse of concentration. I lost my balance and pitched forward into the rocks. All I could think about was trying not to smash my face on a rock so I stuck out both my arms to catch myself. I stuck my left arm into a crack and cut it pretty good on my forearm right below the elbow. Luckily I did manage to not smash my face and the cut was the only injury I sustained. Mark helped me get sorted out and we soldiered on.

By noon we had made it off The Boulder Field and were passing the backcountry campsites. While we were making our way down the mountain clouds had begun to mount to the west. Now they were starting to spit rain and there was booming thunder that sounded like it was coming from the south and near the summit of Longs Peak. We were all glad that we'd gotten an early start and were finished with the class three portions of the hike. Rain-slick rocks would have been very treacherous, not to mention the lighting that Longs Peak is notorious for.

We arrived back down at the junction with the Chasm Lake Trail at 13:00. The rain had come and gone and the sun was shining brightly once more. The rain never got bad enough to require rain gear. Initially we had thought about hiking up to Chasm Lake to check it out since none of us had ever been there. However, fatigue had set in and we scrapped that plan. Instead we rested for 15 minutes and used the outhouse. At this point I ran out of water. My 4-liter hydration bladder, extra 1-liter Nalgene bottle, and 24-oz bottle of Gatorade were not quite enough.

After another hour of hiking we made it back to the trailhead at 14:00. The last part of the hike after passing below tree line always seems to take forever. For some reason it just seems to fly by on the way up when you're hiking it in the dark and your body is fresh. On the way down, in the heat of the day and when your body is tired, it seems to drag on forever.

Michael was waiting for us at the trailhead. Apparently he'd been waiting there for nearly and hour. His story was that when he got ahead of us, he wasn't sure which route we'd taken. Apparently he thought we might have descended The Loft route, which meets up with the main trail somewhere between The Narrows and The Home Stretch. He waited for us at The Keyhole for 15 minutes but when we didn't show he was afraid he'd gone the wrong way and booked it down the trail so that he would make it to the trailhead before we did. The whole situation was kind of weird. Both Mark and his buddy were wondering if they'd said or done something to piss Michael off and cause him to take off alone. I was at a loss too. I had no idea why he didn't look over his shoulder to make sure we stayed together.

I was pretty tired after the ten and a half hour adventure, but not as bad as I'd expected. After my two previous attempts on Longs (one successful, one not) I was totally wiped out. This time I felt better. Nevertheless, I'm glad I'm not the one that has to drive us back to Fort Collins.

At 15:30 we arrived back home in Fort Collins. Michael washed up a bit and headed back to Denver. I enjoyed a long, hot shower and a nap. The next day I was pretty sore because I hadn't done any kind of high-impact activity like this for a long time. All my exercise had been cycling related which was virtually zero impact. However, I had a much better time than both of my previous two attempts and I was motivated to climb some other fourteeners. I figured if I climbed a couple per year I could knock most of them out by the time I reached 50 years old. This seemed like a reasonable goal and I was going to try to make it happen.

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