8:00 PM Thursday night I bid farewell to Henrie and Ellison and then took off for the Longs Peak trail head with Kyle and Will. Our plan: Summit Longs as fast as we can. With the unseasonably warm weather and the severely low snow pack this year, Longs is already snow and ice-free. Usually this doesn’t happen until late July. So, we decided to take the opportunity for an early season summit.
Arriving to the Longs Peak trailhead campground around 9:45 pm we snagged the last of the 26 campsites. It seemed that the Fates were blessing us already. Under a cloudless and extremely starry sky, Kyle and I laid our pads and sleeping bags on the ground to catch a few hours of sleep. Will, on a lamer note, decided to sleep in the car. It was a beautiful night, and I had a hard time falling asleep as I took in the stars, thought about Ellie and Henrie and pondered the hike to come.
At 3:00 AM I sat awake waiting for my phone to buzz. I’d slept about 3 hours. We quickly threw our bags back in the car and rode to the parking lot. After a quick breakfast of blueberry bagels with Nutella spread, I was ready to go. Kyle on the other hand took a little while longer to don his Krupicka inspired short shorts and leg warmers.
At 3:45 AM we clicked on the headlamps and started power hiking up the trail. I think Kyle and Will had mind to jog a bit, but I prefer the power hike when I’m carrying a daypack and camera that like to jostle. Regardless, in the front I set our pace at a quick clip. Hiking around 20 minute miles we hit The Eugenia mine split off just before 4:00 AM and passed the Goblin Forest a little after four. A mile or so in, I hear Will ask from behind “how are you walking so fast?!” At that point I realized I wouldn’t be holding Will and Kyle back. (Yes, I had something to prove. Both Kyle & Will are veteran ultra runners.)
We started to emerge above tree line as the horizon began to light up. Around 5:00 AM we reached the Mills Moraine split to Chasm or Granite pass. We stopped for a few pictures, chatted with some fellow hikers, and then set off again hoping to hit Granite Pass as the sun broke over the horizon. We didn’t quite make it. Will and Kyle went a head while I paused to snap some photos. I really enjoyed the stretch to Granite Pass. As the sun rose, the mountain began to glow orange. I felt like I was walking through a forge. Beautiful.
After more pictures, we headed to the boulder field. Along the way we crossed paths with some marmots and spied several herds of white-tailed deer. What can I say, they sense a fellow spirit and come to me. Around 6:00ish we reached the boulder field and Kyle quickly sprinted to the solar toilets. Will and I paused for a snack, and I explored the area. There’s a stream that runs under the rocks, and I followed it for a while listening to the gurgle but never seeing the water flow. From here we could see the Keyhole and four other climbers scrambling to the notch. As we started toward it, I felt a pang of guilt and sorrow. Oscar loves bounding through boulders, and it made me sad not having him here with me. Besides the fact that Longs is in the Rocky Mountain National Park where dogs are not allowed, I wasn’t sure how tricky the class three bits would be. I missed him. Seeing the boundless joy and state of Nirvana Oscar, who is usually mopey at home, achieves in the wild is a large part of what I love about hiking. I felt as though I’d betrayed him. I missed him.
Around 6:30ish we’d scrambled our way through the boulder field and made it to the Keyhole. Here we caught up with the other parties ahead of us and stopped to chat for a bit. Last week Anton Krupicka set a record by traveling from the Keyhole to the summit in 22 minutes. We joked we were going to break his record. It’s only a mile and a half to the summit with stretches of class three scrambling. Why not?
On the other side of the Keyhole lies the Ledges. The Ledges are a narrowish traverse on the west side of the mountain with a thousand foot drop to your right. I was unsure of what to expect. The pictures look a little harrowing, but people write about how it’s not so bad. In describing it to Ellie she almost didn’t let me go. In truth though, it’s not so bad. The worst part is the first few steps away from the Keyhole. The first move is around/ under a jutting rock that tries its damnedest to knock you off the slope. From there though the ledge widens and you scrambled up and down along the side of the mountain. Excited and having a blast I took the lead and picked my way toward each bulls-eye. (To maintain a consistent route and help out people who suck at finding routes, there are bulls-eyes painted on rocks every few hundred feet). I have to admit, the bulls-eyes are helpful.
Well behind Krupicka’s pace, we reached the bottom of the nearly snow free Trough about 6:50 AM. The Trough is another rock slide where one must scramble up and up. There were plenty of class three moves to be had. A class three move is essentially a point where you use both hands and feet to clamber up and over some rocks, as opposed to a class two where you use just your feet. After a few minutes I turned grinning to Kyle and whispered… (at this point if you happen to be married to Kyle or myself, please skip to the next sentence) “this is awesome! We’re definitely going to have to tackle some legit class three routes!” We were having a blast. I may or may not have strayed from the bulls-eyes a few times to make some more challenging moves and hops. Quickly I pulled ahead, but with ourselves and 5 others in the Trough I tread carefully trying not to kick rocks on other people.
Around 7:15 we hit the Narrows. The Narrows are another traverse across the south-west side of the mountain. Again, before the hike I was unsure what to expect, but now I was on a high from the Ledges and Trough and was super excited. The traverse wasn’t bad. If you have a fear of heights however, you might have some problems. The path through the Narrows is pretty wide, five to six feet at most times, but there is a pretty severe drop. Again we picked our way following the bulls-eyes until we reached the bottom of the Homestretch about 20 minutes later.
The Homestretch is a true class three scramble up to the summit. There are some good clefts cut into the rock where the rock its weathering. On hands and knees I began scrambling up. Afire with summit fever, I powered up and ahead of the others. Over 14,000 ft now, I had to stop and puff every minute or so to catch my breath. A lot of people find the lack of oxygen at altitude unnerving. I’ll admit it can be a scary feeling to not be able to catch your breath, however, in the past year, I’ve grown to love the feeling. There is something about the burn and the panic I feel as I push hard and the breath seeps out of my lungs that makes me feel alive. More than anything else, I feel most alive as pant and power up the last hundred yards to the summit of a mountain.
At 8:00 AM I clambered out of the Homestretch and on to the expansive summit. Beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky. I was the only one there. I’ve never been on a summit of a fourteener, or any other mountain for that matter, by myself. I took in the view and surged with life and wonder. Euphoric.
Three minutes later Kyle and Will scrambled to the top whopping and hollering. Together we made a beeline to the high point rock and took turns standing on top of the world.
With perfect weather, we spent 45 minutes on the summit eating lunch, exploring the sides of the mountain and taking in the views. As we started to get a little too comfortable and sleepy, we decided it was time to head down. We figured the descent would be just as hard as the ascent. Following the same route back to the Keyhole, we carefully pick our way down. There was a bit of a traffic jam at the top of the Trough as another party of 8 or 9 climbers made there move up the last part. I joked that this was the Hillary Step of Longs. I waited watching and talking with the other hikers as they climbed up.
Around 10:15 Am we made it back to the Keyhole. I found the descent, especially the class 3 parts, to be far more difficult than the ascent. Ascending, I feel like the graceful snow leopard from Planet Earth, descending, I feel like a three-legged mule with a sprained ankle. On the way down, we continued to joke about Krupicka who managed to descend from summit to Keyhole in 20 minutes. The guy is not human.
I took off back down the boulder field making all haste to the solar toilet. The lentil induced gas I’d been spraying my fellow hikers with all day was coming to a head and matters need to be quickly solved. Hopping from rock to rock I made it to the toilets in about 15 minutes. Along the way I misplaced my foot on one stupidly small rock that rolled under my foot bring my ankle rolling with it. Instant pain as I fell to the ground. “You fucking idiot,” I thought to myself, “if you just broke or sprained your ankle running to the shitter, wife will mercilessly tease you for the rest of your life.” After a minute of hating myself, the pain subsided and I could walk again. As I made the final stretch to the toilets the pain continued to recede. Lucky. Lucky is what I am. It was definitely a wake up call for how dangerous high altitude hiking and running can be. I was 6 miles from the car. What would have happened had I truly hurt myself? The constant threat of danger and disaster should always be on your mind as you hike. We do these things to feel life in a profound way, but it is so important to consider what could happen at any moment. Awareness is what keeps you safe.
The toilets. Disgusting. Who shits on the toilet seat and doesn’t wipe it off?! Seriously?! Its disgusting. I understand if you had a super emergency, but clean up after yourself. If you’re reading this and you’re the one who sprayed the toilet seat, not cool. You should be ashamed.
From the boulder field we tiredly made our way down the mountain back to the car. The views were phenomenal. There were few people out as well. Stunning vistas where ever you looked.
Nine hours twenty four minutes and fifteen miles later we made it back to the car tired and elated. What a day. What a hike.
On the way home we stopped for a burger (portobello) and beer (well, I had a beer). They were well-earned.
And then… I came home to wife trying to make soup out of our daughter.