Friday, September 21, 2012

Thursday Adventure: Longs Peak (Keyhole Route), Rocky Mtn Nat'l Park

The RMNP rangers want to make sure newbies know what they're in for
Today a co-worker and I took the day off work and climbed 14,259 ft. Longs Peak, the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Longs's proximity to the Denver area (the trailhead is only an hour's drive from Boulder) and imposing domination of the front range skyline make it a magnet for local hikers.  There are many ways to ascend Longs (including a host of "big wall" alpine rock climbs up the famous Diamond east face), but the most popular (and easiest - if any route up Longs can be called "easy") is the "Keyhole Route."  16 miles round trip, 5100 ft elevation gain, and the entire upper section of the route is one long class 2/3 scramble over steep, airy ledges and granite slabs.  It's a beautiful, spectacular climb - and horrendously popular on summer weekends.  I'd done Longs via the Keyhole 6 times in the past, all on weekend days, and one time I estimated from the trail register that upwards of 800 people attempted the trail that day.  Basically, there's a solid line of people all the way from the trailhead up to the summit - not exactly a wilderness experience!

But my co-worker told me that Longs on a weekday is an entirely different, better experience - and I'm delighted to report he was right!  We only passed three other parties on our way up.  As is normal for a Longs Peak climb, we started on the trail before dawn (which meant a 4AM wake-up, ugh, but the trail is so long and arduous you've got to start early).  Headlamps are a must for the first, forested section as you hike up in the dark.  But we enjoyed a lovely sunrise after reaching timberline about 3 miles up the trail:

Sunrise on the Longs Peak trail

We even saw a hint of alpenglow on the Diamond - not nearly so much as usual, though, thanks to the all the haze from Wyoming wildfires that's currently clogging Colorado's air.

Alpenglow turns the great east face of Longs Peak pink
 At about 4 miles up the trail, a side trail splits off toward Chasm Lake.  I did a Thursday Adventure post on Chasm Lake a while back - it's a lovely lake tucked right beneath Longs's east face, and the surrounding scenery is absolutely stunning.
Me at the Chasm Lake trail junction (Longs Peak visible behind).  
 Instead of heading straight for Longs, the Keyhole trail veers north and circles around Mt. Lady Washington to reach a vast open bowl of talus called the Boulderfield.  The Keyhole for which the route is named is a distinctive notch in the ridge high above the Boulderfield.  Climbers must ascend steep talus to the Keyhole, then cross through to reach an improbable system of ledges that runs along the peak's west face.

Ascending toward the Boulderfield.  The little notch on the far right of the ridge in the picture is the Keyhole.

Ascending talus toward the Keyhole. (Climber visible at lefthand side of notch.)

Once beyond the Keyhole, you traverse the "Ledges" toward a broad couloir known as the Trough.  Bulls-eyes painted on the rocks make route-finding easy (or else this route would be quite dangerous for inexperienced mountaineers!).

As you scramble along, you're rewarded with views like this

The Trough couloir. You have to slog all the way up to the couloir's top.  (And oh my, it is a SLOG. Not difficult, just class 2 scrambling over steep dirt and talus without any dangerous exposure, but it's unrelentingly steep.)
My co-worker Dustin slogging up the Trough, with another party visible behind.

At least you get to enjoy views of the interestingly sculpted slabs forming the Trough's side walls.
 At the top of the Trough is the route's single most difficult move - a class 3 climb over a chockstone boulder.  But the climb isn't dangerously exposed, and the rock is solid.  Once past that barrier, you get to inch further around the mountain on the steep, airy ledges known as The Narrows.  (In some spots they're only wide enough for one boot at a time, and the exposure is breathtaking - 1000 feet down, woo!)

Me starting along the Narrows

Looking back along a ledge (bulls-eye route marker just barely visible at ledge's end).

 The fun continues when the Narrows ends in the "Homestretch" - a series of class 3 cracks that must be ascended to reach the broad summit plateau.  So long as the rock isn't wet or icy, it's fine - the rock is beautifully solid and not too steeply angled - but the airiness of the route gets the heart pounding.

The Homestretch.  The arrow on the pic marks the notch that gives access to the summit plateau.  So close and yet so far!
Looking down at Dustin and others climbing up the Homestretch
Once up the cracks, you're set! Longs is one of those peaks (much like Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada) that looks quite forbidding and pointy from the east, yet has a broad, flat summit plateau wide as a football field.  Good thing, since on summer weekends you can have 100 people standing around at a time.  Today, we had only a few others sharing the summit with us - including one young couple who were newly-engaged, the guy having proposed to the girl mere minutes before we arrived.  (Good choice of proposal spot!)

Me and Dustin victorious on the summit.  13K ft. Mt. Meeker is the peak in the background.

View of Rocky Mountain National Park from the summit

Looking east towards the Denver area. Ugh, too much wildfire smoke hazing the air for good views.
The summit is a wonderful place!  But alas, you must descend, 8 miles and 5,100 feet - argh.  I personally find downclimbing way more awkward and nerve-wracking than climbing up (especially because I have old ankle injuries from figure skating that mean I must take steep descents carefully rather than leaping down talus like a mountain goat).  It's a relief to finish the scrambling section and reach the ordinary trail again.

Descending through willows bright with fall colors
 But oh man, even the ordinary trail feels 10 times as long going down as it does going up.  Seriously, the mental difference amazes me every time.  Maybe it's something about climbing up through the forest in the dark on the ascent that makes it seem so quick - as opposed to the agonizing, never-ending descent.  The last two miles of Longs Peak trail to the car are the longest I've ever experienced in all my time in the mountains.  Your body's tired, your feet feel like raw hamburger, and you wonder, My God, where did all these switchbacks come from?  I swear they weren't here when we hiked up...

The end of the trail: hallelujah!
I once saw a quote from a mountaineer (don't remember who) saying, "I climb mountains because it feels so good when I stop."  There's some truth to that, heh.  But for me it's the combination of the challenge and the incredible views that keeps me coming back year after year to peaks like Longs.  Though next time, I'm hoping to try a different, even more challenging route!


  1. Wow. The Alpenglow and Boulderfield shots look like landscapes from Mars, and the pile of talus made my knees hurt. And I know exactly what you mean about walking down a mountain - I've often wanted to pack a hang glider for the trip down.

    A few of these shots, and especially the Narrows, reminded me of the cover of my favorite hiking book. Does that spot look familiar?

    1. Yes, those of us on the summit yesterday shared many sighs over how a zipline down to Chasm Lake would really enhance the experience. One girl even contemplated base-jumping. :) (Hang gliding would rock too. But then you'd have to carry it up, and dang, those things are heavy.)

      Nice cover shot on that hiking book. I don't recognize it off hand...I'd think that cloud layer in background looks too thick to be in Colorado, and the rock looks a bit dark for the Sierra - so I dunno! Wherever it is, I'd totally go visit. :)

    2. I looked through his book, and he does hike in that park a lot. He even mentions getting his tent blown apart in the Boulderfield.

      I looked to see if he had a website that might give a clue to that cover, and found he has a beautiful collection of mountain photography. Check out the Colorado and sunrise portfolios. You can even click on any photo for the story behind it.

    3. Oh wow, gorgeous pics - thanks so much for sharing the link! Seems likely the shot was taken in Colorado, then - perhaps fat cloud layers were more common in summertime way back before the drought years. (Or the shot could be from down in the San Juans or Sangre de Cristo, which are wetter in climate than the central and northern CO mountains!)

    4. I was going to write to him and ask, but I love trying to solve mysteries, so I kept looking about, went to his AGPix site, searched for “backpacking,” and there it was!

      Turns out I wasn’t far off at all – it’s Mt. Lady Washington. Not bad for a guy who’s never seen the Rockies. :-)

    5. Ha! Never would've guessed it, since from the Longs trail Mt. Lady Washington just looks like a big non-rugged lump (see, where LW is the lump to the right). I'm wondering if the shot was taken somewhere on the ridge between LW and Longs, which does have a few bumps and notches. Regardless, good call on your part! :)

  2. You should just use those shots as illustrations in Th Whitefire Crossing

    1. Ha, but the scenery's all wrong. The Whitefires are based on the Sierra Nevada, and the Sierra look totally different (white rock, much more jagged, younger geology). If I ever make an illustrated version of Whitefire, I'd have to dig out my old Sierra High Route photos (taken before we owned a digital camera!).

  3. Annoyed my RSS feed did not show me you posted this. Grrr.

    Thanks for the pictures. It looks like an amazing experience to ascend a mountain this way.

    1. You're welcome, Paul! It's definitely an amazing peak. I'm so lucky to have trails like this so close.