Sunday, October 4, 2009

Longs Peak! (almost)

(note: all photos are clickable)

Longs Peak. Living in the area, it looms over you every day. A constantly enticing target. At 14,255 it is a serious peak. And with the extreme steeps near the top - one to be approached with caution.

Unfortunately, with the first snow 2 weeks ago, I waited too long to make 2009 my first ever ascent -~- or did I?

All week the idea to tackle Longs this weekend kept creeping into my mind. I kept an eye on the weather and as the week petered out, it began to look do-able. Ended up at a party Friday night - on a farm field with a view including Longs. As the sun set and dusk crept over the front range, I sat sipping my wine while staring down Longs. It is time!

Got home late, but gathered all my gear and set my clock. I groggily sat up in bed to my 5 a.m. alarm. Glanced at the thermometer. 33 degrees outside. Layed back down with a groan! Gave it a few minutes and got rolling.

Trailhead. All geared up and ready to go.  9,400 feet.  6:15 a.m. Much to late to start on a Longs ascent, but I had other plans. I was going to try to run this thing as much as possible. I've been injured a good deal of the summer, but have been starting to get some good miles in. This would be a real test of where I am.

The temperature was a frigid 25 degrees, but the trail was pretty clear. The snow of a few weeks ago was pretty spotty by now, but ice on the trail was still an issue at times. Gave myself a good 15 minutes walking to warm up and then started the tepid uphill running pace I intended to maintain.

As the sun came up, the hills just lit up with a glourious orange glow.  Its about this time that staying in bed started to not make sense anymore!


I manged to get a quick self-poitrait in as the sun rose:

 I was hoping for the temperature to start going up as the sun rose, but instead it stayed about the same as I went up in altitude.  I think I spent the whole morning chasing the 25 degree temperature line up the mountain!

There are two really dramatic places on this trail where the peak itself leaps out as you crest a hill.  Here is the first, from the east.

To make things even more fun and exciting, not only did it stay cold all the way up, but as I got up into these exposed reaches of the mountain, the wind began to pummel me.  At the intersection of the two main routes to the peak, I stopped to take a quick break and put on some warmer clothes.  I was making good time at this point, as I made it here to 11,500 feet in an hour and a quarter.

From here, the main trail turns sharply to the right of these pictures and goes all the way around the hill seen in the right of the pictures.  I saw quite a few people on the trail.  From the sign-in book at the trailhead, I knew many of them left as early as 3 a.m.!

After a fairly long grind, somewhere around 12.500 feet, the second grand appearance of the peak came into view.  This is from the north.

Fortunately, there is this huge more-or-less flat plain - a very nice respite from the uphill slog.  By this point, I had transitioned into mind over matter mode.  Oxygen is getting scarce and I'm still trying to run.  I focused on telling myself that the pain is all in my head and just kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Thankfully, the wind started going away due to the hills blocking on the right.  Also, the temperature finally started to climb and become quite comforatable.  It was quite peaceful up here and amazingly beautiful.

The next target was the Keyhole - which this route is named for.  Never in all my times exploring mountains in Alaska and Colorado have I seen anything quite like it.  I've never been here before, but I recognized it instantly.


Now, as I began the climb to the Keyhole itself, the idea of "running" pretty much went right out the window.  There is no trail.  There is only one big boulder field and very little oxygen to climb it with!  I ran into some more people trying to get up to the summit.

A building?  Yes!  A building!  Well... more of a hut.  Not sure what the story behind this place is, but it is a remarkable thing to find up here.

The hut is a good 10 feet across inside, with a nice bench to sit on.  There were two parties of 3 inside with me.  We all shared info and discussed strategy and rumors we were hearing about the rest of the climb.  Word on the street was that you would need, at a minimum, an ice axe in order to get to the summit.  The parties in the hut were geared up to climb mountains.  I was geared up to run in the snow...   I started to have doubts.

Now here is where things got interesting.  I decided to push on just to see what I could do.  The trail from here litterally goes through the "Keyhole" feature shown in the pictures above.  And when you go thru, you get SLAMMED by fearce wind.  On top of that is the realization that your whole world has just changed.  After hours climbing up a fairly typical and reletively easy (exept for Oxygen - did I mention that?) Colorado trail, you emerge onto a brutally steep back face of the mountain.  Out of the sun - into the dark.  Out of the warm into the cold.  Out of the flats and into the steeps.  The transition was a bit of a shock.  Suddenly I went from fast scrambling to actually standing around examining rocks for safe passage.  And it was COLD!  I had to stop to put on all my warm layers.

But - oh the view!  Wow!

It wasn't much longer before I felt I was getting in over my head.  I crept along a big furthur.  I got to a place where there was a snow patch with some solid boot marks across it.  The passage thru here was actually do-able, but the consequences of the unlikley slip.... several thousand feet of somersaults.  Not something I was looking forward to doing any time soon.  As I searched for a different route thru, a party came along and wondered what I was doing.  They all crossed the snow - most of them without axes.

Here I will digress for a second and show you my risk-assesment process whenever I am running (or climbing) in the mountains.  Basically you have the Chance That Something Bad Could Happen, and then you have the Severity Of The Consequences If It Does Happen.  It looks a little bit like this:

Clearly, you want to avoid the red completely and stay out of the yellow as much as possible.  This is the essence of Risk Management used in industries across the globe.

My question to the intrepid explorers who pushed on and crossed the snow without protection would be:  even though it is extremely unlikely those boot marks in the snow will give way - what exactly will happen to you IF it does?  There are no rocks to grab below you.  There is only about 2 or 3 thousand feet of steeply sloping rock below you.  This is the classic example of an Unlikely Event that has Very Severe Consequences.  In my world that is an unacceptable risk.  I turned back.

Here is my last shot before I turned back.  I was at 13,300 feet - still 1000 feet from the summit.

And still alive!

I made it back to the hut after a few sketchy traverses.   As it was getting warm, I quickly changed into my warm running gear for the 6 mile - 4,200 foot descent down the mountain.  I left the hut at 10:00 to head down.  As I was running quite fast most of the way down, I only took a couple pictures.

I was making good time and quite pleased at how I was feeling.  The achilles tendon was feeling great.  However, overall my mechanics were not good - I was not floating down the trail like I normally do.  I really couldn't get up to my normal speed, but still was very happy considering how few miles I have been able to run since getting healthy.  I stopped to take a quick look back at the peak from the intersection.

I kept on cooking downhill after that.  Stopped a lot to let uphill hikers get thru, even though most of them stepped aside for me.  It's very important at that speed to be respectfull to hikers.

I made it into the treeline in good order, and then fatigue began to set in.  But oxygen was more plenteful, so I just kept telling myself to ignore the pain and push on.  Finally made it back to the car at 11:20.  One hour twenty from the Keyhole!  Not bad for my first real descent of the season.  I so live to run downhill!  What a rush!

Looking back I am really excited about the day.  I didn't get to the peak, but that's not always what it is all about.  I saw a lot of amazing scenery and successfully tested out my injuries.  On top of that, I normally let the onset of winter slow me down, but this year I am making a real effort to get Out There!  Especially as I am just now starting to get healthy enough to do so!


  1. I moved to Colorado from NC last year and did my 1st 14er in August 2009. I have only summited three easy peaks ... but the bagging bug has latched it's teeth into me. I too have felt Longs Peak "looming over" me and hoped to climb it this year. Unfortunately, I know it won't happen until next year. Thanks for the write-up and fantastic pictures!

  2. Thanks! Yeah I think this one is pretty do-able in the summer. Good luck!

  3. I always feel at my best on a sunny day at the top of a mountain, but 4000 feet is a good hike in SE AK. Would love to make one of these climbs with you some day. Beautiful!