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Longs Peak, CO September 15, 2012

September 30, 2012


Yeah.  Longs Peak.  Quite the day.  Quite the great day, to be exact.  Due to some rather poor planning on my part, I did not get to the top of the peak.  But I already have next summer’s climb all planned (hopefully much better planning this time).  That said, a truly awesome hike was had even without making it to the  top.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard, rather longish, comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. The photos in that gallery are a quantum leap in size and quality compared to the little teaser photos I put in this site’s trip narrative (plus there are more of them). See below for a Google Map link to the location of the hike. (If you want to see all my trips, this link will direct you to a MapQuest map that shows ALL my trips. Please note that some of the links for the hikes are located somewhere in the hike itself, while other links on the map are the trailhead for the hike located on a road. The issue being, even if the link looks like it’s pointing to a road, that’s actually just the trailhead.)All links should open a new browser window.


I’ve wanted to climb Longs for a while.  I’ve climbed it before (several decades ago), but wanted to do it again.  Figured I could make it happen this summer.  As it turned out, the scheduling part (mostly by accident) turned out pretty well.  We had a bit of snow hit the peak in the middle of the week, but the weekend was perfect weather and it had been warm enough to melt most of the new snow.


In addition to the MapQuest map link above, please see a live Google map below. Point “A” from Fort Collins leads to point “B” at the Longs Peak trailhead.  I parked the car just below the parking lot that is specific to the Longs Peak trail.  Had to walk five minutes up the road to get to the actual trailhead.

You can “grab” the map to scroll it around and use the “+” and “-“ icons in the upper left hand corner to zoom in or out to get more detail. You can also click on the “View Larger Map” link and it will bring up the map in a larger window (if you right click on the “View Larger Map” link and select “Open Link in new tab/window” then you can have both my blog and the map open at the same time).

Now then, if you read the RMNP web site on climbing Longs, it states that you should be ON THE TRAIL no later than 2 am.  Yeah, that means I’d have to leave Fort Collins around 12:30 am.  Why so early?  To get up on Longs and back down off the peak before the summer thunderstorms hit at noon.  Makes sense.

Except.  It wasn’t summer any more.  I could get on the trail by 7 am and have almost 12 hours of clear sunny sky to do the climb.  And, get some sleep so I’d be all rested for the hike.  Sounded like a good deal to me.  So, I arrived at the trailhead at around 7am.


Sigh.  First major WRONG move on my part.

No big deal about the parking (only took me 5 minutes to walk up to the trail head), but it did look as if a LOT of people had gotten up very early. Why was what I did a major mistake?  Oh, you’ll find out if you keep reading.

The trail turned out to be very pretty.


And steep.  There were LOTS of big steps.  No, not like these.  I’m talking stairway to Gem Lake types of steps.  Thousands over the length of the trail of 12 inch steps one right after the other.  It’s possible that is a “slight” exaggeration.  But really, plan on a lot of steps.

But, hey, no problem.  Just a little stair workout.


First view of the mountain.


Here I’ve gotten fully into the tundra.  Couple of interesting things to note here.  One, where are all the people?  Yeah, they all went past here like 5 hours ago.  Probably all in one long string.  Actually, they were all in one long string.  A camper up in the Boulder field says they were like a string of cars.  At night.  Cause they all had on head lamps.

The other thing to notice.  Scale.  You have to really re-adjust your sense of distance.  There are people in the photo below.  Not that far away either.


Zooom.  Yeah, someone taking a break just to the right of that little cairn of rocks.


So, the other issue I had was that I did not know where I was going.  I mean, sure, head towards that big peak, but which way?  Turns out the trail goes along the foot of that big pile of rocks up ahead.  So, the Chasm Lake overlook is to the left, and then the trail goes to the right all the way along the foot of that big mound of stone.


Don’t’ see the trail?  Let me zoom.  If you know where to look you can just barely see a piece of it.


It’s there, but you’ll have to wait till I get larger photos up on Smugmug.  All I can tell you is, it took a long time to traverse that hill of rocks.  It’s also where the runners past me as they ran up the trail.  They were in very good shape.  Not only were they running, but they were talking to each other while they did it.  Scary.

Chasm Lake overlook.  I think you can take that trail down to the lake and camp (permits required).


View of Longs Peak from Chasm Lake overview.  That’s the famous, or infamous, “diamond”.  Had a friend of mine die on it.


So, after munching on some gorp and gatorade while looking at Chasm Lake and the surrounding area, I headed up the trail.  This is looking back down close to where I had come from.  At this point, I’m on that long leg of the trail going across that big lump of a mountain (the big pile of rocks where I said “see the trail?”).

As I covered this section of the trail, and close to where it slides around the curve of the mountain so that you could see into RMNP, I began to realize my second major mistake (remember the first?).  And that was I may have been just slightly under trained for the hike/climb.  My knees were beginning to complain about all the big steps.  Plus, my leg was beginning to cramp on me.  Of course, right then I had two “runners” run past me heading “up” the trail.  And having an easy conversation with each other while they did it.  Why didn’t I feel like doing that?  As with problem number 1, number 2 would not really seriously manifest itself until later.


After going around the curve of the mountain, you were able to look down into Estes and the park area.  Speaking of curves, the Earth itself begins to have a bit of a curvy look.  That’s Lumpy Ridge off in the distance.


Here I’ll zoom.


Finally, around a long mile or two later, Longs rears up again.


And then, after some more climbing, you get to the point of seeing were they got the name for the Boulder Field.


That’s one BIG field of boulders.  They start off small, and just get bigger and bigger as you head towards the keyhole in the distance.
Zoom some.


There’s a small tent city in there.  Somewhere.  It’s a big place. Also, while you could probably make it this far without any headlamp at night (or, say 5 am), you’d be in serious trouble from this point on without a headlamp or the sun.  Possibly a bright full moon, but it would be very tricky.  And dangerous.  With all the big stone steps on this trail, starting with a headlamp from the parking lot would probably be a wise decision (I make a note of that for next summer).

So, at this point I’ve gotten to tent city (sorry, no photos, don’t think my mind was thinking too much about photos at this time).  And I’ve begun to more fully appreciate problem number 2.  I’m having serious issues with my lower body…”no, foot, I did NOT tell you to step there, but over there.  What’s the problem leg?………”  I sit, with some humorous difficulty, eat and drink and rest.

Because what faces me is some really serious rock/boulder scrambling.  Going uphill all the way to the keyhole.

There is no trail.


Zoom a little.  It’s starts off somewhat “level” and then hits a wall.  And I’m not talking about the wall of boulders just before the keyhole in the distance.  It’s hard to tell from this photo, but those people are coming down a fairly steep section of very big rocks.  Trust me.  No one is hopping around and moving fast (of course, many of them are the first few to come down off of Longs Peak and they are all totally wiped and yawning : )


I get over the wall and take a look at what lies ahead of me to get to the keyhole.


Zoom.  Lots of big rocks.  That’s close to a vertical pitch the last few yards.  And yes, many of the rocks are balanced.  So, they move when you climb on them.  By this time I had fully realized that my legs were not liking this workout.  Balance was tricky and my knees were, well, shaky is a good enough term.  So, fine.  I just went slow.  Note that this is a point where many people hike to and turn around.  It is a great day hike.  Believe me, even if you had no intention of climbing Longs Peak, up to this point is an awesome day hike.  I may make it an annual thingie.  Cool place.


Hmmmm.  I wonder what you see after going through the rabbit, I mean, key hole?

So, the photo below is looking back down on the boulder field from at or very close to being in the keyhole.  Probably just below the keyhole.  See the tent city in the distance?  Yeah, I can’t see it either.  Even on the original photo on my computer, I had to blow the photo up to a humungous size in order to find the tents.  Believe me, that’s a big distance.


So, what’s on the other side of the keyhole?  This is what you see on the other side of the keyhole.  Which is not really very wide.  So one foot on the boulder field side, and the other foot on…


Yeah, took me a minute or two in order to adjust to the new reality.

But, hey, look, painted trail signs.  Yes, just keep the eyes on the painted things.  Try to sorta ignore the steep nothingness just to the right.  If you ignore it, it’s not there.  Right?  Those two guys in front of me (not the person to the left uphill of them) were the ONLY other people going in my direction the entire time I was on this section.  This section is called “The Ledges”.  The next main section is called “the gully”.  You can see it in the distance.  It’s that big long gully looking thing going up the side of the mountain.  Also, just over the top of that rock that has the target painted on it can barely be seen a light colored boulder.  That’s the first little choke point on the climb.  By that, meaning one person one way at a time movement.  By the way, there is approximately one or two more miles of trail from this point to the top of the peak.  That small distance takes as long as the entire hike it takes to reach this point.  There’s a reason for that.


All right.  Let’s review the little mistakes in planning I’ve made up to this point.  Sigh, yes, I have enough of them that I need to make a list.

1.  Poor timing.  The biggest issue.  Should have been at the trailhead no later than 3am.  2:30 am being better.  But why, Geoff?  Coming to that.  Patience young grasshopper.

2.  Poor conditioning.  Should have been in better condition.  It was doable.  But I was losing confidence in my legs.  Not a good thing an any age on a, uh, “trail” like this one.  I did a moderate amount of hiking this summer.  Not as much as I wanted.  But still, the hiking I did was on long “level’ish” trails.  Mostly.  So, poor preparation for someone like me at age of, uh, well, lets say around 30 years of age (give or take a few years or decades or so : )  Especially when your job consists of yelling at computers all day at a desk.

3.  Time for my next one.  Poor equipment.  In particular, my pack.  Yes, my pack.  The one I wear on all my day hikes.  Even if the hike is only for half a day.  True story.  I once got stopped by a ranger on one hike who asked to see my backcountry camping permit.  Cause my pack looks large enough to be something that one would be carrying on an overnighter.  It’s actually full of mostly lightweight stuff, but it’s “big”.

Normally, no big deal (I let the rangers look through the pack if they wish so that they can see there is no sleeping bag).
But, for some reason, on this particular hike, I was having a tendency to “hug the wall”.
Sometimes with my back to the wall.
Which the pack made almost impossible.
Plus, it was scraping and grabbing on rocks as I wedged myself along.
This was NOT a good feeling.

Zoom.  Yeah, now you can see the light colored boulder in the distance.  Also, the “gully”.  There are quite a few people, as in a long line, in that gully.  All of them headed my way (remember issue number 1?).  They are the people that started on the trail at 3am (or earlier) today.  Can’t see the people in the gully?  Yeah, it’s actually pretty distant.  Sorry about the photo’s quality.  I’m in the shade of the mountain and pointing the camera at a point in the sky close to where the sun is.  So, tricky shooting conditions.


Starting to get closer.  At this point I was still kinda sorta maybe thinking about going all the way to the top.  It was right around noon.  So, I could be back to the car by dark without too much trouble.  Yeah, probably not.  More than likely would have been close to 8pm/9pm by the time I got back to the car.  You can see just see the light reflecting off of the boulder up ahead in the distance.  A ways before the boulder is a person standing on the trail.  At this focal length of the camera, this is about how it actually looked like when I was standing there taking the photo.  So, yeah, that gully is still a ways off.  Then, oh wait, there’s more, there are two more “section” after the gully.  One called “the narrows”.  All roughly the same length ( I think the 4th section is a little shorter, but still quite a good length of “….a polished granite slab……..”)


So, yes.  The boulder thing.  Ah, here I was.  Well, at least the sun was coming out.  And here is where my poor timing (late start) killed the climb for me (okay, plus I was tired and my pack was acting un-nice).

This is a “choke point”.  It would be unwise to try and go below this rock or above this rock.  Not impossible, but it did not look like a good idea.  So, everyone goes over the same square inches at this point of the trail.  The area on that rock is just big enough for one person (okay, you could have two, but one would need to be certifiable insane).  Also, that rock is bigger than it looks.  So, it’s not just a little step up.  It’s a bit of a stretch.  At an odd angle.  With not much to hold on to.  And not much below you.  And, the reason it’s all light colored?  That’s because it is “shiny”.  As in “polished” (that’s what happens when 10,000 pairs of boots have hit the same few square inches, I guess).  As in like a marble floor in a bank.  Except for the fact that it’s tilted of course.


But, hey.  They put iron bars for to help you.  So, when the climbers stopped coming over for a few seconds ………
(did I mention all the other climbers coming down the mountain?  Yeah, they were coming over this rock towards me at a somewhat steady trickle.  And they seemed to be in a hurry to get over the rock.  Strange.)
………I scramble to the top of it.  Even though it was just me, I felt a faint sorta “insane” feeling.  But, not a big deal as it has not been certified at this time.  Just an early feeling, so no big deal.


And peaked over the top onto the other side.

Sorry, no photos.  Was too busy not dying.

Anyway, on the other side was more polished rock.

Going downwards.

For around 5-6 feet.

And then nothing.


Yes, as in the rock stopped and you couldn’t see anything below it.  So, the people below it were hidden by the mountain and had to be scrambling up something, and then leveraging themselves up on the rock to get to where I was squatting.  Which means that I could go down, probably figure out the moves, and get to a better position.

As long as I didn’t run into someone else, who I couldn’t see, coming up at the same time.
Plus, I’d have to be repeating this (running into people moving in the opposite direction) this all the way up the rest of the mountain.  Going against the flow.  And there were supposedly 2-3 more choke points.  Worse than this one.  Supposedly.

Not to mention the rest of the trail isn’t really a two lane highway.

Those other two guys?  They had already turned around and headed back towards the keyhole.
So, I turned back.  I learned my lesson and would come back next summer much better prepared (and on time).  Maybe hook up with some other people.  But at least I could follow and see where others go before going myself.  Plus knowing that no one would be meeting me trying to go the other direction at an inopportune moment.  Also, try and get in better shape.  And definitely get a better (way way smaller) pack.

Did I mention sunglasses?  Yes, bring sunglasses next time, Geoff (the sun was intense and all the rocks were reflecting the rays straight into my eyes).

View towards the Keyhole as I headed back towards it on my “retreat”.
Did I mention the view was to die for?  Heh.  Yeah, little humor there.


One more view on the way back to the keyhole.  I think that’s Glacier Gorge.  Should go hike it this Fall.  Not sure what that peak is, but might be a good “training” peak for next summer.  Looking at a Topo map, looks like it might be McHenry’s Peak.  There are several 13,000 feet or more peaks over there.  Kinda neat looking area.


Looking down from the Keyhole over the Boulder field.  Did I mention that there is a little tent city out there?  I did?  Well, then again, there is.  Pretty interesting as they have small tent size clearings (cleared the boulders down to the ground) which they then surrounded with boulders. So, the tents are in small bowls made of boulders.  Guess it gets a little windy at times.


Here is a photo of the “hut” that is close to the Keyhole.


And the plague that is on the outside wall of the hut.


People been dying up here for a long time.  Two people died on the Keyhole route in 2010.  One died while going over the boulder that I climbed up onto and then decided “no go this summer”.  This mountain (meaning the Keyhole route) is not “technically”  demanding , but you are heavily penalized for any mistakes.

There was a nice little glacial stream that came out of the Boulder field.


That’s the Flattop mountain ridge over yonder.  With Hallet’s Peak on the left.  The trail starts off just outside of the photo at the bottom right.


Zoom a little.  On the larger photo on Smugmug (when I upload them) you can see the trail at the point where Emerald Lake overview is located.  The Hallet’s Peak hike was one of my training hikes.  But, it’s really not in the same league at Longs Peak.  McHenry’s Peak looks better for that.


Fall colors on the distant mountain.


Alpine Fall colors closer to me.


Nice little stream that I think originates in that upper valley in the photo above.


At the end of the hike, the view from where I had parked my car.  Earlier the side of the road had been solid with parked cars.


On the way back down Big Thompson canyon, drove past some mountain sheep by the side of the road.  Not bad for not stopping the car.


Great, just awesome, hike.  Will definitely do it again next summer and probably succeed in getting to the top of Longs.  Assuming I learned from and corrected for my 3 big errors in planning.  But, even for the years after that, the hike is so great that I may make it an annual event (only up to the Keyhole : )

I’m writing this out on Saturday a week after the hike on the prior Saturday.  I’m “just” starting to feel almost normal.  My calves were very sore all the way through Thursday.  Half of the week my legs, mostly due to the joints, were capable of managing stairs (with some confidence) only by use of the handrails.  They didn’t hurt, but were just weak.  The leg joints, especially the knees, feel pretty good today.  No need to use the handrails, but I can tell they aren’t 100% yet.  I was able to go to the gym all week, but kept things pretty light.  Fun stuff : )

– Geoff Weatherford

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