August 29-31, 2022
I remember back in 2017 when I first started going up 14ers (slang for the 14,000+ foot peaks in Colorado and other US states) on foot, I remarked to my friend Lydia that I didn’t think Longs Peak would ever be on the agenda because it was “hard and scary.” Then the years went by, and sometime in 2021 I started talking about how cool it would be to do a cartwheel on top of the mountain I regularly see (it is visible from Cheyenne!). And so it began… Longs Peak was added to my list of summit goals for 2022.
Longs Peak reaches 14,259 feet (4346 meters), and is the 15th tallest mountain in Colorado. Located within Rocky Mountain National Park, it is the tallest mountain in the park… AND is the tallest northernmost mountain of the Rocky Mountains in general. Because Longs Peak is within a national park and close to Colorado’s Front Range population center, it is a popular 14er to climb, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Longs is a staple of the “deadliest 14ers lists” that circulate around the internet, and Outside Magazine in 2014 listed the Keyhole Route as one of the “20 Most Dangerous Hikes in the World.”
Sounds great, let’s do it!
I was lucky enough to secure a backcountry permit for two nights in the Boulderfield when reservations opened in February, the only camping close to the Keyhole Route, which is the standard route up the mountain (there is also the Loft, which is class 3 and requires some route finding, and then several technical climbing routes). I chose a random three day window on weekdays in August, and crossed my fingers for the best! Longs Peak is a… wait for it… long hike/climb, and a day hike of it can go upwards of 12+ hours. It often requires a middle-of-the-night alpine start, which means little sleep. People do say slepping backpacking gear into the Boulderfield is equally as terrible, and often wind and weather means little sleep for those camping in the Boulderfield. Either option looked awful to me, so I chose the backpacking and overnight stay route.
I tried to keep expectations and excitement tempered as I prepared for Longs. The other two mountains I had goals for in 2022 definitely did not pan out in any sort of successful manner, so I was hoping the third would be a charm (or would I just find out some mountains hate me?!). Packs were stuffed, unstuffed, and repacked, and I debated if I wanted my normal Crocs or fuzzy lined Crocs for camp shoes. I would be hiking with one of my cycling buddies, Tom, who was crazy enough to take on this endeavor, and was another person who has stared at Longs Peaks for years. I thought about expanding my group (I had reserved all five spots on the camping permit), but the summit was really my end goal and I didn’t want too many distractions from that.
After picking up the backcountry permit and getting sworn in as a Junior Ranger for Rocky Mountain National Park, we grabbed some lunch at You Need Pie in Estes Park before heading to the trailhead. I had to wait a few minutes for a parking spot to open up, and then it was go time!
Overall, the Keyhole Route for Longs Peak comes in at 15-16 miles (depending on the device you use to record the hike) with 5200+ feet of elevation gain. Like I said, it is a long day on Longs Peak! (All the puns…) The Boulderfield campground is about six miles from the Longs Peak Trailhead with a little over 3300 feet of elevation gain. On went the incredibly heavy pack, and off we set at 1:25pm!
There are some water sources along the trail for filtering, and there is a stream in the Boulderfield you can get water from, but it can be dependent on time of day and precipitation. The Ranger really emphasized to not rely on it, so I lugged six liters of water up to camp out of an abundance of caution, creating most of the weight I carried. It would turn out the water was really a-flowing in the Boulderfield, especially in the evening and morning hours, so I could have not done this, but better safe than sorry!
Four hours thirty-six minutes later, we arrived at our home for the next two nights. When you reserve a spot in the Boulderfield, you are given an assigned spot, but this other woman camper threw that system out the window by taking one of our spots, and telling others when they arrived to set up wherever. Tom and I found a double ringed area that worked out nicely. The campsites in the Boulderfield are rock wall rings a few feet high to serve as a wind block, with a privy a short walk away (no toilet paper… bring your own!). My spot had a large flat rock I dubbed “The Couch” as well, which was nice for meals and also for when I had to repack.
Okay, so I can’t write anymore without talking further about the woman in the Boulderfield… let’s just say she made enemies out of every other single person there that night! (Which was a lot of people, it was completely sold out and there were several large parties.) It started when she was upset people were still awake at 7pm, including Tom and I. A bit odd… I always go with 10pm being the social norm to shut up in campgrounds, and being the point you can get mad at people. Tom and I retired to our respective tents about 8pm after sunset. About ten minutes or so later, a rock hit Tom’s tent and bounced off, and we heard another rock land near our tents. We exchanged some “WTFs?!” before going back to sleep. I got up about 9pm for my last potty break, and only one group to the west was still up chatting away, but nothing overly bad. When I awoke at 2am, it was dead quiet when I took my pee break. Well, later the next day as Tom and I was traversing the Narrows (just what it sounds like… Narrow ledge with nothing but air to one side), Woman From The Boulderfield sees us and and confronts us, telling us “Your yapping kept me up all night!” Stunned, I responded back that she was mistaken, as I was in bed sleeping by 8:30pm with a cozy Ambien in my system, doing its sleeping thing. She then tells me I was a liar, and that we “sounded like donkeys all night long.” The confrontation was being escalated a bit, and I was like… great, we’re on a cliff, and clearly this woman is a bit off. Upon getting back to camp, we were relieved to see her tent packed up and gone, and we chatted with a few other groups who also reported she confronted them and was quite hostile, with one group nicknaming her “Soulcrusher.” Everyone agreed she was a bit unhinged, and that’s when Tom and I put it together with the rocks that hit his tent, because pikas don’t throw rocks.
It’s not an adventure without an unhinged person that makes you wonder if all the water back at camp would have strychnine put in it, amIright?
Anywaysssss… back to the programing. When I retired to my tent, I was chilled, and instantly my mind went back to Mount Adams. Oh no, oh no, oh no, this isn’t happening again!? I freaked out, piled on my down jacket and broke out foil emergency blanket and covered myself up. I am happy to report that I warmed right up, and got seven hours of sleep before the 5:30am alarm and approaching headlamps stirred me awake. This was not going to be a repeat of that darn volcano experience.
Water was boiled, coffee was made, and I stuffed my favorite gas station blueberry cheese danish into my mouth. Approach shoes were donned, along with the helmet as I was too lazy to carry it just to put it on fifteen minutes later. I was elated to awake with no headache or other signs of the altitude, which is 12,700 feet at the Boulderfield – the highest I’ve ever slept. I was feeling good, Tom was bouncing off the walls excited… let’s do this! At 6:26am we departed camp.
First we had to slog up the rest of the Boulderfield to the Keyhole for about 0.4 mile, the feature that marks the beginning of the “climbing” (this isn’t a walk up 14er, if you hadn’t figured that out by now) and the passage to the west side of the peak. Popping out of the Keyhole to the other side is quite an experience and sight!
The route up Longs Peak can be divided into four sections: the Ledges, the Trough, the Narrows, and the Homestretch. I actually found this quite helpful mentally to have sections and pieces to focus on. The Ledges last about 0.6 miles (all distances are according to my Garmin watch, so might differ from other sources), and are a series of narrow… wait for it… ledges along the side of the peak. You ascend, and then descent to meet the junction of the Trough. As with the whole Keyhole Route, it is imperative to pay attention to footing and use a hand or two when necessary. I was very happy to be in sticky La Sportiva approach shoes, as there are slick portions were thousands of hikers have worn rocks smooth (or a bit of moisture has created a slimy layer).
Getting to the Trough is a bit disheartening. The Trough is a terrible 0.6 mile section of loose rock and scree. Though I’d argue a helmet is necessary for everything after the Keyhole (brain safety first!), the Trough is where it is truly a necessity due to the possibility of rockfall. Considering this route gets a lot of “casual” travel by those who don’t necessarily know the rules of climbing, plenty of rocks rain down without any warning from those above. Thankfully with it being a Tuesday morning, the crowds were a lot less than a weekend would see, and we had no rockfall issues.
Up and up and up. The Trough seems neverending, especially since you cannot see the exit from the climber’s right until you’re a decent ways up the mountain. I chatted with a couple of guys from Sterling and Pueblo, which helped passed the time (the topic was why Mount Everest takes two months to climb, and I help explain weather windows and acclimating needed). At the top of the Trough is a decently tough move to gain access to the Narrows. I watched Tom and another struggle with hand and foot holds on the sheer, smooth rock. I noticed to my right was a grippier line with a crack to serve as a handhole, and scrambled up that, happy to see that line and handle it so well. I took an “epic photo” of Tom on this line, ha!
Now it was time for the Narrows, a crossing of a sheer vertical rock face of 0.2 mile in distance. I have written previously about my apparent lack of fear of exposure, but I’ll admit when I first popped onto the Narrows, the words Wow, this just got real popped out of my mouth. I didn’t feel fear, but just a heightened sense of “this is easy to kill yourself on” (of the 71 deaths on Longs Peak, 70% were caused by falls). There is one tricky boulder to navigate around – you can squeeze between the boulder and wall if slim enough, or go around the boulder on the exposed side. I followed Tom on the wall side, but on the return trip found it much easier to go on the exposed side. Overall I enjoyed the Narrows, minus the confrontation with Woman From The Boulderfield. At the end of the Narrows is one last challenging move to exit. I am thankful I am 5’10”, as I could get a leg up and get a secure hold with my left hand and heave myself up.
Now it was time for the Homestretch, and I allowed thoughts of I am going to summit sneak into my head. Short, but mighty, the Homestretch is slabs of granite that guard the summit, and reach angles of 30-45%. Most people have to use their hands the whole way up, which I can confirm. The rock can be quite slippery as well, adding to the challenge. I found myself to be quite slow on this stretch as I kept stopping and just staring up in wonder. However, I found this section to be short and not as bad as others have found it. To me it was nothing compared to the Trough.
After two hours and twenty minutes of boulder hopping, scrambling, and staring at the abyss to my right, I stepped onto the summit of Longs Peak. I immediately started ugly crying and found a rock away from others to go sit on while I collected myself. I DID IT!!!
14th 14er completed, and all the Front Range 14ers done… along with my first class 3! CHECK!
The summit of Longs Peak is HUGE (like you can build several houses on it huge), so after nabbing the summit markers, I found one of the few patches of smooth dirt to do a cartwheel, and then we enjoyed some snacks. I had okay cell service on the summit, so I texted my parents and some friends to let them know I made the top, and took to waving in the general direction of Laramie at my parents. The weather could not have been more perfect, with clear skies and calm winds… such a rarity on any 14er, let alone Longs! Because of this, we spent about forty minutes on the summit before heading back down.
Going down is always an interesting thing, and is also where most climbing accidents happen. There is definitely a lot of butt scooting and crab walking to get off of Longs Peak, but the perk is everyone is doing it so you don’t look anymore awkward than the next! At times it felt like we weren’t going any faster down than we had gone up!
I think we made it back to our tents (including the time discussing Soulcrusher with our neighbors) about 11:45am… roughing five hours and thirteen minutes after starting. Definitely not a speed climb at all, but there was no need for it to be!
Now it was time for lunch and just hanging out. Though we had plenty of time if we wanted to pack out, we decided taking a day and just being lazy, and then leaving in the morning would be quite alright. I wish I had brought a book, however, as I found myself a bit bored at times. We took to watching latecomers leave the summit (happy to see certain parties make it off that had us a bit concerned, honestly), and watched climbers pop up off the more technical routes on the Chasm Lake side. We barely made sunset, and climbed into our sleeping bags pretty early. There were a lot less campers in the Boulderfield this night.
At 5am I was awoken by a day climber loudly announcing “There are many ways to get a temperature” and discussing with his partners about how his friend who is a park ranger gets “federal benefits, bro!” I had slept solidly for eight hours, so I guess stirring awake wouldn’t be so bad!
6:54am we left the Boulderfield with memories of a great summit and a few days of camping (this was my first multi-day backpacking trip, too!). Carrying wayyyyyy less water (just 1.5 liters for me), we hauled down the trip we slogged up just a few days prior. Exactly three hours later I was giving Fozzy a hug in the parking lot!
With all the 14ers I’ve done so far, none of them I have felt like repeating. Longs Peak changed that… I would definitely come climb it again and again and again! I would love to try the Loft route sometimes, and eventually the Cables route (which is what I was initially going to do this year with someone that could lead climb). And I’m definitely hyped up for some more challenging 14ers now that I’ve gotten a stronger taste of something that isn’t just a walk up.
All this being said, I agree with everything out there saying this mountain needs to be respected and shouldn’t be taken casually.
1- It is a very long hike of 15-16 miles, most of it above treeline and at high altitude (the Boulderfield campground is at 12,700 feet). Even if it is split up like how I did it, it is repeated hard days back to back to back, all with diminished oxygen.
2- It is not a “walk up.” There’s exposure after the Keyhole, and a constant need to pay attention to what you are doing. If someone has a strong fear of heights, this is not the mountain for them. “Freezing” on parts of the trail like the Narrows then puts others at risk as they have to pass around you. Hell, even the Boulderfield is a broken ankle waiting to happen if you don’t pay attention.
3- The weather can be fickle. I have no idea how I lucked into the absolutely perfect three day weather window of the year with no storms, no rain, and no wind. This is not the norm. With summer comes storms and rain (and snow and hail), and Longs Peak is always known to be windy. Getting caught in any precipitation on the Keyhole Route would be awful, making slippery rocks even worse. The long approach means a stupid early start to avoid storms, compounding the difficulty.
Does the casual hiker make it successfully up Longs Peak? Of course. But just because this mountain is in a national park does not mean it is easy or has a gift shop on top. Denali and Grand Teton are also in national parks… national parks have tough mountains. Doesn’t mean the average person can just go “conquer” them (don’t get me started on the use of the word “conquer” for mountains…). I consider myself pretty outdoorsy and experienced, and I trained all summer so my body could handle the distance appropriately. Even I faced unknowns, like what would happen when I slept two nights at 12,700 feet (I live at “only” 6,100 feet). Either way, just be smart if you’re doing this mountain. As I learned earlier this year on a goal summit, there is nothing wrong with turning around. Beats becoming the 72nd death on Longs Peak.
Now that my last goal of 2022 was achieved, I admit I feel a bit… lost. I think I felt this with cycling, too, as I prepared to peak for one race, and then once it is over there is that timeframe of just feeling a bit weird. Though winter climbs are possible, I’ll admit I feel the impending winter season and realize I’ll have to leave some summits for next summer. I am not sure I want to name what I am thinking of 2023, however, as it seems to create more hype in my brain. I’ll admit I’m side-eying those Cascade volcanoes again…