Mountains are often a source of inspiration or awe by those who visit them. Go a little deeper and you’ll likely feel humbled.
It’s always been that way for me. The peaks are big, ancient and unmovable. It doesn’t matter how strong I feel, or how weak. The most epic day in the mountains has lots of flavors, and one of them is very likely to be humility.
It should be noted that there are various levels of humility.
I’d like to tell you that my recent attempt at Longs Peak was this fantastic stew of pain, joy, struggle and victory, but it wasn’t. It was a staredown.
Longs Peak is one of 58 mountains in Colorado to rise above 14,000 feet. Readily visible from Denver, its bulk rises high above Rocky Mountain National Park. Longs is not the highest 14er in the state, or even in the Front Range. And given the number of people who try to reach its summit, you might be tempted to see it as a beginner’s peak.
Let me burst a few bubbles. Being the highest doesn’t necessarily denote the toughest. Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest, but also one of the state’s easiest summits. Everest is THE highest, but experts will tell you K2 is harder.
And though a surprisingly large number of people count Longs as their first big mountain, even that must be given an asterisk: 50 percent who try to climb it fail, and to further illustrate the point, going back to last summer, my friend Matt’s second 14er was Sunlight Peak – ranked as the seventh toughest 14er in the state. He did this despite having very limited high country experience. There is a lot of relativity to consider when judging a peak by who has climbed it.
I joined my friends Chuck and Noel on this one, and made a couple of new friends – Craig and Dillon.
Dillon has climbed all the 14ers. He’s lean, strong, experienced and definitely the guy you want in your corner when going up a mountain.
Craig is a fellow flatlander, rolling in from Missouri to spend a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. He has a few peaks under his belt, but was the most junior of the bunch right along with me. Despite all that, he proved to be a very strong hiker, even up high.
Chuck and Noel, well, you know them from previous adventures. Stout hikers, good climbers, and very experienced in the mountains. Both are closing in on finishing off all 58 of the 14ers.
Longs Peak isn’t just a high mountain. It’s also big. This may take some explanation.
I mentioned Mount Elbert. It’s the highest peak in Colorado, and the second-highest point in the contiguous 48 states. It’s even higher than Washington’s Mount Rainier.
But it’s not bigger than Rainier. Not even close. I imagine you could fit a few Elberts inside of Rainier quite comfortably. If you can understand that concept, it will go a long way into appreciating the size of Longs Peak. It’s no Rainier, but it is bigger than most of its Rocky Mountain cousins.
By its standard route, it’s a 15-mile round trip. The final mile or so is rocky, exposed and not amenable to fast ascents or retreats. So you have to plan for this, and that means a really early start.
That meant lights out at 6 p.m., a 12:30 a.m. wakeup call, and heading up the trail by 2 a.m. It sounds ridiculous, but unless you want to camp above treeline, this is what you need to do to give yourself the best chance of summiting before afternoon storms roll in.
This brings me to a term to which I recently became aware. It’s called “second-level fun.” A good movie, a roller coaster, hanging with friends at a pub or club, these are not examples of second-level fun. Sleep deprivation, hours of physical exertion, some aches and pain, maybe a little blood and suffering, all for the sake of great views and bragging rights – these are the things associated with second-level fun. Longs Peak has all of these in abundance.
We weren’t the only ones on the trail. This was the same weekend Andrew Hamilton broke Cave Dog’s 14er speed record, so he and a healthy group of well-wishers were on their way down as we ascended. It was a cool moment (he definitely had the rock star thing going on around him, and was very accommodating to all the fans who had gathered), and I saw a couple of people I knew from past trips. First was Brady, who had climbed Wetterhorn with me last year, and later on, Danielle, who was on the big Chicago Basin backpacking trip.
Danielle was excited to see us, bubbling with energy as always. She promised to run back up and join us on the climb, even though she’d already hiked to 11,000 feet to meet Hamilton and the gang.
One thing we gained from meeting Hamilton’s entourage was a piece of information of what lay ahead: Fresh, wet snow on the upper portions of the mountain, and an abundance of wet rock on some of the steepest parts of the route. That would weigh heavily later on.
The hike is a beautiful one, but you don’t get to see much of it for the first few hours. Whatever your headlamp illuminates is about all you get. But somewhere around 5 a.m. as dawn breaks and you’re above treeline, the magnificence of the peak reveals itself. With clouds below us and above and stony mountaintops in between, that morning’s sunrise was the most spectacular I’d ever seen. It washed over the hills slowly, illuminating the land and giving us our first good look at the mountain. It was an awesome sight.
I was cussing myself a little for not dropping some weight before I got to Colorado. Carrying 10 extra pounds is not ideal. Also bugging me: I sweat a lot. It doesn’t take much at all to get my sweat glands going. It was windy and cool, and I was already sweating through my clothes, despite my careful layering strategy. I was good as long as I was moving, but cold at every stop.
The one thing I’d caution people about is that any pictures you see of Longs Peak are going to be deceiving. Being there in real life shows you that the features are much bigger and steeper than what you see in photographs.
This became apparent once we got to the Boulder Field. This is the place where you camp if you plan to break up your ascent. It sits around 12,000 feet, and as the name suggests, it’s a rugged, treeless and harsh place. The campsites have to be reserved in advance through the National Park Service, and you even get the luxury of outhouses nearby. I didn’t use one, but my buddies told me they were kinda nasty. Given that and the possibility of a rather uncomfortable overnight at the campsites, well, use your best judgment.
The trail ends in the Boulder Field. From there, you hop on rocks and awkwardly scramble up boulders at a gradually steepening grade toward the Keyhole, a distinct opening in the ridge that overlooks the Boulder Field.
It was here that we ran into a fella from Chicago who looked a little perplexed. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a light top, he was cold and unsure what to do because his cousin had gone ahead toward the Keyhole without him. Dillon was kind enough to let him borrow his jacket. Noel started calling out the cousin’s name, and we eventually caught up with him toward the Keyhole.
Now Noel has a habit of bring and sharing homemade cookies. That’s why she’s known as the Cookiehiker. Upon meeting the ambitious cousin, she mentioned something about him not getting any of her cookies.
The lesson: Unless your partner is secure and safe, you don’t leave him or her behind while you do your own thing. This is especially true of people who are inexperienced in the mountains, which was clearly the case here. Eventually we got everyone reunited, all was forgiven, and the offending cousin was even allowed a few of Noel’s baked goodies.
READING THE SIGNS
Like I said earlier, the Boulder Field is an awkward piece of hiking that turns into light scrambling toward the top. There is a shelter built there in honor of a couple of people who had died on the mountain long ago. It’s not exactly weathertight – a good bit of blown-in snow was still there, filling about half the structure. But it’s a cool feature, and a great place to take a rest before tackling the toughest part of the route.
But it was here that we had difficult decisions to make. The long hike, the punishment of the Boulder Field the reports we’d received of the route conditions ahead, and dicey looking weather blowing in wore heavy on us. Winds coming through the Keyhole were fierce, a steady 30-40 mph with gusts much higher. We all took a peek around the corner from the Keyhole and saw slick route conditions ahead and steep drop-offs below.
You never know what a route really holds until you’re on it. And hey, Andrew Hamilton did this in the dark, right?
But we’re not Andrew Hamilton, we weren’t chasing a record, and poor route conditions combined with sketchy looking weather added up to too many negative variables. We were all thinking it, but Dillon was the first to say it: There was going to be no summit today.
It bothers me now, of course, but at the time I had no problem with it. They Keyhole was our summit, and a month removed from that day, I’m convinced we made the right call. Longs’ summit would have to wait for another day.
As we munched on food and snapped pics, we spotted the bright jacket of a climber ambling her way up to us. It was Danielle! She actually caught up with us, despite running on minimal sleep and less food. I have to hand it to her, there is an energy to this woman that could power a nuclear reactor.
We told her our thoughts, which elicited a half-hearted plea to try anyway, but we were firm and eventually she agreed. In any case, it was cool to see one of our partners in crime from the Chicago Basin trip once again.
Hiking back down, Craig was determined to summit something. So he hiked up Mount Lady Washington while we made our way on the trail. Danielle and I talked running and life (both of those seem to be going rather well for her) before we caught up with everyone else. She ended up singing Disney tunes with Noel much of the way down.
In the light of day, I got to appreciate how gorgeous the trail is, and gazed in awe at some of the more prominent features of Longs Peak.
We put in about 14 miles that day, cracking open a bacon-flavored soda at the trailhead (not recommended, but funny). Even with no summit, we ate a victory-sized meal back in Estes Park just the same.
It was great meeting new friends, and particularly sweet meeting up with buddies from mountain ascents past.
More importantly, it was good to experience this. It wasn’t just a matter of knowing what it’s like to fail, but also knowing how correct decision-making led us to that point. Longs Peak isn’t going anywhere, but one bad move on a sketchy route could end any future climbs in a flash.
This leads be to a sort of epilogue. Maybe a week after this, Danielle was back at Longs, and she got to that summit. She also climbed some of the tougher peaks of the Elk Range as well.
Later in the week, Craig and his wife hiked Grays Peak, and he got Torreys to boot.
Noel and Chuck tore it up and several other peaks not long after, and in the second week of August, teamed up for another shot at Longs Peak. This time, they would not be denied.
Often a strategic retreat to safety leads to better things later on. God willing, I’ll be back at Longs, and maybe next time I’ll summit, having given myself the chance to do so by relenting to the mountain when I was there last.