Notes from the trail

Welcome to American Backcountry’s Notes from the Trail. Here we share stories and thoughts from some of our favorite contributors. Each mountain is different and each trip has a different story – these are notes collected along the trail.

Longs Peak: The Keyhole Route by Heather Balogh, From Just A Colorado Gal

August 23, 2016

For years, Longs Peak has been watching me.

 

In college, I embarked upon the grandiose and delusional plan to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers before graduation. Surprise; it didn’t happen. But, I managed to tick a large number of the peaks off the list before I was 22. Unfortunately, Longs Peak wasn’t one of them, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. We attempted the Loft Route twice: once my partner suffered from some knee pain, and a thunderstorm chased us off the second time.

 

Years passed and I became less voracious in my quest to conquer all of the 14,000+ foot mountains in Colorado. To date, I’ve climbed 45 of them so I don’t really have many left. And of the ten, most are technical or have long approaches, requiring more than a usual weekend excursion.

 

Except for Longs Peak.

 

At the beginning of the summer, Will asked me which “new” 14er I’d like to summit this year. You see, it’s been awhile since I’ve stood atop a new climb. I’ve been up Grays/Torreys a dozen times; Quandary four times; Bierstadt/Evans via the Sawtooth three times. I seem to be on this pattern of repeating climbs and truthfully, I don’t care that much. But I agreed: it was time to climb a new mountain.

 

We penciled in the weekend for Longs Peak and I watched as the date grew closer on our calendar. Originally, we had a list of a dozen friends who wanted to join the climb, but in the end, it was just Will and me.

 

Longs Peak is not one of the most technical mountains in Colorado but it does have a track record of injuries and death. 60 fatalities occurred on the mountain between 1915 and 2010, with seven of those happening on The Homestretch. In June of this year, a team of Army Special Forces officers was helicoptered off the peak thanks to altitude sickness.

 

So why the accidents? I have no clue. But if I were to wager a guess, I’d bet most people underestimate the peak. You see, Longs Peak is long. If you start from the trailhead and do the entire thing as a day hike, you’re looking at 15 miles roundtrip with 5200 feet of gain {and loss.} When combined with Colorado’s apocalyptic lightning storms and some class three scrambling on the standard Keyhole Route, you’re looking at a perfect storm for carelessness.

 

Knowing all this, Will and I wanted to make doubly sure that we summited and made it back down in one piece. In order to do this, we wanted to be off the mountain {or at least well below treeline} by noon. With that kind of mileage and elevation gain, an early start is the norm. So, we set our alarms for 1 am {not a typo!}, left our house at 1:30 am, and began our hike at the trailhead at 3 am.

 

Put those 5 am alarms in perspective, doesn’t it?!

 

The first couple hours of the hike were easy. The trail begins at 9,400 feet so we climbed through the trees in the darkness. Eventually, the sun began to peek above the horizon just as we hit 3.6 miles and the junction to Chasm Lake {11,500 feet}.

 

We continued to climb towards the Boulder Field, admiring the ridiculous sunrise through the whipping winds of Longs Peak. Eventually, we hit the massive field of boulders where some people opt to camp. A few tents had taken a beating in the wind and Will even chased one down as it tumbled across the barren landscape. After securing it with some big-ass rocks, we quickly used the solar bathrooms and headed up towards the infamous Keyhole.

 

The trail petered out around 12,800 feet but it was easy enough to climb up towards the iconic Keyhole. I was excited to see through the hole towards the backside of the mountain. Until this point, everything had been basic hiking with some talus thrown into the mix. But once hikers cross through the Keyhole, the route changes and gets more technically challenging. In fact, many people hike to the Keyhole alone and opt to turn around; I witnessed many do this.

 

Once Will and I climbed through the Keyhole, I understood the hesitation of the other hikers. As I said to Will, it was like we had left the Shire behind and entered Mordor! Not only was the backside of Longs completely void of sunshine, but it was also windy and cold. I cinched my hood down on my head, pulled on some gloves, and began hiking towards the dark and chilly trail known as The Ledges.

 

The Ledges are not marked by cairns but rather painted bullseyes on the rocks. The “trail” is essentially a series of ledges along an incredibly steep cliff. If you keep your wits about you, it’s truly not that hard. But, anyone nervous with exposure may find this section unnerving as one slip could lead to a massive fall.

 

After The Ledges came the toughest part of the climb for me: The Trough. This 600-foot gully of loose rock was steep and seemingly endless. It was roughly 8 am so we had been climbing for 5 hours and my legs were fatigued. There wasn’t a true trail in this section; rather, it was a choose-your-own adventure as you climbed up the large rocks towards the top. Some steps were so large that I kinda had to launch my body onto the rock and roll around until I could get back on my feet….not graceful but it was effective!

 

After The Trough, Will and I were able to cruise to the summit– but that’s because we don’t mind exposure. For many, the last couple sections are mentally the hardest. The Narrows comes first and is reminiscent of The Ledges earlier on. This tiny section of trail hugs a steep mountain with a sheer drop off to the side. But, while it may look sketchy, it truly is solid with plenty of hand and footholds for hikers to reliably use. Finally, after crawling up and over a massive boulder, we tackled The Homestretch, aptly named for its proximity to the summit.

 

The Homestretch was cool and I enjoyed it– but I definitely understand why this particular section has seen more accidents than the rest of the peak. This granite slab of rock is polished from years of hikers’ hand oils and the easiest route still requires use of both hands and feet {and mental grit!} The rock face itself looks impossibly steep with cracks and crevasses leading all the way to the summit. Truthfully, it was easier to hike up than it was to come down!

 

We finally reach the summit around 8:45 am and I was psyched to be there! We found a rock shelter that kept us out of the wind and munched on our snacks. It’s such a surreal feeling to be almost three miles into the sky, eating your lunch after hiking for six hours….and it’s barely 9 in the morning. WHAT.

 

Knowing the descent would take awhile, we didn’t dally long. We snapped some photos, cinched our packs and headed back down, wanting to be well below treeline before any hint of weather rolled through. Truly, there would be no easy escape route until the Boulder Field, and even then, there wasn’t much coverage until far lower than that.

 

Per usual, descending was almost as difficult as ascending Longs Peak. Coming down The Homestretch was tricky and I relied on my tried-and-true crab walk to keep me from biting it on the slippery granite. I may have looked ridiculous but it kept me safe and uninjured; I’ll count that as a win!

 

Picking our way back down The Trough was nerve wracking, to say the least. Will and I were confident in our footing but not everyone was as confident on their feet. There was a trio of men hiking alongside us who kept sliding on their feet and slipping on the loose rocks. After watching two or three rocks safely skirt by us {since we were below them} we knew it was in our best interest to get the hell away from them. We picked up our pace and skipped down The Trough faster than I would’ve preferred, but at least it kept us out of harm’s way.

 

As we crept back up towards the Keyhole, Will began to experience a wicked headache due to the altitude. This isn’t new for him so neither of us worried too much, but I sure wanted to get back to the Boulder Field as soon as we could. He managed to keep it together as we came down the talus field towards the Boulder Field, but once we got there, he needed a break to calm his head down. I gave him 20 minutes to nap on a rock in the sun before swapping out his water supply and continuing on. We both would’ve loved to stay up there longer, but there were a few questionable clouds building in the distance, and we were still pretty high on the mountain. Ain’t nobody got time for electrocution!

 

Turns out, it was a good decision to move. As we descended, Will’s headache diminished but the pain in my knees increased. I’ve never been one to hike with trekking poles but descending 5200 feet did a number on the ol’ knee caps. As we got lower and lower, my knees grew achier and more uncomfortable. I knew I wasn’t damaging anything but they weren’t loving it and I was hiking slower and slower. We had just hit treeline when we heard the first crack of thunder, forcing us to push the pace even more.

 

Thankfully, the weather held off until we neared the parking lot. I was crawling along at a grandma pace with my creaky knees, so Will ran ahead to grab the car and pull it up for me. I had *literally* just climbed into the car when the sky opened up and rain poured down from the sky. Talk about perfect timing!

 

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