One of the perks of my job is that I get a day off for my birthday… I decided to use that day later in June with the goal of summiting a 14’er (Mountain in Colorado over 14,000ft). There are a LOT of options, but I eventually narrowed it down to Longs Peak. Probably not the best choice as it’s one of the toughest ones (ranked about 7th out of 53 peaks). Trying to persuade someone to join in my little adventure was proving to be a challenge until I posted on the 14ers.com Facebook page about my planned hike. The day before I got a message from a guy wondering if I was still planning on it. A bunch of messages later and plans were set!
I ate a ton of food the day before and made sure I took in a lot of fluids also. I attempted to go to sleep at about 8pm on Sunday, although it was more like 9pm by the time I was out. I woke up at 11:45pm and by midnight was on the road to Rocky Mountain National Park – I nice 100 mile drive! I consumed fluids and food during the drive so that I’d arrived at the trailhead ready to rock!
My new hiking partner for the day, Virgil, arrived at about 2:15am and by 2:30 we were on the trail. The hike up Longs Peak is an approx 14 mile round trip and takes 10-14hrs to complete! It was going to be a LONG day.
Up until the Boulderfield and Keyhole is just regular hiking. From the Keyhole onwards, it was full winter conditions (this is supposedly late in the year for Longs to be like this).
This part of the hike is marked by “bullseyes” spraypainted onto the rocks marking the route – Very helpful. Fortunately, most were still visible and now covered in snow. The start of the Ledges section was dry granite, then a patch of snow that required my first use of crampons, followed by more granite.
After making it across the ledges, the next section to tackle was the Trough. It was full of snow, so unlike summer (conditions that would see hundreds of people attempting the summit) it was a full on couloir. Great for skiing down, but definitely a workout to go up using crampons and an ice axe. Add in the factor that I’m a fit cyclist, but not exactly fit mountaineer, and it’s a challenge. Just looking up it at a couple other climbers near the top made me question if this was the point that I’d be turning around. It was a long way down (if I slipped), and a long way up. Virgil and I just got down to work and plugged away at it taking a few rests along the way to enjoy the view, and get our breath back at ~13,200ft elevation. We talked to one guy that decided he wasn’t making it beyond the trough as all he had was yak-trax / microspikes and hiking poles. Definitely a wise move as a guy fell a couple hundred feet the day before (Reportedly with no foot traction devices and only one hiking pole – No business being in that kind of environment!). We exchanged words then got on with business. At the top of the trough there’s a fairly large rock that needs to be navigated carefully. I got over it, took a seat on dry granite, and was in total awe at the view. For the previous hour we had been hiking up a couloir mostly shaded from the sun with a view behind us, but the view looking east at the top of the trough was amazing. Definitely one of those moments where I consider myself lucky to live in Colorado, and lucky to have the youth and fitness to get there.
This section is basically a ledge along the east face of Longs that requires careful footwork. Nothing too crazy but not the place to be if you don’t like heights. It was just nice to get the damn crampons off and hike along horizontal rock!
At the end of the trough, the route turns left and heads up a steep section of granite, although on this day it was a mix of snow and ice. This is where the guy had fallen the day before and another point where I questioned if I was going to get up it. We had come this far, weather was perfect, and there was no good reason to turn back so we pressed on.
5.5hours after leaving the trailhead parking lot and I was on the summit with Virgil arriving shortly after. Holy shit, we actually made it! Online reports claim that approx. 36,000 people attempt Longs annually; however, only 50% make it. Virgil had made a few previous attempts but had to abort for various reasons – mostly weather. I was pretty stoked to be on the summit at my first attempt and happy for Virgil to have made his summit also. The summit is about the size of two football fields and pancake flat, but with amazing 360deg views. We saw up there for a while, talked to a couple other guys that summited before us, signed the register, took some photos, and entertained a couple super friendly marmots. Some clouds started to form in the previously clear sky so we decided to head back down versus staying up there exposed to a potential thunderstorm.
I always remember that books and documentaries note that the descent is where shit usually goes wrong, so I made sure that we took our time on the technical sections. We weren’t out to break any records so it was better to get back to the car a little later than get airlifted out! By the end of the ledges I was pretty damn tired. By the keyhole there was some light hail and we could hear rain on the summit above us. The Boulderfield sucked about twice as much as expected it would with tired legs / brain. The rest of the hike out just felt like it took a bloody eternity. We joked with a few younger guys on the trail “Got any pizza? Beer?” and that got some laughs. I think we were 120% serious. I’d have destroyed a pizza! A little after 4pm and we were back at the car. A bit dehydrated, hungry, and sleepy. The drive home was miserable and I had to do a McD’s drive-by to get some much needed calories and caffeine.
As previously mentioned, I’m a fit cyclist, but definitely not hiking fit. This was clearly evident by the DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) that reared it’s ugly head the following morning and lasted for about 3 days. Stairs were far from fun and the two large blisters on my heels were not enjoyable either. Regardless, it was all totally worth the experience. First 14’er by foot (I’ve done Mt Evans by bike and Pikes Peak by car), first use of crampons, first use of an ice axe… and I lived to tell the tale!