| A Longs Escapade
July 24, 2012
Longs Peak (14,255’)
Ranger Station Trailhead (9,405')
Round-trip Length: 14 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,100'
Climbers: MtnHub (Doug) and Hubie (Paul)
Starting Time: 0320
Return Time: 1730
For the last several years, my wife and I have taken our summer vacation in Colorado. Our first week is usually spent visiting family and friends while I also take time out to do a few climbs. But our last five nights have always been spent in Estes Park. I’ve made it an annual tradition to climb Longs at least once each season, and on a few occasions, even twice.
Most of my ascents have been up the standard Keyhole route, and I still love it! I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. But in recent years I’ve learned the Loft route and also a Meeker/Longs loop. Even though there are many technical routes up the crown jewel of RMNP, I’m not experienced with ropes and protection and so the possible routes I can take are much more limited.
This past year I discovered a couple of trip reports describing a slight variation. The Camel Couloir offers a shortcut up to the Keyhole as well as a little more scrambing than the standard trail going around Mt. Lady Washington. And the Northwest Couloir branching from the Ledges also offered a different and more difficult ascent to the summit.
Both are less popular and therefore less crowded, but the NW Couloir involves some class 4 climbing. Because of this I was hesitant to try it alone. Last year I gained considerable experience with a few more challenging climbs, including a summit of Capitol. But I’ve also promised my wife that when I do any climbs farther off the beaten trail, and especially spicier ones, I would always find a partner to go with.
This past year, a friend of mine whom I first met over 20 years ago contacted me. In 1990 we were on an organized trip together that toured the European Alps for four weeks. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and although we’ve talked about it on occasion, we’ve never done a climb together since. He read my trip report on the Meeker/Longs loop last year and wanted to join me this year.
This got me very excited as Paul is a very experienced climber. He would be perfect to have along for this new route up Longs. He and his wife would be staying in Estes Park the same week as we. I was really looking forward to our reunion as well as trying a new and more difficult route up one of my favorite mountains.
We arrived at the Longs Peak Ranger Station shortly after 3am. I’ve discovered this is usually the latest time to assure finding a parking place in the lot. This year was no different, and we found a spot directly in front of the station itself! By the time we organized our gear, loaded up and signed the register, we were heading up the wide, well-groomed trail by 3:20am.
Stopping only a few brief occasions, we reached the Chasm Junction in roughly two hours. The sky was just beginning to brighten so it was possible to turn off our headlamps shortly thereafter.
There was a trio of hikers ahead of us that we overtook just below Chasm Lake. After chatting with them, we found out that they thought they were on the standard route to the Keyhole. We informed them that they took the wrong trail. Rather than return to the Junction and retrace their steps, they asked if they could join us going up the Camel Couloir. That was fine with us, we said.
We made a quick stop at the Lake to refuel and rehydrate, enjoying the first light on the Diamond face.
Then climbing over and around some large boulders, we skirted along the northern shore of the Lake towards the back of the cirque. There were remnants of a trail along the slope but even without a real trail it was nothing more difficult than class 2. About halfway back, the sun finally rose above the horizon, lighting up the sheer rock face of the mountain in blazing glory! What a sight! As many times as I’ve been on or around Longs, I’ve never been this close to the Diamond face before!
MtnHub making his way along the side of the slope. (photo by Paul H)
Paul pausing for a second; Chasm Lake behind him.
We climbed up another steep section to a flat area still holding a good-sized sheet of ice on the basin floor. Slightly smaller than the size of a football field, this had to be crossed to reach the north side. I was surprised to see this much residual ice remaining since the winter had been so dry and mild.
Paul heading up one of the last steep sections.
Looking up the amazing Diamond face of Longs.
As we made our way across, we continued to scan the opposing slope looking for the final gully leading up to the Kneeling Camel.
I didn’t bring along a copy of the trip report and photos describing the route. Since the cirque dead-ended at the Diamond cliffs, I didn’t think it would be terribly difficult to find the gully. Stopping to analyze it better, we could see a gully off to our right, but it didn’t look particularly friendly. It seemed quite steep and loose and now in order to reach it, we would have had to backtrack slightly.
I remembered the report warning not to ascend too early, waiting until you reached the “final” gully. So we kept eyeing the back cliffs. There appeared to be a grassy ledge leading into a gully bending to the left but the view was hidden, so it was impossible to tell whether it continued up to the ridge.
The ledge can be seen cutting directly across the middle of the frame, rising slightly.
The entrance to the ledge.
Rather than backtrack and lose more time, we decided to give the ledge a try hoping it would grant us access to the Boulder Field above. It was about this time that the other trio of hikers decided to bail, and they returned the way we had come.
Paul starting the grassy ledge.
So far so good.
Walking along the shelf, the view back to Chasm was outstanding.
Lake Chasm from the ledge.
Paul nearing the end of the ledge.
When Paul made a brief stop to retrieve something from his pack, I took the lead, going around the bend and into the blind gully. Things got a little more interesting at this point.
Paul climbing up to me.
Looking up the narrow gully.
But the views of Longs were becoming ever more impressive!
Having much more experience on this kind of stuff than I, I once again let Paul take the lead.
We were getting very close to the top, but we found the most difficult climbing yet to come.
Paul taking a moment to look over our options.
What was to be the crux of the route.
Paul slowly made his way up through this narrow section and climbed above a little ways to wait for me. Then I started climbing, feeling pretty confident I could meet the challenge too. But just as I reached the top edge of a narrow shelf above me, I got stuck. I couldn’t reach the only foothold available that I saw on my left. It was just below the level of my waist so it was quite a reach for me to attain.
I had been having some swelling around my knees and down to my ankles for the last couple of weeks. This was probably due to my increase in training in preparation for my vacation. It wasn’t causing me any pain, but it did restrict my movement and flexing of my knee. Because of the swelling, I wasn’t able to bend my knee enough to reach the narrow hold.
My hands were holding the bulk of my weight and I was starting to get fatigued. I couldn’t see below me enough to descend safely so I called out to Paul for some help. He came down, braced himself and then reached out for me to grab his hand. It was just enough assistance for me to get over the edge and climb above. (Thanks, Paul!!)
From that point it was relatively easy to reach the ridge. We took that opportunity to take our longest break. We could see the Camel slightly to the east along the ridge and we realized that the bad gully we saw below had to have been the one we should have ascended. Paul then confided to me that he thought that last part we did was probably at least a class 5.5 move or more. This is why I was thankful to have him along!
Looking east along the ridge. The Kneeling Camel (center) and Mt Lady Washington in the distance.
Looking down the gully we ascended. Chasm Lake.
Looking over to the Longs summit, it looked like you could just walk right over there and up to the top, but I knew it wasn’t quite that easy. There’s a good reason you have to go through the Keyhole and around the back to the other side. The only way to gain the top from here would be with the use of ropes to climb those boilerplate slabs of rock.
After a good rest, we loaded up once more and headed across the upper part of the Boulder Field aiming for the Keyhole.
Can you see the tiny people in the Keyhole?
Getting closer to the Keyhole.
Once we passed through the Keyhole, we made good progress along the Ledges. This part goes quickly since there is not much real climbing until you reach the Trough. We had originally planned to leave the Ledges midway and ascend by way of the NW Couloir, but when we reached that place it was already after 10am.
We’d lost a lot of time down below first searching for the right gully and then ascending the one we found. We were also getting a little exhausted and didn’t want to add any more extra spice to our climb. Although Paul debated whether he even wanted to finish the climb at all, we ended up deciding to continue the standard route to the summit. The weather was still looking favorable.
The Trough actually went pretty fast as we stayed to the left on more solid rock. And the Narrows is always fun and easy. By the time we reached the Homestretch we could almost taste the summit.
Looking up the Homestretch.
We hit the top before noon but just barely. I congratulated Paul on his first summit of Longs Peak!
Our heads in the clouds.
We savored our success for about half an hour before we thought we’d better descend. Going down was uneventful. It’s easier on the legs but harder on the knees. But I still love to repeat the Narrows and Ledges, although the Trough going down can be a bit of a pain because so many places hold loose gravel.
Paul finishing the last part of the Ledges just below the Keyhole.
Just below the Boulder Field it started to rain and hail on us – not too bad, but enough to warrant pulling the rain jackets out. This has happened to me at the same place 5 years in a row. Must be something with the weather gods.
It was 5:30pm by time we reached the car. We had a long hard day, but we were feeling good with what we accomplished. Thanks, Paul, for a new route and a great trip!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):