| Long‘s via the Keyhole
My Long's Peak Journey
About a year ago, Diane and I decided to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time, even though we'd lived in Colorado for four years. During our visit, I was impressed by Long's Peak, one of Colorado's "fourteeners" and the highest peak in the park. It's also considered the hardest non-technical climb in Colorado. Some would-be Everest climbers even use it as a tune-up because the weather and terrain are very similar. I was so impressed that I decided to climb it. Why? I don't know. I guess my whole life I've been finding challenging things to do just to prove to myself that I could. Type A, you know.
I figured, "What better way to get ready to climb a mountain than to climb a mountain?" Logic, you know. Apparently they don't teach it in schools anymore, but it made sense to me. So, last fall I trekked up Pike's Peak, located just outside of Colorado Springs. That was a learning experience, to be sure, but since this story is about Long's, I'll forego the details. I kind of lost my fire for a bit after that…having gotten out of the Army I have a tendency not to make myself suffer on purpose so much anymore. Why climb a mountain in the winter when you can do it in the summer? So I waited until this summer, and then set myself on fire again. In addition to Pike's Peak, I climbed four other "fourteeners." I also ran, hiked the backcountry, ran up the old cog railway route, hit the weights, etc. I even bought a book written by a mountain expert; it was written as a guide on how to climb Long's Peak specifically. I'm glad I did, because there are some specific terrain features and tough spots that it really helped having advanced knowledge of.
About two months ago I drove up to Estes Park, which is about nine miles from the Long's Peak trailhead. I made sure I could find the trailhead itself (it was easier than I figured, just off of Highway 7), and then did a recon of all the hotels. I went home, picked a hotel based on the information I found, and made reservations. Then I contacted my court liaison office and told them I was going to be out of town, because they have been giving me subpoenas for my days off a whole lot lately. Now, with hotel reservations made and the court notified, there was no turning back – the date was set: July 25th.
July 24th came a lot sooner than I expected. I got off work at 0700 that morning, drove home, tossed my bags and gear into the truck and drove to Estes Park. After checking into my hotel, I went and got a lunch consisting of pasta and a baked potato – carbs, you know. Then I went to some hole-in-the-wall "Food Store," (that was the name of it, which should have been a clue) run by a bunch of Sikhs. I bought a loaf of bread, a tiny jar of peanut butter, and a tiny jar of grape jelly. $11.29. Holy crap, I'm in the wrong business! Later, I realized I didn't have anything to spread the peanut butter and jelly with, so I used a tongue depressor from my first aid kit. Ingenuity, you see. They don't teach that in school anymore, either.
I set the alarm for 2300 (for those of you in Rio Linda, that's 11:00 pm), and went to bed. When it went off, I showered, threw the ruck in the truck, and pulled out of the hotel lot. I knew it was going to be a good day when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of elk. They were just standing there in the middle of the road acting like idiots and trying to eat grass that wasn't growing in the asphalt. One big cow was so close I rolled down the window and reached out to touch her. I'd like to say I did, but in reality I was about two inches too short. Funny how that never happens when I'm hunting them (it's like someone gives them a calendar with our hunting seasons on it). Anyway, I had to shoo them out of the way so I could hit the trail on schedule.
The trailhead to Long's Peak is a paved parking lot. My truck was the third car in the lot that morning (all mountaineers know to leave very early, as the mountain has deadly lightning storms every day starting at around 1300 – 1:00 pm to my friends in Rio Linda). I signed in on the trail register and took off. It was exactly midnight when my feet hit the mountain for the first time.
My train-up taught me that I have a tendency to start out too fast, which wears me out in the later part of the climb. So, I focused on maintaining a slow, methodical, constant speed. What helped me to do that was the fact that I was walking almost completely blind. Of course I was equipped with a headlamp, but I like to keep my pack as light as possible, taking only items necessary to survive. Therefore, I didn't pack any extra batteries. Not wanting to get caught with no light, I conserved the batteries by flipping on the light, looking where I was going, flipping it off, and walking in the dark. I had to go REALLY slow because the trail is so rough. Those of you in Rio Linda may not know that mountains are made of rock, so the trail is covered with big rocks. I stubbed my toes a million times, but that was no big deal because of the big heavy boots I wear (light hiking boots don't work for me because of my poor feet – the VA doctor even said I'm eligible for a handicap parking permit). Well, there's no handicap elevator to the top of Long's Peak, so forget the VA doc. The boots didn't help once when I ran into a rock with my knee – my GOOD knee, of course – which troubled me throughout the remainder of the climb. Great, now both knees hurt (one hurts all the time anyway…another gift from Uncle Sam).
So there I was, troding, troding, troding, up the mountain for an eternity it seemed. It got a little easier when I hit the tree line because I could see the trail a bit better; I didn't have to flip on the light so much. I said to myself, "Follow the grayish trail-shaped line in the center of all the black." Logic, you know. Those of you in Rio Linda should really study up on it.
Just above tree line, I stopped for the first time to eat a power bar. On such a long and grueling climb you can't rely on what you ate before starting; you have to keep adding food so your body has the energy you're demanding from it. I have to say, power bars have come a long way since I last ate one about four years ago. They used to taste like eating a turd. Now it's like eating a chocolaty turd (I like chocolate).
I wolfed down my chocolaty turd in about twenty seconds, and then took off again. Troding, sipping from my camelbak, stubbing my toes, tripping over rocks, and making slow progress – this went on for hours.
It was still dark out when I reached the first major terrain feature, known as the "boulderfield." Logic, for those of you in Rio Linda, would have it that the boulderfield is a field of boulders. Well, logic wins again – it's a field of boulders. The trail actually ends at the beginning of the boulderfield, as the remainder of the climb is all scrambling from rock to rock.
It would have been impossible to navigate the boulderfield in total darkness, as I had done up to this point; it's a good thing I had conserved my battery power. I flipped on the headlamp and started hopping from boulder to boulder. Then I realized just how dangerous it would have been to try that in the dark – I surely would have broken something.
About halfway across the one-mile boulderfield, I stopped for a second to look up at the skyline. Even though it was still very dark outside, I could see the silhouette of the mountain against the sky. The neatest thing was seeing the next major terrain feature I was heading towards, the "keyhole." The route I was taking is called the "Keyhole Route" because of that terrain feature. It was named so because it looks like a keyhole-shaped notch cut in the side of the mountain. When my film gets developed (oooh, how quaint…a guy who still uses FILM) I'll send a picture of it and you'll see what I mean.
I kept hopping from boulder to boulder, hoping I didn't step on a loose one and break something dear to me, like a leg. About three-fourths of the way across, I noticed that the sky seemed a lot lighter. I flipped off the headlamp and could make out the boulders just fine. It wasn't sunrise yet, but it was that time of morning just before sunrise where the sky gets lighter and animals start waking up. That's also when mountain lions like to eat those animals who are waking up. I questioned – not for the first time – our Benevolent Bureaucratic Imbecile-run Government's prohibition against carrying firearms in a national park. What am I supposed to do if a mountain lion wants to eat me? Slap him with a chocolate turd? Anyway, I stuffed the headlamp into my ruck and wolfed down another chocolate turd. I had plenty more if that mountain lion decided he wanted a piece of me.
I set off again, and eventually reached the base of the keyhole. It's a short but very steep climb to the top of the keyhole. On the way up, I could see three other hikers peering down at me and snapping photos (the flash, for those of you in Rio Linda, was a dead giveaway). I figured they were experienced Mt. Everest climbers gawking at the tenderfoot. Remember that as the story goes on. Once at the top, there was a small shelter built of rock set off to the side. I walked in and introduced myself to the other three hikers, as I wolfed down yet another chocolate turd. By this time, I realized that power bars really hadn't changed all that much – a turd is a turd, no matter which way you wipe, and I was tired of eating turds. I was tired physically, too.
The other three hikers turned out to be a really great bunch of guys, and we stuck together as a group for the rest of the day. Their informal leader was Ed, who really has climbed Mt. Everest (successfully, I might add), and a Christian. The other two, Sean and Mark, are some flatlanders from Nebraska that decided to try Long's Peak for their first ever mountain climb. I suppose the lesson in that is this: If you're going to climb Long's for your first mountain, make friends with an experienced Mt. Everest climber. The rest of us train up to something like that.
Right then it was so bright I was surprised we couldn't see the sun yet. In reality it was just below the horizon, so we could see everything very clearly. We all set off from the shelter together, through the keyhole. The keyhole was the first time I was afeared (for those of you in Rio Linda, "afeared" is redneck for "afraid"). The wind was whistling through the keyhole at about seventy miles per hour.
I climbed up to the notch of the keyhole and peered through….and DOWN. On the other side of the notch, there was barely anything to stand on and it went straight down. A slip would have been certain death (or if you didn't die, I'm sure you'd wish you had). I went last in our little merry band of mountain climbers, and slowly crawled through, grasping the rock as tightly as possible, praying the whole time. Thankfully, the wind was blowing me against the rock, not away from it. If the wind had shifted at all, I'm sure you wouldn't be reading this.
That dangerous section only lasted a few feet. I carefully shuffled along the rock until there was a wider ledge to stand on. By then, the cold wind (I'm guessing it was in the thirties) was blowing the snot right out of my nose. I had a constant stream being whipped around and decorating the granite.
We traversed the rock, climbing from ledge to boulder to outcropping (there is no more trail at all). After about thirty minutes of this, we came to a very narrow and short crevice in the rock. It was V-shaped, but the "V" was turned sideways with the open end facing the valley below. The only way to continue to the summit is through the tiny crevice. Like a few other places on the mountain, a slip would mean death. I once again made the mistake of looking down – it was a sheer drop of several thousand feet to a very rocky death. About eighty years ago, someone drove a metal handle into the rock to ease one's passage through this point. I think that had it not been for that handle, I probably would have turned around. I'll admit, I was afeared.
Ed, Sean, and Mark all went before me. When it was my turn, I started crawling through, holding on to the metal handle to steady myself. About halfway through, my ruck caught on the rock above me. I was stuck for a minute. My heart fluttered a little as I thought of the possibilities, but a little creative contortioning that I probably could never do again got me unstuck.
We traversed horizontally around the mountain a while longer, perhaps another half hour or so, hopping and climbing from rock to boulder to ledge. This part of the climb is marked with painted bullseyes to help climbers identify the best route. Just "connect the dots" by following the bullseyes.
Eventually we came to the next terrain feature, known as the "Trough." The trough is, as logic would dictate, a large trough-shaped gully. It runs vertically up the mountain, and is one of the more difficult parts to climb, but not quite as dangerous. To succeed, you basically follow the bullseyes straight up (quite literally…it's about an 80 degree grade).
Right then the weather started to become a concern. The clouds overhead were black and ominous-looking, and we had even been sprinkled on a few times. Normally a little sprinkle wouldn't cause much concern, but the climb ahead of us demanded a sure grip and footing. The truly dangerous concern, though, was lightning. Every year mountaineers are killed by lightning (in fact, we had someone struck the other day right here in town). Technical climbers tell stories about how their caribiners "buzzed" when up in a lightning storm, and I've heard other climbers talk about sprinting off of a summit with their hair on fire. In short, lightning is bad. We didn't see or hear any lightning in those clouds, so we decided to keep going (keeping the option of turning back if the weather took a turn for the worse).
Going up the trough, there were several occasions where I had to climb over wet rocks. The snow was still melting and this was the very beginning of a river I had crossed several times on the way up. I slipped and nearly fell three or four times, but a fall wouldn't have been so disastrous at that point. The rocks were such that my fall would have been short, albeit very uncomfortable, but not deadly.
Climbing the trough was hell. It required strength and endurance from muscles I didn't even know had existed. Perhaps my friends in Rio Linda distracted me during that part of my schooling. By the time I reached the top, every muscle in my body was trembling and aching, and there was still more mountain to climb.
About halfway up, Mark started to get altitude sickness. He decided that he could continue, so we had him stash his ruck behind a rock in the trough. The rest of us supplied him with water for the rest of the way up.
The amazing thing during the trough was watching Ed, the Everest climber, hop from rock to rock with his hands in his pockets. The rest of us were using at least three points of contact, slowly climbing up, but he was jumping around like Mario on a video game. Remind me never to climb Everest.
When we finally reached the top of the trough, we embarked on the next major terrain feature, the "Narrows." Now, you folks in Rio Linda are hopefully learning about logic – if so, you guessed that the narrows is a very narrow place. Well, you're right. The narrows traverses the mountain horizontally before reaching the "Homestretch," and it's another one of those places where I was afeared. I pressed myself up against the mountain as tightly as I could (the wind was not blowing so hard now like it was back at the keyhole), and moved slowly along. The narrows is a fairly long terrain feature, but there were only two or three spots worth being skeared of (for those of you in Rio Linda, "skeared" is redneck for "scared"). Upon reaching the end of the narrows, we had traversed about three-fourths of the way around the mountain from the keyhole. I guess you can't go the other direction to make it shorter – I truly hope someone has tried (logic you know), but at this point we were all just following those bullseyes.
So there I was, at the end of the narrows, staring up at the last terrain feature, the "Homestretch." I could literally see the summit from where I was standing, and it was only about 200 yards above me – straight up. The homestretch wasn't all that dangerous because, like the trough, a fall would probably not have been fatal. It was perhaps the most difficult, though, because I was physically spent before I started it. Every muscle in my body was aching, not to mention my bum knees and feet.
We paused for a breather, ate a chocolaty turd, and headed up. By then I knew I was going to make it; it was just a question of making myself do it. Reach up, find a handhold, pull. Repeat over and over again. Every muscle in my body screamed out in protest. Each time I reached up I saw my hands trembling with fatigue, and I was sweating profusely despite the thirty-degree temperature. I finally reached a point where my head was just below the summit – literally inches away from success. Ed had summated a few minutes before, and I heard him "whoop" with excitement.
All I needed was one more big pull. I put my hands up onto the summit, found a handhold, and gave it every thing I had left. My foot slipped, but there was barely enough left in my skinny arms to pull me up. I lay there on the summit for a minute, breathing hard, muscles trembling, and rolled over to look up at the sky. The clouds had cleared off, so it was the most beautiful blue I've ever seen (I think the sky does look like a different color at 14,000 feet than at sea level).
I didn't have enough energy left to "whoop" like Ed had; I just got up and walked over to where he was sitting. Then I realized that although I may be on the summit plateau, I had not actually summated yet. There was a big boulder right in the center of the plateau, about four feet tall, with a U.S. Geological Survey benchmark on it. That was the true summit. I tossed off my ruck and crawled to the top of that boulder, and looked around at the horizon. They say about a thousand people climb that mountain every year, but in the grand scheme of things very few people have seen what I saw that day. Even though my film hasn't been developed yet, I can say from experience that it won't do justice.
Ed and I sat down on the plateau and waited for Mark and Sean. Mark came up last, and the four of us just sat there for a few minutes, not saying anything. After a bit, we started moving again, taking photos of each other, and talking about the journey. Then it started to sink in – we still had to get back down.
The trip down was pretty much everything in reverse order. I had a few more close calls in the skeary parts, but nothing bad happened. I also stopped eating those chocolate turds. I figured my body would make due with what it had…I couldn't take it anymore. By the time we reached the bottom, Mark was feeling badly and moving slow, but he was proud of himself for the accomplishment. I had planned on stopping at the ranger station to buy a souvenir, but when he finally signed out at the trail register at 1500 (3:00 pm for those of you in Rio Linda) and hit the parking lot I didn't have enough left in me. I shook hands with my three new friends, tossed my ruck in the truck, and drove back to the hotel. Then I stripped off my clothes and went to sleep.
I woke up again at about 2100 (9:00 pm to my Rio Linda friends), showered, and went to a Mexican joint in Estes Park – Ed's Cantina – for something to eat. My new friend Ed had recommended it, adding, "No relation." I was glad to see there were no chocolate turds on the menu.