| Longs Peak - Loft up, Keyhole down
Our "3rd Annual Longs Peak Climb" was planned months ago. This year, Jen and I decided to do the Loft Route, and three or four other people liked the sound of them apples. Unfortunately, they all backed out on us at the last minute for one reason or another. No biggie, as these things happen, especially on long climbs like Longs, but Jen & I were still solidly committed (and I couldn‘t ask for a better climbing partner).
As soon as we got home from work on Monday we tried to get some sleep. But that idea didn't really go as planned. We were just too anxious and excited to sleep – like a couple kids on Christmas Eve. I don't think I really fell asleep until about 9:30 p.m. The alarm woke us up less than four hours later.
After driving for an hour, we pulled into the Longs Peak ranger station parking lot a little before 3 a.m. and found a front-row spot. After that, the parking lot seemed to be filling up quickly. Didn't see "Earth Scientist" from 14ers.com as I had hoped, so I left a note on the windshield telling him to "catch up," just in case he showed up right after us.
3:10 a.m. – Started up the trail. Even though we had a full moon it was pretty dark in the forest. Not wanting to hike on the ledges in the dark, we set a fast yet comfortable pace. Must've passed a couple dozen other hikers before making tree line. I'm glad we stick to weekdays for Longs, as I can't imagine what weekend traffic is like!
4:30 a.m. – Made it to Mills Moraine and started down the trail to Chasm Lake. I cautioned Jen about the steep drop-offs to our left, which weren't very visible in the stark darkness. The waterfall down to our left reverberated against the granite walls, making it sound as loud as Niagara Falls. Aside from that, it was perfectly quiet. As we continued to hike along the trail I got into a rhythm, drafting behind Jen, and almost lulled myself to sleep. That is, until Jen yelled and jumped back onto me. Upon my first glance up, I could've sworn I saw a yeti on the trail, just 20 feet in front of us. Luckily, it turned out to be a full-size buck. But we still had to be careful – I've seen the show, "When Animals Attack!" We waited to continue on until it trotted up the steep slope to our right. After that little incident we were wide awake.
We continued on past the privy (to our left) and on to the new Ranger cabin (to our right), where we headed left through some soggy grass. Happily, we found a trail, and there were some cairns sprinkled here and there. Shortly thereafter, we scrambled across Longs' "mini" boulderfield. Some of the boulders were as big as cars.
As we ascended, with the sun beginning to rise behind us, the boulders slowly turned into smaller rocks and scree. There was a trail but it faded and reappeared often. I imagine avalanches smear the trail every winter, so it's not so well defined in some parts. Doesn't really matter, though, because you know where you're going – up.
I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone else was coming up behind us, but it was just the two of us. (From Mills Moraine to the base of the Homestretch we didn't see any other people.) I also kept noticing how beautiful that area was, with high walls blanketing our front, left and right, and serene layers of mountains behind us.
6:10 a.m. – After scrambling up some boulders and rock ledges near the top of the gully, we made it to the start of the ledges section. I took this picture looking back down our route (you can see the Chasm Lake trail we took from Mills Moraine):
The ledges first went up to the left (southeast), and then we found a good band that went up to the right (northwest), toward the saddle between Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak. I have to admit, the ledges were much wider, easier and safer than I had anticipated. Roach's DVD is great, but the part where it shows them hiking on the ledges looks much worse than it is.
6:40 a.m. – Made it to the middle of the loft (saddle between Meeker and Longs). Quite a lot of land up there – enough for a game of regulation football. Anyone up for it?
From the loft, we descended gradually off the northwest corner and into a rocky mess. (Good picture of this south side on Page 54 in the book, "Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado's Favorite Fourteener," by Dougald MacDonald.) I could see how people would be gravitated to go low, as it looks easier and less steep. But we resisted the temptation and stayed high, even though our route looked kind of gnarly. Roach says to traverse a couple hundred yards, descending slowly. We did this, but we never did come across the class 3 down climb that's on his DVD. Instead, we cliffed out on one rock chute. Fortunately, we only had to walk a few yards away to find another. At the bottom of this pile of rocks, I got to a point where I had to sit there for a minute and figure out how to solve the problem. Took me a couple tries before I found the right hand-arms-legs position to get myself down safely. I'm not a big fan of down climbing, especially when you don't have a spotter below to help you out.
Before we knew it we were in the upper reaches of Keplinger's Couloir, probably not far from Clark's Arrow. Speaking of which, the "mystery" of Clark's Arrow is just being able to find the damn thing!
We cruised up the couloir, which wasn't too bad (just a few loose rocks/scree to contend with), and then turned to the left (just before the couloir narrows into the barrier notch). From this point, it was obvious where to go. We just continued on the rocky ledge toward the base of the Homestretch, which then went up to our right.
Last year we had to deal with a wet and icy Homestretch and it took us quite a bit of time to get up the thing. This time we were ecstatically relieved to find it bone dry. Put the pedal to the metal and scampered up that badboy in 10 minutes.
7:50 a.m. – Summit! Enjoyed the vividly blue skies with a friend of ours and his son (they took the Keyhole Route up), and just a few other people.
Photo below: Jen haulin' ass up the Homestretch / the summit (our friend in red) / Jen & Aubrey:
20 minutes after summiting, we started back down, just as some large groups of people were heading up.
On our way down we faced the usual – people asking a lot of questions (which I was happy to answer) and if we made the summit or not. It's always fun to chat with other climbers. We also noticed at least three separate groups (of 2 to 5) that decided to turn back after getting to the Narrows. I felt bad for them because they were so close. I even pleaded with one guy to continue on. "Just take it slow…," I suggested, and "…from here, the Homestretch looks much steeper than it really is." Didn't work, though.
9:20 a.m. – Made it down to the Keyhole. There were probably a dozen people hanging out there – half of which were admiring the views, at the "summit" of their hike, and half the people seemed to be contemplating continuing on.
11:45 a.m. – Made it back to the Ranger's station and parking lot. We weren't trying to beat any records or anything, but it was our fastest Longs climb yet. Overall, it was yet another great day on Longs
Side note: In my opinion, I think the Keyhole and Loft routes take about the same amount of time. Even though the Loft Route is a little more than two miles shorter (if you do it up and down), it's slightly harder and steeper than the Keyhole Route.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):