| My Everest
Looking along the front range of the Rocky Mountains from my home in the Denver area, there are three 14ers that are prominently visible. These are Pikes Peak, Mt Evans, and Longs Peak (well, actually, many of us really see Mt Meeker and call it Longs Peak, but that's beside the point). Since climbing my first 14er, Mt Evans , in the summer of 2006, Longs Peak has been on my mind. I have studied the Keyhole route and read countless trip reports on the internet to the point where I felt like I had already climbed it. I knew this mountain like the back of my hand already. Unfortunately, I had built this mountain up in my mind so much that I was terrified of it. How could I possibly hike for 15 miles in one day? How would I handle my first ever class 3 moves at 14K feet while exhausted from lack of sleep and high levels of exertion? Were the Ledges as exposed as I feared? Would the Trough leave me with enough energy to complete the route? I had no idea how in the world I would talk myself into crossing those ridiculously exposed Narrows. And, after all of that, the pictures of the Homestretch make it appear almost vertical. There had better be a TON of bomber hand and foot holds. Well, sometimes you just have to face your biggest fears head on and go for it. So here we go…
After scarfing down some spaghetti late Saturday night, my wife (Jamie) and I hopped in the car at 10pm. We were at the trailhead by midnight and signing the register just before 12:30 after absolutely zero sleep. We were the first people to sign the register that day (well, one person signed in at 11pm, but that was the previous day in our minds). Hindsight says that we were being overly optimistic, but we wrote down our expected return time as 2pm. And off we went. We wound our way up through Goblins Forest hearing the sounds of the waterfalls crashing down around us. After roughly 2 miles, we broke out of treeline and were greeted by the bright moon which was one day past full. With the moon lighting our way, we turned off our headlamps for most of the remainder of the night. We were moving at a good pace for the first 4 miles until Jamie started slowing up just a bit. It become obvious to both of us that Jamie was not having a good hiking day today. We still moved at a good clip overall (for us at least) putting us at the Boulderfield by 4:45am. We laid down on a boulder and closed our eyes for a few minutes until the sun started lighting the sky.
After 30 minutes of rest and enough sun to see the trail through the first half of the Boulderfield, we started moving again. The climb up to the Keyhole was no easy task but we were there in just under an hour. The view through the other side of the Keyhole was a good indication of what lie ahead. The Ledges looked just as hairy as the pictures made them out to be, and the Trough seemed miles away. We stopped for a bite to eat and made our way onto the Ledges by 6:15am. Let me just say that I have always had a moderate fear of heights, and I have never had any experience with any real exposure. But after a few minutes climbing across the Ledges, my fears went away, and I realized that they really were fairly easy... and even fun! There were only 1 or 2 moments where I even noticed any exposure, but I was never scared by it. The worst part of the Ledges was the 100' or so of elevation you gain and then lose. We slowly made our way across to the base of the Trough where things change up a bit.
Even with all of my years of preparation for this expedition, I quickly realized that I greatly underestimated the Tough. I was so worried about exposure on Longs that I thought the Trough would be a nice break from exposure. In reality, it is an exhausting 600' vertical climb up loose rock. Upon seeing that, I didn't think I had enough in me to make it to the top, but once I started climbing, I realized that I still had a lot of fuel left in the tank. I was moving up this trough like a real climber and felt like a million bucks. Unfortunately, this is where I realized that my wife was almost completely out of gas. Each step up was very labor intensive for her, and I truly didn't think she had it in her to make it to the summit. I would climb up maybe 100' vertical or so and then stop and wait for her. But, as I know all too well, my wife is stubborn and tough. Nothing was going to stop her. We made it to the top of the Trough where you encounter the supposed crux of the climb. The Trough narrows to a point at the top with a large boulder blocking the way. Climbing over the boulder is a little tricky, but really not that hard and even kind of fun. Words can't explain the emotion (ie. fear) that came over me next.
As soon as you make it to the top of the Trough, you are immediately slapped in the face by the exposure you will encounter on the next part of the climb. The mountain seemingly drops straight down at this point, and you see the narrow ledge, appropriately called the Narrows, that you are expected to climb along the side of the mountain. I looked over at Jamie and said, "I don't think I can do this", not really knowing whether what I had just said was a joke or not. I truly didn't think I could do it, but she said come on and off she went. I had to follow so I started along the ledge. I am not kidding when I say that the entire trip across the Narrows, my arms were shaking and I was having trouble catching my breath. I made dang sure that I had at least one hand securely grasping the side of the mountain at all times while carefully placing each footstep. In all honestly, the Narrows were easier than I expected them to be, but they were just as scary as I feared. After what seemed like hours, I made it to the other side where you have to perform a little move to pull yourself up through a hole in the rocks to the base of the Homestretch. The idea of pulling my feet off the ground and hanging there off the edge of a mountain was absolutely terrifying, but of course, I made it with no problem.
At this point, all that is left between me and the summit of my dreams is the 300' vertical climb up the Homestretch. At this point there was good news and there was bad news. The good news… the Homestretch was not as steep as I feared it would be. It was still probably about 40 degrees (give or take), but not too bad. The bad news... there were very few hand and foot holds and the rock was slick. Looking up the slippery slope, I could just picture someone slipping on the rock and sliding all the way off the mountain into the abyss, but I tried to not worry about that. There were quite a few times where I had to just hope that the sole of my shoe would stick to the bare, slick face of a rock while I reached for the next hold. In most places, you could just follow a crack up the slope, but this was not always easy. In all honestly, I thought it was fun, but it would have been much nicer if the rock wasn't so slick. As I was worrying about my route up, I kept an eye on Jamie who, unfortunately, was wearing boots with very poor tread on them. Her feet kept slipping and she really struggled to make it up. I made it 10' from the summit and waited about 20-30 minutes for her to join me. Then we took the last few steps to the summit together.
I just have to say here that the pride I felt upon stepping foot on that summit was something I have probably only felt less than a dozen times in my life. Longs Peak had been one of my greatest fears for quite a while, and I had conquered it. Even if I fell to my death on the way down, I could at least say I summited Longs before biting the bullet. But I really wasn't ready to die yet so I still had a lot of work left in front of me. I must also say that one of my greatest shocks of the whole day was how few people there were on the mountain. From what I had heard, climbing Longs on a weekend in July meant sharing the peak with a large number of climbers. I never felt like there were too many people around. Actually, it was probably no more people than any other 14er I have climbed. Upon reaching the summit, we shared the moment with 4 other people…. Two were a couple hiding behind a rock having lunch and the other two were very friendly park rangers whom I had a nice conversation with.
After a half hour on the summit, we decided it was time to head down. It was already 10:30am so I knew that thunderstorms were a very real possibility before making it back to the Keyhole. That scared me a lot. The biggest part of the story from descending the Homestretch is Jamie and her slippery boots. She was really struggling to find good footholds because her feet would slip off of everything. I got to the bottom of the Homestretch and watched for a while as she tried to descend. Meanwhile, I saw every single person that was still on the summit (probably 12-15 people at this point) all start heading down the Homestretch in a hurry. As they passed me, I asked them what was going on and they said the thunder and lightning had begun up there. Meanwhile, dozens of people shrugged their shoulders at this news and kept heading right on up anyway. I obviously did not want lightning, and I also really did not want rain to make the remaining route any slicker for Jamie. She made it down to the bottom of the Homestretch and we headed for the Narrows. Luckily, we never saw more than a few drops of rain all day and never heard any thunder.
Heading back across the Narrows was like a religious experience for me. After being scared out of my mind on the way up there, I was a new man on the way down. I walked across that ledge without a single fear of the exposure. It didn't bother me one bit. Don't get me wrong. .. I still made sure I was making good choices on hand and foot placement, but the 1,000' drop off just to my left was not even present in my mind. I made it back to the top of the Trough full of vigor and pride.
The descent of the Trough was the breaking point for Jamie. She was already completely exhausted and very tentative climbing down through the loose rock. It probably took at least 1.5 hours for her to make it down the Trough and she was physically and emotionally drained at that point. We took our time heading across the Ledges. We were back at the Keyhole by 1:30pm.
The Boulderfield was no fun for either one of our exhausted bodies. One bright spot was that I saw my first ever marmot in person on the Boulderfield. Those guys are cute (and fat). I saw 6 marmots total on the descent, and I named them after my 5 brothers and sisters and my Uncle Denny. We also saw a huge herd of elk hanging out just below the Boulderfield. At the campground, we were happy to be done with the technical aspect of the climb, but we still had 6 miles left on our very tired legs. We started heading down at a fairly slow pace. I'm pretty sure I actually fell asleep for a moment while walking. I told Jamie that, and she said she was pretty sure that she did the same. At this point, we started chatting a little more with each other to make the time pass a little faster. Some of the quotes included…
"Why in the world would anyone ever climb a stupid mountain anyway?"
"Who's dumb idea was it to climb Longs Peak?"
"Next weekend, we are going to sit home and watch TV." (This is very funny if you know my wife because she really hates TV.)
We made it to the Chasm Lake trail junction convinced we only had maybe 2.5 miles at most left to the Ranger Station. When the sign said 3.5 miles, we both collapsed on the ground and declared defeat. After about 20 minutes of feeling sorry for ourselves, Jamie said, "At our current pace (of about 1mph), we will be hiking for another 3.5 hours." When I realized that, I got mad and declared that this hike would be done within 1 hour. I got up and started hiking at the fastest pace my destroyed feet would allow hoping I was going about 3.5mph. Jamie immediately loved this idea, and we took off. I can't begin to describe the pain we both endured for the next hour hurrying down this mountain. At about the 1 mile mark, we had been hiking hard for over an hour, and Jamie's legs gave out on her. Even on a bad hiking day for her, she still made it this far before her body just screamed "No more!" We slowed down and limped in the last mile. Do you know what it looks like when you see someone is walking in obvious pain? That's what my wife looked like, and I just wished I could do something to help her. A couple of minutes after 6pm, 17.5 hours after beginning, we collapsed in the car. After a 30 minute power nap in the car, we somehow made it to Old Chicago in Boulder to refuel. We were back in our garage at 9:38pm, and I was sound asleep in bed by 9:45pm. I don't remember anything until the alarm woke me up at 7am the next morning.
All in all, this was probably one of the best days and one of the worst days of my life all in one. Longs is by far my new favorite 14er, and I don't know that I will ever climb it again. The pride I felt in myself was unbelievable. The pain I endured in my feet was unbearable, and I don't think I could knowingly do that to my body again. I felt even more terrible for Jamie. She is one tough chick, and I have a lot of respect for her pushing her body well beyond its limits. I am so glad that I have a wife that I can share these experiences with. I have never stood on the summit of a 14er without her, and I hope I never do.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):