| Longs Peak: Loft Route - Keyhole Descent
Steve Broadwater (Carmel, IN) and Matt Webster (Denver, CO – but hailing from Indianapolis, IN) hit Longs Peak trailhead at 4:15 a.m. on Saturday July 11, 2009. Starting temperature was a perfect 60 degrees. We made great time and made it to the trail split to Chasm Lake within a couple of hours, just in time for sunrise (Photo 1 and Photo 2). Shortly after heading over the ridge to Mills Moraine, we got our first views of Longs Peak (Photo 3). After stopping for a break to take in the scenery, eat a bit, and snap a few photos (Photo 4 and Photo 5) we headed across a ridge to Columbine Falls. We noticed on the way over the ridge that there were four other climbers from a group that had logged as leaving the trailhead at 4 a.m., and also listed as using the Loft Route. They were making great time, as it was at least a 45 minute hike over to their current position. You can actually see the four hikers on the lower snowfield in this picture (Photo 6) for a sense of scale of the Loft Couloir they were heading up. The views as you head towards through Mills Moraine are absolutely amazing, with heavy snowmelt run off and waterfalls, Peacock Lake to your lower left, and the Loft Couloir, the Beaver, and the Diamond in ever-present full view (Photo 7). Note the two photographer/climbers on the snow ridge, presumably headed towards Chasm Lake. After getting to the end of Mills Moraine, the views get even more amazing. This shot from is one of my favorite of the trip (Photo 8) – other than the upcoming summit photos of course. As we approached base of the Loft Couloir, there were options-a-plenty, with a variety of dry rock scrambling and snow climbing options presented. I've read that it's rare for there to be this much snow remaining in July, but the past winter's heavy snowfall gave us just the conditions we were looking for. We came prepared with crampons and ice axes, so we opted for the 50/50 and scrambled the first half of the Loft Couloir to make up time, and then snow climbed the remaining top snow field. The pitch was not more than 45 degrees and the snow conditions were perfect for kick-stepping. (Photo 9 and Photo 10). We were able to sneak a peak over to Chasm Lake (Photo 11) on the way up. If you can spare the 20 minutes, and the energy, I'd recommend a quick trip over Chasm Lake as has some great viewing of the Diamond, and there were a couple of climbers logged for this route. Since this was our first summit attempt, we opted to continue onward up to The Loft. We put on helmets as there were other climbers above us that appeared to be using a direct escape rock-climb route out of the couloir and onto The Loft. As we approached the top of the Loft Coulior, we could see that there were two options: (1) Cat 4 rock climb a ~20+ foot block wall (which fed onto a ~50 foot, 50 degree snow bank), or (2) use the very apparent switchback ramps to the left that lead to The Loft. We snapped a photo at the top (Photo 12), and then opted for option 2, the ramps, which can be seen here (Photo 13). Here is a look across the steeper exit from the Loft Couloir (Photo 14), which a couple of the earlier climbers on this route took (wow)!
Up to this point, the route is trail and otherwise is fairly obvious. After crossing The Loft, the next route-finding decisions must be made carefully. The main 14ers.com Loft route by CAVUfool is absolutely perfect, and I'd recommend taking those pics along on to assist the route-finding. The only thing missing is a downclimb image to use in properly identifying the correct downclimb chute to Clark's Arrow. Note in the photo of our crossing of The Loft (Photo 15) the large white cairn on the horizon line to the right of the visable summit of Pagota Mtn., which you are to follow in a northwesterly direction to another large cairn marking the downclimb to Clark‘s Arrow (see CAVUfool Loft route description). This will get you in the general vicinity, but given that I knew what was to the North of the targeted downclimb (i.e. the Palisades), and that I'd read several TR's of climbers that had incorrectly chosen a downclimb too far to the North, taking them into chutes of the Palisades (which are high Cat 4 and some Cat 5 climbs with no where to go without sufficient protection), my natural instinct was to stay to the South on this section. We properly found the downclimb cairn, but chose a chute that appeared (at the time) to be the one for Clark's Arrow, but after careful inspection of the pictures back home was not. Note that the Clark's Arrow downclimb was noted to have a 15 foot Class 4 downclimb involved. The chimney we took had three separate completely vertical downclimbs of approximately 8', 10', and 12'. This was the crux of the day and took all our concentration to safely descend, which we did without incident. The downside to this downclimb route selection is that it took us another 150+ feet below and to the South of the Clark's Arrow Route. Hopefully, for use by others in the Loft Route, which I highly recommend, and their efforts in finding what I can attest to as a very elusive Clark's Arrow, I'm attaching some additional research I did before (and after) the trip. They are summarized as follows:
The Best downclimb photo I could find:
Credit to Saxmotor - Longs Peak TR dated 7/23/08 (Photo 16)
The Best picture of location of Clark's Arrow:
Credit to www.denverdavis.com (Photo 17) – marked for our route up and out of Keplinger's Couloir.
The photo I took of the downclimb that we did NOT take (but should have):
Note the comparison to Photo 16 above (circled notable rock in view), that wasn't apparently convincing enough when we were there! The route we took was literally 20 feet to the left of this correct downclimb location but headed due West. (Photo 18)
Best shot of the West face of Longs showing the appropriate Clark's Arrow Route:
Credit to Mountain Jim on www.summitpost.org (Photo 19) – our route on the downclimb shown in pink.
Lastly – I recommend bringing a 20-30' light-duty rope – as Plan B - (no harnesses needed though) as if you get into either the Clark's Arrow chute, or the one we selected, having the added protection may aid the process a bit for rock-climbers with limited experience (like us).
After negotiating the downclimb, you will be at the base of an entry point into Keplinger's Couloir. Given that a majority of the snow was gone at this point in the year, we had to stay close to the Palisades to avoid the steeper gullies of Keplinger's, and then made our way up to and past The Notch (which the Keyhole route-takers don't get to see!). We then continued up the ridge to meet up with the Keyhole route final scramble, known as the Homestretch. There are several cairns on the way up and out of Keplinger's and up to and past The Notch, and the route is fairly obvious. There is some great, and extensive, Class 3 scrambling, made all-the-more lengthy by our incorrect downclimb route. Make sure to take time to enjoy the view behind you, which I did, but unfortunately did not take as many photos as I would have liked (fatigue set in). This photo looking back at the Palisades gives you an appreciation for the type of downclimb you are looking to avoid after crossing The Loft. (Photo 20)
After reaching the Homestretch, we met up with some Keyhole route-takers, pumped some fresh water for us and a few other hikers, took a short break, and then made the final 15 minute stroll up the Homestretch. The main Homestretch route was still covered in snow and ice, so alternative routes had to be taken. Summit was reached at 12:30, 8 hours after hitting the trailhead. Conditions on the summit were near perfect. There were only a half a dozen people on top at this point, and the views were incredible(Photo 21). As we could all see clouds building to the West, summit time was limited to around 30 minutes for most of us, just enough time for a snack and some more pictures. My summit photo (Photo 22).
The descent was via the standard Keyhole route, and there were generally very good conditions except for a small amount of snow and ice at the Ledges and the Trough downclimbs which had to be carefully bypassed. Immediately upon crossing through the Keyhole, I was met with some light rain and a brief amount of sleet. This made crossing the boulder field a bit tricky, and after a good stretch of careful rock-hopping, I could see the decision to descend was a good one, as the entire Longs Peak summit was engulfed in a thick cloud. (Photo 23) The light rain continued on the trail down, which helped to keep things cool, and actually brought out some of the locals (Photo 24). Arrival back at the trailhead was at 6:15 p.m., 14 hours after the start. A long day, but all-in-all, a great day on Longs Peak with a lot of memories and some fantastic views. Would definitely do this route again someday, and maybe next time we'd actually find Clark's Arrow.
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"How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!" - John Muir
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):