July 29, 2010
Longs Peak (14,256')
Ranger Station Trailhead (9,400')
Round-trip Length: 13 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,300'
Climbers: MtnHub and Alan Arnette
Starting Time: 0340
Return Time: 1400
Longs Peak has been a favorite mountain of mine for quite awhile. It is one climb that I seriously doubt I will ever get tired of. It offers such a wide variety of fun and interesting terrain from beautiful forest pathways, to boulder hopping, to class 3 scrambling along ledges and up rock cracks.
Back in my days of naiveté, it was also my first experience of peak bagging. I climbed it with no real knowledge of what it involved or how dangerous it really could be. I began it with no map or any real sense of the route at all. I had simply read in an article that so many hundreds of people went up it every year, and came to the conclusion that, well then, so could I. Fortunately I had a perfect weather day and survived the ordeal with the exception of mild acute mountain sickness when I got back down, but needless to say, I became addicted immediately.
In the past several years, my wife and I have spent the last 4-5 days of our summer vacations in Estes Park before heading for home. And it has become an annual event to climb Longs with every visit. Last year was witness to a very unusual weather pattern. There were several consecutive days of cool, wet weather, which prevented anyone from even seeing the mountain skyline from town. During my 7th ascent last summer, I was turned back because of verglas in the Trough. It was the first time I was unsuccessful in my bid to summit the peak.
Not having any close family or friends who share my obsession with the mountains, I've mostly climbed solo in the past. Therefore, my only real experience with class 3 climbs has been on the standard Longs' Keyhole route. I've always felt quite safe and comfortable with the fact that the route is well marked, and there are always other people around if need would arise.
But in the last couple of years, I've wanted to try the Loft route as well. I was hesitant to try it alone mainly for safety concerns. I've read the reports of others who describe the area around the Clark's Arrow as requiring more route-finding skills and maybe a few class 4 moves. This year I was very fortunate to have found a partner willing to go with me.
In addition, my buddy from MI, Wish I Lived in CO, was anxious to give Longs a try. I had told him the previous year I would be happy to climb it with him if it ever worked into our schedules. He only wanted to do the Keyhole however, which suited me fine too. I really love that route and didn't mind repeating it with him. And because of this, I was excited to have the opportunity to do two summit bids this year and possibly make up for last year's failed attempt.
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(captions are above each image)
I meet Alan at the parking lot just before 0400. The weather isn't looking especially promising, as I drive through light rain from my Estes Park resort. The sky is cloudy as well so it didn't appear to be just an isolated cloud. But since Alan drove all the way from Ft. Collins I felt we had to at least give it a try and see how it goes. And the weather in CO can always be unpredictable.
We load up our daypacks and start on the trail by 0405. It isn't really raining very hard, so I don't even bother to get out my rain jacket. The trees provide enough coverage to avoid getting really wet. It continues to rain lightly off and on until we reach the Chasm Lake junction. Here there are quite a few people sitting around, taking a break and trying to decide whether to keep pursuing their hikes.
We make just a brief stop long enough for me to dump a pebble out of my right boot. As we continue down the path to Chasm Lake, the eastern sky breaks enough to give the rock face in front of us a brilliant display of highlight and color. It is gorgeous! This is an encouraging sign!
But then by the time we reach a flat marshy area at about the level of the Ranger's emergency cabin, a cloud lets loose with some heavier rain. Alan already has his rain gear on, and so I reluctantly stop to put on my jacket as well so I won't get too wet. But the moisture also brings an unexpected gift. A rainbow forms right over the peak! Even if we got rained out completely and had to turn back, this sight alone would be worth the day's attempt!
The rain stops shortly thereafter however and we don't see another drop until just prior to our return to the parking lot.
Alan leads us up into the loose Loft Couloir. There are only remnants of a trail here but it is pretty obvious where you need to go. About a third of the way up the gully, we catch up with a pair of young women, Joni and Amy, both from out East. They tell us they have never done Longs Peak before and ask if they can tag along with us. We are delighted to share their company.
Alan climbing up the Loft Couloir. The other two hikers can be seen higher up:
About halfway up, Amy turns around to look back and analyze what we've accomplished thus far:
Alan continues to lead us higher into the couloir. When you get close to a smooth, wet section of rock you need to start looking for an exit ramp to the left. A little higher up, I see a cross formed between the water and a horizontal shelf:
At the exit ramp, Alan contemplates either his next move or his next bite:
Meanwhile, Joni and Amy are making their way up to us:
The rains make the ramp very soft and mushy:
Alan finds another ledge leading us up to the Loft itself:
As Alan makes his way up and over the edge of the Loft, I take a mental picture of the boulder and edge of the snowfield for identifying the way down when we return:
We cross the relatively flat Loft heading towards the NW corner. Again, there is a large upright boulder on the left and a cairn on the right which acts like a gate to the entrance of the gully we need to descend.
Alan shows us the top of the gully leading us down to Clark's Arrow:
and then he starts down:
I go next, and then Joni and Amy follow:
"Gee, this is getting to be really fun!"
We round a bend in the rock and Alan points out the elusive Clark's Arrow painted on the rock face. "Don't look now, but it's right above you!"
Looking ahead you can see the route leading up into Keplinger's Couloir:
Snowfields are to me what clouds are to other people. Looking back into the Wild Basin, I see a turtle, a dachshund, and some white rats! Keplinger Lake can be seen in the foreground.
As we climb higher in the Couloir, I take another dramatic shot of it:
The women avoid a smooth section of slick, wet rock and then aim to the left below the snowfield.
There is a gully leading up to the Notch which I'm tempted to try, but because of the iffy weather, it will have to wait until next time.
Alan continues to guide us up and over to the base of the Homestretch where some climbers from the Keyhole route are already congregating. He chuckles, "It's always kind of fun to meet these folks who look at you wide-eyed with bewilderment, and ask, 'Where did you come from?'"
We hit the summit at 0915. Although it's been cloudy, it's been a great day! Hey, I didn't have to use my sunscreen, and it wasn't hot or uncomfortable!
Bidding Amy and Joni goodbye, we start down again after enjoying the summit for about 20 minutes. They plan to do the full circle around the mountain and descend down the Keyhole route. Since Alan wanted to return via the Loft again, I decided to stay with him. This would give me more of a chance to become better familiar with the route in both directions for future climbs.
Down close to the Arrow, we meet a trio of climbers going up. We saw them earlier in the day when we were going up the Loft Couloir but they never caught up to us. They inform us that they went up Meeker first and are now just coming over to climb Longs.
I take a picture of the place we descend from the Loft:
And Alan descends down the series of ledges:
We each take separate ways down the gully. I stay on the more traditional route while Alan checks out the NW side. We meet up again down closer to the Lake.
Before I go to the Lake however, I take a picture of the yellow Iron Gates of Mt Meeker:
We make a short stop at Chasm Lake and finish some of our food and water. Clouds are again making more of an appearance higher up and we are glad to be where we are. We are now only about a short hour away from tree line.
We hike the last 4+ miles back to the TH briskly with no stops. About half a mile before we reach the cars, it starts to rain again, lightly but steadily. I don't bother with my rain jacket, as I'm only about 20-30 minutes away from a hot shower.
Alan has simply been an fantastic companion. I wish I had met him 10 years ago, but I'm thankful I did for this trip. We embrace and wish each other well.
Driving the ten minutes back to Estes Park the rain turns into a downpour, flooding the streets. Again, God has been good to me!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):