| Longs Peak -Keyhole: My first 14er!
I debated whether to post a TR because I questioned the value of yet another description of a Keyhole route hike. Upon further reflection, I realized that I benefited from reviewing multiple TRs in advance of my trip because each provided a unique perspective influenced by the conditions at the time of the hike and the experience and age of the hiker.
My perspective is that of a 52 year old mom from suburban New Jersey, where I have lived nearly my entire life. My parents were not outdoorsy people, but provided us with an opportunity to attend camp in the Catskill region of New York state. (Fun fact: Howard Stern also attended the camp, although a few years before my time.) At age 15, I went on the camp's Western Trip - 32 campers and 4 counselors transported by bus to places of interest in the western US. My counselor Lowell had no interest in sightseeing when we reached Colorado Springs (the "official" activity of the day), and offered to hike Pikes Peak with any interested campers. I jumped at the chance (perhaps motivated more by Lowell's good looks than the challenge of the hike) along with two other male campers. We made it well above the treeline, but stopped short of the summit because we did not want the culmination of our efforts to be a parking lot and souvenir shop. That hike remains one of my best memories to this day.
Nonetheless, I did very little hiking thereafter - I suppose I did not have the wherewithal to pursue it with the competing demands of school, marriage, a career, and raising three boys. During those years, however, we took up skiing/snowboarding as a family and my love of the mountains was renewed. As my kids got older, I also convinced them to take rock climbing courses with me in the Gunks. Only my oldest, Will, really liked it though. Over the past 10 years, I have probably gone on about 10 guided climbs - several multipitch with significant exposure but relatively easy (typically 5.3-5.4).
Fast forward several years and Will is a student at CU-Boulder. I visit as frequently as possible and my favorite activity during those visits is hiking. I concoct the crazy idea that I would like to hike a 14er and set my sights on Longs Peak. I raise the idea with Will in early 2010, and we plan a two-day hike of Longs with an overnight stay at the Boulderfield over Labor Day weekend. I called in March to reserve a campsite and there was only left for the Labor Day weekend - on Sunday night.
During the interval between March and Labor Day weekend, I did what I could do in New Jersey to prepare physically and mentally for the hike. Aerobic training 6-7 times per week - on the elliptical at the gym during the week and biking and hiking on weekends (one side benefit of the training is that I discovered many beautiful and sometimes challenging hikes in northern New Jersey and New York state). I also did weight training 2-3 times per week. I read and reread the route description and trip reports on this site, reviewed information in "Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills" and Gerry Roach's "Colorado's Fourteeners", and, for a perspective more akin to mine - read Mark Obmascik's "Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled - and Knuckleheaded - Quest for the Rocky Mountain High."
Finally, it was time to head to Colorado! I decided to fly out Thursday night after work - even though it meant arriving in Denver at 11pm MT, it gave me an extra night to adapt to the altitude. Will still attends CU (does anyone graduate in 4 years anymore??), but lives in Nederland. So I decided to stay in the Best Western in Ned on Thursday and Friday nights to take advantage of its higher altitude. (The hotel is comfortable and the rooms are huge.)
Will had school and work commitments on Friday and Saturday, so I hiked some easy and well traveled routes in the Boulder area (Boulder Creek/Canyon on Friday and Royal Arch/Flatirons on Saturday). On Saturday, we went to REI to pick up last minute supplies and rent helmets (an economic alternative for those who rarely need a helmet - only $7 for the first day and $2 for each additional day). We had a late dinner in Nederland with Will's girlfriend Sarah and then Will and I headed for the hotel in Estes Park.
Because we were doing the hike in two days, we were able to sleep in a bit. I woke up at 7:00am to clear skies and comfortable temperatures. We first went to the Beaver Meadows ranger station to pick up the permit, then grabbed some breakfast and headed toward the Longs Peak trailhead. I had my first good look at our objective while we were driving along CO 7, and my initial thought was "how the hell am I going to get up that!"
Will & Longs Peak from CO 7
Given the holiday weekend and good weather, we were not surprised that the trailhead parking lot was filled and we had to park quite a way down the road. On the bright side, the walk to the trailhead gave me an opportunity to take a cheesy picture of Will by the Longs Peak entrance sign.
When we reached the trailhead, the ranger said the weather forecast was for cold and windy conditions at the Boulderfield that night and windy weather for Monday. The information did not dissuade us - we figured if conditions were too windy Monday morning, we would just head down rather than push to the summit.
After signing the trailhead register, we finally started the hike in earnest at about 11am. I was unsure how I would fare with the full pack at altitude, but was pleasantly surprised by how strong I felt. I was loving every minute of hiking through the woods along the stream, exchanging greetings with fellow hikers. Before I knew it, we were at bridge crossing Alpine Creek.
Mother and son before crossing Alpine Creek
Beyond this point, the vegetation changed rapidly to short trees and bushes and we got our first view of Longs Peak from the trail. Shortly afterwards, we took a short rest and had a snack.
Longs comes into view
We made our way to the Boulderfield, admiring the views of Longs Peak. The weather continued to be sunny and pleasantly warm, with little wind.
Before I knew it, we were at the beginning of the Boulderfield with the Keyhole visible in the distance. As I stood and observed the landscape, I got a little choked up with emotion. I couldn't believe the features I had been studying in pictures were now spread out before me.
We made our way across the Boulderfield and picked one of the campsites closest to the Keyhole. (We were not assigned a specific campsite, but could pick any of the available sites designed for one two-person tent). As we set up the tent, I checked my watch and it was 2:40pm. So we had made it from the trailhead to the campsite in a little over 3 1/2 hours - certainly not a speed record, but not too bad for a novice, middle age hiker from the lowlands of New Jersey with a full pack.
After setting up the tent, I headed to the Boulderfield privy (which was very stinky, but at least it provides some privacy which is hard to find above the treeline - still not sure what the sun panels are for). We then admired the scenery and took some pictures. Will snoozed a bit and I read (I brought my Kindle with me - much lighter than a book). We then made dinner (REI's Pad Thai) and filtered some water in preparation for the next day's summit attempt.
View of Keyhole from tent
View from campsite
I'm so happy to be on Longs that I even enjoyed filtering H2O
As advertised, it was getting cold as the sun set. So we got into our sleeping bags at around 8:30pm and I read a bit more before falling asleep. It was neither the best or the worst night of sleep I ever had. Although I was comfortably warm, I woke up several times during the night - first to the sound of wind hitting the tent and later to the sounds of wind and rain and I mentally prepared for the possibility of foregoing the summit if the high winds persisted or the rocks were wet or icy in the morning.
The fates were with us, however, because we woke at about 6am to calm winds and clearing skies. Although there was ice on the outside of the tent, the ground was dry. Will left the tent and was greeted by his friend Sam. Sam had hiked a few 14ers already and wanted to try Longs. Because of other commitments, he couldn't leave on Sunday, so he hiked up to the Boulderfield early Monday morning to meet us.
Will relished summer sausage for breakfast, while I downed a Clif bar and coffee (thank goodness for Starbucks Via - instant coffee that actually tastes like coffee). We packed some water and snacks in a small pack and headed off for the Keyhole. I stopped and waited for Will and Sam to reach the Keyhole so I could take a picture and then made my way up.
MMMM - summer sausage!
Getting ready to head up to the Keyhole
Will and Sam with hands raised on the Keyhole
I felt fine scampering up the boulders to the Keyhole and climbed through to the other side. Although I had read about the winds on the west side, I was still shocked by the gusts that greeted me. I recalled a story I had read about a woman being blown off the Narrows to her death by strong winds and announced to Will and Sam that the wind was too strong to continue. They were a bit ahead on the trail and assured me that the wind was much calmer once you moved away from the immediate area of the Keyhole. I remembered reading in a TR that the winds often were calmer beyond the Keyhole, so I decided to trust Will and Sam and moved toward the Ledges. They were right about the wind and after I made my first tentative steps, I became more comfortable. I just focused on finding the bulls eyes marking the trail and taking one step at a time.
First view from the west side
tentative steps onto the Ledges
WIll and Sam on the Ledges
Before I knew it, we were at the Trough. Although I read that climbing the Trough could be a difficult, thigh burning ordeal, I found that I enjoyed the route finding and scrambling. The last few moves at the top took a little more thought, but nothing too difficult.
Making my way up the Trough
Checking out the last moves on the Trough
Now I was at the Narrows. Based on photos of this section, I anticipated that I might freeze at this point and I was right. I told Will and Sam I was done, and they reasonably decided that they would not push me any further. So they moved on toward the summit and I crouched at the beginning of the Narrows trying to decide whether to 1) head back to the campsite; 2) stay where I was until Will & Sam returned (probably not a good idea with other hikers coming and going) or 3) stop being a weenie and continue to the summit. While I mulled those options, a young couple approached the Narrows and asked if I was OK. Their names were Rob and Shelby. Rob explained that he had done the route before and it wasn't as bad as it looked. Shelby suggested that I follow Rob across the Narrows and she would follow me and I decided to give it a try. With encouragement from Rob and Shelby, I made it across the Narrows without any further freak-outs (although I focused on the steps ahead of me and did not look at the view to my right). The Narrows are not physically difficult, but the exposure can impose a significant mental barrier. Once you manage that fear and take the first steps onto it, it really is not that bad.
One final obstacle - the Homestretch. Rob and Shelby were taking a break, but I decided to keep moving in the hope of catching Will and Sam before they left the summit. After thanking Rob and Shelby for their kindness and assistance, I began the Homestretch scramble. Although pictures make this section look impossibly steep, I was surprised to find that I had no problem making my way up the right crack. Will and Sam were about to head down and were surprised to see me moving briskly up the Homestretch. They waited on top while I traversed to the left crack slightly below the summit and made the last few moves. There was no place left to climb - I was on the summit of Longs Peak - my first 14er!
I did a little happy dance and signed the summit register. However, it was a bit windy and very cold on the summit and I was shivering so hard my handwriting was barely legible. There was only one other party on the summit, a couple with climbing gear who took the Cables Route to the summit and were planning to take the Keyhole route back down. We stayed on the summit just long enough to get some pictures and then headed back down.
view from summit
Sam on the summit
Will on the summit
A goal achieved
I admit to using the butt slide/crabwalk technique to get down the Homestretch. I encountered Rob and Shelby working their way up the Homestretch and thanked them again. I doubt I would have made it without their encouragement. For some reason, I was not bothered by the exposure on the way down and had no problem navigating the Narrows or the Ledges. A hiker above me dislodged some rocks on the Trough that headed in my direction -although they missed me I was glad I took the advise of a 14er.com member and wore a helmet above the Boulderfield.
Things had gone very smoothly to this point, but we were in for a nasty surprise. There had been some wind on the descent from the summit to the Keyhole, but nothing that made me feel unsafe (and I have a low fear threshold). However, when I attempted to climb back through the Keyhole toward the Boulderfield I was pushed back by a ferocious wind. I crouched behind a rock and whimpered with fear. After a few moments I peaked through the Keyhole and noticed Will and Sam standing inside the shelter of the Agnes Vaille hut. If they made it down, I figured I could also. In any event, there really was no other option. So, I screwed up my courage and pushed my way through the Keyhole and down to the hut.
Pushing my way back through the keyhole
There were several other groups in the hut, and we were shortly joined by several others - most of whom uttered an expletive as they threw themselves into the welcome shelter. No one seemed in much of a hurry reenter the maelstrom outside, but after about five minutes we forced ourselves to leave and carefully navigated our way down to our campsite.
But our tent was not there! It had been blown - along with the gear stored inside - a good distance across the Boulderfield until it snagged on a rock. As we surveyed the area, we realized there was only one tent left standing - the rest were strewn across the boulders. Will and Sam noticed that the last tent standing looked like it might be blown away too - so they tried to further secure it.
It was quite a battle to gather our gear and pack in the wind. Fortunately, however, nothing was lost and my Kindle, which was in a protective case in my pack, survived its journey across the boulders (the tent did not fare as well - it was ripped in multiple areas). We were so anxious to get out of the wind, that we did not take the time to eat or use the privy.
The trek across the Boulderfield was difficult and slow. The wind was constant with intermittent gusts that threatened to blow me off my feet. I stopped and braced myself each time I heard the jet engine sound that preceded the gusts. Although I was moving slowly, I passed a man and woman - perhaps somewhat older than me - that were also having a difficult time navigating the boulders in the wind. Like us, they were carrying overnight packs.
Finally, we reached the end of the Boulderfield. Perhaps I let down my guard once we left the boulders and were on the trail because I was suddenly airborne and then unceremoniously dumped onto the rocks several feet away from the trail. For the second time that day I was whimpering - this time in pain rather than fear. My left leg hurt badly and my initial impression was that I was really hurt and might not be able to hike down. Will and Sam had been hiking about 50 yards ahead of me, and I noticed they had stopped and were looking back to see if I got up (note to son: if mom is lying in a pile of boulders, you should check to see if she is alright). I convinced myself to calm down and lie still for a minute or so and then reassess the situation. Although my leg still hurt, the pain was subsiding and I was able to get up and move slowly toward Will. Sam had decided to continue down ahead of us - he was carrying only a daypack and could move faster than me and was understandably anxious to get down because he had been hiking since the wee hours of the morning.
Fighting my way back down thru the wind
parting shot of Longs
The next few hours were not fun. My leg was sore and the winds did not abate until we reached the treeline. I was frightened about being blown off the trail into the rocks and was concerned about the people who had been heading up to the summit as we headed down. At one point, a hiker heading down the mountain asked if we had a working cell phone. He said a man had been blown over in the Boulderfield and suffered a head injury - I suspect it was the gentleman I had passed in the Boulderfield. Unfortunately, the signal was not strong enough to complete a call and the hiker continued down the hill. Sometime later, we encountered a SAR member working his way up the mountain.
Things improved dramatically below the treeline. I was relieved to be out of the wind and enjoyed the last few miles of the hike. At the trailhead, we learned that the injured hiker was OK and making his way down. We also were told that the gusts were 70 mph. The winds had been bad early that day even at the trailhead, which might explain the why there were relatively few hikers that day. It seems odd, though, that the weather was relatively calm high on the mountain that morning - we did not encounter strong winds until late morning.
My leg was quite sore, so I asked Will if I could stay behind with the packs while he got the car, and he kindly agreed. By the time we got out of the car in Ned, my leg was really hurting - perhaps I was just more aware of it with the adrenaline gone. I was finally able to observe the damage and I had the nastiest bruise I have ever seen on my outer left thigh - it had a swollen raspberry-type center about the size of half a good size orange surrounded by shades of blue, black and purple. I realized I had been very lucky - I had landed with the most force on the best padded area of my body. It hurt - but it would heal on its own with no long term effects. If I had landed on a joint or my head, the outcome could have been much worse.
My adventure was done. In looking back, some things were worse than expected - I did not think wind would be such a problem below the Keyhole. Some things went as expected - I lost my nerve at the Keyhole and the Narrows as anticipated - but I was able to move past my fears thanks to the encouragement of Will & Sam and then two very kind strangers.
Some things went better then expected - I was pleasantly surprised that I felt strong and was not bothered at all by the altitude - no headaches or nausea or dizziness. I had filled a script for diamox before the trip, but decided not to take it largely because of information in the forums on this site, particularly with regard to the diuretic effect of the drug. However, I took advil before the hike and then every 6 hours or so, drank a lot of water in the days leading up to the hike, and carried a 3 liter bladder in my pack so I could sip water easily during the hike. Perhaps those precautions, along with sleeping three nights at altitude before the hike, did the trick. Or maybe I was just having a good day. In any event, I am thankful that I felt so well throughout the hike and could enjoy the beauty of the mountain.
What's next? I'd like to do more 14ers, although I think that for now the Keyhole route is the outer limit for my level of skill and experience. I think I will take some mountaineering courses in the east through REI or EMS, and maybe do a guided climb of Mt. Washington this winter. And next summer I hope to be back in Colorado to tackle some more 14ers.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):