Peak(s):  Longs Peak  -  14,255 feet
Date Posted:  03/12/2008
Modified:  09/26/2008
Date Climbed:   02/29/2008
Author:  TomPierce

 Long‘s Peak Keyhole: Winter Ascent  

Long's Peak Winter Ascent: The Keyhole(size=12)February 29, 2008

I decided to take advantage of what I hoped would be a good weather day and go for the summit of Long's. Rather than give you a blow-by-blow of the day, I'll write it with an eye toward a reader who might be contemplating doing the route in the winter, and my tips are naturally just my opinions. So here we go:

1) Below treeline: I started at 5:25AM, still dark in late February. What I call the "day board" was scanned to see if others would be up there (I was alone then, later in the day I'd see a few people), and I also noted that from what I could tell, no one seemed to have had luck on the Keyhole this winter. I may be off on that but I don't recall seeing a successful summit via the Keyhole; the few summits there were seemed to go via the Loft.

Anyway, the trail up is very easy to find & follow. I've been up it 4 times this year, many other times in years past. Sometimes it's super well packed, sometimes a bit loose and drifted. Tip: I'd probably always vote to at least carry snowshoes to just past treeline. The place you need them is just below treeline where the drifts can be man-eaters. If you need them there and are without, enjoy thrashing. Sometimes you can just waltz past treeline, it changes constantly.

2) Treeline: Once you reach the wooden bridge (the last bridge in the trees, the one with the lightning sign) that's your marker for a somewhat tricky part of the route. I've been told, but have not tried, to go directly uphill from the bridge. I've seen tracks, just never tried it due to the slope angle, etc. I've always continued on straight past the bridge for...50+ yards? Give or take, it seems to change each year. The trail is typically VERY drifted here. At some point you will veer away from the summer trail and head straight uphill (i.e. take a sharp right). Note your terrain carefully, this section of the trail is poorly marked, if at all. If you are unsure of the terrain, use surveyor's tape to wand the trees and take it down when you return. The tricky part is the descent. If you come down in the dark, in a blizzard, etc., and descend into the trees beyond (south of) your original ascent line, you could miss the track you laid and overshoot the trail. You;d end up going too far downhill into the trees and off-route. I've been able to find the bridge each time I went but a couple of times it was a minor challenge to find the track after the howling wind had drifted over everything. Be sure of your position before you commit to a course.

3) Above treeline: Once above the trees you'll see Longs easily on a clear day. Here was my view:


My recent practice has been to continue on straight up, steering for Granite Pass, to the next trail sign, I believe that's for Jim's Grove (?). Harder to see than you'd think, but it's a key landmark for me on the descent and a ton easier to see from a distance than a wand. That's also where I usually ditch my snowshoes (I carry a sling and carabiner and secure my snowshoes to the sign; that way in case of hurricane force winds the 'shoes won't be carried off, and reflective tape on them makes them easier to spot with a headlamp). Big Tip: By finding that sign, you know where you are in relation to the summer trail. My advice is to use the summer trail from this point up to Granite Pass. I tried going cross country once straight to Granite Pass and spent way too much time navigating willows, punching into snow, etc. The times I stuck more or less to the trail I made much better time. You may have to boulder hop to avoid drifted in sections, but I think you'll save time. Here's a shot of the area above treeline, looking back:


Note also some landmarks on your way up: A massive (4' high?) cairn, and some huge boulders on your left below Chasm Junction. If things go horribly wrong, these boulders will block the wind pretty well if you need to bivy there (I usually snack there in the winter, and stayed in a tent overnight there once, etc.)

4) Chasm Junction: Go there, but keep to the right to contour around Mt. Lady Washington.

5) Granite Pass: A key junction. Note your terrain (e.g. the trail sign, the Chinese Wall to your upper left, etc.) If you blow finding this in a whiteout descent you could end up going down the wrong drainage and will be miles from your car. From above Granite Pass I went cross country straight up to the Boulderfield. I know, I shouldn't, but you save a ton of time.

6) The Boulderfield: It's tedious going through it in the winter, often the trail is drifted over. Use your ski poles for balance. Here are some shots I took there, as well as the view just beyond the Keyhole:




The Boulderfield is also a good place to assess your timing. In the winter you probably should plan to be coming back through the Keyhole on your descent no later than dusk. If you are shaky on your Long's Peak topography/navigation, much sooner is better so you can at least make Granite Pass by dusk. Once you take a right turn at Granite Pass at least you'll be in the right drainage. FWIW, I was back below treeline by dusk. Finally, if something goes wrong the stone tent rings in the Boulderfield are as good a bivy spot as you'll find, unless you're higher up at Agnes' shelter.

7) The Keyhole: Work your way up, ditch your poles and unnecessary gear in the Agnes Vaille shelter. Note that it's usually full of snow, but if you need to bivy there, go inside and look up. There's usually a snow cave/pocket near the top of the shelter. Bombproof. Oh, and IMO don't base a go/no-go on the conditions at the Keyhole, it's a natural venturi and is ALWAYS windier there than at other spots. Go into the Keyhole, turn left.

8) The Ledges/Slabs: Pretty straightforward, but note the awful runout, i.e. if you pop off here you'll probably fall quite a ways. Try to stick to the now-bullseyed route. I thought the snow was a bit tricky on my ascent, so I would strongly recommend hugging the rock walls vs. going across the middle of the snowfields.

9) The Trough: Easy enough but I was dragging that day. Slow and steady got me through. Mostly rocks, but snow packed and icy in a spot or two. I climbed the remainder up and all the way out to the Keyhole on the return in crampons. It made the scrambling easier for me but if you are not comfortable rock scrambling/walking on rocks with crampons you could easliy trip or snag a pant leg with bad consequences. The falls in most spots of the Trough probably wouldn't be too bad IMO (no major cliffs, etc.), but a broken wrist or a dislocated shoulder is definitely possible and the Trough would be an awfully cold place to bivy.

10) The Narrows: Actually very easy, but watch the wind. A rogue blast of wind could knock you off your feet. A bad fall here would probably be fatal, I suppose, or at least really mess you up.

11) The Homestretch: This section was very easy on my ascent. The firm snow was just a cakewalk with crampons on.

12) Summit: Not very windy, sunny, and I never had to put on a jacket until late in the day. Here are pics of the Ledges, Trough, Narrows, Homestretch, summit and descent Ledges:











13) The Descent: Uneventful, a few stumbles but nothing out of the ordinary. I did make a point of skirting the west face snowfields much higher near the rock (climber's right) on the return. I made it back through the Keyhole, geared down (crampons off, ski poles retrieved) and schlepped back to the sign at Jim's Grove for my snowshoes. Colder and windier now, but pretty tame for Long's (30 mph winds, etc.) Clear enough to make the treeline bridge with lots of light, never even needed a headlamp until I signed out on the dayboard.

So it was a successful, fun & challenging day. For those thinking of trying it, obviously that's a decision for you to make. Conditions change up there all the time and Long's is a challenging winter peak. Typically very windy, cold, etc. The best I can say on the weather is use the NOAA forecasts: If the chance of snow is less than 25%, and the gusting winds are less than 50mph, I'd probably think about an attempt. But note avalanche conditions, your own pace, fitness, etc. Carry enough gear to miserably survive the night if needed, and carry an excellent headlamp with fresh batteries. Be safe!

Contact me if you have any questions.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

03/14/2008 14:14
nice report, good to see you had really good weather on Longs, the boulderfield can be a tedious endeavor. Its been a windy season up there for sure though.


10/22/2008 10:35
on being one of the few this winter to attain Long‘s summit. That‘s not a place that too many people see in calendar winter.
Excellent pictures and a really good read.


03/16/2008 06:30
for a great TR. I di not know about the winter variation of the bridge-toward- granite Pass. I‘ll try that sometime. Jealous of that clear winter day; a relative rarity for Longs.

Is that sideways variation on the homestretch as advanced as it looks or can it be attempted by those with less experience on Longs?


That 5.15d pitch on the Keyhole...
03/17/2008 19:12
sgladbach: Yeah, the sideways variation on the Keyhole was pretty hairy! Actually the delay on posting my report was due to my inept computer/photo skills, as evidenced by that sideways photo.

On the bridge-straight-up variation, it was Alan Arnette who suggested it (you should check out his website, very impressive). I eyeballed it last time but the angle is pretty steep vs. the standard trail and it‘s more wooded. Maybe next time. I also sort of like laying a longer north/south track so I can bisect a target on the return if the weather is nasty. But again, worth a try sometime, Alan said he thought it saved 15 mins. Take care.

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