OK so the other day I told y'all about the impetus for our attempt on Long's Peak, and then I fell asleep. Lemme tell ya how the walk went.
Walking to the top of Long's Peak takes time, lots of time. The most popular route is called the Keyhole Route, and it is the "easiest" way to go, containing the least "technical" sections and least "exposure" (refer to my previous post for the straight shootin' definitions of these terms). The downside is that it's just a damn long trail. Seven miles from trailhead to the summit means you're looking at a 14 mile walk with some scary stuff at the end, so yeah, it's going to take time. On top of that, the afternoons often bring strong thunderstorms complete with hail and lightning. The last place you wanna be when one of those dark clouds roll in is up on those rocks, so this is what leads you to a 3AM start time. Some people start even earlier than that.
And so it was 3:00 a.m. when Brenda & I woke up in our tent, shooting for a 3:30 a.m. start time. Camping, as I mentioned previously, still is not something I can get used to, but it's a necessary evil in this case; waking up one mile into the hike is a good way to get a good start, after all.
With everyone dressed and fitted out with lots of water and food, we embarked on our adventure. By 3:50 a.m. we were on the Long's Peak trail and headed in the right direction, seeing only what our headlamps could illuminate for us.
A couple hours later, we arrived at the "sky potty", one of the highest johns in the park. As we headed off on the Long's Peak Summit Trail from there, the sun began to rise in the east:
We were now well above treeline, the trail resembling more of a moonscape than a forest, and the stark, artificial light from the headlamps only exaggerated that effect. Slowly but surely, the sun painted the sky in a dazzling array of constantly-changing pastels. At this point, we were walking west, but we always knew when a major sky event was happening, because the rocks in front of us would change color and vibrance along with the sky. We were turning around every few minutes to witness a completely different sunrise scene.
Now about 4.5 miles into the hike and above 12,000', the sun is fully out and shining, and the next big goals are revealed -- The Boulder Field, and the route's namesake, The Keyhole. Things are going well at this point, the hike is relatively easy and we're making good time. Far off in the distance, the Boulder Field looks flat and The Keyhole is but a speck in the center of the photo below:
We walk along a stream, progressing toward the Keyhole. Long's Peak -- on the left in the photo -- is starting to look really impressive. It's as if it's taunting us. The thing is massive, and beautiful.
Finally, we arrive at the Boulder Field, a broad expanse of giant rocks. Nothing else to do but keep walking, and now six miles and in and nearly 13,000' high, we get a good look at the Keyhole:
There is no real trail through the Boulder Field, so you basically just aim for the Keyhole and try not to get into trouble. A very steep section awaits at the end of the Boulder Field that gets you up above the 13,000' mark, and a great view of the giant hanging rock formation that seemed so small two hours ago.
The scale of this thing is unbelievable. That's Bryce about to cross through the 'hole:
We turn around for a quick peek at all the way we've come so far...
And now, at 13,200' above sea level and after six miles of hiking, the hike actually starts.
The Keyhole is the doorway to the other side of the mountain, the final mile of the hike, and four distinct sections that each present their own challenges. The Ledges, The Trough, the Narrows and the Homestretch await. The last six miles took four and a half hours to complete; the final mile will take two more, all by itself.
Leslie had told me all about these sections, and I had read other accounts as well. But I still didn't get it. The last mile of Long's Peak has whatever you're bad at: afraid of heights? The Ledges and The Narrows feature plenty "exposure", where you're often walking on 12" wide rock with sheer dropoffs. Have trouble with the steep stuff? The Trough is an unbelievably beautiful bowl of steep, loose rock that seems to have no end, and the Homestretch is a slab of rock that's short on places to stand.
These sections are so sketchy that sometimes the trail you're supposed to take elicits a "you've gotta be kidding me" reaction. For this reason, they've spray painted little targets (called "fried eggs" or "bullseyes" in most trail descriptions) onto the rocks to guide you along. You can see one of the bullseyes between Brenda and Leslie in the pic below:
After the endless scramble up The Trough, we are greeted by a difficult gatekeeper of a rock that marks the entrance to The Narrows:
Your reward for completing The Narrows is called The Homestretch, and I guess in my head I figured this part would be easy, I don't know why. It wasn't. The Homestretch is a two tenths of a mile long slab of rock sloped 40 degrees, with chinks in the rock that often are the only hand and footholds available. Looking down, you can see that one slip at the wrong time could lead to a long but fast journey down the mountain, with a shitty ending. It's scary. I got into a few dead ends on this stretch, and had to traverse some sketchy parts of rock to get to safer and more secure footing. Brenda, Bryce and Leslie looked down at me wondering if I was gonna make it, but at this point there was only 100 yards to go; there was no way I wasn't.
I regret the lack of photos to tie in to this part of the story, but I guess that says something about the mood and difficulty of these final sections; I really needed my hands on the rocks, and couldn't spare them for camera holding at this point!
A few more careful steps, and we were at the summit:
After a mountaintop lunch and some wandering around, I signed the register and we all posed for one more pic at the very edge of The Homestretch. What's going though my head at this point is "this is going to suck way more going down than it did going up."
The descent down the Homestretch was indeed scarier than the ascent, but we simply took our time and crabbed our way down the thing. Along the Narrows was a no-brainer but we turned the corner and shimmied down the gatekeeper rock to witness the Trough in all its glory, and some thunderstorms in the distance. Thinking how unpleasant the Ledges would be if soaking wet, we tried to pick up the pace and really hustle down the Trough, but the fact is it's a long way down:
We got through the Keyhole and down the Boulder Field without incident and I thought to myself "phew, the hard part's over", but the fact remained that there was over five miles of walking left to do! We took a break while Lelsie treated some stream water for us (water is the key to not getting altitude sickness, I'm convinced), I inhaled another Cliff Bar and off we went.
Back along the stream and down towards the Sky Potty we walked, admiring some new scenery despite the out-and-back course; much of this area lay under cover of darkness when we passed it in the morning.
A deeply resonant rumble of thunder belched out from the south side of Long's Peak, and we all looked at each other nervously. All around us was blue sky, but we imagined a large storm just on the other side. Would it march north and get us? Who knows. Nothing to do about it but keep going.
As we got below treeline I breathed another sigh of relief, feeling slightly more protected should a storm come in. Eventually we reached our campsite at Goblin's Forest, and it was time to pack up and get outta Dodge. I wasn't looking forward to carrrying all the extra weight of our camping gear for the last mile, but it actually wasn't too bad. At this point I'm running on adrenaline, with the end in sight!
With a quarter mile to go, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned to look. Turns out a deer was standing about six feet from me, just off the trail. He would have been happy to let me walk right on by, but my stopping spooked him a bit and he ran back about ten feet. Brenda, Bryce and Leslie caught up to me and I simply pointed at the deer. We all stood there staring at each other until the deer got tired of that and stalked off.
Finally, around 5:30 p.m., we arrived at the Ranger Station and our car. We'd just completed 13 hours of walking, with challenges and amazing views all along the way. It felt good. As I pulled my boots off I thought "well, that's that, I don't have to do that ever again", but I'm already thinking about the next time. Hiking has (clearly) become an addiction for both Brenda and me, and it's these big peaks that really do it for us now. The views are incredible and the effort is fun. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you look up at something like Long's Peak and think to yourself "yeah, I was up there", is really hard to put into words.
Another great day in Colorado! I love it here.