Longs Peak, CO: A Rookie's First 14'er

4 Oct 1997 - by Patrick Callery

As a recently reborn climbing junkie, my relentless pursuit of new climbing activities and partners brought me to scan the WWW, where I found my Sierra Club chapter had a Peak Climbing Section. A couple issues of Scree digested, I resolved to join the first PCS expedition I could get my boots on. I contacted Debbie Benham, who was leading a trip to Mt. Winchell on October 4-5. After a lengthy game of email-tag, all systems appeared to be GO for my first peak- but.... An unfortunate business trip called me away to Colorado on Thursday, from which I could not hope to be back in town sooner than about 10pm on Friday. Let's see: 8 hour nighttime drive, no sleep, high altitude.... my common sense, usually lacking, got the better of me and I withdrew from the climb.

I figured I could do pretty well, however, by staying in Colorado for the weekend and hiking something around there. I hunted out the nearby Rocky Mountain NP for something I could conceivably do for a day hike, and found the 14,255 foot Long's Peak. Located a mere 7.5 miles from a state highway turnoff trailhead, Long's would do. I obtained some good trail beta from a colleague and the local REI, and I was sold!

I awoke Saturday morning about 5am and checked out of my Fort Collins hotel (roughing it!), and arrived at the trailhead (9405 feet) about 7am, quite surprised to find the parking lot nearly full! Upon embarking on the trail, I became somewhat nervous after reading signs "Long's Summit currently technical", and "Ice axe and crampon use required" and spotting several hikers with ice axes strapped to their packs. Well, I figured I'd make it as far as I could without.

The first mile or so was a beautiful hike up a well worn trail through alpine forest, occasionally winding near the Roaring Fork creek, as the newly risen sun shone golden through the trees. The trail soon broke above the timberline and I was greeted by a spectacular view of the Diamond, Longs' "legendary" 1000 foot sheer vertical face.

I was amazed at the popularity of this trail; by about 9am I had passed at least 25 hikers, and arrived at the climbers' base camp, evidenced by the several tents scattered across a huge boulder field. An awkward, yet extremely welcome, sight across the boulder field was a small, open air restroom facility. Simply put, it was the most scenic "relief" I have ever experienced.

By 9:30 I had crossed the remainder of the boulder field and reached the Keyhole, a near tunnel over the ridge between Long's and Storm Peak. Passing through the Keyhole, I stepped into the shade of the north face for the ascent, not to mention a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountain NP backcountry, replete with towering snow-capped peaks and lush alpine lakes. From there the trail, marked by red & yellow circles painted on rock, ran fairly flat along the west face of the peak until it reached the "Trough". The trough was a long, steep, class 3 scramble over rock & ice, which I assumed was the section for which the signs at the trailhead had recommended axes. I was able to scale most of the trough along the jutting aretes of large boulders, and soon reached the "Notch", through which the trail passed back into the morning sunlight of the South face, and along the "Narrows". Considering the number of people I had passed on my way to the summit, it stands to reason that every section of this climb has a name attached. I was continually astounded at the popularity of the hike.

The Narrows is a short, narrow ledge, with long, high angle slabs above and below. Don't slip! Finally, the "Homestretch", a class 3 slab climb, stretched to the summit, which I topped at about 11am. The top of Long's is huge: a flat, bouldered mesa about the size of a football field. I signed the register (my first!) and stood atop the tallest boulder while turning the requisite 360 degrees to soak in the view.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stay long, as I inevitably began to feel the effects of exerting myself a full mile higher than I had ever been before. Almost immediately after I began the downclimb, the winds whipped up ferociously. Gusts in the Notch and the Keyhole reached about 80-100 mph! On my way back down the trough, I passed about 20 climbers on their way up, some amazed to see me clambering down wearing shorts and no gloves. Someone even offered to loan me their extra long underwear for the downclimb, which I refused as I still had a couple extra layers in my pack!

The remainder of the downclimb was only eventful in that, in my incoherent, nauseated state, I was nearly knocked off my feet several times by the buffetting winds. I reached the trailhead about 3:30pm, regained my appetite and devoured the rest of my provisions. Sadly, there was no time to relax as I then had to speed off to the airport for the flight home.

In closing, hopefully this trip report will serve as my introduction to the PCS! I'm looking forward to meeting some of the personalities who have lit up this mailing list with lots of helpful facts & opinions (not to mention the SPAM-ish nature of a lot of the banter). Hope to see you at a section meeting, or even better, a PCS climb soon!


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