Longs Peak - Keyhole Route

4 Aug 2003 - by Steve Hufford

After having summited Mount Elbert six days earlier, I was ready for the Longs challenge.

I drank two gallons of water the day before. I left my motel room in Fort Collins at 11:30pm, arriving at the trailhead at 1am. A couple groups had started before me and a group of 5 girls who work together for the YMCA in Winter Park, CO, were in a huddle at the trailhead praying for safety on their trip.

The trail started up very gradually through the timber and after only a couple miles I got above treeline. I was doing much better with the altitude here on Longs than I fared six days earlier on Mount Elbert. Still, I stopped often (for a minute or so) to rest. The girls and I passed each other several times until they left me for good above treeline. I could hear them singing above me on the trail. That impressed me as I find it difficult to even carry on a conversation while climbing. I found out later that they were athletes (cross-country running and track & field). As I got higher in the blackness of the early morning all I could see were silhouettes of the surrounding peaks and the eerie stream of headlamps far below me. And occasionally the lights of the girls above me.

As I neared the Boulderfield it became increasingly difficult to recognize the trail. I got to the infamous Boulderfield about 5am and then my headlamp burned out (the spare bulb was no good as well - poor planning). It worked out fine for me as I didn't plan on going further until the sun rose. So I joined a couple college guys from Texas (North Texas State and Hardin Simmons) huddled in one of the tent sites which consisted of a small area with a circular rock wall, giving us some protection from the cool breeze as we waited an hour for the light of morning. What a great view of the Keyhole and the precipitous East face! Also, I noted that the North face looked doable and maybe even easier than the Keyhole route (more direct, for sure). But the Keyhole route was what I came here for and it was what I had read so much about on the internet.

At 6am we set out across the Boulderfield, reaching the Keyhole between 6:30 and 7am. The winds were ferocious - I'd guess 60-80 miles/hour. And a few hikers turned back because of it. I couldn't imagine turning back yet after the work in getting up here - climbing 6.5 miles up from 9400 elevation to 13,150 at the Keyhole. Those of us who continued the journey to the summit discovered we were protected from much of the wind shortly after passing through the Keyhole to the other side of Longs. And this is where the real challenge began: The Ledges, The Trough, The Narrows and The Homestretch. These are Longs Peak's last 4 obstacles that thwart many climbers.

I found that moving across and up and down The Ledges was not difficult and exposure was minimal. This portion was a little longer than I expected, though. The Trough was time-consuming as I rested often going up the long slope. I found the going easier climbing on the rocks on the left side of this 800-foot couloir. Next going through The Narrows was quick and not too scary. If I had been up here 10 years ago when I had a strong fear of heights each of these final obstacles would have freaked me out. Those classic photos of The Narrows look much more harrowing than when you're actually walking through it.

Finally, The Homestretch, the 200-foot 'vertical' climb to the top. It looked almost vertical as I approached it but found I could scamper up on all fours covering 30-40 feet quickly then I was bent-over for a couple minutes catching my breath. I was so tired, so exhausted. I got to the top of 14,225-foot Longs Peak at 8:30am and was 'reunited' with the 5 girls and the two Texans. The girls had already been at the top for a half hour. The top was covered in clouds. We all decided to head down 15 minutes later.

I was pretty concerned about getting down as I had no energy at all. I had food, energy bars, but had no desire to eat a thing. I ate half a salted nut roll and sipped some water. Going down was extremely hard for me and after negotiating The Homestretch in reverse, I told the others to go on ahead as I needed to rest often and long. It took me longer to get back to The Keyhole than it did to climb up from there. The Boulderfield was what I dreaded the most on the way down in my condition. Especially the steep section just below The Keyhole, where one misstep could result in a twisted ankle or broken leg or worse. I took it very slowly and thought about each step I made. I was thankful to find the rocky trail about halfway through The Boulderfield, allowing me to get off the boulders and just follow the trail on down. The last few miles seemed to take forever. And I swear the mileage from the 2.5 marker down to the .5 marker was more like 4 or 5 miles than just 2. I finally got back to my car at 2:15pm. 7 1/2 hours up and 5 1/2 down.

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