Longs Peak P2K

Sat, Jul 22, 2006
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Longs Peak is a fairly high peak in the Colorado Rockies, over 14,200ft, making it the 15th highest peak in Colorado. The easiest route, the class 3 Keyhole Route, is considered a Colorado classic. Longs Peak is also the county highpoint of Boulder county. So it had many reasons to be climbed, the primary one being that it is a short drive from my brother Jim's home just west of the city of Boulder. While visiting with my kids on an extended RV trip, I had a notion to go off and climb it. Not wanting to burden my brother with the kids for too long, I hoped I could start very early and be back by noon. A pretty good plan too, as it turned out.

I got to the busy trailhead at the Longs Peak Ranger Station just before 4:30a. It was quite dark of course, but there were several parties milling about cars packing up for the climb. I found one of the few remaining spots left at a convenient distance to the TH, and within a few minutes I was on my way. I stopped at the kiosk to sign in, noting there had already been more than 40 others starting earlier. Another 50 or more would sign in after me on that weekday, making for over 100 folks on the route. It has earned the reputation as the busiest CO 14er route for good reason.

My headlamp was only needed for the first half hour, and after the first hour I was out of the trees and into the more picturesque alpine areas. Here a broad plateau opens up as the trail skirts around the south and west side of a very green meadow. It rains here a lot, so compared to California, it is a lot greener almost everywhere in the mountains. A herd of some 30-40 elk were grazing about a quarter mile's distance, as I joined others who were already stopped to photograph them.

After the plateau, there was an easy climb to the high camp and the start of the boulder field. There were more parties milling about here, with about 4 tents pitched for an overnight stay. The boulder field was very tame, with settled rock that moved almost never, and a short climb to the Keyhole, a notch on the extended North Ridge of the peak that is a key landmark. A small stone hut is located here, presumeably to allow shelter during lightning storms. So far it was cloudless, without a threat of thunderstorms in the making. Of course in Colorado, this means almost nothing - just wait a few hours. It was 7a when I reached the Keyhole, and without pausing I popped through to the other side.

Now begins the more "classic" part of the route, a rocky scramble across the west side of the ridge, up a trough, another traverse on airy ledges, and lastly slabs leading to the summit. I was instantly taken by the presence of red and yellow bullseyes painted on the rock every 40 feet or so. These continued all the way to the summit, somewhat to my disappointment. Who put them there or how they came to be I couldn't say, but they are definitely a part of the route. Likely they can be Godsends in foul weather, but in fair weather they are an eyesore, with far too many - I could look ahead and see 4 or 5 of the targets for much of the route. The scrambling itself was enjoyable, easy class 3 for much of it, a few tricky class 3 places, much class 2. I passed most of the parties ahead of me over the next hour it took to reach the summit, so that there were only 5-6 folks on the summit ahead of me by the time I reached it at 8a. The summit is a broad area about the size of a football field, but the highpoint can be found a short distance from where the route exits onto the plateau. I didn't stay long - the views were hazy and wholely unfamiliar to me - I couldn't have named a single other peak or feature if my life had depended on it.

On the descent of the trough, I came across a young girl of 8 who was on her way up with her parents and older sister. I was impressed to say the least, and stopped to chat with them briefly. I came to find the 12yr old sister had also climbed Longs back when she was but 8yrs old too. A very active family!

Back at the Keyhole, I noted many people still heading up though clouds were now building over the summit. One fellow was on his knees leaning out of the stone hut losing what little stomach contents he had. We offered help, but he said he was just ill from the altitude. Maybe he and his buddies thought he'd get better if he waited it out? As I descended past the boulder field, I noted the flavor of the hikers on their way up changed just as the climate zones did. There were no longer dayclimbers heading to the summit, but dayhikers heading to lower destinations. Lower down were less-serious hikers just out for a mile or two by the looks of what little they carried. And in the last mile I noted a number of heavily laden backpackers heading up in small parties, either to do an overnight climb of the peak or off to other destinations. I returned to the trailhead at 10:30a, six hours after heading out. I had guessed beforehand that it would take 7hrs optimistically, but it turned out the route was easier than I had expected. But it was certainly great fun and very scenic, and I'm eager to get another chance to come back to Colorado to climb more of her summits.

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