Height/Round Trip Length: 14,255 feet (4,346 meters) / 14.5 miles via The Keyhole Route
Long’s Peak has been taunting me since I moved to Colorado. My friends in the state chose Long’s as their first high peak to climb in the state several years ago, so I’ve been hearing stories about the fabled peak since 2012. Every day at work a new group of haggard, beer thirsty hikers come in with stories of the mountain nearly burying them. It was long time that I should summit the beautiful jerk!
Long’s is the northernmost 14er and, stupidly, one that first time climbers often take on. Unlike many of the mountains in the Colorado, Long’s has a very lengthy approach before you even start climbing. Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in the state, can be climbed in 9 miles. Long’s is nearly 15 mile round trip that can wear out the fittest of low-landers.
“They must have been hiking for 20+ hours”
I talked my friends, Tony, Kate and Tomas to re-hike the mountain with me, somewhat to their hesitation…I’m very persuasive. We did a true alpine start and set-off a little after midnight. Not even a mile into the gentle start of the hike we came across a group that was carrying a member of their party down the trail. I asked them when they started and they gave me the most unsettling of answers. “We reached the summit t about noon.” It was roughly 1:15am at that point. They must have been hiking for 20+ hours from the time they set out.
The start to the hike is deceiving. The trail starts as an easy jaunt through the woods like you’d find in New York or Vermont. It would be easy to wear yourself down in the first few miles of the hike while taking advantage of the rather easy trail. What you can’t see in the pitch black is the treacherous climb that lay beyond the lazy switchbacks.
Hiking in the middle of the night was an unusual experience for me. All of the hikers with headlamps, walking in single file, reminded me of the pictures I’ve seen of the Vietnam war, when Vietnamese soldiers would use candles to light their way through the jungle. The experience is also disorienting, not being able to see anything more than silhouettes, shadows and the trail directly in-front of you takes its toll.
Once the trail breaks treeline you find yourself in a vast open space. Even in the dark of night, you can sense something absolutely immense surrounding you. After a long trudge around Mount Lady Washington, you’ll reach your first major landmark, the aptly named Boulderfield.
As a general rule, I hate boulder fields. They are my least favorite part of climbing. The slightest wrong step and there goes your ankle or worse. Hopping through one in the dark did not add to my love of them. Once we arrived at the fabled Keyhole, it was time to wait on the morning light. After the Keyhole is when the hike turns into a climb, and not something you want to do in the dark. After getting the first rays of the morning light, the group that had accumulated at the Keyhole set off almost in unison.
On the other side of the Keyhole you’ll be rewarded by the sight of Rocky Mountain National Park, with Hallet Peak in magnificent relief. As you snake your way along the back-end of Long’s, you’ll start pushing up in elevation at a portion called The Trough. The Trough is a steep gully that is crumbling in any number of spots. From time to time, you’ll hear “Rock! Rock! Rock!” as someone unsettles rocks on their route up. The climb itself will challenge the thigh strength of the most experience hiker as it never seems to end.
At the top you’ll reach the terror instilling “Narrows”, a ledge that has a 1,500 foot drop-off to the right. It’s not that narrow! Now, a violent wind gust can send you flying over the edge, so tread soft and low on windy days, but in general, the Narrows look far worse in pictures than in reality. The ledge gives plenty of space to hike confidently across.
The final pitch of the climb is called the Home Stretch. Again, pictures are worse than the actual climb. Images on Google make it look like an impossible 90 degree wall. In reality, I ran up this portion with joyful glee; it was my favorite part of the climb.
Once on the large, flat summit of the peak, you’ll be treated with 360 degrees of Colorado glory. The summit will be crowded, but you just won’t care.
My parting words of advice are oft-repeated by mountaineers and hikers. Going down is not the easy part. 80% of accidents occur on descent, and I’ve never seen anyone, injured or exhausted, being carried up a mountain, only down. You still have 7.75 miles left to hike when you reach the summit, after just putting your legs and mind through the gauntlet. Plan breaks strategically and pace your timing well.
When we arrived back at the trailhead the Rangers and volunteers greeted and congratulated us on the climb. One of them, maybe 70 years in age, said he had just made his 100th ascent a couple of days earlier. And there I was, exhausted and in my 20’s. I think I have a new role model.