As with any trip into the mountains, the fourteener Longs Peak located in Rocky National Park requires a certain amount of planning and preparation to make sure you will have a successful and enjoyable experience. Longs Peak is considered one of the hardest fourteeners in the state of Colorado due to sections of class 3 hiking/scrambling, some exposure in certain sections and the unpredictable weather. This would be our first class 3 hike and we wanted to be successful so Brecka and I took the time to research the route extensively and read all of the trip reports we could get our hands on. We had screen shots of every detail we might forget saved onto our phones to go along with our map, compass and guidebook. Having attempted and been turned around on Longs Peak last September before even reaching the boulder field due to sustained winds in the 25-30 range and gusts that stopped me dead in my tracks and actually set Brecka back a few paces we knew what was potentially awaiting us on this trip. But we also knew that all we needed was for the weather to cooperate and we would reach the summit!
The weather was calling for storms to roll into Estes Park at 10am on Saturday, check half an hour later and storms are going to be rolling in around 2PM, give it another half an hour and it looks more like noon is when we can expect to get rained on. Remembering that first failed attempt combined with the fluctuating weather reports we decided to start our hike at Midnight on Friday.
The parking lot was maybe half full when we arrived just before midnight on Friday, the sky was bright with a full moon, the wind was low and our motivation was at an all-time high. So a few minutes after we had parked we were on our way up the trail! The trail has got to be one of the best I have ever seen or walked on. It is well maintained, smooth and gradual; we were well above tree line when we took a water break and both agreed that we felt great and our pace was better than we had anticipated. It’s amazing how much difference a nice trail can make! We ran into a couple different groups but other than that we felt like we were all alone in the world and the weather was so calm and mild that it was almost eerie. With all of this in our favor it almost seemed like no time before we were at the Boulder Field.
From everything I had read I wasn’t particularly looking forward to crossing this section in the dark. So we took a couple of minutes at the beginning of the boulder field to grab some water and a quick snack and take in the view, the upper sections of Longs Peak was before us. Although we could only really see the outline of the mountain in front of us with the light from the full moon it was still an impressive sight and a clear reminder that our day was just getting started. After our short break we put the packs back on and were on our way and honestly it was not bad at all. The trail was easy to follow through the field due to numerous cairns marking the way, even under headlamp, and in no time we were boulder hoping our way up the final approach to the Keyhole.
This was another section of the hike that I had read so much about and it did not disappoint. The Keyhole is immense and it looked a little menacing with the moonlight shining through it. The overhang is somewhat unnerving to pass under but we were up and through it before we really had a chance to think about it. At this point we were starting to see the summit as a real possibility. We were moving faster than we had anticipated, we were the only ones in site so we didn’t have to worry about traffic jams and the weather was perfect although the wind was finally starting to pick up a little. So right past the Keyhole we took a couple minute break to put an extra layer on and take a drink before working our way over to the trough.
The hike from the Keyhole to the trough was a unique but fun part of the hike
because we had to keep stopping to look for the next marker to make sure we didn’t get off trail. As we were still in the dark we were often times looking around for a couple of minutes before spotting the right way to go with our headlamps. On any hike but particularly when hiking in the dark I find that it is much better to take your time and be absolutely sure you are staying on the trail. Losing the trail in the dark will cost you time and energy trying to relocate the trail again at the least but at the worst it could be seriously disastrous. With this in mind this whole section of the hike went stop and go like that but we were able to make our way safely to the base of the trough without getting off trail or having to backtrack more than a few feet here and there.
Then came the Trough. This is the only part of the hike that I feel like I had underestimated, not because it is technically difficult but because it is just such an undertaking to go from the bottom to the top. The Trough requires a lot of scrambling on a mix of boulders and loose stone so if you have a helmet this section is a good place to put it on. This is also the first section that we looked at a photo of the route that we had saved just to make sure we were headed along the right path. It is clear enough from the base of the Trough were you need to end up but we wanted to keep to the trail to avoid any potential back tracking. A quick look behind us on the way up showed us the true immensity of this mountain and the beauty that had been surrounding us as we hiked in the dark, the sky was just starting to brighten up and it clear that it was going to be a beautiful day. Just a quick break to soak in the sites was enough to restore some of our energy and keep us climbing up and up and up. It was near the top of the Trough that we ran into our first group since well before the boulder field. They were headed down after having gotten to within a couple of pitches of the summit. They explained that on the section called the Homestretch they had felt unsafe with the exposure feeling like any mistake might cost them more than they were willing to risk. They suggested that a rope would maybe make the last bit easier and bid us good luck. And it was with this unsettling news that we made the last couple moves to get to the top of the Trough and onto the Narrows.
The Narrows were a blast! That is all I have to say about them. We had great conditions and the sky was finally lit up enough for the headlamps to get stashed away in the packs. Again I had read a lot about the exposure on the narrows but I never felt like my ass was hanging over the edge or I was doing something crazy dangerous. We just made sure all of our moves were deliberate and we had fun with it. There are a couple of spots were you have to get over or around a boulder sitting along the path of but even these couple spots were not as scary as other trip reports had made them out to be. This is not to say that the Narrows are fool proof or there is no exposure but if you take your time and keep to the trail they are pretty safe and just a lot of fun to work your way through. By the time we got to the end of the narrows and the beginning of the Homestretch we were confident in our chances of summiting. We had made it to within just a few hundred feet of the summit and we felt strong and excited for the next challenge.
We had the Homestretch all to ourselves with minimal wind and we just took our time and worked our way up. There is certainly a level of exposure when going up this section but again I never felt overly exposed or like if I made one mistake I might “slide right off the mountain”. I guess it all depends on how comfortable you are with some exposure but I felt safe for this entire final section. The best part was how suddenly you come to the summit once you make it to the top of the Homestretch. And what a summit it is! This summit just smacked us right in the face. It is big and flat with plenty of room for multiple parties to enjoy at the same time, but we had it all to ourselves. We took our time enjoying the views, the solitude and our first direct contact with the sun of the day. Needless to say we felt like kings at 14,259 feet taking picture and wandering around for the next 10-15 minutes. But what goes up must come down and after our brief time on the summit we started thinking about the hike still ahead of us. It was with this combination of joy at having summited and slight unease about certain sections of the decent that we said goodbye to the welcoming warmth of the direct sunlight that we had on the summit and started heading down.
No part of the hike down was all that eventful but I will mention that we did take extra time getting down the Homestretch because the rock was a lot less grippy on the way down than it had felt on the way up. The Narrows were just as fun on the return trip and the Trough was just as long and tedious. Although the Trough was a little bit more enjoyable on the way down because of all the parties we passed that kept asking about the rest of the hike up. It felt good to have already summited and be working our way down while everyone else was still on their way up. The views were incredible the whole way down but we were out of the sun as soon as we dropped off the summit and were missing its warmth by the time we were part way down the Trough. We were thinking about a quick break in the Trough to give our knees a welcome rest from the constant strain of going down this rocky section but we could see the sunlight coming through the keyhole off in the distance, so we set our goal to a break just below the keyhole. Not only would this be better to take a break in the sun but we would also be away from the danger of any potential falling rocks knocked loose from the number of hikers now making their way up the trail. The hike went relatively fast and before we knew it we were sitting in the sun with a cold-ish beer and snacks. At this point we had done all of the technical parts of the hike and now we were watching all the hikers work their way across the boulder field and up to the keyhole. What a great reward for starting at midnight. The sun was bright, the wind was low and our spirits were high but sadly we couldn’t stay there forever so we picked up our packs and continued down. The rest of the hike down remained uneventful but beautiful, and in keeping with hiking tradition those last three miles sure did seem to go on forever. It was right around noon that we got back to the car and the full parking lot still feeling the high off of having summited the mountain that had turned us back a few months before.
Longs Peak was one of the best hiking experiences of my life. The mountain is big and challenging but was never too much for us to handle. It was fun to go through and hike all of the sections that we had been reading about and studying for months. The views were incredible and the sense of accomplishment after having completed each section kept us energized for what was still ahead. I will definitely be returning to hike Longs Peak again in the future.