Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Longs Peak

I flew out to Colorado for the annual Phish shows over Labor Day weekend and while I was there I got in a few really good runs. The first was Longs Peak. This iconic mountain is the highest in Rocky Mountain National Park and is not necessarily an easy mountain to climb which sounded just about perfect to me. I figured if I was going to do it I needed to make my attempt before the Phish concerts as three nights of Phish can be an ultra-endurance event itself and after the shows, there could be no telling how I might feel. Before the trip I got all sorts of different advice: several people really warned me about the altitude and strongly suggested I wait until after the shows to try it while others said I'd have no problems. I think I watched every youtube video on Longs Peak as well which also run the full gauntlet from making it appear to be the most dangerous mountain in the world where one slight misstep would surely end in a grisly death to an easily runnable mountain trail. I memorized the features I'd encounter along the way: the Boulder Field, The Keyhole, The Ledges, The Trough, The Narrows and finally The Homestretch. I had no clue how I would do and waivered from apprehensive to confident.

After landing in Denver I stopped for a few necessities and then drove straight to Longs Peak trailhead and campground. The research I had done had most people saying there is no chance of getting a spot in the campground and no chance of getting a parking spot at the trailhead after 3 am. I figured someone had to be able to get a campsite and when I pulled up at 4 pm the campground was only half full so I had my pick of sites and later noticed the campground never filled up with people still getting sites well after dark. My first day of vacation saw me going to bed early for a 4 am wake-up and 5 am start.  Most people start this 16 mile out and back from 1-3 am but I didn't want to start too early and find myself already to the Boulder Field and start of the technical climbing while it was still dark. I also took the thunderstorm warnings seriously and didn't want to start too late and risk the chance of being too high after noon when the risk of lightning could force me to turn around.

4 am comes early and I hit snooze a few times before finally relenting and getting up. I sipped on some Coca tea smuggled back from Peru as I broke camp and was finally starting up the mountain around 5:30 am after easily getting a parking spot at the trailhead. The campground was at just below ten thousand feet and I was feeling the altitude as soon as I started running. I reminded myself there was no reason I couldn't run this mountain and trudged my way up. I didn't feel fresh and fast and was probably at around 75% of my normal capacity but it was early morning and I was on a mountain and there was no place I'd rather be.


I passed several groups in the darkness and although I wasn't as fast as I hoped I was making solid progress and the trail was very runnable.

Sunrise greeted me right as I hit the tree line and with the light, I started to feel better and was moving a little faster.



With the trees gone and the sun out all of Colorado opened up before me and there were views everywhere but the first glimpse of Longs Peak itself really invigorated me and as the trail began to wrap around the mountain towards the Keyhole I found myself actually running fast for the first time of the morning.


There were a long mile or two in the there but eventually, the trail ended and I was faced with The Boulderfield and the Keyhole looming at the top of it.


By this time I had caught and passed a lot of the 2-3 am start hikers and although I could feel the altitude I still felt strong. From here to the top and then back to the Boulder Field there would be no running and instead I just focused on power hiking and trying to find the route.


I stopped in the shelter at the top of the Boulder Field to stow my light, put on my jacket and gloves and eat something. The wind was ripping through the Keyhole at 50mph and it was hard to talk over the noise but I got the sense of some drama going on with one of the groups of hikers and didn't feel the need to linger too long and headed straight out as soon as I could.

Crossing through the Keyhole was a singular event. I couldn't see where I needed to go, just a tangled pile of ragged boulders that have been polished to a treacherous sheen and the wind was so strong it was threatening to rip my jacket off me and me off the mountain but I hadn't come this far to not try. Two women who had started through the Keyhole as I was entering the shelter had only made it a few feet and a man freed himself from the drama and came out to follow me. I reminded myself again that I could climb this mountain and confidently worked my way through the wind and boulders.


The Keyhole opens a door to a whole other world with brand new views of Rocky Mountain National Park and the rest of Colorado.


Thankfully the wind subsided after the Keyhole and I was able to focus on the technical terrain ahead and the game of looking for the bullseye blazes that would lead the way. 

First, there were the Ledges to negotiate. This section of the mountain had perhaps the most technical and exposed move but I was able to do it without a problem and realized then I would likely make it to the top of my first 14er that morning.


The two women and solo man that had started out of the Keyhole with me were following my lead but I was making good time and wished them well and trudged on up to the Trough alone. This was a long and steep gully of boulders but it was not exposed and rockfall was the only real hazard but the altitude really seemed to be wearing on people and the number turning around continued to increase at every technical move.


There was a single tough move at the top of Trough that led straight into the Narrows.


I'd been wondering how narrow the Narrows would really be and was relieved when it was always several feet wide with no real hazards.


This was some great trail but I had already been on the technical part of the mountain for an hour and was ready for the Homestretch to the top.


Continuing with the trend, the Narrows ended with a challenging move and I powered right up the Homestretch and onto the top.


Views, views, and views for as far as I could see.



I wasn't in a hurry but didn't linger too long as I knew the trip was only half over.


As I headed down the Homestretch the masses were heading up and we had to figure out how to get around each other on the polished rocks but spirits were as high as the mountain as everyone realized they were making it to the top.


I'd been curious as to how hard the tricky moves would be coming back down but they were all easier than on the way up and before I knew it I was crossing through the Keyhole again.


I got back down the Boulder Field and back onto runnable terrain after a long time up high and wasn't feeling it. I don't know if it was the altitude or running hard for a few hours and then hours on the technical terrain and then trying to run again but I didn't feel well and had to walk some of the rockiest stretches. Everything passes and I was able to eat some candy and was feeling good again by the time I got back to the treeline.  From there it was an easy run back down to the trailhead.

When I popped out into the parking lot and a ranger was there to greet me with a friendly "Welcome back."

The perfect end to a good first day ever in Colorado!

No comments:

Post a Comment