I climbed Longs Peak — 30 years ago

When a reader asked that I tell the story of my 1979 climb of Longs Peak, it occurred to me that I probably had the story in one of my old handwritten journals from back then and should just transcribe it. I thought I knew exactly where the journals were, but I couldn’t find them. Now I’m concerned they might have been lost during my last move. That would break my heart. That box contained at least three or four journals dating back to the ’60s and ’70s, in addition to many letters to and from my high school sweetheart and future husband. Already lost, I fear, is the commemorative rock my then-11-year-old son gave me for the climb. On a palm-sized stone he painted “Keep on going strong!” He also gave me an embroidered Longs Peak trail patch he bought while I was on the mountain. I still have it; it’s in a drawer about three feet away as I type.

LongsPeak-midDec-cropped

I climbed Longs Peak in 1979, at age 36, and though I may not remember all the details with perfect accuracy, it remains an unforgettable experience. Without doubt it was the greatest adventure in my otherwise mundane life. And because I will surely forget even more details in the coming years, I’m writing down what I remember now.

Longs has been special in my life since my childhood, when my parents used to bring us to the Colorado Rockies from Oklahoma City every summer. The Rockies are, after all, the closest cool place to visit and stay in the summer. There was no air conditioning back then, and Oklahoma City is hot in the summer. For my parents, a place in the cool mountains where we kids could run and entertain ourselves all day for free was the perfect vacation solution.

We always stayed in either Estes Park or Allenspark, and Longs Peak is the dominant landmark in the area, the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. As an adult I continued to spend my vacations in the same area, and at some point I decided I wanted to climb Longs.

Finally, 1979 was to be the year. The cables up the north face had been removed in 1973 so I would have to take the longer Keyhole route. I upped my jogging mileage and frequency, knowing the climb would be strenuous and made more difficult by the higher altitude in Colorado. I spent the first week of the two-week vacation jogging around on local roads to get acclimatized (should have been doing windsprints with a pack on some steep trails!), and made plans with my brother (who lives in Boulder) to tackle the mountain together the next week. When he cancelled out at the last minute, I decided to go alone. I’d probably never be this well prepared again. Besides, it was late July, peak season for the mountain, and there would be many other people on the trail. I would make sure there was always someone behind me. (I’m not sure I was aware at the time that an average of two people a year die on Longs Peak.)

As I recall, I headed up from the trailhead at about 4:30 am, before sunrise, well aware of the advice to be off the summit by midday to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. I didn’t have a headlamp, but don’t recall visibility being a problem.

I wore my most comfortable jogging shoes in lieu of the crude, miserably uncomfortable hiking boots of the day, figuring comfortable feet were essential to success, and cut-offs in lieu of long pants. Jogging had taught me that long pants pull and bind over sweaty, wet knees. A brightly colored T-shirt for visibility (screaming yellow with a big black Nike logo), a bandana (all-in-one sweatband, bandage, splint, etc.). A light daypack with, as I recall, Band-Aids, first aid cream, water, trail mix, extra socks, extra shoelaces, a warm jacket, a topo map, a pocket knife. No camera. Cameras were too heavy, and besides, it wasn’t a picture-taking expedition.

I was ill-prepared by today’s standards and lucky to have had a warm, dry, calm day. Today I’d have a cellphone for emergency calls, photos, and map; trekking poles; maybe the now-recommended helmet. A proper pack. Space blanket. Great lightweight hiking boots. CamelBak. Goodness knows what gear is out there that I haven’t even heard of that would make the hike/climb safer. Probably nothing to make it easier, though.

The Keyhole, with Agnes Vail shelter on the left

The Keyhole cuts through the ridge above the Boulderfield. The Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter on the left is the only shelter on the mountain above timberline.

I don’t recall what time I got up to the Boulderfield, but it was the first time I fully appreciated the scale of the mountain. I’d heard of the Boulderfield all my life, but I was thinking … a field of rocks, scree, or rubble like I’d seen elsewhere. No, the Boulderfield is a field of BOULDERS. 

I was reminded of the many possible hazards up there when I passed a group of people trying to help a young man who was going into diabetic shock. Someone took off running down the mountain, straight down, not on the trail, to get help. I heard the rescue chopper long before I reached the summit.

I didn’t linger. I knew I was slow. But I hoped slow and steady would get me to the top. And the warnings about afternoon storms kept pushing me. I didn’t want to be above timberline if a storm blew in.

My brother had told me the climb doesn’t really begin until you pass the Keyhole, and he was right. Before the Keyhole, you walk upright. You hike. Then you scramble up to the Keyhole and from there on you’re boulder hopping, scrambling, watching where to plant each step, reaching out to steady yourself. It’s another mile to the top and there is no trail per se. You clamber over and around rocks and boulders, following red-and-yellow bullseye markers (known as “fried eggs” in ’79) painted on the rocks. And all the while you’re looking down, or trying not to look down, into Glacier Gorge dropping away 1,000 feet below you.

At some point I realized with despair that I was giving up hard-won elevation as I moved south across the Ledges. Then I got to the Trough and it went up — steeply — regaining the lost elevation and then some in brutal fashion. Hand over hand, looking for secure rocks to step on. Pushing up with the legs, pulling up with the hands. Avoiding the snow patches. I was exhausted and my legs and lungs were burning. But I’d come this far … summit fever. And ignorance. I knew how far I’d come. I didn’t really know how far I still had to go or how difficult it would be. I should have stopped at the Keyhole.

Bullseye and climber on The Ledges approaching The Trough.

Bullseyes and climber on the Ledges approaching the Trough. (Photo: truedino.com)

From the top of the Trough I inched carefully along a ledge appropriately called the Narrows. I hoped I didn’t have to pass someone coming down because a fall from there could only end … very badly. I tried not to look down. It’s steeper and smoother than the drop into Glacier Gorge.

Finally I was looking up at the Homestretch, a daunting, seemingly vertical stretch of several hundred feet. If I hadn’t been so close to the summit, I would never have considered climbing it. After all, there’s only the Narrows ledge to catch you if you fall. But everyone else was going up. And the summit was up. So I watched what they were doing, where they were stepping and grabbing, and I followed. Up.

Finally I was over the rim and on top. On the summit of Longs Peak. After thirty-some years of looking up at the summit, I was finally standing on it looking down. Wow.

That’s about all I had time for. One little wow. There was a register, a metal tube or pipe lodged in the rock into which people were stuffing scraps of paper with their names, hometowns, and the date. Maybe a few comments. I don’t recall if I’d taken a pencil and paper or if I found them there, but I did leave a note for posterity. Or at least the Park Service.

The USGS benchmark on the summit that I never saw

The USGS benchmark (that I never saw) on the summit.

I hadn’t yet walked around the flat football-field-sized summit, admiring the view and finding the USGS marker at the peak’s high point. Back then the official elevation was 14,255 ft. above sea level. Subsequent surveys have upped that to 14,259 ft.

I didn’t have time to sit down and rest. Clouds had been building in the west as I scrambled onto the summit. Probably well before then. I know I felt a sense of urgency. And I’d no sooner stuffed my name into the pipe than someone yelled to get off the summit. Seconds later I was crouched in a crevice near the top of the Homestretch. I could feel the tingling in my scalp. Lightning is a killer in the mountains.

Fortunately there were no lightning strikes and it didn’t rain, so one by one we pried ourselves out of our respective holes and started the descent. I hurried, slowly. I’d climbed that sucker and now I wanted off! Down!

Down was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Far tougher than up. I’d spent everything getting to the top, and any mountaineer will tell you that’s only half the battle. So I was going down mostly on willpower. My legs were weak and shaky. I used my hands and arms as much as my legs to ease down and over boulders. On the way up, you can reach up or to the side. Going down, you have to bend down and reach down. Exhausting. The little daypack I carried was like a kid’s backpack, with no waist strap, so it kept threatening to slide up over my head. Trekking poles would have made much of the bending unnecessary, but hikers weren’t using them back then.

The broad, flat summit of Longs Peak

The broad, flat summit of Longs Peak (Photo: Ron Walker)

At some point near the summit, either going up or coming down, my hands got painfully cold and raw from grabbing boulders. The spare wool socks made great mittens.

I did eventually get down the mountain. One foot in front of the other. Knowing no one could do it for me. No one would carry me. Well, maybe they would have if I’d declared myself an emergency. But I had my pride. I needed to walk off that mountain on my own.

The Keyhole route is 16 miles round trip with a 4,850 ft. gain in elevation. It took me 12 hours. I couldn’t move for about 3 days afterwards. But I didn’t care. I’d climbed Longs Peak.

_________

For a description of the Keyhole Route and annotated photos of the route, see 14ers.com.

More great photos at RonWalker.org (large photos that give you a great idea of the scale of the mountain). What an advantage today’s climbers have, with all the photos, videos, and information available online! I went up blind, with no idea what to expect.

More great photos and several short videos from an obviously serious climber and photographer. Glad I didn’t have to deal with the wind he faced.

The numbers have changed over time due in part , I’m sure, to more accurate GPS measurements. In 1979 the Keyhole Route was reportedly 16 miles round trip; I’ve noticed recent articles say 14 miles. Possibly the trail has been rerouted in some places to reduce environmental impact. 

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Categories: Rocky Mtn Natl Park

33 replies

  1. WOW Type. I’m so proud of you! Thank you for sharing that wonderful piece of your life.

  2. Wow, nice images PT, and an even better story! I hope you find your journals… 😀

  3. Some frequent climbers tell heroic stories that lean toward the unbelievable. Your account of a single grand adventure smacks of reality It is a very interesting read. Well done.

  4. What a great story. 🙂 That’s one of the tougher peaks to climb too. Going to try another 14er sometime?
    I’m a bad Coloradan…never climbed a 14er. I almost did two in one day, but a storm blew in

    • Quality, not quantity! I bagged the one 14er I really wanted. No particular desire to climb any others. Besides, in my active years I lived in Oklahoma City. Coming to altitude and then climbing, all within a week or ten days, was tough. I’ve only lived up here since 2005 and these days do well to hike around the block. 😦

  5. What a treat to check in this evening and find your Longs Peak adventure! Don’t think I breathed from the Keyhole till you stepped onto the Summit- helps to be a fast reader :). My brother was my partner as well, but when the wind about pushed us both over backwards starting up towards the KH, we turned around. So glad you made it and so happy you shared it… pretty cool accomplishment for an OKC resident! (Guess you could’ve trained climbing around at Turner Falls in addition to jogging?). If/when I get the chance to try again, I will remember your experience and thoughts of what would be great aids to take along. My fingers are crossed that your journals will turn up, too. Thanks for that 14,259 journey!

    • It’s been fun reliving the adventure. I’ve ended up reading lots of more recent stuff about Longs, including one entry where a climber suggested a flatlander train on the stairs in skyscrapers. I never thought of doing something like that. It would have strengthened my legs a lot more than just jogging. You were right to be leery of the wind. I read of one death up there in the last couple of years where the man was simply blown off wherever he was standing. Yes, I have my fingers crossed about the journals.

  6. Impressive. Impressive! (great pictures you included)
    We could all use one of those stones.

  7. How incredible landscapes and lovely photos.

  8. I climbed Long’s Peak 20 years before you in 1959 as a 12 year old camper at Cheley. We went up the cables on the face of Long’s Peak- none of us had any fear, because we did not know what fear was. I remember at Chasm Viewpoint making a paper airplane out of one of the climbing map and tossing it off into space- it was flying around 1 hour later when we reached the summit.
    The summit was 14,251, or in my care, 14,256 because I was 5 feet tall.

    The Fried Egg Trail was pretty slick, even 55 years ago from climbers walking on the granite. I also recall a large block of granite off to the left as we descended the trail that our camp counselor called “The Meat Wagon”, referring to what looked like an Army ambulance of the 1940’s.

    For me, climbing Long’s Pear as a 12 year old was a consummate achievement, I am so thankful for Cheley to give me the opportunity to achieve something of this magnitude. I think of climbing Long’s every time I see the peak when we fly into Denver.

    • Good ol’ Cheley. Such great opportunities provided for the campers. My younger brother went there and never really left the mountains after that. He settled in Boulder and is still there, still climbing, hiking, etc.

      My grandson is just about 12 and I’ve no doubt if given the chance he could bounce right up to the summit without even breathing hard.

      Lucky you, having the Cables. That would have been so much shorter than having to go clear around the summit and then up. No to mention the great view of the lake. I never even had a chance to look over the side. Probably just as well.

      My brother asked me once if I still think about the climb and I tell him, “Yes, every time I look up at the peak, I’m there again.” How could anyone have climbed it and not feel that way?

      A belated congratulations on your climb!

  9. . . . because it’s there.

    Nice memoir. Very nice.

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