This past Sunday I was lucky enough to celebrate my 23rd birthday by conquering the most attempted, and most deadly, of Colorado’s 14ers.. Longs Peak! Longs Peak is the most recognizable 14er in the Front Range, as you can see it towering above any other mountain as far as the eye can see from essentially anywhere in the Boulder/Denver area.
At 15 miles with 5,100ft in elevation gain round trip, this Class 3 14er would be our hardest peak to date. We decided to take the Keyhole Route, which is a pretty mellow hike for the first 7.5 miles until you reach the Keyhole.. then the hiking ends and the climbing begins.
Alarms went off at 12:30am. We were at the trailhead at 1:30am, and on the trail at 2am. We hiked quickly in the darkness with only our headlamps lighting the way, as there was no moon tonight. We only came across 3-5 groups of people on our initial ascent, stopping only for water or bathroom breaks.
We reached the first landmark at 4:30am.. the Boulderfield. Here the trail disappeared and we were continued on, hopping our way from boulder to boulder on our way up to the Keyhole.
We knew that the Keyhole was ahead of us with the most technical section of the ascent right on the other side of it, so we decided to hunker down in the Boulderfield and wait for first light to guide our way. This turned out to be our worst decision of the day, as we fell asleep for ~30min and awoke completely frozen to the bone. Shivering all over with our fingers and toes throbbing, we decided to continue on and push towards the Keyhole.
We reached the Keyhole at 5:15am where we then made our way into a small hut that is built into the rock at 13,150ft (this hut was built in honor of the climbers who died on this mountain) where we warmed up and watched the sun rise over the horizon.
Shortly after sunrise, we passed through the Keyhole and began to make our way across The Ledges, following the Colorado flag-esque markers that had been spray painted onto rocks to lead the way. The Ledges is a narrow section with a drop off of nearly 2,000ft and we were careful to watch our step as the trail became increasingly more technical. (With just 1.3 miles between the Keyhole and the summit, this classic mountaineering route took us nearly 3 hours to complete).
Once we passed The Ledges, we found ourselves looking up at a 600ft tall gully of large granite slabs and small, loose sections of scree. This section is called The Trough. The trail markers led the way up, but the trail was pretty self explanatory as we made our way generally right up the center of the gully to the top. Occasionally you would hear people shouting down from above “ROCK!” and you would look up to see rocks that had been kicked loose by other hikers tumbling down the steep face before passing you and disappearing off the bottom of The Trough. It is worth noting that we were one of the few groups that were not wearing helmets, and it would have probably been a good idea to have one on a few of these Class 3 scrambles.
Once atop The Trough, we made the final (and steeper) 30ft climb through The Notch to make it to the top of this section. There were next to no handholds or footholds, as I crammed my hands into the cracks as leverage as I scrambled my way up the final 15ft boulder. Many of us shorter females needed either a hand from above or a push from below (Carrie and myself included!).
Aside from a few flying rocks, we made our way up The Trough without any issues. We caught our breath at the top (this is steep!) and took in the views of Glacier Gorge behind us before continuing on to the next section; The Narrows.
This section says it all in its name. The trail follows along the exposed southern edge of Longs Peak where we had to make our way around a few badly positioned rocks while being very mindful of our foot and handholds. Luckily at this hour there was little to no traffic coming down, so we were able to comfortably make our way across The Narrows.
Finally.. we reached The Homestretch; the final pitch before the summit. This is about 1/4 mile of 300ft vertical climb along the cliff face to make it to the summit. Again, there are little to no handholds or footholds and our gloves were a savior in getting a good grip on the rock as we scrambled our way to the top.
At 9am.. we summited Longs Peak! We stood up there at 14, 155ft in elevation and exchanged high fives and took photos. It was surprisingly comfortable at the top; there was no wind and not a cloud was to be seen as we took in the panoramic views of the Front Range to the east, Estes Park (Rocky Mountain National Park) to the north, and the Indian Peaks Wilderness to the south.
However, me being the elevation-sensitive baby that I am, a raging headache was beginning to make itself known so we began to make our way down.
Now, I have already explained how technical and dangerous the hike up was. But going down? Going down was 10x worse! There was lots of slipping and sliding, and making sure that we always had a steady hand hold before taking our next step. We reached the Keyhole on our way down at 11am where we stopped in the hut for some water and snacks to help ease my headache-turned-nausea from the altitude.
Once I started to feel better, we cruised down the final 6.2 miles back through the Boulderfield and forest back down to our car. We arrived back at the trailhead at 2pm, making this exactly a 12 hour day. Our hiking time was closer to 8.5 hours, but with lots of breaks for food, water, bathroom, catching a breather, or taking in the views.
A long hike, yes. We were exhausted. But it was 110% worth it. I would not have wanted to “party” on my birthday any other way! We took our well-deserved nap later that afternoon at home, and finished up the day with an indulgent birthday dinner.