And then there were eleven... (Longs' Peak 14,255ft - Keyhole Route)
It all started out innocently enough as we sat on the front porch of Audi's A-frame. In a somewhat less than sober state, a bold desire to climb Long's Peak was expressed by Steve. Knowing that this same desire had been expressed many times before, I immediately jumped on board, not thinking that these plans would actually materialize. It was then that Audi decided that she wanted to join the attempt. Now I have heard Audi say this before, but this time she had a more determined look in her eyes and, as we all shook on it, I realized that I had just committed to climb a 14,255 foot mountain the following weekend. No sweat though, I had climbed the mountain before via several routes, included our intended route... The Keyhole.
The next week was punctuated with phone calls and questions about gear, clothes, food and departure times. Being the most experienced of the three, I was elected as the guide for the attempt. I supplied Audi with a list of gear that I though was mandatory and she passed the information on to Steve. Four layers on top and three layers on bottom including a shell... hat and gloves... two pairs of socks and a pair of hiking boots. The food was discussed as well. I recommended several packets of GU, a PB&J, and some other assorted snacks as the minimum. For water, each climber would carry two liters. I was bringing a water purifier so that we could refill when we ran out.
In the past, I have met my climbing partners at 2am in Fort Collins to start the drive to the trailhead. However, given Audi's propensity to be late, I told her that we should be ready to leave her house no later than 1am. My alarm went off at 12:15am. at which time I resisted the urge to hit the snooze button, got dressed, and drove to Audi's.
To say that I was surprised when I arrived at Audi's would be a colossal understatement. There were 6 people getting ready for the climb and Steve was not even one of them. He would arrive a few minutes later with his sister and her fiancée. In total, there would be 10 people in our group. I had never met some of the climbers and was having a hard time remembering everyone's name in the beginning. (remember it is only 1am and I am only half awake) In addition to Audi, Steve and me, there was Samantha, John, Heather, Michael, Josh, Nate, and Katie. After talking with everyone and determining that everyone had adequate clothing to survive the day, we were all ready to have a go at the mountain. At 1:40am, we were off in two cars of 5 climbers each.
The ride up was a pleasant experience for me as I am usually the one that drives. This trip however, I rode shotgun in Audi's truck and was able to catch a few winks on the 1.5 hour drive to the trailhead.
We arrived at 3am. After a few last minute pack adjustments, we left the car and headed over to the Park Service's sign-in board. Not wanting to sign everyone's name, we decided on a team name. Someone suggested Ahanawhack, several others agreed and, just like that, we became Team Ahanawhack.
It was time. We donned our headlamps, shouldered our packs, and headed off into the darkness of the forest. The air was warmer than I had expected and before we had covered a quarter of a mile, I was shedding layers with the other front runners of the team. By the time we the trail junction at a half mile, it was apparent that we had a divergence of fitness levels within team Ahanawhack. In what was to become a reoccurring decision throughout the day, the front-runners waited for the rest of the team and chose to stick together.
And so it continued for the next few hours, each person would hike at their own pace and those in front would wait every so often for the rest of the team to catch up. Our team pace was slow and I was having growing concerns that we would not have enough time to make the summit. In fact, when I thought there were only three of us going, I had given my prediction to my climbing partner; "I expected us to make it to Chasm Lake at minimum 4.5 miles --- If we all made it to the Keyhole 6 miles, I would be impressed, and if we all three summated 8 miles, I would be stunned." Given that there were 10 climbers attempting to summit, I felt that it was truly unrealistic for everyone to summit.
It was still dark when we broke from treeline. We were spread out over about 3/4 of a mile and although everyone was still progressing, a couple members of Team A were experiencing some slowness due to altitude. At this point I headed back to the last person and took most of the weight out of their pack and put it into mine. This made a noticeable difference in their speed and we began to gain ground on the team front-runners. When we arrived at the trail junction for Chasm Lake, we found the entire team waiting, minus one who had gone on ahead. After a short break for food and drinks, we headed off on the next section of the trail which would take us over Granite Pass and up into the Boulderfield at 12,700 feet.
This is where many people start to really feel the altitude and I don't think our group was any exception. None-the-less, slow and steady became our tactic. Those of us in the back began picking a point some distance up the trail (about 200 feet) and pushing ourselves to get to that point before we stopped to break for 10 seconds or so. I was please that we were still in darkness and my thoughts about the 10 of us summating were getting more positive. I still had my doubts though as we were still a long way from the top and we still had to negotiate the psuedo-technical terrain after the Keyhole.
Team Ahanawhack was still spread out over a 1/4 mile when those in the back reached Granite Pass. About halfway up the switchbacks that lead into the Boulderfield, we found everyone waiting again to regroup as a team and take a break. The sun was starting to rise at this point and we were no longer hiking by headlamp. I was extremely pleased when the dawn revealed a beautiful clear sky.
Our Team in the Boulderfield.
The entire team regrouped again in the Boulderfield to rehydrate. We took a short break and then began to make our way up to the Keyhole. (an obvious weakness in the ridge that blocks access to the west side of Long's) We were all feeling the altitude by this point and stopped in the Keyhole to eat some breakfast. The view from the Keyhole was fantastic. The ground dropped away for 2000 feet into Glacier Gorge revealing some of the Park's best known landmarks. (The Spearhead, ChiefsHead, Mc Henry's, Arrowhead, Black/Blue/Green/Frozen/Shelf lakes) On the horizon, we could see west to the Never Summer mountains and south to the Gore Range and some other ranges that are fifty miles away.
The Narrows is the first section after the Keyhole and a few members of our group were feeling a little apprehensive about the exposure. To be sure, this section required that we pay attention but it was nothing that I would call technical. There was only one really exposed section and the Park Service has installed some reed bar to use as hand/foot holds. I stood under this section (on a truly exposed stance) as several members of our team crossed so that I could reassure them that they were not going to fall. After about 45 minutes, our entire team had completed the Narrows and was working their way up the Trough.
The Trough is a semi-steep gully on the west side of Long's which our route followed for 700 feet. This was the most dangerous part of the climb. Not because anyone was likely to fall, but because there were so many people attempting to summit that the danger of one of them knocking rocks down from above was very real. This problem was compounded by the fact that the Trough approaches 14K in elevation and everyone is a little more clumsy. It was slow going but we made steady progress. About half way up the Trough, I left the last members of our group and soloed out of the Trough on easy 5th class rock. This was one of the best parts of the climb for me as it was more challenging and exciting.
From the top of the rock I had climbed I could see all the members of the Team and that everyone was doing well. There was no way to get lost in this section since all that was required was to follow the person in front of you so I continued climbing the more technical rock that formed the right side of the Trough. I eventually ended up in the next gully south and followed that to the top of the Trough. I then traversed over to the very top of the Trough and waited for the team to catch up. The top of the Trough is blocked by a 15 foot boulder that must be climbed. When some of our team arrived, I climbed down to them and climbed up directly behind them to assure them that they were not going to fall. It was perhaps the hardest technical section of the ascent.
After the Trough, the Ledges must be negotiated. The Ledges sound more intimidating than they are. But there is a short section that is only two feet wide where falling could easily be fatal. By now, I was fairly sure that we were all going to summit as long as no one balked at the last two sections. Well... one of our group had sat there looking at the exposed section for too long and had become unsure, which leads to fear, which leads to statements like "I AM NOT GOING ANY FARTHER!" Luckily, a little conversation and my offer to carry their pack across the Ledges was enough to coax them onward and after 15 minutes of scrambling across the South side of the mountain, we stood below the last major obstacle... the Homestretch.
Looking up the Homestretch.
The Homestretch is a slab of rock that comprises that final 300 feet of the climb. It is about 30 degrees and fairly polished due to all the hands and boots that have traveled this route. It was not too bad though and eventually, everyone make they way up the rock.
ALL TEN OF US SUMMATED!
After a nap, some food and water, and some time spent enjoying the views (looking west | looking north down at the Boulderfield and out trail from the top | looking south) it was time to head down. We had two options. We could go down the way we came (Keyhole route) or we could go down the Loft. The Loft is the saddle between Long's Peak and Mount Meeker. I conveyed the advantages and disadvantages to our group and it was eventually decided that we would go down the Loft. As we left the summit, we picked up another hiker named Paul. Paul had been visiting from Chicago and was looking a little terrified at the prospect of descending alone. He jumped at the chance to go down with our group. And then there were eleven.
The descent was a little looser than what we had climbed in the Trough but there were not 50 people above us knocking rocks down so I felt safer. Still, I think a few members of our group were a little overwhelmed with this section and patients were starting to wear thin. At this point we had been hiking for about 12 hours. I had only been in this area once and I knew there was a critical turn that we would have to make. With this in mind, I was running ahead of the group about 1/4 mile at a time to scout the route and then coming back to the group to make sure everyone was going the right way. This earned me the name of Scout from the group. I had already received the names of Guide and Sherpa for leading the hike and for carrying multiple peoples packs at various times respectively. Now I was the Sherpa/Guide/Scout.
We eventually made it to the Loft and regrouped. Several members of our team were getting a little fed up with our route at this point and things were going downhill fast. Paul was moving so slowly I was afraid he was going to pass out and several other members were no longer having the best time. Another member of our team was fighting off some GI distress and all of our feet were getting sore. The problem was that we still had 6 miles to hike and 4000 feet of elevation to lose.
The next hour was not pretty. It involved descending a boulder field for 1000 feet and traversing on 3 foot wide ledges in several sections. Tempers were being lost and I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my role of guide. To say I was not popular with everyone in our group for that hour or so would be an understatement. It started to get be down a little until I realized that this was the biggest thing that most of them had ever done. I kept my distance from those that were angry and helped those that wanted my help. Despite all this, I was becoming more and more amazed with three members of our group. One was fighting off GI Distress and was still maintaining a positive attitude. One had bad knees which were really hurting by now, and the last was Paul, who moved at turtle speed and was visibly hurting yet kept saying "this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. These three became my heroes for the day and kept my spirits up.
Looking east at Twin Sisters Mountain from the trail.
We did eventually get back to the trail and, several hours later, stumbled into the trailhead. The day had taken us 17.5 hours. Everyone was beat. Everyone's feet hurt. Everyone was hungry. Most people were swearing off ever doing something like that again. Still, only hours later, after a good meal in Estes Park, everyone was ecstatic to have completed such a grand adventure.