|Longs Peak is a Colorado icon. For decades it was considered the "Matterhorn of America", a towering, unclimbable summit ringed with cliffs and jagged spires. Indeed, it was first scaled in 1868, only three years after the Matterhorn. It's on the state quarter, it's the most climbed mountain in the state and probably in the whole Rockies, and thousands of sneaker-clad tourists scale it's 14,255' summit every summer. Despite its popularity, Longs is not an easy ascent, even by the standard Keyhole route requiring 16 miles of hiking, third-class scrambling on narrow ledges near fantastic drop-offs, and 4800 vertical feet of ascent. I've lived in Colorado for two years and see this storied mountain every day. The fact that I've never climbed it makes me feel somehow unworthy and less than a man. Of course, I can't do anything the easy way....|
There's this thing on Longs Peak called the Keiners Route. It's shorter than the standard Keyhole tourist route and significantly more technical. Gerry Roach describes it as "possibly the premier mountaineering route in the entire state" with a spectacular approach and varied climb of snow and rock at about a 5.4 level. It starts with a 4 mile trudge on the well-groomed trail up to Chasm Lake, a sheltered lake at 11,600' nestled below the mind-boggling 2500' face of the Longs' sheer east face. From there, you skirt left across the Mills Glacier at the base of the east face and climb Lambs Slide, a steep couloir permanently filled with snow. From this scary position, things only get worse. Traverse across the middle of the face on the Broadway Ledge which is less than a foot wide in places before climbing a couple hundred feet of technical rock. Finish off with a bunch of 3rd-class scrambling up the edge of the famous Diamond and a final bit of 5.4 climbing to the summit. It's not too hard, but committing and potentially very serious. Once you get up Lamb's Slide, the fastest way off the route is to go up and over the summit.
I've been fascinated with Keiners for the better part of a year and have been pouring over route information and photos and gauging my ability and nerve. I can deal with each individual component of the climb (the long approach, the snow climb, the technical rock pitches, the altitude), but stringing it all together is something beyond my experience and comfort level. Fortunately, courage is bolstered by like-minded company. I teamed up with fellow mountaineers Chris Gerber and Peter Sanders for the endeavor. We haven't done a hard trip together before, but they come with good credentials from mutual friends and I've done several casual trips with them. Also, Chris climbed Keiners eleven years ago and claimed to know the route. No problem! I would take point on the technical climbing, Chris would navigate, and Peter would provide the color commentary.
Longs Peak and Mount Meeker at 4am by moonlight.
Above treeline, moon and starlight faintly revealed the bulk of Longs and its attendant summits looming in the west. The Delta Aquariid meteors streaked amongst the impressivly bright stars and there was barely a breath of wind. To the east, the vast orange lights of the greater Front Range metropolis stretched to the horizon. By 5 am, we'd diverged from the main trail at Sky Potty Junction (aka, Mills Moraine) and made it to Chasm Lake. In the early twilight, we paused for a bite to eat. So far, so good. We were hiking fast and confidently.
Sunrise from Chasm Lake is an awesome experience. The Diamond looms huge above and suddenly turns bright pink for about a minute as the sun clears the prairie. In climbing terms, the Diamond is the Holy Grail of alpine rock in the state. It's a sheer granite face over a thousand feet high with and the easiest route (the "Casual Route") is rated at 5.10, so far above my climbing level as to be ludicrous. Keiners flirts with the Diamond wandering along it's lower left and upper left edges without ever venturing onto its vertiginous face. After a long and contemplative time at the lake, we shouldered our packs and climbed around massive talus on the north shore to meet our destiny. We eagerly took to the first snow of the day and ascended Mills Glacier, ready to climb. Points were donned, layers were shed, and we assumed climbing mode for the next unknown number of hours.
The awesome East Face of Longs from Chasm Lake just after sunrise. The Diamond is the huge, sheer upper parts. Our route winds up the left side and across the top of the photo.
The Mills Glacier and Lambs Slide (left) lead up to the Broadway Ledges (CG)
We spent a very strenuous hour making our way up Lambs Slide. The angle was a consistent 45 degrees and every time we found a yard-wide depression with a slightly lesser angle, we paused to rest our weary calves. We were committed now. The idea of trying to downclimb that steep snow filled us with dread. Softer snow could have been nicely glissaded or backstepped, but this hard stuff was an invitation to a long, exciting ride onto the rocks below. In retrospect, we should have roped up here so that a slip by one of us could be arrested in the hard snow by all three. Snow protection such as pickets would have been a good idea as well.
Peter and I start up the steep snow/ice of Lambs Slide (CG)
Chris pauses half way up Lambs Slide.
Racking up on Broadway with Lambs Slide in the distance (PKS).
Chasm Lake and the Mills Moraine from Broadway (PKS)
Meanwhile, a party of two (who we will call "John" and "Diane" since that was their names) arrived behind us and started to climb in parallel with us. John was leading fast on a 60 meter rope while we were using a 70 (but with three people, in essence, a pair of 35 meter ropes). I let him climb through figuring they would quickly outdistance us and everything would be hunky-dory. I followed John's line up the edge of the ridge on the north side of the prominent Notch Couloir. The going was pretty easy and I found it pretty casual until an interesting overhanging chockstone chimney problem. I set up a belay in a deep chimney near a piton, about 20' down-pitch from John at the top of the chimney. I brought Peter up as John brought Diane up. Both Diane and Peter had limitted multipitch climbing experience before and there was some confusion as to mechanics. Ropes became tangled and people couldn't get through the chockstone problem. Eventually all five of us were stuffed into the narrow (and very cold, I might add) chimney wondering what to do next.
This fantastically exposed bit of traverse is the crux of Broadway. Peter hugs the rock as Chris and I each belay him across (CG).
Congestion at the top of the first technical pitch. Chris and Peter hang out waiting for Diane and John to figure something out.
Peter and Chris emerge from the last of the technical pitches, ready for some good, unroped scrambling.
The last obstacle to the summit is this "staircase" at the top of the Diamond. Each step is about shoulder high from the last, but it's actually pretty easy (CG).
Peter clears the staircase with Mount Meeker in the distance.
Chris finishes cleaning the last of my gear (PKS).
Not far above was the third-class terrain reported in the route beta. We unroped and started scrambling up easy, chunky, and occasionally loose terrain. We passed John and Diane still roped up and pitching it out up this easy terrain. I scrambled up, meeting a few hard-man Diamond climbers, and made it to the base of the ultimate cliff band below the summit. The others took a little longer to arrive (hey, I go uphill really fast, okay?), and I revelled in the insane exposure off the tip of the Diamond. Chasm Lake looked incredibly far away and it was hard to believe we'd been there a full eleven hours ago. Uggg!
Chris and Peter hove into view and I set to work leading the final bit of technical stuff. It wasn't immediately obvious, but the route followed a series of shoulder-high blocks arranged in a huge staircase winding back and forth. I placed some nice pro and did a surprisingly easy mantle move; certainly much easier than it looked from below. Stepping right, I found myself at the tip of the Diamond and within easy, non-technical striking distance of the summit. Everyone came up and we trudged to the summit arriving at 4:30.
The heart of Rocky Mountain National Park from near the summit.
Scrambling up the last talus to the summit with Mount Lady Washington far below.
The plus side of such a late arrival is that we had the summit completely to ourselves (except for John and Diane who arrived shortly after we did). After all the tall spires, sheer cliffs, and unexpected chasms that surround Longs Peak on all sides, the summit is a startling large, flat expanse of blonde boulders and lichen. Our only company was a large, well-fed marmot who stood guard on the highest point but beat a hasty retreat at my purposeful approach. The usual summit triumph was tempered by the fact that we only had another couple hours of daylight with a long and technical descent still to do. My traditional barbaric yawp was somewhat anemic and hollow. Thoughts of Mallory and Irvine filled me with apprehension. Worse, I recalled that the first ascent of this route was done by Walter Keiner and Agnes Vaille in 1925 and that Agnes died on the descent! The five of us inloaded some calories and the remainder of some luke-warm coffee, took some photos, and set off for the North Face rapells.
Chris lead the way down a bewildering, nasty slope of loose, slabby rock. Supposedly, the North Face is the fastest way off the summit, but in these conditions, I now have my doubts. The going was extremely tricky and tedious. Chris finally located the top eye-bolt of the technical section and rigged the rope for the first rap. John and Diane took off and we rigged things separately requiring three separate rapells to get down to a rocky bench below the slabs. From here it was a steep snow slope down to the Boulderfield far below. The snow was quite steep and slushy and hid a dense shell of ice! I didn't fancy trying to downclimb that, especially in our tired state. We rigged the rope around a large boulder and rapped down to the end of the rope. From here, we managed to pendulum across the nasty snowfield to the solid rock at the edge of Chasm View; rather a 3rd-class scramble at the edge of a thousand foot, overhung cliff than risk a long slide and messy death amongst the jagged rocks!
The sun was nearly down and the light was fading. Chris had told his wife that we would be back by 8pm (which seemed fairly plausible at the time), yet here it was 8:30 and we still had 500' of talus to climb down followed by six miles of trail hiking! Cell phones didn't work here (inexplicably) and Chris was worried that Susan might call out an unneccessary and embarrassing rescue. He took off for the trailhead at a fantastic rate (he goes downhill the way I go uphill) while Peter and I took a more measured pace. By total darkness, we'd made it to the rough trail leading out of the Boulderfield's chaotic rocks. All that was left was a 6-mile death march down to the cars.
Peter stands at the top of the Keyhole (standard) route with the Indian Peaks in the distance (CG).
Chris raps out on the Cables Route as the sun dips below the horizon. We still have a long way to go tonight!
It wasn't pleasant despite the incredible sunset and spectacular starry skies. Our feet were howling and we were at the edge of gibbering exhaustion. We kept up a good banter to ward off sleepiness, but I knew that if we stopped, we probably wouldn't start up again. We wondered if we'd meet the first of Friday's hikers on their early-morning way up the trail. In due, painful course, we got back to Chasm Junction, got back below tree line, and finally spied the lights of the trailhead. Chris limped up the trail to meet us as we staggered in, looking like the walking dead. The time was exactly midnight and we'd done 13 miles and a stunning 5000 vertical feet in 21 hours. Chris drove us back to Boulder and dropped me off at my house at 1:15, exactly 24 hours since he picked me up.
Everyone asks "Was it fun?" It's hard to say definitively yes or no. Keiners was long planned as the pinnacle of my climbing season. I spent hours researching the route and planning training trips to address one aspect or another of this committing route, but the reality was surprisingly anticlimactic. The climbing was pretty easy and I felt entirely within my comfort zone the whole time. Either my comfort zone has expanded after previous trips this season, or it just wasn't that hard. Sure, it was a very long day with nearly 14 hours of total mental focus and more than that of extreme physical exertion, but I never felt I was taking a new category of risk. The whole experience was extremely self-affirming and built a new degree of confidence in my abilities. From a pure aesthetics point of view, the scenery was stupendous and Chris and Peter were first-rate, kindred partners. It's also satisfying (especially in retrospect) to have completed something so physically demanding. Chris's heart rate monitor watch calculates energy expenditure pretty accurately and it was registering something above 12,000 calories burned. Holy cow! It's great to finally conquer Longs Peak after so many trips in the area and seeing it looming over Boulder for two years.
On the minus side was the extreme pain. Friday I limped around like a saddlesore cowboy and now, four days later, I still haven't regained feeling in my left toes. We got very, very lucky that the weather was so cooperative. Summitting at 4:30 is not very smart and it was only by chance that we didn't have to bivy on the route. Knowing what we do now, there are many ways we could have sped up the climb. We should have roped up for a lot less of the climb (one move on Broadway, three pitches on the route itself). We should have followed Chris's suggestion and brought two ropes sixty-meter ropes, despite the weight allowing for longer pitches and less time-consuming rope management shenanigans; a 70 meter rope is longer than usual, but 35 meters is not very much at all. We also wasted at least an hour trying to figure out the easiest route off Broadway rather than just taking the obvious route straight up the arette. Gear-wise, I guessed pretty well: a full set of nuts and five cams (BD Camalots #.4, #.5, #1, #2, #3). Lambs Slide was far more dangerous than we'd anticipated and we should have roped up for this part, maybe even used snow pro. Descending the North Face took 4 tortuous hours and I have a lot of difficulty believing that this is the fastest route off the summit. In these conditions, it can't have been longer to take the Keyhole or Loft routes. The Loft would have also avoided a long and painful slog through the Boulderfield and Granite Pass, but added further technical difficulty on the way down.
Live and learn. For the moment, I am done with Long's Peak but cherish the memories of my first summit trip and hardest trip to date.
The Wilderness Journal