|Backpack||24.50 Miles||5 Days |
|6,500 ft AEG|
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|An article in a magazine titled "The Ten Best Walk-ups in the World" was the seed. I had never taken a plane flight by myself, nor had I climbed a real mountain yet. I was almost 20 and it was time.
Longs Peak, the only Fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park, was first officially summited by John Wesley Powell and his surveying crew in 1868, though Native Americans claim to have used it's 14,259' peak to gather Ceremonial Eagle Feathers for generations. It's Keyhole Route is considered a Class 3 scramble, but narrow ledges and serious exposure claim an average of 2 lives a year - something I neglected to tell my parents at the airport.
I arrived in Denver, taking a bus to Estes Park, where I wandered around a bit, poking my head in the Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for the fictional Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's The Shining. Very cool.
I returned to the bus stop, thinking I could take a bus further into the park, which I found I could not. Fortunately, one of the drivers assured me it was safe to hitch hike, which I did (sorry Mom). An older couple took me to the campground near the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and wished me luck. I set up my tiny single-wall Boy Scout tent in the dark and tried to sleep, but the excitement of the day and what tomorrow would bring kept me up all night.
At dawn I took the shuttle to the trailhead and set off, amazed at the size of the mountains all around me. The weather was cool and the skies were clear and I soon reached Alberta Falls, a torrent of white crashing down from boulder to boulder. Soon after I came to a split in the trail that didn't seem to fit. I must have looked confused, because a beautiful girl in a black Steelers T-shirt cut off about 10 inches above her navel with amazing muscular legs asked me if I was lost and we ended up talking for a while. She had once done Longs Peak before going to work, and knew the area like the back of her hand. She pointed me in the right direction and we parted ways, leaving me totally Lovestruck.
In a daze, I wandered higher on the trail, making it about 4 miles before taking a break as the daily afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. I was just below tree line, and huddled under a downed pine in my poncho until it passed. I made it another 2 miles before the thin air started taking it's toll. Then 1 mile. Then about one half. At mile 8 or 9 I could see the boulder field where I would camp at 13,000', but could only walk about 50 yards at a time before putting my hands on my knees and sucking wind. It was dark when I arrived and set up camp, boiling water with my clunky Optimus 8R and eating dinner - noticing the other mountaineering tents with my flashlight. I crawled into my tent and was out like a light.
Until the winds arrived for real. My 2 pole didn't stand a chance, collapsing with little resistance. I gathered rocks to anchor the stakes, but that only lasted for a while, and once again my tent collapsed and pounded me with each flap. After a third attempt, I gave up, putting tissue in my ears and curling up in the thrashing orange nylon until the wind finally subsided in the morning. I emerged exhausted, but after clearing my eyes the morning sun illuminated where I was and the adrenaline started to flow. The views were huge, above and below, I already felt like I was on top of the world.
I ate breakfast and made my way across the boulder field following the "Eggs" (a red dot of paint inside a larger yellow dot that act as trail markers) to the Keyhole, a dramatic rock flake that is the namesake of the route. Passing through, I then made my way up the Trough, a 600 foot couloir, followed by the Narrows, where things got wild. The trail clung to the edge of sheer rock, with a lethal fall one false step away. I watched a few others first, and saw how they did it, taking my time but still breathing hard. Finally I reached the Homestretch, steep but not quite as deadly, and I was on top! I had read you see an area the size of Ohio from the top, and I believed it, what a view!
I knew it was important to get down as quickly as possible before the afternoon storms, so I took a few pictures and made my way back, flying down the Trough in no time. I was at the Keyhole well before the storm, so I decided to bop over to the Chasm Lake Overlook, where I had an amazing view of the Diamond, Longs Peak's 900' vertical rock face. The clouds moved in and I found a huge boulder for shelter, huddling underneath as rain, hail and thunder crashed all around. I was loving every minute.
When it was clear I returned to camp, where I improved the circular rock windbreak and piled about 200 pounds of rocks on my tent guy lines. I ate dinner and was out cold. Somehow my tent survived the night's gale, and I actually slept through most of it as well.
In the morning I decided to try the old Cables Route, which looked reasonable from where I stood. The European-style cables had been removed due to lightning hazard years ago, but the anchor points remained, and I had heard it could be free-climbed. Higher and higher I climbed, youthful ignorance blinding me to the ever increasing danger. I was climbing at the edge of my ability, thinking that just because the slope was not completely vertical I was O.K. I had done so little climbing I wasn't even aware of how much harder it would be to down climb if I needed to back down. Dumb.
Fortunately, the slope eased and I scrambled to the summit once again, returning wisely via the Keyhole Route and crashing at camp for the rest of the afternoon and evening, enjoying the Marmots, who seemed oblivious to humans.
Once again my tent survived the night and I packed up camp in the morning. The hike down was a breeze, and I spent the night below tree line, where I shared a campfire with a rather friendly group from Denver. We finished the last of the freeze-dried, and then passed around a sticky dessert. The sunset bathed the mountains above us in a golden glow as we recounted our adventures, the flames sending sparks in a swirling dance into the deepening blue above.
|The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar.|
It was tense.