We were just getting to the boulder field when the sky opened up. Freezing sleet quickly turned into snow and soon our visibility was next to zero. Having been up the mountain and turned away by ice before I knew this was not good. I looked at my companion and let him know we were not going to make it up this peak. We were young, foolish, and unprepared for the weather. That plus the most technical part of the climb was ahead and there was no way we were getting it done with a blizzard coming down. Long’s Peak escaped my grasp a second time and no one was as upset about it as I was but I couldn’t risk putting anyone else in danger for my personal vendetta.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that I had an opportunity to attack the mountain again. Injury and life had gotten in the way the past 5 years but finally, my friend James and I had an ascent planned, and during the 2017 eclipse too. I may be using the word plan loosely as we really had a date when we were both off and we were packed, ready to backpack, and then hike a mountain and Long’s was on both our lists. So after some consideration of weather systems in the state during our planned climb, we settled on Long’s Peak.
We showed up to the trailhead on a Sunday afternoon and spoke to the Ranger at the station located there. He called in a backcountry permit for us and let us know that the boulder field was full but we could camp at Goblin’s Forest 1.5 miles up the trail. We agreed, paid the permit fee, and set off up the trail. After 1.5 miles of easy hiking, we saw our turn off and tromped down the trail towards the campground. After taking our pick of a few sites, we settled on one that seemed decently level and pitched our tents. After camp was set up we realized it was only 3 pm and we had nothing to do for hours until it got dark. I mentioned to him that there were some sights we could hike to back down the trail and we headed off.
About a mile back down the trail, we took a turn towards Eugenia Mine. The mine was established in 1905 by Carl Norwell who built a cabin and 1000 ft tunnel to bring out gold ore. He and his family lived there but the mine provided to be unfruitful and they abandoned the mine in 1919. Rocky Mountain National Park was created in 1915 but if the mine had been producing gold the park may have never included this area and maybe even Long’s Peak. Seeing the remnants was interesting and to think about that area before it became a National Park and the gold rush in Colorado was cool. We hiked up from the cabin to see the old rusted steam boiler and a large flat gravel landing for staging carts coming in and out of the mine. The trail continues further to Storm Pass and Glacier Basin but we had plenty of hiking to do so we headed back to camp, cooked up some grub and got ready for bed.
The next morning, we were up at 3:30 am. We got our gear prepped, retrieved our snacks for the day out of our bear canister and hit the trail lit by headlamps. We had 5 miles to the boulder field and we wanted to make good time. The trail from the trailhead to the boulder field is well maintained and heavily trafficked with 10,000 people a year walking up to at least that point so moving fast is doable. I do remember thinking it would suck to hike it with a full pack to camp up at the boulder field but we were just hoofing day packs.
We reached the boulder field at around 7 am and decided to stop for a quick rest and a bite to eat. From there we could see the key hole where we would cross to the other side of the mountain and begin the technical part of the climb. We could also see the Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter. A 10 ft tall stone hut built to honor Agnes Vaille, a famous female mountaineer who attempted the first winter ascent of the East Face of Long’s Peak. She reached the summit, but on the way down, in a blizzard, she fell 100 ft and was unable to continue. Her partner, Walter Kiener, left her sheltered in several huge boulders and went down for help. When he returned with a rescue party several hours later she was dead.
We scrambled and rock hopped away from the boulder field and towards the Key Hole. There is really no trail to speak of just some cairns that lead you in a general direction. Once at the top, we stopped at the hut for a quick rest and then pushed through the Key Hole and this is where things get a bit dicey. Once on the other side of the Key Hole, you notice a lot of cliffs and not a lot of walking room. This section is called the Ledges and it is where I was first chased off Long’s Peak back in scouts due to complete ice coverage. The ledges can be dangerous but they are pretty manageable for most attempting to summit.
At the end of the ledges section, you come to the trough. This part royally sucks. The trough is a class 3 climb fairly straight up on loose rock and we decided this was a good place for helmets. The climbing isn’t as technical as it is grueling but the loose rock makes it fairly dangerous. The rock underfoot gives way often making you lose your balance and adding time to your ascent. Near the top there is a class 4 wall you can climb that is only about 12 ft high. Once we reached the top of the trough we entered the area called the narrows. This is where you see a lot of exposure and a trip here would likely be your last.
Finally, after the narrows, we reached the home stretch. This is a very steep, slick, rock face with a crack in it about 18 inches wide. It basically looks like a slide to certain death as it bottoms out to a 1,000 ft cliff. While neither of us were super challenged by this section we were a bit weary of other hikers coming down in what could easily be a bad accident with one person falling and taking several others with them. But, after a short climb, we were on top of Long’s Peak at 14,259 ft. Unlike most of Colorado’s fourteeners which have a few jagged rocks at the summit with barely any room to stand, Long’s summit is about the size of a football field and a great place to hang out and eat some lunch before heading back down.
We busted out our eclipse glasses and noticed that the eclipse was at about 10% coverage. We also noticed a storm in the distance and while watching the eclipse from the summit would be cool we both opted to get back to at least the key hole area to watch, putting us lower on the mountain and closer to tree line should the skies open up. We hustled down all of the technical parts of the climb and I have to say I would not recommend that. We are both experienced mountaineers, climbers, and outdoor athletes. I could only imagine how sketchy that would be if the rock was wet with a storm on top of you. We popped through the key hole with minutes to spare before we got the most coverage possible from where we were at 96%. We took some time to rest and joined other hikers to sit and watch the eclipse. Even though it wasn’t a full eclipse from our viewpoint the mountain still got very dark and it was eerie for sure.
After that is was a fast hike back to camp to pack everything up and then back to the parking lot. James and I had climbed Maroon Peak last summer and this did not compare but you still feel a sense of accomplishment regardless. We headed into Lyons and stopped for a well-earned beer and some grub. As we sat there I couldn’t help but think about the 5 other routes you can take up Long’s that are much more technical. I have a feeling I will be back to tackle at least one of them. – Martin Upton