Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Longs Peak

Some time back, while cycling on Peak-to-Peak Highway, I saw the signs pointing the way to the Longs Peak trail and ranger station.  I thought to myself that I should climb a 14er in the near future.  I mentioned this idea to my friend and coworker, Jim, who turned out to be planning a hike up Longs with his old buddy John, so he invited me to come along.

Most folks who want to hike up Longs Peak do so from the trail head off of Highway 7.  There are a few campgrounds along that route, but they were all full, so we made reservations to stay at Boulder Brook, accessible from inside the Rocky Mountain National Park.

John on the trail to camp
Friday afternoon we checked in at the ranger station for our back-country pass, and after supper at the Estes Park Brewery, we headed into RMNP.  We hit the trail from the Bierstadt Lake parking area and hiked about three miles to our campsite.  It was around 8 p.m. when we arrived, but we were able to get our camp set up before night fell.

I discovered early on that I would not have to worry about my camera's battery running out during the trip, because it was still on the charger at home.  That was disappointing, but my phone's camera takes decent pictures, so I didn't worry about it too much.

For one reason or another, I didn't sleep much at all that night.  Along with my camera battery, I also forgot to bring a pillow.  But a couple of shirts in my sleeping bag's stuff sack served reasonably well, so discomfort wasn't the main issue.  At any rate, when the alarm clock went off at 3 a.m., I was feeling none too rested.  We had breakfast, packed our day packs, and were on the trail by 4, hiking by the light of our head lamps and a waning gibbous moon.

Hiking in the dark is a fairly strange experience, especially when the return trip would be made in full daylight.  I could tell that we were going through some very pretty scenery and looked forward to being able to actually see it on the way back down.

Longs Peak viewed from the Boulder Field
We reached the Boulder Field as day was breaking behind us.  It was just after 6 a.m.  By 6:45 we had scrambled and rock-hopped up to the Keyhole - a landmark notch in the ridge which leads to the western face of the mountain.  The view of Glacier Gorge from there was beautiful.

From there on out, I got a good first taste of what it means to climb a 14er.  I didn't really know what to expect, but Longs Peak did not disappoint.  We traversed the ledge running south to the Trough, scrambled up, and were treated to some more fantastic views.  The next traverse is the Narrows, a ledge which goes eastward along the south face of the mountain.  And finally, the Home Stretch, which despite its cheerful name is the steepest, slipperiest pitch of the route.  Still, it wasn't too bad and was quite a bit of fun.
Jim on Longs Peak summit

It was around 8:30 when we reached the summit.  There are times when achieving a goal makes the effort to get there feel worth it.  But in this case, I felt like the effort was better than reaching the goal.  There are some nice views from up there, to be sure, but the top of Longs Peak is just a big flat area with a bunch of boulders strewn about the place.  It does make for a good place to sit, enjoy a bite to eat, and reflect on things for a while before heading back down.

The descent goes much the same as the way up.  I was beginning to feel pretty tired, and I knew it was a bad time to start getting sloppy.  And I didn't want to be the cause of any rocks falling on the folks down below, so I was being pretty cautious.  John later accused me of being much wussier at down-climbing than I was on the way up, which is probably a fair assessment.  But we made it off the mountain without incident, so I feel like any criticism along those lines is strictly academic.

As mentioned, part of what's weird about hiking in the dark is going back over the same trail in the light. I didn't really recognize much of the terrain on the way back, and my perception of time was altogether different than it had been earlier that morning.  So I had a constant nagging in the back of my head that we were going the wrong way.  But my hopes for wondrous scenery were fulfilled and helped take my mind off of my aching muscles and joints.

Valley below the trail back to camp
We had hoped to return to camp by noon, but it was about an hour later than that when we finally got back to our tent.  We had hoped to have time for some food and coffee before packing up and going the last stretch back to the car.  But there were other campers waiting for us to vacate, so we just broke camp as quickly as we could and got back on the trail.

The whole reason for striking out so early was to avoid the inevitable afternoon thunderstorms, and our timing could not have been better.  There was some light sprinkling while we were on the trail, but we were safe and sound by the time the rain began in earnest.  We stopped at Oscar Blues in Lyons for a late lunch, or early supper, depending on how you look at it.  By the time I was in my own vehicle driving home, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling great.

Jeremy on Longs Peak summit

1 comment:

  1. Geez, reading this... gave me pangs something fierce down in my derby kelly. Thanks for recording it. I always like galloping on the way back down. Being one with the deer. And lastly Oscar Blues. Fantastic! I note that their fine brews are even being served (yes, from the can) in haughty beer halls in San Francisco right along side Trappist ales.