It’s funny how someone’s idea of a good time can change radically in a few years. On a weekend in college, you might have found me in the Taco Bell drive-thru line at 2 a.m. after a night out with friends. This past Friday night I was in bed at 9:00 p.m. reading Anna Karenina, with my alarm clock set for 2 a.m. Why would any sane person wake up at 2 a.m.? Well most sane people probably wouldn’t wake up at 2 a.m. but my cousin Jen and I had big plans to hike Longs Peak, a 14er that I have been dying to do for the past three years.
Once in a blue moon I climbed Longs Peak.
Longs Peak is an absolutely classic Colorado hike that commands respect from visitors and locals alike. The end of the hike is considered a Class 3 route, and it’s a pretty long 14er at 15 miles roundtrip so it definitely requires some preparation. I have had kind of a big summer of hiking 14ers, and Longs Peak was going to be my ninth 14er ascent of the summer. I had never actually done a 14er above a Class 2 but shoot I figured I was ready!
There are basically two strategies to approaching a Longs Peak climb: 1) you can camp at the Boulderfield below the Keyhole or 2) you can wake up at an ungodly early time and do the whole hike in one shot. Since Jen and I are apparently masochists, we decided to wake up at an ungodly time and do the hike in one shot. After a 3 hour “nap” (I wouldn’t really call it a solid night’s rest), Jen and I stumbled out of Boulder at 2:25 a.m. I tried to convince my body to wake up with a Starbucks energy drink which at least helped me reach a state of mild functionality. Alas Jen and I were far from the only crazy ones up at 3:30 a.m. When we pulled in the parking lot, it was completely full and we had to park nearby on the side of the road. Typical Colorado. We ended up on the trail with our headlamps on at 3:40 a.m.
The first bit of the hike through the forest passed fairly quickly. Jen and I both got into the zone as we hiked by headlamp for a couple of hours. Compared to some other 14ers I have recently hiked (I’m looking at you ShavTab) the ascent was fairly gentle. Jen and I also had the fortune of hiking under the blue moon which I’d like to say was due to our excellent planning abilities but was actually a complete coincidence. The hike is uneventful until the Boulderfield, which is 6.4 miles from the trailhead, and just before we reached the Boulderfield, the sun started to peek through the horizon. It’s a good thing Jen and I are family because I was definitely being the most annoying person ever, stopping to take pictures every two seconds.
The coolest part about the sunrise was the glow of the horizon gleaming off of Longs Peak. It kind of took my breath away the first time I saw Longs before the Boulderfield. She’s a beauty.
The Keyhole Route
The fun part of the hike to Longs Peak really starts at the Boulderfield, which Jen and I reached just before 7 a.m. At that point we had been hiking non-stop for about three hours, so we decided maybe it was time for a quick break before starting the more technical parts of the hike. There’s some backcountry camping sites at the Boulderfield, and many campers were waking up just as Jen and I were arriving. It was chilly in the Boulderfield, and I was elated when Jen pulled a thermos of coffee out of her pack to share with me. I had stupidly forgotten to pack my gloves, and my hands were really cold. As soon as we finished the coffee, we headed across the Boulderfield up to the iconic Keyhole.
If you look in the first picture that I posted of Longs above the Keyhole is the tiny little notch on the far right. The Keyhole Route goes up to the Keyhole, then crosses to the backside of the peak. From the Keyhole, there are rocks marked with red and yellow bullseyes that you follow up to the next sections of the hike called the Trough and the Narrows. It’s kind of crazy because although the actual route from the Boulderfield to the summit is only 1.1 miles it takes forever because of the technical sections.
I felt comfortable during the whole hike but I probably would not have felt comfortable if I didn’t have rock climbing experience. The Class 3 sections demand a certain level of comfort moving about on rocks, particularly since the consequences of a misstep are huge.
We summited a little before 10 a.m. The view from the top was amazing, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how cool it is to be eye-level with clouds.
The summit on the top of Longs is huge and basically the size of a football field. On some 14er summits, there is barely room for 10 people to move around. This was the opposite of the Longs Peak summit. After eating some tuna and crackers – nothing says good morning like tuna before 10 a.m. – Jen and I started the climb back down. Heading down from Longs was about ten times harder than climbing up. There were some really steep sections that made it challenging to down climb. By the time we got back to the Boulderfield, I was excited to be back on a normal trail.
Since we had spent the morning hiking by headlamp, the hike down from the Boulderfield was a brand new experience. In the wee hours of the morning, I had no idea what our surroundings actually looked like. As it turned out, the mountains around us were beautiful.
The final two miles of the hike were a little painful on my knees, and I was glad when we finally got back to the trailhead. It had been an 11 hour journey when all was said and done.
Longs Peak was an absolutely beautiful hike and a fun experience, completely worth waking up at 2 a.m. I would definitely do it again! However, it is also a peak that needs to be respected. This is Paula getting her serious face on now. I did not find it physically taxing, but there are for sure technical sections of the hike that someone not confident in their hiking abilities should think carefully about. Because it does take a long time from the Keyhole to the summit, the hike also involves a lot of time at altitude. I’m not trying to dissuade people from doing this hike, but I encourage people to assess how they’re feeling at the Keyhole. Since Longs Peak is such a classic climb, I think there is a tendency to not take it seriously enough. There are many more technical 14ers in Colorado than Longs Peak, but I think most of the people that wander to Crestone are prepared for the climb. Not everyone that makes their way to Longs Peak is prepared, and the consequences of a wrong step up to Longs Peak are not worth the beauty of the summit. My honest opinion is that if you want to do Longs Peak you need to have done at least one Class 2 14er and have some nominal/basic experience rock climbing. I’m not super girl. I don’t even think I would have had any business doing Longs Peak three years ago. There are plenty of other awesome hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and easier 14ers along the front range that people should be doing. Just because thousands of tourists make it to the summit of Longs every year doesn’t mean that they do it safely! Okay lecture over. Happy hiking!