I climbed Longs Peak — 30 years ago
When a reader asked that I tell the story of my 1979 climb of Longs Peak, it occurred to me that I probably had the story in one of my old handwritten journals from back then and should just transcribe it. I thought I knew exactly where the journals were, but I couldn’t find them. Now I’m concerned they might have been lost during my last move. That would break my heart. That box contained at least three or four journals dating back to the ’60s and ’70s, in addition to many letters to and from my high school sweetheart and future husband. Already lost, I fear, is the commemorative rock my then-11-year-old son gave me for the climb. On a palm-sized stone he painted “Keep on going strong!” He also gave me an embroidered Longs Peak trail patch he bought while I was on the mountain. I still have it; it’s in a drawer about three feet away as I type.
I climbed Longs Peak in 1979, at age 36, and though I may not remember all the details with perfect accuracy, it remains an unforgettable experience. Without doubt it was the greatest adventure in my otherwise mundane life. And because I will surely forget even more details in the coming years, I’m writing down what I remember now.
Longs has been special in my life since my childhood, when my parents used to bring us to the Colorado Rockies from Oklahoma City every summer. The Rockies are, after all, the closest cool place to visit and stay in the summer. There was no air conditioning back then, and Oklahoma City is hot in the summer. For my parents, a place in the cool mountains where we kids could run and entertain ourselves all day for free was the perfect vacation solution.
We always stayed in either Estes Park or Allenspark, and Longs Peak is the dominant landmark in the area, the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. As an adult I continued to spend my vacations in the same area, and at some point I decided I wanted to climb Longs.
Finally, 1979 was to be the year. The cables up the north face had been removed in 1973 so I would have to take the longer Keyhole route. I upped my jogging mileage and frequency, knowing the climb would be strenuous and made more difficult by the higher altitude in Colorado. I spent the first week of the two-week vacation jogging around on local roads to get acclimatized (should have been doing windsprints with a pack on some steep trails!), and made plans with my brother (who lives in Boulder) to tackle the mountain together the next week. When he cancelled out at the last minute, I decided to go alone. I’d probably never be this well prepared again. Besides, it was late July, peak season for the mountain, and there would be many other people on the trail. I would make sure there was always someone behind me. (I’m not sure I was aware at the time that an average of two people a year die on Longs Peak.)
As I recall, I headed up from the trailhead at about 4:30 am, before sunrise, well aware of the advice to be off the summit by midday to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. I didn’t have a headlamp, but don’t recall visibility being a problem.
I wore my most comfortable jogging shoes in lieu of the crude, miserably uncomfortable hiking boots of the day, figuring comfortable feet were essential to success, and cut-offs in lieu of long pants. Jogging had taught me that long pants pull and bind over sweaty, wet knees. A brightly colored T-shirt for visibility (screaming yellow with a big black Nike logo), a bandana (all-in-one sweatband, bandage, splint, etc.). A light daypack with, as I recall, Band-Aids, first aid cream, water, trail mix, extra socks, extra shoelaces, a warm jacket, a topo map, a pocket knife. No camera. Cameras were too heavy, and besides, it wasn’t a picture-taking expedition.
I was ill-prepared by today’s standards and lucky to have had a warm, dry, calm day. Today I’d have a cellphone for emergency calls, photos, and map; trekking poles; maybe the now-recommended helmet. A proper pack. Space blanket. Great lightweight hiking boots. CamelBak. Goodness knows what gear is out there that I haven’t even heard of that would make the hike/climb safer. Probably nothing to make it easier, though.
I don’t recall what time I got up to the Boulderfield, but it was the first time I fully appreciated the scale of the mountain. I’d heard of the Boulderfield all my life, but I was thinking … a field of rocks, scree, or rubble like I’d seen elsewhere. No, the Boulderfield is a field of BOULDERS.
I was reminded of the many possible hazards up there when I passed a group of people trying to help a young man who was going into diabetic shock. Someone took off running down the mountain, straight down, not on the trail, to get help. I heard the rescue chopper long before I reached the summit.
I didn’t linger. I knew I was slow. But I hoped slow and steady would get me to the top. And the warnings about afternoon storms kept pushing me. I didn’t want to be above timberline if a storm blew in.
My brother had told me the climb doesn’t really begin until you pass the Keyhole, and he was right. Before the Keyhole, you walk upright. You hike. Then you scramble up to the Keyhole and from there on you’re boulder hopping, scrambling, watching where to plant each step, reaching out to steady yourself. It’s another mile to the top and there is no trail per se. You clamber over and around rocks and boulders, following red-and-yellow bullseye markers (known as “fried eggs” in ’79) painted on the rocks. And all the while you’re looking down, or trying not to look down, into Glacier Gorge dropping away 1,000 feet below you.
At some point I realized with despair that I was giving up hard-won elevation as I moved south across the Ledges. Then I got to the Trough and it went up — steeply — regaining the lost elevation and then some in brutal fashion. Hand over hand, looking for secure rocks to step on. Pushing up with the legs, pulling up with the hands. Avoiding the snow patches. I was exhausted and my legs and lungs were burning. But I’d come this far … summit fever. And ignorance. I knew how far I’d come. I didn’t really know how far I still had to go or how difficult it would be. I should have stopped at the Keyhole.
From the top of the Trough I inched carefully along a ledge appropriately called the Narrows. I hoped I didn’t have to pass someone coming down because a fall from there could only end … very badly. I tried not to look down. It’s steeper and smoother than the drop into Glacier Gorge.
Finally I was looking up at the Homestretch, a daunting, seemingly vertical stretch of several hundred feet. If I hadn’t been so close to the summit, I would never have considered climbing it. After all, there’s only the Narrows ledge to catch you if you fall. But everyone else was going up. And the summit was up. So I watched what they were doing, where they were stepping and grabbing, and I followed. Up.
Finally I was over the rim and on top. On the summit of Longs Peak. After thirty-some years of looking up at the summit, I was finally standing on it looking down. Wow.
That’s about all I had time for. One little wow. There was a register, a metal tube or pipe lodged in the rock into which people were stuffing scraps of paper with their names, hometowns, and the date. Maybe a few comments. I don’t recall if I’d taken a pencil and paper or if I found them there, but I did leave a note for posterity. Or at least the Park Service.
I hadn’t yet walked around the flat football-field-sized summit, admiring the view and finding the USGS marker at the peak’s high point. Back then the official elevation was 14,255 ft. above sea level. Subsequent surveys have upped that to 14,259 ft.
I didn’t have time to sit down and rest. Clouds had been building in the west as I scrambled onto the summit. Probably well before then. I know I felt a sense of urgency. And I’d no sooner stuffed my name into the pipe than someone yelled to get off the summit. Seconds later I was crouched in a crevice near the top of the Homestretch. I could feel the tingling in my scalp. Lightning is a killer in the mountains.
Fortunately there were no lightning strikes and it didn’t rain, so one by one we pried ourselves out of our respective holes and started the descent. I hurried, slowly. I’d climbed that sucker and now I wanted off! Down!
Down was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Far tougher than up. I’d spent everything getting to the top, and any mountaineer will tell you that’s only half the battle. So I was going down mostly on willpower. My legs were weak and shaky. I used my hands and arms as much as my legs to ease down and over boulders. On the way up, you can reach up or to the side. Going down, you have to bend down and reach down. Exhausting. The little daypack I carried was like a kid’s backpack, with no waist strap, so it kept threatening to slide up over my head. Trekking poles would have made much of the bending unnecessary, but hikers weren’t using them back then.
At some point near the summit, either going up or coming down, my hands got painfully cold and raw from grabbing boulders. The spare wool socks made great mittens.
I did eventually get down the mountain. One foot in front of the other. Knowing no one could do it for me. No one would carry me. Well, maybe they would have if I’d declared myself an emergency. But I had my pride. I needed to walk off that mountain on my own.
The Keyhole route is 16 miles round trip with a 4,850 ft. gain in elevation. It took me 12 hours. I couldn’t move for about 3 days afterwards. But I didn’t care. I’d climbed Longs Peak.
For a description of the Keyhole Route and annotated photos of the route, see 14ers.com.
More great photos at RonWalker.org (large photos that give you a great idea of the scale of the mountain). What an advantage today’s climbers have, with all the photos, videos, and information available online! I went up blind, with no idea what to expect.
More great photos and several short videos from an obviously serious climber and photographer. Glad I didn’t have to deal with the wind he faced.
The numbers have changed over time due in part , I’m sure, to more accurate GPS measurements. In 1979 the Keyhole Route was reportedly 16 miles round trip; I’ve noticed recent articles say 14 miles. Possibly the trail has been rerouted in some places to reduce environmental impact.
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