The art of the climb: Tackling Longs Peak
July 13, 2017
A short way east of Grand County rises an imposing figure, a massive pyramid of rock towering high above the vast plains stretching out to the east.
Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, named for pre-Civil War Army engineer Stephen Long, is the tallest mountain in the northern Front Range and the only Colorado Fourteener, a mountain reaching over 14,000 feet above sea level, north of I-70. From late spring through late fall Longs Peak becomes a mecca for climbers of all experience levels looking to summit the 14,259 foot heights. While climbing Longs is a manageable task nearly every year folks lose their lives trying for the top.
To safely ascend Longs folks need to be prepared for both the rigors and dangers of scaling one of Colorado's deadlier mountains. Fortunately though, with proper preparation and planning you will be able to bag one of Colorado's most legendary peaks, and make it safely back to your vehicle.
There are around a dozen Fourteeners in fairly close proximity to Grand County. Most folks can easily tackle several of them, like Grays and Torreys, where elevation alone is the biggest challenge. Others, like Longs, are more technical scrambles not suitable for unaccompanied beginners.
On their website Rocky Mountain National Park notes ascending Longs is not a hike. "It is a climb, that crosses enormous sheer vertical rock faces, often with falling rocks, requiring scrambling, where are an unroped fall would likely be fatal. The route has narrow ledges, loose rocks and steep cliffs."
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While the seriousness of climbing Longs should serve as a warning inspiring caution the climb is not overly technical and does not require ropes, carabineers or other climbing equipment often associated with big walls.
BEGINNING THE ASCENT
First things first, unless you are an seasoned mountain climber, in which case this article isn't really for you, get a climbing buddy if you are going to tackle Longs. Longs is not a good choice for a first Fourteener.
Climbing Longs is distinctly more dangerous than strolling through the Fraser Experimental Forest on a Sunday afternoon. Stick to the buddy system and make sure friends and family know you are heading to Longs. Make sure they also have a time to expect you back.
Once you have a hiking partner decide if you want to camp out overnight close by or if you will be getting up early and driving over Trail Ridge Road to begin your journey. Whatever decision you make bear in mind Longs is a heavily trafficked trail so parking can be limited after early morning. Also consider the regular occurrence of afternoon thunderstorms.
The general wisdom of climbing Longs is to start early, very early. Most guide books I have read suggest beginning the hike around 2 or 3 a.m. and recommend reaching the fabled Keyhole by about sunrise, summiting no later than 10 a.m. Be prepared to spend at least 10 hours on the trail, if not more.
GEAR IS NEEDED
Do not climb Longs if you do not have the proper equipment. You should not need ropes, harnesses or climbing shoes but good quality hiking boots with plenty of grip and traction will be essential. Additionally you will want to be prepared with warm clothing, rain gear and plenty of water; high altitude dehydration, and the fatigue and poor decision making that accompanies it, are things you will absolutely want to avoid. Also keep a few lightweight snacks on hand to stave off hunger; its hard to enjoy those majestic views with your stomach rumbling.
MAKING THE CLIMB
There are several routes up Longs but by far the most popular is the Keyhole Route. The trail is lengthy at 14.5 miles but the real hurdle is the elevation gain, at 5,100 feet. It can be mentally draining so be prepared. You will have roughly five miles of trail hiking through the forest before you reach the actual Keyhole and begin ascending the mountain proper.
There are multiple exposed ledges going up the Keyhole Route so take your time and make sure of your footing with each step. If you are climbing up Longs on a busy summer day keep and eye out on folks climbing above you, falling rocks can create a real danger on high traffic days.
Last of all remember to fight off summit fever. Nearly every year someone dies attempting Longs. In many cases those individuals kept climbing after severe weather moved into the area. Remember, it is not lightning alone that can kill you on Longs, heavy wind gusts can and do blow climbers right off the mountain, sending them plummeting to their deaths.
If you find yourself in a questionable situation turn back and just remember, the mountain will still be there next year, and you were only going to hike back down anyways. Stay safe out there.