From 420 to 14,259 feet: Climbing in the Rocky Mountains

By Gabe Ryan,
home-schooled

This summer, my family and I took a trip to Colorado. We gave ourselves two weeks to see as much of the state as we could. Estes Park, a small resort town north of Denver, was our first destination. Estes Park was made famous because Steven King’s novel “The Shining,” is based on the ominous Stanley Hotel, which is situated on a hill overlooking the town.

But, Estes Park is famous for another reason. It is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and the best place to stay if you’re going to climb Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s most famous “fourteeners.” The peak is the highest point in Rocky Mountain Nation Park at 14,259 feet. I climbed it.

My dad and I waited five days to acclimate to the 7522 foot altitude of the town-as well as we could before we scaled the mountain. The average completion time for the taxing 15-mile roundtrip hike is 11 to 15 hours. An early start is essential. It is important to be off the summit and back under tree cover before the afternoon storms come.

2:00 A.M. Tuesday, July 10. My alarm goes off, I jump out of bed, quickly get dressed in the dark, and meet my dad downstairs. We double check that we have packed everything properly. Twenty minutes later, we are out the door and driving to the trailhead. When we arrive, there are already ten cars in the parking lot, signaling that we won’t be alone on our adventure.

2:48 A.M. With our headlamps on, we start to hike. We walk through a pitch black pine forest, blind to the world that taunts us at the edge of our lights. I lead the way, keeping to a brisk pace that I am able to maintain, while my tired mind dozes off.

3:37 A.M. We reach the tree line and step onto the tundra. The tree roots that had crisscrossed the trail gave way to rocks, loosely scattered across a well worn path. We continue without stopping until we reach the Chasm Lake split off, where we stop to rest and eat before stepping back onto the trail.

Despite the dark, I am completely energized at this point. Each glance up shows small groups of bobbing headlamps making their way along the trail. The lights seem to be unreachable because of the chasm of blackness that separates us from them.

5 A.M. We stop at the 4-mile marker for a quick drink. The burning horizon now provides enough light to see by and we put away our headlamps.

5:40 A.M. We reach the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles and 3 hours into the hike. This is where the hike becomes difficult. The Boulder field is named for the throng of massive boulders across a giant plain, more than four football fields long, that quickly rises up to the base of the “Keyhole.” The Keyhole is a jagged hole in the rocks that leads to a trail up the back side of Longs Peak.

Our brisk pace is suddenly reduced to something that resembles a crawl, as we climb over boulders the size of trucks. It takes us an hour to travel the 0.4 miles. When we reach the Keyhole, we are both spent. I feel like I have been climbing for the past day and a half to reach the gaping hole in the rocks. The view that appears through the Keyhole, though, is incredible. I can see mountains every direction I turn. Some are snow capped, some are covered in pines and others are barren, topped with two billion year old rocks.

We rest at the Keyhole for a few minutes, admiring the view and talking to some of the other adventurous hikers who had made it there. However, we can’t waste too much time.

Our difficult scramble over the Boulder Field changes to an even slower moving, cautious pace. We journey across a treacherous path along the back side of the mountain. Red and yellow bull’s eyes mark the so-called “trail.” The left side of the trail is bordered with a towering rock face that we have to slide past. The right side is a steep-sloping sheet of rock that we sometimes have to balance, as we make our agonizingly slow way across to “The Trough.”

7:30 A.M. Following the curves of the mountain, we finally reached the base of the Trough. Staring up the steep trail I am suddenly reminded of Abol Trail on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. That trail, just like this one, stretched upwards, threatening to give way underneath each step. For the first time during the hike, we are aware of the change in altitude as our breathing becomes labored. We struggle up the steep Trough, resting and drinking water more often then we seem to be hiking.

8:13 A.M. After conquering a final massive boulder, we reach the top of the .4 mile path. The view from our new vantage point trumps that of the Keyhole. I crouch at the edge of the cliff and stare out over the vast mountain ranges glimmering in the sunlight.

Thinking we had reached the top I threw off my backpack to get a drink of water and relax. Then, I turn and see more bull’s eyes emblazoned onto the rocks running along a narrow ledge that has a precipitous drop to the right. I stare in disbelief before I realize I had reached the so rightly named “Narrows,” and we still had nearly a mile before we reached the summit.

The Narrows, however, turn out to be very short and prove, with well thought out steps, not to be a hinderance. At the end of the Narrows I look up and see what I had been waiting more then five and a half hours for—the Homestretch. The final piece of the trail reaches up to the summit in a near vertical fashion, forcing us to bend over and climb on all fours. This is the mountain’s final test before the treasure at the top is revealed. We struggle up the Homestretch, our feet slipping occasionally on the steep rock.

8:52 A.M. I crest the top before my dad. The sight that greets my tired eyes is unimaginable. The top of Longs Peak is like a miniature Boulder Field, a flat surface covered with large rocks that stretches out about the length of a football field. Every direction I turn I see mountains. The clouds that had not yet reached our height of 14,255 feet drifted below us, the sky above is a deep and clear blue.

We stay on the summit eating and drinking and silently marveling at the view for about half an hour before we start our return journey. Descending proves to be no easier than climbing up the mountain. We are forced to slide down rocks and jump off others with potentially fatal falls ever present. Though the going is tough, we clear all of the dangerous terrain without any accidents.

After descending through the Boulder Field, the rest of the hike is easy. As I step back onto the tundra I know that I have conquered one of the deadliest and most difficult mountains in United States. When we reach the ranger’s station at the trailhead we quickly climb into the car and drive away in search of food and comfortable beds.

Climbing Longs Peak was one of the hardest yet most rewarding mountains I have ever scaled. We began our hike at 2:48 A.M. and returned at 2:31 P.M. A total of 11 hours and 43 minutes. A good days work!

About Matt Eyer

Breaking News Editor at the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Follow me on Twitter @mjeyer.
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4 Responses to From 420 to 14,259 feet: Climbing in the Rocky Mountains

  1. Dustin Beall Smith says:

    What a great story! And how admirable a climb!
    Dusty

  2. Kiah Morrison says:

    I also took a trip to Colorado this summer. I can’t say it any other way; I love the state. I have been on four separate trips over the years, and I hope I have many more to come. We too go with general plans and just try to see as much of the state as possible, but spend most of the time hiking in the Crested Butte area. (Did you happen to go to Crested Butte?) We were also in Estes Park/Rocky Mountain NP, but I have never climbed Longs Peak. I have always wanted to after my dad and his friend attempted to in college, but had to turn around in the boulder field due to a storm. Congrats on your 14′er!

    • Gabe Ryan says:

      Thank you!

      We didn’t get to go to Crested Butte. The closest we got was Durango. We spent time in Estes Park, Moab, Mancos, and Leadville. It is a beautiful state. I definitely want to head back out there sometime soon. I would encourage you to try climbing Longs Peak!

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