The view above is Longs Peak, the only ‘fourteener’ inside the border of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is an impressive rock. We took a hike up to Chasm Lake, a beautiful body of water that sits at its base. The mountain, at 14,259 feet, is among the highest in the state. It is a sixteen-mile hike in and out, and a bit beyond our abilities in our sixties.
When we moved to Boulder, Colorado in 2009 I had a notion that I would climb Longs Peak, a short drive away, but never did. During the time since time we have been up and down six of the ‘walk-up’ fourteeners: Democrat, Gray, Torreys, Bierstadt, Quandary and Sherman. We had to turn back on Mt. Elbert, the highest in the state, due to lightning. We were 800 feet short of the summit.
The most difficult fourteener, for me, was Mt. Quandary, which we did last year before heading down to do the Inca Trail in Peru. It is a ten-mile day, not a big deal, but there is not much forest cover and no false summits to hide it. We knew all day long how far we had to go. That made it more difficult than the others.
Longs Peak is among the longest climbs of the walk-ups, 4,900 feet up in addition to the sixteen mile round trip. Adding elevation, that makes an eighteen mile day. The parking lot below Longs is full this time of year. Ten thousand people take a shot at it each summer, and three thousand succeed. The mountain is imposing enough to dictate its own weather, so that climbers want to get up there and back before noon. People start out at two and three a.m., and spend part of their journey in the dark.
The biggest problem is lightning. Most of the hike is exposed country. We have been in that situation in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, at a place called Titcomb Basin. It is a cirque, and we were exposed as a lightning storm passed through. We were frightened. Not only did the thunder resonate off the walls of the mountains, but each lightning strike seemed menacingly close. What to do? What advice do they give?
We did exactly what we should NOT have done. We took shelter among some boulders. The only worse thing we could have done was take shelter under the highest tree around. If lightening strikes a boulder, the jolt passes through wet rock fissures and fries us. We were fortunate.
Longs Peak presents a non-technical climbing challenge to reasonably fit people. There is a boulder field to overcome, and a one-third mile journey across a narrow ledge with a two-thousand foot drop off. That is where most people turn back. Though it is mostly wide enough for passage, vertigo sets in.
Often times people will go far enough to see the “Keyhole,” a rock structure that joins two mountains featuring an overhang as seen above. Those who make it past the boulders and out and over the ledge (“The Narrows”) have only to make their way up a 450 foot climb (usually on all fours) to the summit.
Our objective was modest, Chasm Lake, four-plus miles and 2,400 feet up. Longs Peak itself will have to wait for another life, new knees, and more ambition. Even the nine mile round trip to Chasm was taxing on moving parts.
We will soon be leaving for Europe, where we will spend time around the Matterhorn before a three day hike in the Dolomites of northern Italy. I am not worried about any of the walking or climbing we have to do, but on the last day we have to descend over four thousand feet. To a twenty-year old kid, that’s a cake walk. To us, it’s a challenge. The knees will be complaining.