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Monday, August 12, 2013

Longs Peak - a truly special day in the mountains

Date:   July 29, 2013
Mission:  To do what my orthopedic surgeon told me not to do and climb Longs Peak (elevation 14,255')
Who:  Myself, a member of named Greg, and my friend Joel
Length:  15 miles
Elevation gain: 5100 ft.

"Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did" ~ Newt Gingrich

I've always been an independent person.  I take anything that someone says I can't do as a personal challenge.  This is probably not great to do when it's your doctor, but I just can't help myself.  I have rebellious Wilbur blood.  I thank both my Mom's stubbornness and my Dad's competitiveness for this. 

During the last week of June, during a checkup on the recovery progress of my broken and dislocated ankle, the conversation went like so.

Doc:  "The x-rays show that the fibula is healing nicely.  The ligaments however can take up to a year to fully heal.  This was a very serious  injury and your ankle experienced a great deal of trauma particularly to the ligaments and soft tissue."
Me:  "That's great news.  I do still have quite a bit of pain and discomfort on the Deltoid ligament and particularly after hikes.  Is it ok for me to progress to more strenuous hikes?  I don't want to cause any damage."
Doc:  "Unfortunately pain, soreness and discomfort will be the norm for you for potentially six to nine more months.  The soft tissue damage with your injury was severe.  Strenuous hikes should be fine, but listen to your body.  Understand that strenuous is ok, but don't go hiking Longs Peak or anything just yet."

Me:  "Ok"   (Challenge accepted!)

Alpenglow as seen from the ledges behind the Keyhole on Longs Peak at sunrise.

The forecast was not playing nicely with my desire to avoid the normal Longs Peak crowds by taking a day off to hike this mountain on a Monday.  70% chance of thunderstorms after 12pm.  Most hikers know to get well below the tree line before t-storms start; Longs Peak offers other challenges too.  Pretty much the entire route past The Keyhole is not a place to be when it's raining.  Wet or icy rock could make parts of this class 3 climb just treacherous.

As usual, I decided that an earlier than normal start should allow us a chance to summit.  I stayed up very late Saturday night, well into Sunday morning to try to adjust my sleep schedule accordingly for a Monday 1am start time.  This didn't really help.  I slept from 7:45am Sunday till about 10am.  I got up and ate, and went back to bed around 11:30am sleeping off and on until 4pm.  This was not the great restful sleep I was looking for before such a grueling climb. 

Nine days prior I had just done the climb up Mt. Bierstadt, traversing The Sawtooth over to Mt. Evans.  This climb was supposed to be far easier than Longs Peak.  For me though, I had to catch a ride down from Mt. Evans due to ankle pain combined with brutal blisters from new boots.  Let's just say having to catch a ride down had my confidence in my ability to complete the climb up Longs Peak a bit low.

But the nocturnal side of me loves early starts.  The nighttime hikes allow for me to mentally push myself more for some reason.  It's almost as if I am racing the sunrise.  There's my Dad's competitiveness again. 

Plus, I had to at least get to the Boulder Field on Longs Peak at 12,600' because my friend Joel had camped there Sunday night.  I would be damned if I left a friend hanging like that. 

So Greg and I met at the trailhead and were on the trail by 1am Monday morning.

The Climb to The Keyhole

The hike up through the forest passed quickly.  I stopped only once before reaching the tree line to stretch my ankle and pop a couple Advil.  Greg kept up a good pace, which was surprising for a guy coming from sea level, but he hikes a lot back in New Hampshire so I guess this wasn't too surprising.

We shared a lot of mountaineering stories on our ascent and before we know it it's 3:45am and I am talking to Joel who clearly hadn't slept much at all the night before while camping in the Boulder Field.  Joel was not feeling well and he decided not to join Greg and I for the rest of the climb.  We think he was experiencing some ill effects of the altitude having camped at 12,600' the night before.  I verified that Joel would be ok, and even offered to descend with him.  Joel refused my offer and told me to continue on.

The stone shelter.  Pic taken on descent.
Greg and I picked our way across the Boulder Field deliberately.  This is also where my ankle really started letting me know it was not happy.  The uneven terrain was a challenge for the sore ligaments, but I just pushed on anyway.  I have hiked enough now with this ankle injury to know the pain that just sucks vs. the pain that means something worse.  This was just annoying pain.

We reached The Keyhole at 4:30am.  There was no light in the sky yet, so we sat down in the stone shelter that was constructed nearly a century ago and after exchanging some conversation with two girls that were already in the shelter, the four of us took a 45 minute nap or so waiting for the sun to come up.  The route beyond The Keyhole is not something I would really love to navigate in the dark. 

Around 5:15am some light hit the sky, and although the sun was still not up, we began down the back side of Longs Peak. 

The route beyond The Keyhole is like climbing a totally different mountain.  To this point, the route is mainly just an arduous hike with some talus hopping in the Boulder Field.  Past The Keyhole, the exposure is present and the class 3 climbing is abundant.

On The Ledges looking back towards The Keyhole.

Staying on route here is easy with the bulls eyes marking the route for you, but paying attention is important.  Being slightly off route here can make a class 3 climb on smooth rock turn into class 4 quickly.  Before long we are in The Trough, which is a steep gully of class 3 rock and loose dirt.  The elevation gain from the bottom to the top of The Trough is 600 ft., but it feels like the crux of the whole route if you ask me.  It was relentless.

Views looking North from within The Trough.

Looking up The Trough.  You can see Greg, just to the left of a yellow and red route marker.

After reaching the top of The Trough, I knew I was going to make the summit.  Part of me was in disbelief.  My ankle, while in pain, was still functioning thanks to Advil and keeping moving.  Stopping makes everything tighten up.  We had only stopped for a significant amount of time to take a 45 minute nap.  Other than that we were moving slowly but surely the whole time.

At the top of The Trough, those with a fear of heights get a dose of reality facing The Narrows.  It's easier to cross than it looks, but it's definitely not a place to be in inclement weather. 

Greg looking down the cliff side along The Narrows.

Estes Park hidden by a thick fog.

After the narrows, the last obstacle is The Homestretch.  The rock here is smooth and is even wet in places.  Care should be taken with each step and hand hold because a fall here would certainly turn the "suck" meter on your life past 10 and all the way to 11.  For those that have never seen Spinal Tap, just translate this as "Don't Fall.".

Greg climbing up The Homestretch.

Another view of the route up The Homestretch.

The fun climbing up The Homestretch ends abruptly and we are standing on the summit of the northern most 14er in Colorado.  The 15th highest peak in the state, and a mountain I can see from the front porch of my house.

Tears fill my eyes as I walk across the large summit to tag the summit boulder.  I can only partially believe I made it.  Disbelief is not a feeling many people who've climbed thirty-seven 14ers experience, but disbelief is almost all I felt.  Well, that and a deep feeling of pride.  In one moment, months of physical therapy, hard work, setbacks, and mental anguish all disappear and just a smile returns to my face.  A genuine smile.

Me on the summit of Longs Peak!

We eat some food, and even though it's only 7:30am, we only lounge on the summit for 15 minutes or so, knowing we are racing afternoon thunderstorms on our descent.

And the race is on.

Down The Homestretch, across The Narrows, down The Trough, back across the Ledges and up (yuck) about 100 ft. again to The Keyhole.  Now it's 9:45am, and clearly weather is already building to the west. 

Quick break at The Keyhole on descent. 

The Keyhole from the Boulder Field.

It is about here that I begin noticing just how many unprepared people climb Longs Peak each day.  This was a Monday, and a Monday with a shitty weather forecast.  I did not expect to see so many people still on their way up when we were already back at The Keyhole. 

Not to rant, but we saw some unexplainable stupidity.  We saw people with only shorts, and tee shirts with no backpack carrying a single water bottle.  We saw one lady with no backpack, in sandals carrying a purse.  She was near the Boulder Field already!  We saw countless people with maybe only 1 or 2 of the ten essentials and carrying just a hydration pack.  On our descent, we passed at least 25 people still heading up the mountain, into a brewing thunderstorm.

The brewing storm over Twin Sisters.
This logic is unexplainable to me.

It's amazing to me that more people do not die on this mountain every year.  Be smart out there people.

Anyways, we were hauling ass down this mountain to try and avoid being above the tree line before the thunderstorms opened up.  We were moving as fast as fatigue and my ailing ankle would let us.

As soon as we got to the tree line the rain began.  It was a steady rain, with a little distant thunder, but mostly just a steady rain.  It rained for the rest of the descent through the forest back to the trail head.  It was a muddy sloppy trail the rest of the way.  With the rain came some now constant ankle pain, gnawing hunger, and fatigue.   But from suffering comes great things. 

For years, every time I stepped foot on my front porch, I saw Longs Peak.  Now, I really see it, and I like to think that it sees me too.

A sunset behind Longs Peak as seen from my front porch in 2006.

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