Long’s Peak Ascent, July 24, 2018
My alarm surprised me at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, July 23: why is thissong (The War on Drugs’ “Thinking of a Place,” my alarm ringtone) playing now? And where the hell am I, anyway? Disoriented and verysleepy, it slowly dawned on me that Mark would be arriving in thirty minutes to pick me up for our trip to Long’s Peak.
Hustling to the bathroom, fragments of thought began to coagulate, producing shimmering pools of joy in my sleepy, scattered mind. I am going to the mountains.I showered, dressed (shorts, t-shirt, Chacos), poured a cup of a coffee, and brought my gear outside just as Mark pulled up in his truck. We were on the road by 4:55 a.m.
The drive south on Iowa Highway 75 went quickly, and by the time we were heading to Omaha on Interstate 29, a beautiful sunrise was greeting us from the east. We passed the time talking and listening to music. At Julesburg, we grabbed lunch at Wendy’s and switched drivers.I would take it the rest of the way into Estes Park. Aside from a little rain in central Nebraska, the weather was clear—a bit overcast and warm. We made good time, arriving in Estes Park at 2:30 p.m. MST. It was, perhaps, the most pleasant drive I’ve ever had to Colorado.
In Estes, we were met by threatening clouds and, soon, pouring rain. We found the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, procured our backcountry camping permits, and assured the helpful RMNP worker that we would indeed get a bear canister (evidently required for backcountry camping in the park). We stopped at The Warming House to wait out the rain, rent a canister, and perhaps pick up some last-minute gear. The young and apparently quite stoned young worker asked what we were doing in Estes.
“We just drove in from Iowa and are heading up Long’s.” His reply was not encouraging: “Well, if you hear gurgling when you breathe, you’ll want to make sure you get down off the mountain.” Hater. I was not concerned with pulmonary embolism, but I was concerned with AMS or, perhaps more realistically, tired legs. Could two relatively fit 40-something males make this arduous climb? Would the weather even allow us an attempt? The forecast was not looking good.
The rain continued as we found a parking garage and devised our plan in the comfort of Starbucks: we would wait out the rain, make camp in any window that appeared, and then depending on how things progressed, attempt the summit on Tuesday. If we had to abort because of altitude or weather, we would try again on Wednesday. After that? Based on the weather service forecast, Tuesday was looking like our day.
With a quick stop at the Estes Park Visitor Center bathroom, we determined that the rain had relented enough to make our way to camp.When Mark asked one of the volunteers at the center when the best time would be to hit Long’s, he very unhelpfully suggested, “Last week.” Asshole. More haters. The weather and Estes locals were conspiring against us, forgetting the eternal rule: never everunderestimate two over-achieving forty-something Iowans with a goal and limited time. We get shit done.
With bowels in revolt and stinging from the barbs of our detractors, we made our way under threatening skies to the Long’s Peak Trailhead. There, we changed clothes, packed up, and set out just as the rain began to fall again. I was loaded down with sixty pounds of gear. Mark carried four one-gallon jugs of water. The trail was wet and slippery and up. It was one of the most dispiriting hikes I’ve ever made, despite it being only 1.5 miles.
We finally arrived at Goblin’s Forest, our 10,000 foot campsite for the next three nights. I was overjoyed to have arrived. I was dismayed, however, that I lost my body weight in sweat making the long, wet slog up the trail to the campsite. If that short hike was such a chore, how in the world would I hold up over 12 miles, most of it above 12,000 feet? We set up camp and hunkered in as the deluge began again.
The rain soon turned to hail. A lot of hail.The sound was magnified in our bomb-proof Mountain Hardwear Trango 3 tent. I had little concerned we would get pelted to death; I had someconcern we might drown: a pool was quickly forming on the perimeter of the tent, which would ensure a miserably uncomfortable night. It finally ended, at which point Mark made the brilliant move of trenching out the pool, ensuring a dry floor. I made some oatmeal, and we ate our simple repast with solemnity, hopeful that the serious weather had passed. As we hunkered in for the night, we resolved to make our ascent in the morning if the weather allowed. We had packed up for the climb and had all of our gear ready for an alpine start.
In typical middle-aged guy fashion, I woke at 12:30 a.m. to pee. Groggy, cold, and slightly freaked out (as I usually am in the middle of the woods at night) I left the coziness of the tent for my ersatz bathroom. Returning my water to the earth, I looked upward to find…a brilliant night sky. The moon and stars were out in force. This was our chance!
Excited, I returned to the tent with the weather report. Mark stated, “Up at three.” We settled back in for a couple more hours of rest.Both of us were up before the alarm went off. I heated up some water in the Jetboil for coffee as we wolfed down Clif Bars and did a final gear check. By 3:25 a.m. we were on the trail. Actually, that’s not quite true: I first led us on an unplanned tour of Goblin’s Forest. It was dark; I was tired…what else can I say? Finally on the right track, we hit the main trail and headed up.
Our route to the summit of Long’s is the ever-popular East Long’s Peak Route, utilized by upwards of 10,000 hikers and hopeful summit-seekers each summer. Exceptionally well-maintained, the trail winds through the trees along an alpine brook until reaching the alpine zone at 11,500 feet. As the trail continues upwards to Mills Moraine, it splits south and east to Chasm Lake. Staying to the west and north around Mount Lady Washington, we finally come to Granite Pass. The entire hike to this point has been by headlamp, and we are blessed with countless stars and the lights of front-range cities Boulder and Denver before these give way to a brilliant sunrise and clear skies. Surprisingly, both Mark and I are feeling stronger as we go. The trail is arduous, but the scenery and general excitement are overwhelming. Reaching Granite Pass, we are greeted with the expanse of the Boulder Field, the distant Keyhole, and Long’s awe-inspiring east face, charmingly called The Diamond, bathed in orange early-morning light. We are elated.
A Brief Excursis on Mountain Fashion.It is appropriate to say that one’s enjoyment in the mountains is largely determined by three factors: a) weather; b) fitness; and c) gear. You can’t do anything about the first, other than being flexible and patient. As to fitness, you do have control over the shape you are in; you have little control over how your body responds to altitude. The third factor, gear, is perhaps the most significant and certainly the most controllable factor. Attempting to scale a mountain like Long’s (or even one of the “easier” fourteeners) in flip-flops, cotton shorts, and t-shirt will lead to major discomfort, at best, and death, at worst. What you wear and what you pack matters. I am wearing mid-weight REI hiking socks, Garmont boots with Vibram sole, Columbia pants, Nike long sleeve base-layer, Patagonia Nano Puff vest, Marmot fleece jacket, bandana, Oakley Flak 2.0 sunglasses, Buff neckwarmer, 180 gloves, Garmin watch, Black Diamond headlamp, and Black Diamond Axis 33L filled with Arc’teryx Gore-tex shell, food, 3L Camelback bladder, Klomperdell trekking poles, helmet, and survival gear (lighter, firestarter, emergency blanket, first aid kit, etc.). Mark is equally well-appointed.
We gingerly make our way through the Boulder Field, stopping to admire and utilize the solar-powered toilets which, despite the spectacular views, afford no greater success in alleviating general gastric distress. 
As we sit perched quite vulnerably at the Keyhole considering our sins and future well-being, we strike up a conversation with a nice young man who we had leap-frogged earlier on the trail. A seasoned hiker, he was deferring on a summit bid, concerned as he was by the appearance of the trail. It did indeed look dark. We were joined in conversation by Ralph and his grandson, Nick, from Maryland. Ralph was a reasonable man, and not about to continue on with the very likely outcome of death appearing imminent. Finally, a very mountain-y looking guy was also in retreat. He claimed it was a “shoe issue” (he was wearing trail runners, not hiking boots), but I could see the fear in his eyes. The real issue was hail on the smooth granite ledges. In this space, a slip would be followed by an extended movement in a downward direction. AKA a free-fall hundreds of feet into the brutally beautiful gorge. The route was just hideously intimidating.
At this point, it was 3 parties against, 0 parties for forward movement. The hail from last night’s storm had simply left the trail too slippery and too dangerous. A final pair of climbers came back in retreat, having made it a mere fifty yards through the ledges. “Too dangerous. We can’t risk it.” 4-0. Mark and I have a decision to make. We say what 99% of mountain disaster victims are quoted as saying in such moments: “We made it this far. Might as well give it a shot!” We choke down our trail mix, tighten our packs, gird up our loins (the flatulence now beginning in earnest), and set out. Three steps in, the hail rock hard and slippery as…ice on smooth granite (which is precisely what it is), we look at each other with eyes that say, “I don’t think our wives would approve.”
A Brief Excursis on Climbing Partners. A climbing partner should be a) brave; b) reliable; c) and strong. Mark is afraid of heights, and yet he was willing to go on. That is bravery. Mark is reliable. I would trust the man with my life, and at no point did he prove anything less than completely dependable in the toughest of situations. Mark is strong. The dude kept going, gutting through fatigue, fear, and sincere oxygen deprivation to set the pace for us and lift us when I began to sincerely flag.
Quite seriously, we were concerned. Are we being stupid? Should we keep going? I have long said that anything worth doing is probably going to be difficult. We can do hard things. Part of the joy in mountain climbing is battling through fear and adversity. This would surely provide ample experience in support (or not) of this credo.
We decided to proceed with the qualifier that, if it got too sketchy, we would retreat. The ledges were indeed slippery, and a nifty move around a boulder with little margin for error solidified both the reality of the situation—this was a serious mountain—and our resolve to forge ahead.
After the initial shock and awe wore off, we found that we were having…fun. It was a blast scrambling over rocks, choosing a line, struggling ahead, and being singularly focused on getting to the next bullseye (the markers directing our route). It demanded strenuous physical exertion and intense mental concentration. Each step and hand-hold mattered.
Pressing on, we made it to the Trough, a 500-foot vertical climb through boulders demanding the same physical and mental attention. The latter, especially, was tested in this area as the going was slow, tedious, and seemingly endless. Finally at the top of the Trough, we faced a final crux that would take us to the Narrows, a thin sidewalk with sheer cliffs on either side. Overcome with the beauty and awesomeness of our surrounding, I encouraged Mark to look up. Bad idea. Looking up or down was vertigo-inducing.
Only 150 yards in length, the Narrows was a bit of a reprieve, depositing us finally to the Homestretch. At this point, I was just about spent. We had been hiking/climbing for over five hours. What loomed ahead of us was 100 yards of granite slabs at a 75% pitch that would allegedly bring us to the summit. By sight, said summit appeared to be a longway away. The rock was cold, wet, slippery, and any loss of grip by hand or foot would result in an uncomfortable slide to a ledge far below that would then launch one into a breath-taking freefall hundreds of feet below thatand sure death.
A Brief Excursis on Marriage, Fatherhood, and Death.Neither Mark nor I have a death wish. We don’t wantto die. We are happily married men with children who love and depend on us. We are also middle-aged over-achievers for whom life worth living must include some degree of adventure and danger. I believe that is a part, however small, of why our wives love us. We both take marriage and fatherhood seriously, and don’t want to be flippant about the risks of mountain climbing. All of this crystallized in the moment: hugging a wet slab of granite at 14,000 feet with nowhere to go but up. That said, this was it. In the middle of God’s glorious creation; using the strength and resolve God has given us; sweating and bleeding for the sake of the goal; not worried about a mortgage or college tuition or stresses from work, but rather being in the moment. Being truly alive.
God, give us strong legs, strong lungs, strong hearts, and strong minds. That was my prayer throughout the morning. As we neared the top and my mental and physical energy waned, my prayer turned simply to a mantra: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Hand, hand; foot, foot. Three points of contact. Ever upward. Choose a line and go. We went. In a moment, I was within yards, surprised at how fast I got up. Two guys stood at the edge, encouraging people on. “Just a few more yards and you got this!” Hand, hand; foot, foot. I was at the top. I slowly stretched out my body, looked up, and let out a “Woo-hoo!” Exultation.
Mark was right on my heels. Thankfully, I was able to take a short video of him rising over the lip of the Homestretch. Victory. His first words: “That was the craziest fucking thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Truth. To make it official, we walked another 100 feet to the official summit: 14,255 feet. We were on top of RMNP. Pictures, smiles, food, drink, and sun. It was gorgeous. In fact, it was my most wonderful fourteener summit experience: the sun was bright, the wind was a whisper, the mood was light, and the scenery was unparalleled. We took our time, called our wives, and talked with others. It was a joy. Perhaps my most vivid memory was simply sitting on our perch on the southeast edge of the summit eating lunch. We could make out the imposing Indian Peaks just south, and farther southwest the majestic Gray’s and Torreys, Evan’s and Bierstadt. Farther still we could make out the Sawatch and Elk ranges. Colorado was laid out before us.
After thirty minutes on the top, we decided it was time to head down. The sharp reality of mountain climbing is that the summit marks only the midway point. The idea is to get downthe mountain alive. We were both a little anxious: the slippery rock and irrefutable law of gravity would be a challenge in the opposite direction, as well. We set out. The Homestretch was a bobsled course. My pants were soaked with running water as I slid on my butt and did my best to arrest speed with hands and, mostly, feet. To the Narrows, we pressed on to the dangerous crux that would open to the Trough. I froze midway down: too far to fall; too steep to slide; too far to turn back. What now? I swallowed and let go. Thankfully, I hit solid ground and didn’t keep sliding. A guide from New Hampshire and his two British clients were right behind us, and they decided to rope up. Mark wisely accepted their invitation.
We blasted through the Trough—it was a grind now, pressed on by the desire to get down and get to the tree-line before afternoon storms rolled in. Anyplace beyond the Keyhole would be a horribleplace to get caught in a storm. Finally, the Keyhole came into view. We were close. The smooth granite ledges were by this time mercifully dry. Picking up our trekking poles that we had stashed in a crevice, we made our way up and over the nifty (and earlier terrifying) boulder without much of a thought. We were close to relative safety. With one last look into Glacier Gorge, we scrambled through the Keyhole, the Boulder Field bathed in sun stretching out before us with campers, hikers, and workers. Hallelujah. We were out of the danger zone.
We skipped through the Boulder Field and slowly made our way to Granite Pass. There, we got out our trekking poles and settled in to a steady march down. Our early departure, two nights of little sleep, too few calories, anxiety, exertion and sun were quickly catching up: it became a long slog through the alpine zone to the Chasm Lake junction, Mills Moraine, and finally the treeline. I was out of water by this time (lesson: bring fourliters of water next time), but Mark graciously shared his. The sun beat down; the march continued on tired legs and sore feet.
At 3:25 p.m. we finally reached the trail marker for Goblin’s Forest. We were home. We ditched our packs, filled our water bottles, and settled in for a short rest in hammocks. It was a gorgeous afternoon. We were tired, but we did it. Two forty-something Iowans bagged the notoriously difficult Long’s Peak within twenty-four hours of arriving at altitude. Badass.
We rested for all of 15 minutes. How can you sit still in such a beautiful area? We made some dinner—tuna teriyaki noodles, water, and a bar of dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt for dessert—and cleaned up a bit. Refreshed, Mark suggested we hit a waterfall farther up the trail. We marched up and spent the next hour resting in the beauty of truly glorious surroundings: an alpine brook, wild flowers, towering pine trees, and a brilliant blue sky. I dozed on a large boulder on the side of the stream. Few people were coming down, as it was already late in the day. Anyone up on the mountain at this point would likely be camping at the Boulder Field. It was the perfect way to end a wonderful day.
I was in bed by 8:30 p.m. Rest came pretty easy. Up at 4:00 a.m. Wednesday, we tore down camp, hiked 1.5 miles down the trail to the trailhead, ditched our gear in the truck, changed clothes, and returned to Estes. Fueled up and bear canister returned, we hit Starbucks for coffee and breakfast sandwiches before heading east. Just like the drive on Monday, our trek back home went surprisingly fast. (It would have been two hours faster if not for a flat tire outside of North Platte.) 60 hours after departing, we were back in my driveway. Planning for next year’s trip is already underway.
Cheeseburgers, fries, and Cokes at Wendy’s was probably not the bestidea, as will become clear later on in this report.
This was in fact my fourth bathroom visit of the morning, attributed to nerves and, alas, our lunch at Wendy’s.
In the mountains, it would be inaccurate to call what I do at night “sleep.” Seldom do I enter deep REM sleep. Between an overactive bladder, concern over bears, falling trees, or UFO-landings, and the general discomfiture of living like a wealthy homeless person, sleep is an elusive commodity when camping. Let’s call it “rest.”
The moment the Keyhole comes into view, I am immediately transported to July 1987 when, much to our climbing party’s disappointment, I am puking over a rock and unable to go any further, beset with a serious case of AMS just short of the Boulder Field. (This miserable experience, however, did seem to have inoculated me against any further altitude issues, so there’s that.) This specific high school-era failure was now being undone, a mere 31 years later.
Thus begins what would appear to the casual observer as a competition between Mark and I to see who can pass the most noxious gas over the next six hours. In truth, it is by no means deliberate, and while attributed to the suspicious French fries from Wendy’s, is in all actuality the inadvertent bodily response to high physical, emotional, and spiritual terror. In other words, the poisonous odor we emit is the smell of fear.
I would also add the following sub-attributes: humility; good humor; having a screw loose; and married to a generous spouse.