The long road to Longs

“Any plans for the weekend?”
… was my innocent question as Nate, Dima and I carpooled earlier this week.
“I’m going to climb Longs Peak!”
… was Dima’s nonchalant response.

Ever since moving to Colorado over two years ago, Longs Peak has loomed over me. Its silhouette dominates the Front Range. Menacing in winter, majestic in summer, the 4,346 meter summit seems to issue a constant challenge to all those who live in its shadow.

“A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.”
- - Japanese proverb

When I lived in Japan, I took this proverb so much to heart that I applied a simple linear regression to the formula and concluded that the wisest man of all would never climb Fuji-san! Longs was different though. Longs was personal. So when Dima issued the challenge, I knew that this was my chance. Training, conditioning, preparation be damned, I would never find the perfect moment. Nate, Dima and I were going on an adventure.

Japanese wisdom meets linear regression
Japanese wisdom meets linear regression

Saturday morning at 3am we set off from Boulder. A drowsy hour and a half later, with coffee and excitement just starting to kick in, we arrive at the trailhead with only starlight to illuminate the pitch blackness. We pack food, water, hiking poles and crampons (but decide to leave the ice axes behind) and set off on the trail.

The Longs trailhead starts at 9,200 feet elevation and keeps going up from there. We make a brisk pace as our legs wake up and we’re keen to put distance behind us. A constellation of head lamps bob in the darkness ahead and behind as other adventurers have also made an early start on the 10-15 hour journey that is one of the most popular – but most difficult – of Colorado’s 14’er summit hikes.

We cover the first 3.5 miles in good time and reach the split point between the Loft and Keyhole routes to the summit. The Loft route is less popular and seemed the more adventurous so naturally we head that way! The path weaves below the face of the Diamond, the vertical slab of Longs’ northern face, but all we see are shadows and blackness.

Darkness and headlamps
Darkness and headlamps

We ascend a long couloir as the sky begins to lighten. The path steepens and we see ice falls and snow ahead. As the sun comes up, so too does the terrain and now we are using hands and feet to scramble up faces and stumble on snow patches not icy enough for crampons but not dry enough to feel confident. We turn south, towards the peak of Mt. Meeker, Longs’ little brother, and ascend a ramp towards the summit. Suddenly, we emerge from the couloir and arrive at the Loft, a broad plateau bathed in sunshine that leads to the summit. We’re almost there!

See that peak that looks like the summit? Yeah, that's not the summit
See that peak that looks like the summit? Yeah, that's not the summit

Good spirits and strong legs carry us forward. While it looks like the end is in sight, we know that we now have to downclimb into a gully and round the back of the peak before making the final ascent. No problem! The downclimb continues and our elation is tempered by elevation. We’ve been above 13,000 feet for more than an hour and, as we start to ascend again, I feel woozy and light headed. Every step is an effort and I hear my heart pounding in my ears. Nate and Dima feel the call of nature so we pause for food to go in and out.

High in elevation. Low in spirits
High in elevation. Low in spirits

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Now hands as well. Rest. Heartbeat. Breathe. This continues for an hour, making painstaking pace. We follow the red and yellow bull’s-eyes and other climbers as well as we merge with those who have come up via the Keyhole route. The Homestretch, a 300m ramp with a slope that feels like 45-degrees is the final challenge. Dima, who we have now nicknamed “the Uzbek goat” sits smiling at the top with blue sky behind him. This time it really is the summit!

We share smiles, high-fives and chocolate. We take photos and witness the view standing on top of the Rockies. We bask in the strong sunshine and thin air above 14,000 feet. We did it.

On top of the world
On top of the world

“The summit is only half way!”
- - Dr. Shay Shmuel Sean Har-Noy

Feeling recharged, we make our way back down the Homestretch. The drudgery of upslopes gives way to the treachery of sliding downhill. Hearts still beating we make it to the Narrows, a skinny path along a cliff face with a steep drop-off to our left. Making room for hikers on their way up becomes a dangerous dance. Next we face the deep, snowy Trough. We half climb, half slide down the shaded, icy rocks, enviously eyeing the treeline in the valley far below. With wobbly knees and jelly legs, there’s another grueling traverse before we emerge at the Keyhole. Wearily we munch a last sandwich and finish our last drops of water. We navigate the ankle-busting Boulder Field and I’m very grateful that this is the first time I’ve used a hiking pole. Eventually we escape the rocks and are back on an actual trail.

Now begins the death march I knew would come. We arrive back at the Loft/Keyhole split point, having completed our circumnavigation of Longs Peak. It seems like another lifetime when we were last here, in the dark and full of energy, and yet it was just 9 hours ago. We turn down the final path and soon drop below the treeline. Every rock is a torment as blisters burn my feet. On we trudge. When did we pass this brook? Did we really make so many turns on the way up? We pass families and couples with smiles on their faces, out for a casual stroll. Will they ever ascend the heights we have just witnessed?

10.5 hours, 15 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation later, we arrive back at the ranger station where water, tea and rest await. With weary limbs, dehydrated heads and happy hearts, we head home.

Loft loop to Longs Peak: 10.5 hours, 15 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation
Loft loop to Longs Peak: 10.5 hours, 15 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation