Longs Peak, An Introduction to Mountaineering - Backpackerslife (2022)

Longs Peak is a true class 3 climb that is located in Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Boulder, Colorado. This was by far the most tenacious mountain that I have summited and a great introduction to the world of mountaineering. The mountain is relentless and it just keeps coming at you. Each time you think you’re getting somewhere, a new section more difficult than the last presents itself.

Longs peak soars over Rocky Mountain National Park and is the only mountain, inside the park, over 14,000 feet (14,255’ to be exact). Beautiful views of Boulder’s surrounding flat-topped mountains can be seen from all over the park, providing spectacular scenery in all directions. Longs Peak is where the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains meet. Boulder and Denver can be seen from the summit. The view stretches deep into the Rockies, where a vast majority of Rocky Mountain National Park can be seen.

The hike/climb begins at 9,405’, ascending 4,850’ to the peak. As satisfying as it can be to summit, it is very easy to forget that the top is only the halfway point. The descent can be the most daunting part of any hike. Both the National Park Service and Google Maps state that it is a 14.5-mile hike, however my step counter (and from what I’ve read online, several other peoples’ step counters) agreed that it was a total of 22.5 miles roundtrip.

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We decided to begin the trek between 2:30 and 3:30 AM, in an attempt to avoid any inclement afternoon weather. We would have planned this even had the forecast predicted clear skies. However, the forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms, causing us to be extra careful; we knew we needed to summit by 10:00 AM at the latest.

I took this hike with my best friend Garrison. We woke up a little later than expected, getting up at 2:15 AM. We packed our backpacks the night before to help us shave some time off in the morning. We loaded up on carbohydrates and proteins the night before, with steak, asparagus, and tortellini. We crashed for the night around 8:30PM. For breakfast, we had oatmeal and fruit, loading up on a banana, a couple kiwis, some blueberries, and strawberries. We quickly cleaned up and headed to the trailhead, only a short five-mile drive from camp.

The Climb Begins

We arrived about 3:20 AM, the trailhead’s parking area was already full. We were lucky and able to get the last parallel parking spot, any later and we would’ve needed to descend down a hill for extra hiking. At 330 AM, my buddy Garrison and I quickly headed for the trail with our sights set on the Longs Peak’s summit!

The start was much warmer than planned. We were ready for it to be cold; Garrison even wore three layers. We made several stops within the first couple of miles, trying to get comfortable. The first couple miles pushed through heavily wooded terrain, continuing until we crossed a stream. The path eventually led above tree line and off the relatively easy, class 1 section of the trail. From here on out the air gets thinner with every step, making everything a little more difficult.

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Other than hikers’ headlamps the beginning of the hike was in total darkness. The city skyline could be seen on the other side of the foothills that separated us. About two hours in, the sun began to rise. We took a moment to stop for a second breakfast, allowing us to catch our breaths. After hiking the first four miles, it was a welcome break. The view was breathtaking. The first light broke over the horizon, kissing all the rocks, and trees, while illuminating our surroundings. To help revitalize any of my lost energy I ate a peach, a plum, and a peanut butter Clif protein bar.

We got moving and noticed we were just under halfway through the first valley. The valley was steep and included several stair-like boulders. These stairs would lift a person two to three feet per step. This section proved more laborious than anticipated.

The trail continued on just below Mt. Lady Washington and up to the Granite Pass trail junction. Following several steep switchbacks, the trail led to the base of the infamous boulder field, where the most intense parts of the climb begin.

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The boulder field is found at roughly 12,400 feet in elevation. The base of this boulder field marks approximately six-miles into the hike. This is where hikers can find pre designated spots, allowing overnight campers to put up a tent. Making a base camp here can help to cut the hike in half, beginning the toughest parts with fresh energy and a clear mind.

We climbed on, passing many groups that were turning back. I made sure to ask if they had summited, but none had. The path moving forward, from the aforementioned camping spots, becomes a bit murky. We had to boulder hop and rock scramble through much of the area, significantly slowing our pace. The Keyhole is roughly two-miles from the summit and leads to the most treacherous sections. The final couple of miles are not for the faint of heart.

Treacherous Cliffs and Canyon Walls

At the Keyhole, the view opens up to the backside valley, providing magnificent view of Rocky Mountain National Park and Glacier Gorge. From here we headed left, or south, hugging the cliffs’ wall, climbing roughly 50 feet up and another 100’ back down. We did this following the bullseyes that are painted on the rocks, leading through an intense section known as the ledges. Reaching the end of the Ledges begins the most rigorous segment of all, the Trough.

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The Trough climbs roughly 600-feet vertically, covering about ½ of the final mile and a half. The first 3/5ths, contains relatively easy scrambling; however, the majority of this section is nearly vertical and extremely strenuous. The bullseyes can be difficult to see and more difficult to follow. Most of the bullseyes pass through the center of the Trough, then continue up hugging the right rock wall.

I’ll take this moment to note, that it is important to be careful in any section after the Keyhole. Especially in the Trough, where a ton of loose rocks are scattered throughout the trail. It is also important to pack in and pack out any trash and food scraps you create along the way.

The last 30 feet of the Trough was much more difficult than first. I took the hardest path I could find, which included some minor rock climbing. These sections ranged from five to ten feet leading straight into the crest of the Trough.

The top of the Trough features a small flat area with sheer cliffs on both sides. The cliff heights soar from hundreds to thousands of feet. The views were spectacular! The ridge line sits at an elevation of roughly 13,700-feet, connecting Longs Peak to Pagoda Mountain, which stands at an impressive 13,497-feet.

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The next section, the Narrows, is full of exposed ledges. These ledges range from two-feet to five-feet wide and cross to the south side of Longs Peak. This section features many areas of exposure which can make it very intimidating.

Hikers should practice extreme caution and pay close attention to the bullseyes of the Narrows. They can get tricky to follow and lack of attention can take a person off trail. The path here brought us to a junction where several poorly positioned rocks create a high level of exposure that can be very unsettling. Unfortunately, this section must be traversed if one wants to finish crossing to the Homestretch.

The Homestretch looks much worse than it really is. Every picture I could find looks as if people are straight rock climbing for about 300-feet. In reality, it’s pretty straight forward as the path follows the cracks in the rocks, leading the trail straight to the summit. This section was more of an all-fours rock crawl and scramble. The Homestretch is extremely steep, creating the perfect optical illusion that rock climbing is necessary.

We made our summit a little ahead of schedule, arriving at about 9:30 AM. The summit opens up with a massive flattop area, that includes a few rock piles scattered across the top. The view on the far side, pans out across the entire front range. The sun light splintered through the clouds, highlighting our chosen route for the day’s hike.

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The summit appears to incline to the left, as if it were higher than the rocks where everyone was hanging out. We relaxed up top for around 30 to 45-minutes, taking several pictures, eating lunch, smoking a joint, and taking a dab. We knew we needed to soak in this relaxation, since we still had the descent ahead.

Escaping Death’s Grasp

The descent is easily the hardest part of the hike. Our muscles were oxygen deprived and totally exhausted. Our rest at the summit really paid off. With our minds as clear as possible, we began our descent at 10:30 AM. We could see storms beginning to form on the horizon and knew we needed to hurry. As we hit the end of the Homestretch it began to drizzle, making the descent extremely slippery.

With wet rocks, the Narrows became much more intense. Every step felt like it could be the final one. As we approached the end of the narrows, I lost my footing. The slide came out of nowhere. I couldn’t gain traction no matter where I placed my foot. I attempted to grab the rock ledges near my hands, but to no avail. I knew I had to react quickly and that the wrong decision could be my last. My only chance to live was a three-foot-wide by four-foot-long ledge, just before the final plummet, of roughly 1,000-feet.

My heart was pounding, my adrenaline was pumping, time seemed to suspend as I nestled into the tiny crevice. My outside foot landed perfectly on the rising ledge that made up the edge. My shoulder landed like a puzzle piece against the mountain side, hugging and cradling me safely, as if I were a baby held in its mother’s arms. After my near-death experience, I realized it was time to slow down. I was rushing, doing everything in my power to out run any impending weather. Needless to say, our pace significantly slowed.

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It began to downpour as we finished clearing the base of the boulder field. All of a sudden, the extra layers were quite necessary. We should have put our rain ponchos on, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Thanks to the downpour we only stopped to rest two times. Our final rest was just above where we stopped for breakfast, marking four-miles until the car. We decided to snack on some cashews, almonds, and pistachios before finishing the descent.

The rain continued for the entire final six-mile descent. It really picked up intensity during the final two-miles. Thankfully we walked this part through the heavily wooded terrain. The final half mile was legitimately the longest half mile I’ve ever experienced. It was grueling and we were absolutely exhausted. We finally made it back to the car at 3:30 PM taking around 12 total hours for the entire climb.

Longs Peak is a 14er that I’d love to do again. However, I’d probably cut it in half and make camp just before the Keyhole. It would be nice to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain air after such an intense climb. With the right preparation, I’d definitely recommend this hike. Make sure to take plenty of food and water if you make the trek to this magical place.

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