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Jan 07, 1999
Longs Peak; America's Matterhon - Adventure Travel

A full moon lit up the fresh snow between the thick pines allowing me to save on the batteries in the flashlight I’d taped to my wool hat (somewhere out there, forgotten in some drawer in my home, lies an expensive, state-of-the art headlamp that has yet to be used).  My car was the only one in the parking lot deep in the alpine forest of Rocky Mountain National Park. Of course it was. Who else would dream of being out here at 3 am on a frosty winter night? Someone who was desperate enough to make yet another try up Longs Peak, that’s who. And I was desperate alright.  I stepped into a pair of plastic snowshoes, hoisted my backpack, and headed into the trees.

 

Longs Peak is a drug. Its distinctive notched pyramidal shape lords over the other formidable peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park with an audacity that begs to be climbed.  So seductive is the mountain’s height and distinctive profile that I wonder if the Park’s many elk, bears and coyotes staring up from valley’s don’t feel some primordial urge to go up there and yahoo from its summit. Certainly American Indians—amongst whom high-altitude mountaineering was almost unheard of—had been up there, entertaining the region’s early trappers and settlers with tales from the peak.

 

Every year, over a thousand otherwise sensible, normal people propel themselves to the summit.  And not just your standard mountain Joe: In the summer, the Keyhole Route, an increasingly steep trajectory twisting up through a notch on the summit ridge, brims with beer gutted weekend warriors, suburban housewives, tots and their grandparents.  The youngest person to make it up was four and several septuagenarians have summited as well.  According to logbooks kept by the National Park Service, one fellow was up 350 times. And this is a mountain, which at 14,255 feet, is almost as tall as the Matterhorn.

 

So why was I, Mr. Seasoned Mountain Man, feeling so desperate about this climb? Well, for starters, this was winter, which meant that the paths were snowed over, the weather was cold is hell, the granite face of the mountain would be covered in a film of ice, and there would be little chance of rescue if I got in trouble up there.

 

But more importantly, I had failed in this endeavor two winters earlier. I had never even made it past the Park’s front parking lot thanks to the intervention of the ever meddlesome US National Park Service. Five other climbers and I had set out for the peak just as a budgetary fight was brewing in Washington DC, freezing the federal payroll.  It’s hard to imagine how fiduciary crises in the halls of the US Capitol, half a continent away, could affect a private climbing expedition in the Rockies. But, as we drove towards the main gate to the Park, the crises manifested itself in the form of a single shrill Park Service ranger who adamantly felt that we shouldn’t be allowed into Rocky Mountain National Park if the Park Service wasn’t going to get paid that day.  It was sort of like trying to close the Atlantic Ocean due to a strike on Brighton Pier.

 

“If the Park Service is shut down, what do you care if we go up the mountain? You’re not even supposed to be here,” I countered.

 

Apparently, the logic ran that since the rangers--who rarely ventured far beyond their heated trucks during the winter anyway--weren’t going to get paid, no one should be allowed to enjoy the Park. In fact, the rangers were so intent on preventing anyone from partaking in “their” slice of the Rockies that they threatened to make rare forays into the wilderness surrounding Longs Peak to arrest anyone caught climbing the mountain. 

 

My mates and I spent the rest of that miserable expedition camped out on a snowy parking lot cursing the Park Service.  Subsequent visits to the National Park did not endear the rangers to me, and I have yet to know what they are good for other than collecting entry fees at the gate and being a pain in the ass to anyone who wants to stray from the signposted, wheelchair accessible, graded, potty-lined “interpretive nature trails” they have constructed in this pristine wilderness.

 

On my current trip, I had wandered into the Park’s “Backcountry Office” where a young Park ranger with an impressive beard could not tell me what the conditions were like on the Park’s most prominent mountain, or even which routes were best to take up that winter. Good enough for Park Service work.

 

Happily, the local town of Estes Park is brimming with sporting goods stores where I could get all the up-to-date details on what was going on in the Park, and soon I had the full scoop on how to solo the peak that winter.  Hence here I was crunching throw the snow bathed in moonlight, not a ranger, port-a-potty, nor even a footprint in sight.

 

I had been told that the Keyhole route was a very icy this winter, so I was going up the Glacier Gorge route, following a scenic chain of frozen mountain lakes to the base of Longs Peak’s West Face.  Snowshoeing my way up the steepening valley, I suddenly came across a large clearing in the forest. This was Mills Lake, the first in the series of Glacier Gorge’s lakes.  Just two days earlier I had snowshoed up here with my wife and mother-in-law to reconnoiter the route, and we had picnicked on these shores.  In the summer, when the zigzagging peaks were reflected in the emerald-like water, this was one of the Park’s most popular hiking destinations.

 

Now, I had the lake, frozen over and illuminated in the moonlight, to myself. The scenery was spectacular but eerie. I did not feel like lingering here long to savor the feeling of perfect isolation. Stephen King had based The Shining in Estes Park, where he had holed up in a local hotel while writing the horror novel. I could see he had chosen his setting well, and in the thin mountain air I had images of an unkempt Jack Nicholson lurking in the shadow of the firs clutching an ax. Definite motivation for moving upwards quickly.

 

At around 10,000 feet, the oxygen-starved trees became increasingly gnarled and twisted until they surrendered to open tundra, reducing potential cover for would-be ax-murderers.  Above the third and last frozen body of water, Green Lake, I stopped and, munching candy bars for breakfast, watched the sun hitting the snowy pinnacles of the peak towering over the opposite lake shore.  Slowly, my stark shadow world was lifted into brilliant sunlight. Yet another disgustingly perfect dawn in the Rockies.

 

A little further up the Gorge ended abruptly in a box canyon formed by three snow-clad mountains.  The tallest one was the summit massif of Longs Peak. A 4,000 foot snow-filled trough scarred the mountain’s West Face diagonally.  This was the route I was using to get to the summit.

 

I replaced my snowshoes with crampons, took out my ice axe, and commenced hacking my way up the trough. At one point, a small granite overhang about fifteen-feet high forced me to wedge myself up between ice-covered rock, a truly awkward thing to do while soloing. But once over that, I was scot-free for the rest of the climb in terms of technical difficulty.

 

Two thirds of the way up the trough, at about 12,000 feet, I saw a hunched man coming down from the summit, clutching an ice axe.  Jack Nicholson at last!  Actually, he turned out to be a fellow climber who had just climbed the mountain via the Keyhole Route, which ran into the upper part of the trough.  We exchanged a few merry words to plaster over our surprise and perhaps even dismay at meeting someone else up here on this wintry day.  He then continued down, and I up, two ships in the morning.

 

The icy trough petered out on the shoulder of the peak, and I found myself on a slim ledge, dubbed, appropriately enough, the “Narrows.” The Narrows thinned out to a mere body’s width overlooking a Hitchcockian 1,700-foot drop over the mountain’s South Face. Gingerly, I crawled cat burglar-like along the ledge, making sure that at least one paw was always attached to a good handhold on the rock.  Finally, the granite sloped out enough to allow a thick layer of snow to remain on it, and I was back in trudge mode, going up the final section, known as the “Homestretch.”

 

The surrounding mountain peaks fell off below me as I clamored up the last few steps to the summit. From below Long’s pointy profile looks like it could pop a balloon.  Coming over the top, I was dumbfounded to find that the summit was, in fact, a flat, stony field. Had I a ball and a dozen Welshman, we could have played a decent game of rugby up there. 

 

Directly in front of me, I could see where the mountains fell abruptly into the Great Plains that gaped before me in a flatness that extended to the Allegheny Mountains on the other side of the continent. The weather was so clear I could even make out planes circling Denver Airport, 40 miles away. Behind me, the Rocky Mountains stretched into the horizon. The Rockies are much older than the Alps, and their rounded, worn shapes in the snow gave them the appearances of ancient citadels guarding against the monotony of the lowlands. Nestled in the valley below me was Estes Park, warded over by Flattop mountain with its glacier on top, one of the area’s most scenic hiking spots.

 

I spread out a celebratory lunch on the summit. Estes Park has several bakeries specializing in muffins and fudge cubes, and the potential consequences of my meal could well put my dentist’s kids through college. In the summer climbers rush to get off the summit by noon when thunder clouds gather to occasionally zap someone with a lightening bolt. But with the crisp, clear winter weather, I whiled away the time, not descending until 3 PM when a bone-numbing winter wind rose and sent me scurrying back down the Homestretch. 

 

By the time I reached the bottom of the trough, Green Lake was already enveloped in the bland light of evening.  Putting my snowshoes back on, I headed back to the trailhead.

 

And then, by God, came the hard part.

 

Remember that nifty flashlight/masking tape headlamp?  Halfway down the seven-mile hike to my car, the darkness of night overtook me.  I pulled the flashlight out of my pack, and to my dismay, it wouldn’t turn on.  Dead batteries. Feck! 

 

My tracks from this morning had been obliterated by the wind, and soon I was playing blind man’s bluff with the pines.  I went for broke, heading in a straight, damn-the-torpedoes-full-steam-ahead line. Walk in a straight line, I reasoned, and eventually I would hit the road. Of course, the road curved so much in between the mountains, that I could hit it three miles away or twenty miles away. The prospect of bivouacking here in the forest for the night made me feel so damned lonely I would have actually welcomed an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson for company.

 

Suddenly, in the dark, I almost clunked into a small shed.  Its door had a “Men” sign on it. A Park Service toilet!  Next to it, gleaming in snow-covered whiteness was the road.  A mile’s jaunt to my right, and I was back at my car.  The round-trip climb to the summit had taken me 16 hours.  I cranked on the heater, and drove through the twisted road through the forest back to Estes Park.

 

During my entire day’s journey in one of the country’s most popular National Parks, I had bumped into only one other person.  Longs Peak might be one of the Rockies’ biggest summer attractions, but I prefer it in the privacy of winter.


THINKING OF GOING?

 

WHERE IS IT?

 

Rocky Mountain National Park is located 60 miles Northwest of Denver, Colorado.  Longs Peak can actually be seen from the Denver Airport.

 

 

A FEW FACTS

 

·         Longs Peak was named after Major Stephen Long who first recorded seeing the distinctive-looking mountain during a mapping expedition in the West in 1820.

 

·         According to stories recorded by the first white settlers in the area, Indians regularly climbed up Longs Peak to set eagle traps.

 

·         The first recorded climb by white men on the mountain was in 1868 when an expedition led by the one-armed Major John Powell went to the top during an exploratory trip through the Rockies.    

 

·         Longs Peak was the setting for the Sylvester Stallone movie, “Cliffhanger,” which featured thieves with a planeload of loot crash landing on the mountain.

 

 

 

PARK FEES

 

Individual Entry (Bike, Foot) $ 5.00 (Seven Day Pass)

Private Vehicles $ 10.00 (Seven Day Pass)

Backcountry Permit $ 15.00

 

 

WHEN TO GO:

 

July and August are the best months for a summer ascent of Longs Peak, though sometimes there is snow up there then, necessitating crampons and ice axe.

 

 

WHAT TO BRING:

 

In the summer, bring a sturdy pair of leather hiking boots, layered, windproof clothing for the broad range of weather in the mountains, and lots of water. Ski poles are useful for negotiating the steep terrain. 

 

In the winter, bring plastic double boots and crampons, ice axe, glacier glasses or goggles, and high-altitude winter clothing with an emphasis on extreme wind protection.

 

Sun block, a brimmed hat and sunglasses are vital for all seasons at this altitude.

 

POPULAR TRAILS IN THE PARK

 

 The “Keyhole Route” up Longs commences at Longs Peak Ranger Station off of Highway 7 a dozen miles south of Estes Park.  This is a 16-mile round-trip scramble, and in the summer, an early start is necessary in order to get off the mountain before the dangerous storm clouds that tend to congregate at noon. Reserved camping facilities are available at the base of the mountain.

 

The “Glacier Gorge Route” described in this article is far less traveled and starts from the Glacier Gorge Junction parking lot 10 miles east of the Park Headquarters on Highway 66. This 18-mile roundtrip scramble is especially good for lake scenery and for a winter ascent of the mountain.

 

Flattop Mountain, at 12,324 feet, offers another scenic day-hike.  The 9-mile roundtrip hike starts from the Bear Lake parking lot. Alternatively, one can descend from Flattop Mountain via Andrews Glacier and the stunning Loch Vale valley. 

 

Lake Haiyaha, at 10,200 feet, is one of the Park’s most beautiful alpine lakes and is accessible via a 4-mile roundtrip hike from the Bear Lake trailhead.

 

  

ACCOMODATIONS:

 

Estes Park is brimming with accommodations for every price range.  Some recommendations:

 

YMCA.  Highway 66. Smack up against the Park. Great views, horseback riding and a broad variety of other activities. Cozy log cabins set amidst firs and mountains. 2 bedroom cabins start at £ 34.  Reserve early if you’re going there in the summer. Tel: (970) 586-3341

 

Stanley Hotel. 333 Wonderview Avenue, Estes Park. Expensive, but when else would you get the chance to stay in the setting for Stephen King’s The Shining?  Doubles start at £ 81. Tel: (970) 586 -3371 

 

Big Thompson Inn.  740 Moraine Avenue, Estes Park. Wide variety of cabins and rooms with impressive views of river. Cabins start at £46. Tel: (970) 586-3137

 

Crazy T Motel, 1340 Big Thompson Avenue, Estes Park. Doubles start at £20.  Tel: (970) 586-4376

 

 

CAMPING

 

There are five campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park. They are Aspenglen, Glacier Basin, Moraine Park, Longs Peak, and Timber Creek.

 

Camping fees range from £7 –10.

 

Camping stays of 14 nights are permitted only from 01 Oct - 21 May. A 3 day limit applies to Longs Peak from 22 May - 30 Sep. A 7-night limit applies to the rest of the park. During the summer, camping at Aspenglen, Longs Peaks and Timber Creek is first come first serve. Campground reservations are required from Memorial Day through Labor Day in Moraine and Glacier Basin, and for Glacier Basin Group Area. Reservations may be made as far advanced as 5 months. Write:

 

Destinet
9450 Carroll Park Dr
San Diego, CA 92121-2256

 

 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:

 

Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO 80517-8397
USA

 

Phone: 970-586-1206
Phone: 970-586-1333 recorded message (road & weather info)
Backcountry Office: 970-586-1242
Website: www.rocky.mountain.national-park.com

 

I have found that Estes Park’s sporting goods merchants and the Colorado Mountain School usually have more reliable information than the Park Service on conditions in the Park’s back country.  The Colorado Mountain School provides courses and guided trips in the Park, and can be reached at:

 

Box 2062

Estes Park, CO 80517

USA

Phone: (970) 586-5758

 

   
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