Famous U.S. Summits: Longs Peak, Colorado

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Although Pikes Peak might be a little more well-known outside of Colorado because it inspired Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 to write “America the Beautiful,” Longs Peak is the most recognizable 14er in Colorado’s Front Range.

Grabbing the eye of anyone approaching, its 900-foot sheer east face, aptly named the Diamond, reveals a huge cleft out of the top of a massive mountain with a slightly overhanging wall dropping into an alpine lake at its base. Longs has dozens of routes to the summit, from an easy 3rd-class “walk-up” to the hardest technical climb on the Diamond, a 5.14a route put up by Tommy Caldwell and Joe Mills in 2013.

Longs Peak’s proximity to a huge population center—the trailhead is a 90-minute drive from downtown Denver and 60 minutes from Boulder—means it’s within reach for 3 million people to climb in a day. Theoretically within reach, anyway: The easiest route is a 14.5-mile round-trip hike gaining almost 5,000 feet, starting at 9,400 feet. More than 20,000 people stand on Longs’ 14,255-foot summit in a good year, and many more attempt it.

As Gerry Roach writes in his guidebook, Colorado’s Fourteeners, “Longs Peak is unquestionably the Monarch of the Front Range and Northern Colorado. It dominates all within sight of it. … The reason for its popularity is obvious. Longs enraptures all but the most heartless soul.”

The Classic Hike: The Keyhole Route

Most people will reach Longs Peak’s summit via a non-technical climbing route, and most people who hike a non-technical climbing route will go up the Keyhole Route—notably not called a “trail,” because it’s not a trail. Named for the famous “Keyhole” rock formation where hikers scramble through from the peak’s east side to its west side, the route circumnavigates the peak, starting at the Longs Peak trailhead at 9,400 feet. Hikers climb up through the forest below Longs’ east face, pop out of the trees at 10,600 feet, cross the thank-god-it’s-somewhat-flat Boulder Field beneath the peak’s north face, then climb through the Keyhole. Next, they must traverse the west face on a marked route at 13,000 feet through boulders, then ascend the Trough couloir for 600 feet to an exposed ledge called the Narrows on the south face. From there it’s up to the summit via the slabs on the Homestretch. A round-trip hike of the Keyhole Route is a long, adventurous day for fit weekend warriors, and many parties choose to break it up into a two-day affair, camping in the Boulder Field at 12,600 feet (with the appropriate permit) before their summit day. Although the route is exposed and serious, fatal falls on the route are relatively rare, considering the tremendous amount of traffic it gets.

Longs Peak

History and Culture

Longs Peak is named for Major Stephen H. Long, who didn’t climb the peak but led an 1820 expedition from Pittsburgh to the Front Range looking for Pikes Peak (Zebulon Pike never climbed his namesake, either).

It’s widely stated that the first ascent of Longs Peak was by a party led by John Wesley Powell in 1868. Although that’s the first recorded ascent, Dougald MacDonald wrote in his 2004 book, Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener, that it’s more likely that a Ute or Arapaho tribe member has the true, but unrecorded, first ascent. “Although the first white climbers discovered no artifacts from a prior ascent,” MacDonald writes, “the likelihood of an Indian climb is strong.”

Isabella Bird, who in 1873 became the third woman to climb the mountain, made Longs famous in her 1879 personal account, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. She wrote:

“Deep, vast canyons, all trending westwards, lie in purple gloom. Pine-clad ranges, rising into the blasted top of Storm Peak, all run westwards too, and all the beauty and glory are but the frame out of which rises—heaven-piercing, pure in its pearly luster, as glorious a mountain as the sun tinges red in either hemisphere—the splintered, pinnacled, lonely, ghastly, imposing, double-peaked summit of Long’s Peak, the Mont Blanc of Northern Colorado.”

Bird continued in a footnote: “Gray’s Peak and Pike’s Peak have their partisans, but after seeing them all under favorable aspects, Long’s Peak stands in my memory as it does in that vast congeries of mountains, alone in imperial grandeur.” (Note that today the apostrophes have been dropped from the peak names.)

Bird was quite enamored with Longs, in later pages referencing it as “the American Matterhorn.”

Although visible from what is now the Denver metropolitan area, Longs is better viewed from the plains a little farther to the north. Longmont, the city just northeast of Boulder, is named for the mountain that can be seen from town (“mont” being the French word for “mountain”). Longs Peak now also has a namesake street, pub, animal hospital, medical clinic, and middle school, as well as a type of granite. The mountain also appears in two Jules Verne books, From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, as the site of a telescope.

A Lifetime of Climbing Routes

The faces of Longs hold more than 100 routes, technical and non-technical, and the east face alone (including the Diamond) holds more than 75 routes. The easiest summit route on the Diamond is 5.10 (the 7-pitch Casual Route), and the face is lined with harder free and aid climbs, the most difficult being Tommy Caldwell and Joe Mills’ 5.14a free ascent of an old aid route, the Dunn-Westbay.

But not all the classic routes to the top are on the harder end of the scale of technical difficulty. The Keyhole Route, although an exciting outing for anyone regardless of skill and experience, is no harder than 3rd class. Kieners Route, first ascended by Swiss guide Walter Kiener in 1924, is the easiest route up the east face, but involves snow and rock climbing up to 5.4 and has jaw-dropping exposure in spots. If you fall unroped from the traverse across the Notch Couloir, you’ll likely pop off the Broadway Ledge and drop several hundred feet to the Mills Glacier below. The North Face route goes at 5.5 and follows the old Cables Route, which once aided hikers’ summit attempts with a cable (now removed due to lightning danger) similar to the one on the present-day hiking route up Half Dome. Today’s North Face is often climbed as a winter or spring outing when there’s still snow on the route. The Casual Route, casual as far as technical climbing is concerned (most pitches are 5.9 or easier), is still a full-on outing, with climbing in the thin air at or near 14,000 feet, and without the ability to see if weather is coming in over the west side of the peak.

Dangers

More than 60 people have died climbing Longs, and the peak poses the same dangers as many high, exposed mountains: lightning strikes, afternoon storms moving in, altitude sickness, and rockfall. Considering all that and its high traffic of more than 20,000 summits per year, climbing Longs is a relatively safe outing, as long as hikers take the right precautions—starting early in the morning, carrying proper layers and food and water, and turning around when clouds begin to build in the west. Testament to the dangers on Longs is the Agnes Vaille Shelter, a stone hut just below the Keyhole. The shelter is named for Agnes Vaille, who in 1925 became the first woman to climb the east face of Longs in the winter, summiting at 4am in minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit conditions; she didn’t survive the descent.

Hike It

Get an alpine start (1 or 2am) and begin the Keyhole Route at the Longs Peak trailhead, following the East Longs Peak Trail at all trail junctions to the Boulder Field (5.5 miles). From the Boulder Field (12,600 feet), scramble up to the Keyhole and look south for the red and yellow bullseyes painted on rocks marking the traverse across to the base of the Trough couloir. Scramble 600 feet up the Trough, taking care to not dislodge rocks onto other climbers below, and brace yourself for the exposed Narrows, a short section of ledges that leads to the final slabby climb to the summit on the Homestretch. Enjoy the view up top and begin the long descent back to your car.

Getting There

From Denver, drive 43 miles north on US 36 through Boulder to Lyons. In Lyons, turn west onto CO 7 and follow it west and north for 24 miles to Longs Peak Road. Turn west onto Longs Peak road and drive one mile to the trailhead parking.

More Information

Rocky Mountain National Park – Keyhole Route
14ers.com
SummitPost.org