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Long's Day

Started: 2008-08-26 20:56:23

Submitted: 2008-08-26 22:11:32

Visibility: World-readable

When I started at Qualcomm, one of my missions was to find mailing lists for various groups of people doing things I'm interested in. (With more than a hundred people working in Boulder, it stands to reason that there are enough people to form a good-sized club for any obscure recreational activity.) One of these mailing lists was the hiking club, which apparently spent most of the summer building up to "The Big One" -- Longs Peak. (It wasn't immediately apparent which mailing list was into mountaineering, the hiking or climbing list. I did feel somewhat cheated that I couldn't find list archives to figure out how active the lists were, who its key members were, and what everyone had been up to in the past.) This group first planned on climbing Longs Peak on Saturday, 16 August, but as the date approached the weather forecast called for a dramatic turn of weather, dropping into a storm more appropriate for October or November than August. The expedition's organizer pushed it back a week and I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my rainy weekend.

It rained all day Friday and Saturday; by the time the clouds cleared on Monday I could see an obvious snow line at 11,000 feet. Reports indicated eighteen inches of snow on Longs Peak. I spent Saturday working on the most recent Megafest video, ultimately deciding to produce two videos from the footage I captured that weekend: the Megafest video (documenting the entire weekend) and a separate geohashing video, using much more of the footage from the meetup. On Sunday, the forecast called for more rain, so I stayed at lower elevations and hiked one of my favorite mud-season hikes, a ten-mile loop at Hall Ranch west of Lyons. The weather turned out drier than the forecast led me to believe; it was sunny all day, though large clouds continued to obscure Longs Peak and the Continental Divide.

The plan was to meet at Qualcomm at midnight Saturday morning, 23 August. As the next-best thing to a hard-core mountaineer, this struck me as a bit pessimistic, but I figured the benefits of going with a group would outweigh the downsides. I got two and a half hours of sleep Friday night before my alarm woke me to make the rendezvous. I ended up with five of the seven people in the group (none of whom I had met prior to that night) in Motoko for the drive up the South St. Vrain Canyon to the trailhead.

We arrived at the Longs Peak Trailhead around 0130 and found it buzzing with people who were as crazy as us. The group assembled and we gathered our stuff, put on our head lamps, and headed up the trail. I took the lead early, immediately in front of one guy with an especially bright lamp (I could clearly see my shadow in his beam) as we climbed up the trail. After hiking for an hour, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to try to keep the group together; I stopped by the side of the trail to give the rest of the group a chance to catch up. This proved somewhat misguided, as I couldn't actually recognize my group members in the dark; I had only the vaguest idea what they looked like in full light.

I continued up the trail, soon breaking above treeline with a great view of the Tahosa Valley and the lights of Longmont, Loveland, and Fort Collins towards the horizon. A waning third-quarter moon gave enough light that I didn't need my head lamp. I found a few group members at the Chasm Lake junction but left them behind to press on into the Boulderfield.

As the trail looped around Mount Lady Washington, I could see several kilometers of trail ahead of and behind me, with little groups of head lamps moving up the trail.

I reached the core of the Boulderfield at 0500, just as the sky was starting to think about dawn. I could barely make out the hulking mass of Longs Peak directly in front of me; I knew the Diamond would be half-visible against the ridge. The north slope was covered in snow left over from the storm a week ago. I found a rock to set my miniature tripod on and took a series of long-exposure pictures of the mountain.

Longs Peak from the Boulderfield before dawn
Longs Peak from the Boulderfield before dawn

The sky showed distinct signs of impending dawn as I made my way across the upper portion of the Boulderfield towards the Keyhole. I reached the Keyhole just before dawn and staked my claim to a rock high above Glacier Gorge. I pulled out my camp stove to make coffee for breakfast and remembered that I hadn't actually bothered to check what my camp stove's service ceiling was; I was trying to use it well above 13,000 feet. I successfully boiled water and made coffee to go along with my granola and yogurt.

Sun rise over Mount Lady Washington
Sun rise over Mount Lady Washington

I watched the sun rise across the Boulderfield above Mount Lady Washington, bathing everything around me in the orange light of dawn.

First light on the Keyhole
First light on the Keyhole

I packed my pack (after cutting one of the straps that had gotten stuck between two rocks) and headed south from the Keyhole at 0645. The easy part was over; it was time for the serious Class 3 climbing.

First light on McHenrys Peak
First light on McHenrys Peak

Halfway up the Trough, there was enough snow that I needed to break out my snow chains for my feet. (They're indispensable while hiking in winter; I didn't really expect to need them in August.) At the top of the Trough, I stowed the snow chains and my trekking poles and traversed the narrow, exposed ledge overlooking Wild Basin known as the Narrows.

The Narrows, Longs Peak
The Narrows, Longs Peak

At the end of the ledge, I reached the Home Stretch and realized that I had happened upon two fellow Qualcommers. I joined them scrambling up the wet and slippery Home Stretch to the summit.

Summit of Longs Peak
Summit of Longs Peak

I reached the summit at 0830, after roughly seven hours of hiking (including an hour and a half of various breaks). I pulled out my cell phone and tried to send a text message; my phone reported strong signal but couldn't actually make a connection. (I now know why: At the top of Longs Peak, my phone had a line of sight to every cell tower on the northern Front Range, and none of them were stronger than any other, so it couldn't make a decent connection. I don't think I'll ever be able to make a call again without thinking about access messages, paging channels, and traffic channels. CDMA seems designed to provide full employment to wireless engineers for life.)

I surveyed the summit, packed with early-morning climbers, and studied the mountains surrounding the peak on all sides. I was thrilled to be on the summit of Longs Peak for the second time, and pleased that I had done so well with the ascent. My training-for-fourteeners plan seems to have worked rather well this summer.

I started my descent at 1000, eager to get out of the sun and get off the mountain before any storms decided to visit. As I picked my way down an unnecessary class 4 downclimb after I lost the trail on my way to the Keyhole, some puffy white clouds above the Continental Divide caught my attention as weather to watch out for. While hiking out of the Boulderfield, I happened to look behind me and notice that Storm Mountain had suddenly become enveloped in cloud. I was in the midst of a single-file line of hikers hurrying out of the Boulderfield desperately seeking lower ground. I heard cloud-to-cloud strikes above me and saw a handful of cloud-to-ground strikes to the north and east. The brunt of the storm seemed to go to the north, but I did get a good half an hour of rain and sleet. (When I compared notes with my group later, it seemed that my haste to get me off the mountain put me directly in the path of the storm; they were behind me and barely noticed any rain.)

I reached the trailhead at 1430, thirteen hours after departing on the epic adventure. I had to wait for my car to fill up before finally heading home, delaying my departure for two or three hours. Back at home at last, I went to bed early, sleeping for the first time that day.

Everyone I'm sure, knows that when something goes wrong somewhere,
anywhere, anytime it is automatically SCOTT'S FAULT. Your dog ran away?
SCOTT'S FAULT. Your car won't start? SCOTT'S FAULT. Your power got
shut off because you forgot to mail the check? Yep, once again, SCOTT'S
FAULT. It is very similar to the "six degrees of separation" theory.
Somehow everything can be tied back to Scott.
- Renee Galvin, 25 October 2000