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Started: 2009-08-28 21:46:48

Submitted: 2009-08-28 22:43:52

Visibility: World-readable

My alarm woke me up at 03:00 Saturday morning, 15 August 2009. I dressed, made coffee in my insulated thermos, and headed up the South Saint Vrain canyon to the Longs Peak Trailhead. I wasn't the only person up alpine-early; cars were already parked along the road, signaling that the trailhead parking itself was full. I struggled with my GPS receiver's batteries for a few minutes before shouldering my pack, illuminating my headlamp, and heading up the trail at 04:30.

I joined the crowd of bobbing headlamps heading up the trail to Longs Peak. As I climbed above treeline, the sky started to turn ahead of dawn. When I took the turn left into Chasm Meadows rather than right, around Mount Lady Washington to Granite Pass and the Boulderfield, there was enough light that I could see the trail without my headlamp. The snowfields above Peacock Pool had melted, leaving only the trail. I reached Chasm Meadows a few minutes before dawn and found a hiker who missed the turn to the Keyhole; I pointed him back to the saddle and wondered if the extra two miles on his trip would ruin his ascent.

I scrambled up to Chasm Lake at 06:00, in the last few minutes before dawn, and stood on the eastern bank as the sun's first light bathed the East Face in a magnificent orange glow.

East Face of Longs Peak at dawn
East Face of Longs Peak at dawn

I sheltered behind a rock and ate breakfast: granola and yogurt, with coffee from home. My coffee was still warm in its thermos but had gone sour in the three hours since I brewed it. I drank enough to satisfy my caffeine habit and dumped the rest.

Ship's Prow at dawn
Ship's Prow at dawn

Watching the sun rise from Chasm Lake was magnificent and a worthy destination in its own right, but my hike so far only registered as the approach. I strapped on my climbing helmet and pulled out my ice ax, using the rubber-covered point as a third foot on uneven ground. I headed south, past Chasm Meadows, and into the gully leading up to the Loft. The sun retreated behind a low cloud cover and remained hidden until noon. A third of the way up the gully, around 07:45, it started snowing. As the snow continued, I started to worry about scrambling up wet rock and wondered if I ought to scrub my climb. The rock was still easy enough that I didn't worry yet; if I hit class 3 scrambling in snow I'd turn back.

The snow subsided by the time I hit the class 3 scrambling below the Loft Waterfall. Just as I began to wonder where my route was I found the gentle ledge rising to the left, giving my escape route around the waterfall. I took the ledge and quickly reached the Loft, nestled between Longs Peak and Mount Meeker.

(I began to wonder about the amazing presence of the handy ledge around the Loft Waterfall and wondered why such ledges so often show up in exactly the places climbers need them. It took only a few minutes before I realized this is selection bias; I care only about the non-technical routes I've heard of; there could be hundreds of cliffs that aren't bypassed by a handy ledges for every one handy ledge I know about.)

At least, I assume I was nestled between those peaks; the Loft was socked in clouds and I could barely see a hundred feet above me. A steady fifty mile-per-hour wind blew from the west, whipping clouds over the Loft. My ascent of Meeker was clear; I scrambled up easy talus to the summit block. The summit of Meeker was clearly in the clouds; I could catch occasional glimpses of Wild Basin and little else. It felt very much like being in an airplane flying through cloud banks, only this time I was standing still and the clouds were moving around me. The wind picked up on the summit; it felt closer to eighty miles per hour. I dropped my pack and traversed the last few hundred linear feet of ridge. I easily climbed one candidate summit boulder and realized it wasn't the official high point when I reached the second and saw the "exposed, committing class three move" Gerry Roach mentioned. I carefully climbed the summit block, placed each foot in sequence on the top of the rock, and declared victory. It was 09:20.

I huddled behind a rock on the summit ridge searching my iPod for the perfect expedition theme song. (The theme song for my previous weekend's ascent of Mount Alice was, obviously, "White Rabbit".) I dedicated the song to Mills Glacier, Lambs Slide, and my fingers: Madonna's "Frozen". (I did have gloves but my fingers were still a bit chilly.)

I donated my photocopied page of the Mount Meeker route instructions to the summit log and headed down the ridge to the Loft. The clouds had subsided to the point where I could see occasional direct sunlight between me and "Southeast Longs" on the north side of the Loft.

Longs Peak from the Loft
Longs Peak from the Loft

Mount Meeker was officially my expedition objective, but since I was already on the Loft I wanted to climb Longs Peak for the third time. I followed my guidebook's directions and a vague set of cairns across the Loft in search of Clark's Arrow. I ended up on a class 4 cliff I didn't want to down-climb and looped back in search of an easier slope. I spotted my first glimpse of the Narrows, and the first people I had seen, from any distance, for hours. I never located the Arrow but I did locate what looked like an easy class 3 scramble down to the base of the Palisades, high on Keplingers Couloir, and started scrambling up the top of the couloir.

The Palisades below Longs Peak
The Palisades below Longs Peak

The scramble up the south side of Longs Peak was long and tiring but didn't present any route-finding challenges. The sky had begun clearing; I could see the sharp, triangular east face of Pagoda Mountain across the couloir. As I ascended toward the back side of the Notch, Pagoda Mountain receded and revealed Chiefs Head Peak and Mount Alice. I started to worry about the time; it was after 11:00 and I set an absolute return deadline of noon, regardless of where I was on the mountain.

I reached the Notch and turned west on a ledge leading up to the base of the Home Stretch, the final pitch of the Keyhole Route, and the only non-technical break in Longs Peak's summit block. I stumbled onto the Home Stretch, surrounded by people for the first time since dawn, and scrambled up the last few hundred vertical feet to the summit. Longs Peak was mine.

I donated my other photocopied guidebook page, detailing the Longs Peak portion of the Loft Route, to the summit register, grabbed a snack, talked to a National Park ranger and a guy who was considering descending the Loft Route, and headed down the mountain at noon. The clouds had given way to partly cloudy; I focused my attention to Mount Alice to the south-west.

Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain, Chiefs Head Peak, Mount Alice
Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain, Chiefs Head Peak, Mount Alice

I descended via the Keyhole Route, inscribing a giant circle around Longs Peak and completing a massive Tour de Loft. Halfway down the Trough I slipped and banged my right knee into the rock. It hurt like hell; I barely bruised the skin but it took me a minute before I was able to continue my descent. I could walk on the knee with only a dull ache unless I tried to bend the knee while putting weight on it, as I would when leading down a step with my left foot. I tried to adjust my stride to lead with my right foot, which generally worked but didn't do much to soothe the runner's knee addling my left knee.

I stopped for a snack under the Keyhole before continuing down the Boulderfield. Halfway through the Boulderfield, a storm descended and started hailing. I could hear thunder above me, but never close enough that I started to worry. The hail was thick enough that it looked like snow. The storm subsided by the time I reached Granite Pass.

I hiked in sunlight and partly-cloudy skies for the remainder of my long downhill slog back to the car, still careful to always lead from steps with my right foot. Only once I reached the trailhead and visited the restroom did it start raining. I donned my raincoat and walked the last few hundred meters down the road to my car. I returned twelve hours after I departed, one centennial thirteener and one fourteener later.