Longs Peak – Colorado
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsch
Why This Mountain?
It was important for us to represent The Rocky Mountains as part of 52 Peaks. Pikes Peak was the most well known and had the most elevation gain to reach the top. Mt. Elbert was the highest peak in Colorado and The Rocky Mountains. Longs Peak is arguably the most challenging. When we thought about which of the fourteeners would be the most fun and best represent the spirit of 52 Peaks, these were the three that we decided to attempt.
Mountain & Route Facts
Longs Peak is a high and prominent mountain summit in the northern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains of North America. The 14,259-foot (4346 m) fourteener is located in the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness. Longs Peak is the northernmost fourteener in the Rocky Mountains and the highest point in Boulder County and Rocky Mountain National Park. The mountain was named in honor of explorer Stephen Harriman Long and is featured on the Colorado state quarter.
Trails that ascend Longs Peak include the East Longs Peak Trail, the Longs Peak Trail, the Keyhole Route, Clark’s Arrow and the Shelf Trail. Only some technical climbing is required to reach the summit of Longs Peak during the summer season, which typically runs from mid July through early September. Outside of this window, the popular “Keyhole” route is still open; however, its rating is upgraded to all “technical” as treacherous ice formation and snow fall necessitates the use of specialized climbing equipment including, at a minimum, crampons and an ice axe. It is one of the most difficult Class 3 fourteener scrambles in Colorado.
It is possible to camp out overnight in the Boulder Field (permit required) which makes for a less arduous two-day hike, although this is fairly exposed to the elements. Fifty eight people have died climbing or hiking Longs Peak. According to the National Park Service, two people, on average, die every year attempting to climb the mountain. Less experienced mountaineers are encouraged to use a guide for this summit to mitigate risk and increase the probability of a summit.
In addition to hiking routes, there are a number of technical climbing routes to the summit.
We decided to do the hike in summer season in one day. The hike from the trailhead to the summit and back is 15 miles each way, with a total elevation gain of 5,748 feet. We began the hike at 2am in order to reach the summit and return below the tree line before frequent afternoon thunderstorms bring a risk of lightning strikes. The most difficult portion of the hike begins at the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles into the hike. After scrambling over the boulders, hikers reach the Keyhole at 6.7 miles.
The following quarter of a mile involves a scramble along narrow ledges, many of which may have nearly sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet or more just off the edge. The next portion of the hike includes climbing over 600 vertical feet up the Trough. Icy rocks and snow made parts of the Trough even scarier. Right after the Trough is the most exposed section of the hike, the Narrows. Just beyond the Narrows, the Notch signifies the beginning of the Homestretch, a steep climb to the football field-sized, flat summit.
Due to the treacherous footing and high exposure it took over five hours to climb the 3 miles from the Keyhole to the summit and back. The entire 15 mile hike took 19.5 hours and we arrived back into camp about an hour and a half after nightfall. This hike was also much colder than we anticipated. We would have been more comfortable if we had warmer layers. If we were to do this hike again, we would likely do it in 2 or 3 days and camp at the Boulder Field.
Historical and Cultural Information
The first recorded ascent of Longs Peak was in August 23, 1868 by the surveying party of John Wesley Powell via the south side. As the only fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park, the peak has long been of interest to climbers. The easiest route is not “technical” during the summer season. It was probably first used by pre-Columbian indigenous people collecting eagle feathers.
Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 265,761 acres (415.25 sq mi; 1,075.50 km2) of land in Colorado’s northern Front Range. The park is split by the Continental Divide, which gives the eastern and western portions of the park a different character. The east side of the park tends to be drier, with heavily glaciated peaks and cirques. The west side of the park is wetter and more lush, with deep forests dominating. The park contains 72 named peaks higher than 12,000 feet (3,700 m), and over one fourth of the park resides above tree line. The highest point is Longs Peak. The park contains the headwaters of the Colorado River.
The U.S. acquired a territorial claim to the eastern Rocky Mountains with the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803. This U.S. claim conflicted with the claim by Spain to the upper Arkansas River Basin as the exclusive trading zone of its colony of Santa Fé de Nuevo Méjico. In 1806, Zebulon Pike led a U.S. Army reconnaissance expedition into the disputed region. Colonel Pike and his men were arrested by Spanish cavalrymen in the San Luis Valley the following February, taken to Chihuahua, and expelled from Mexico the following July.
The U.S. relinquished its claim to all land south and west of the Arkansas River and south of 42nd parallel north and west of the 100th meridian west as part of its purchase of Florida from Spain with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. The treaty took effect February 22, 1821. Having settled its border with Spain, the U.S. admitted the southeastern portion of the Territory of Missouri to the Union as the state of Missouri on August 10, 1821. The remainder of Missouri Territory, including what would become northeastern Colorado, became unorganized territory, and remained so for 33 years over the question of slavery. After 11 years of war, Spain finally recognized the independence of Mexico with the Treaty of Córdoba signed on August 24, 1821. Mexico eventually ratified the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1831. The Texian Revolt of 1835–36 fomented a dispute between the U.S. and Mexico which eventually erupted into the Mexican–American War in 1846. Mexico surrendered its northern territory to the U.S. with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the war in 1848.
On February 28, 1861, outgoing U.S. President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress organizing the free Territory of Colorado. The original boundaries of Colorado remain unchanged today. The name Colorado was chosen because it was commonly believed that the Colorado River originated in the territory.
The United States Congress passed an enabling act on March 3, 1875, specifying the requirements for the Territory of Colorado to become a state. On August 1, 1876 (28 days after the Centennial of the United States), U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation admitting Colorado to the Union as the 38th state and earning it the moniker “Centennial State”.