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Active Expert: Gale Bernhardt

1 Post tagged with the 14ers tag

On Tuesday of this week, I climbed Longs Peak for the fifth time. It’s still a tough climb.

 

Longs Peak (14,259) and the neighboring Mount Meeker (13,865 ft.) are both prominent in the skyline west of the Northern Colorado Front Range area. I’ll try to get a photo tomorrow morning; but for tonight you’ll have to imagine two massive peaks perched high above peaks in the Rocky Mountains, dominating the western horizon. Cities lying east of Longs Peak rest on the Front Range at a humble 5,000 feet, plus or minus.

 

Longs is the only “fourteeer” in Rocky Mountain National Park and is listed in the book “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.” The peak draws the interest of both serious technical climbers and the enthusiastic recreational hikers as well. Know that if you attempt to hike the peak in a single day from the trailhead outside of Estes Park, you’ll need to be ready for a round trip from the ranger station that a park handout advertises to be some 13 to 15 hours.

 

The biggest challenge is to summit and get yourself below treeline before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive. For this reason, most people try to begin climbing by 3:00 am.

 

Based on previous experience, we decided to meet at a store on the west side of Loveland and carpool. My alarm went off at 2:30 am and I met four others at 3:30 am. We drove to the Longs Peak Ranger Station and met two other people. We started the hike at 5:00 am, each person with a headlight or flashlight, a pack full of fuel and around 120 ounces of water.

 

The first hour of the climb is in the dark. In the next hour, the sun is pushing its way up the eastern horizon, the makings of a beautiful sunrise. By this time, we are above treeline and making our way to one of the traditional rest, fueling and bio-break stops – the trail split to Chasm Lake and the continued trail to the top of Longs.

 

Below is a shot of the gang (Scott Ellis, Tony Meneghetti, Ed Shaw, Scott Rees, Pete Graham and Doug Pearson). Directly above Ed’s head is the eastern face of Longs Peak, known as The Diamond. Technical climbers can often be seen roping their way up this vertical rock.

 

 

The next recognizable section of the trail is The Boulder Field. As the name suggests, hikers must navigate a rock field with various sizes of boulders, from those the size of your computer printer to some bigger than a car. The next shot is looking across The Boulder Field toward The Keyhole, the near-hole formation silhouetted against the blue sky. 

 

 

I don’t have a shot of The Keyhole with people in it to give you a good perspective of the size. I’ll give you additional photo links at the end of the column.

 

From the ranger station to the start of the Boulder Field, the trail was a hike. At the Boulder Field, some jumping and scrambling was required. It is at the Keyhole where things get tough. Going through the Keyhole to the back side, you are typically greeted by wind. This is not welcome for several reasons, one of which is you need to negotiate a section of trail called the Ledges. Just as it sounds, the Ledges portion of the trail includes sections where you must face the wall of the mountain and keep your focus on the task at hand. Missteps here will include a long tumble down the mountain.

 

After the Ledges section, there is a transition climb to what is known as the Trough. Below is a shot of Doug, Scott, Tony and Ed getting ready to progress toward the Trough. Notice the red circle with a yellow center painted on the rock. These “eggs” mark the trail. 

 

 

The Trough is a “V” shape that includes fields of smaller rocks, sand and dirt to navigate. Many of the larger rocks are covered with the fine dirt and sand making the footing similar to walking on tiny marbles. The shot below shows the typical trail of rocks, over Tony’s shoulder, that we must navigate to get through the Trough. 

 

 

After the Trough is the area known as the Narrows. Just as it sounds, this area is narrow and extremely exposed. There are a couple of sections that I needed help getting up because I could not get hand and foot holds secure enough to lift myself up to the next section. A mistake in this section carries heavy consequences. My tactic was to look for the general direction of the next egg, then stay focused on the next 5 to 10 feet of trail ahead of me. That trail could be horizontal, at 45 degrees or vertical.

 

After the Narrows, it’s the Homestretch. This big slab of rock seems steeper than 45 degrees, though it could be the fatigue making me misjudge the grade. Most of this section is four-wheel drive (I’m using hands and feet to propel myself).

 

If you clear the Homestretch, you’ve made it to the top. We were up in just under six hours after leaving the ranger station. (We did stop several times going up, so this is not a continuous-movement pace.)

The top is a football field size area, made of big boulders. Below is a shot of us on the top, standing next to the rock that shelters the summit-sign-in canister.

 

 

After spending some 30-45 minutes at the top, we headed down. In some of the sections, going down is much worse than climbing up due to unsure footing on top of the rocks and ankle-twisting loose rocks. Add fatigue and altitude to the mix and you’ve got yourself a recipe for potential problems. Blood spattered on sections of the rocks is a callous reminder that the mountain can be unforgiving.

 

Focus, concentrate, vigilance…I kept telling myself.

 

The short story is that we did all make it down the mountain and to the safety of our cars about 11 hours after leaving them. The trip, however, was not without some physical payment. In addition to muscles crying from 7.5 miles of eccentric loading, some people got nasty blisters. Some blisters were patchable with a bandage of duct tape, other blisters forced the postponement of summiting the mountain. Scott Rees’s biggest blister stopped him short of the Homestretch and consumed the entire bottom of his big toe. When I saw the flap of dead skin covering his raw, pink skin underneath; the flap appeared to be about 1/8-inch thick – a good sized chunk of hide. He had more blisters, but this was the worst one.

 

I think nearly everyone had some blisters on their feet, though none as impressive as Scott's. I managed to twist an ankle in the Trough on the way back and had to duct tape it for stability. (I’ll show you how in another blog.) There were banged up knees, toes, arms and torsos from using the body as a brace to make another move or as a momentum stop.

 

This mountain can be cruel and unforgiving. It turns away people that are in great shape as well as those that don’t have the fitness that it takes to summit. As I wrote on my Twitter page, “I would rather be denied a goal due to fatigue, physical pain, weather or nutrition than fear (of starting, trying, being last, risking ego)”

 

How about you?

 

When is the last time you really challenged yourself?

 

More photos are available on this public Facebook page.  (You don’t need a Facebook account to view them, though my Facebook page is open if you want to be “friends”.)

 

Information about Longs is available on Wikipedia and on the National Park site.

 

More photos and a good route description are available on this site, 14ers, as well as others.

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