August 13, 1999 (Attempt)
Trent (shanghaied subordinate from work) and I accomplished the Sawtooth none the worse for wear therefore I figured I was ready for the Keyhole route on Longs Peak. I was probably less worried about the technical aspects of the climb than I was about the sixteen mile round trip distance involved in completing the climb. I took a day off from work and left Cheyenne at midnight to arrive at the parking lot at the requisite two in the morning. The lot was not full but by no means was I the only person to hatch the idea of a mid week climb of Longs.
I hit the trail at 2 a.m. sharp and had a quiet and solitary trip up the winding trail to tree line. Above tree line, however, the wind became more apparent even though the lights of Denver and its surrounds were clearly visible in the clear early morning dark. I passed the Chasm Lake cutoff and met up with a climber from the U.K. who wanted to scale Longs after having read about it for months back home before coming to the US. We hiked together toward Granite Pass as the wind steadily increased in intensity. The wind seemed to be increasing with every foot of trail and at Granite Pass I made the turn around call after being blown from the trail and about down onto my knees. The skies were also starting to cloud over, the stars now coming into and out of view as the clouds obscured portions of the sky through the passage.
I wished the U.K. fellow well, and turned for the parking lot, now a few hours away. Every time I turn a climb, it seems as if I walk a mile back and then the weather that made my decision so easy changes and causes me to reflect on my choice of action. I do however have a personal rule and that is that once a climb is turned; it stays that way, regardless of the changing weather. I was back at the trailhead two hours later and headed for home. Longs would have to wait a few days as I figured I would again try it on Saturday when the weather would hopefully cooperate. How wrong I would be . . .
August 15, 1999 (Summit)
I arrived at the trailhead at two a.m. on Saturday morning and saw what a difference a few days could make. I got the last space in the lot, at two in the morning! From there, it was the same gear and the same route to Chasm Lake and onto Granite Pass. The wind was blowing at a good clip but still much less than my experience just two days before. I kept going along the dark trail and met the dawn at the boulder field. Climbers who had come this far and camped were starting to rise and break camp for the trip to the Keyhole proper and the summit one mile beyond. I crossed the boulder-strewn area and climbed, hopping boulder to boulder to the keyhole shaped notch in the ridge below the peak’s north face.
The wind was now blowing even harder, still not enough to knock you down but hard enough for me to stop an consider the prudence of continuing. I crossed over the gap and looked at the sloping, somewhat ledgy, route that traversed around the backside of Longs before stepping back to the boulder field side to make the go/no go decision. Another climber came along and had the same moment’s hesitation, we chatted about the terrain to come and then both decided to make a bid for the summit. I crossed through the Keyhole and followed the trail of bulls’ eyes (there are faint “target ring” blazes painted on the rocks) along the backside of the peak to the base of the Trough, a couloir that climbs about seven or eight hundred feet to a chock stone blocked upper exit. The climb is steep and calls for some hand and foot action but soon enough I was making the move over the stone that seemingly blocked the exit. Next came the Narrows section, which truly is narrow and does involve some degree of exposure as one traverses along yet another side of the Longs Peak summit block before reaching the Homestretch. I climbed the Homestretch, which is the final climb up a fissured stone slope. I picked the crack with the most obvious handholds and made my way to the large flat summit of Longs Peak.
Though I had left the trailhead at two in the morning, there were at least 20 other climbers on the summit when I arrived at 8 a.m. The climbers ranged from the obviously capable to the Cottoneers who, though they had managed to summit early in the day, still had not managed to avoid the jeans and cotton sweatshirt garb they are renowned for in climbing circles. Since it was so early, I dallied about on the summit for about 20 minutes before heading back down the Homestretch and around the side of the peak via the Narrows. The Trough couloir was full of climbers on their way up and I stepped aside multiple times to let the earnest pack continue their upward travel. I then started along the traverse across the Glacier Gorge side of the peak and when about half way around, I saw a commotion about 100 yards ahead. A group of people were knotted up and seemed to be most interested in something perhaps 150 feet below them. I traversed on the route to the group and was asked if I had a cell phone to which I answered in the positive. I was then told that a climber had fallen and help was needed. I took a few seconds to look below and make sure that the person talking to me was on the level and my observation showed that they were. I quickly climbed up to the Keyhole ridgeline so that my phone would connect and was then able to get a connection to 911, in some county off in the plains. I explained where I was and they connected me to Boulder County and then to the Park Service. The park operator advised me that I was the fourth call about the accident but also asked if I could please stay in the area, as the other callers had hung up and moved on their way.
Additionally, they asked if I, or anyone else I could round up, could query passers by to see if a doctor was anywhere to be found. I told them that I would have to drop back down but I would try it. When I got back to the trail, there was a small knot of mostly solo climbers, two of whom went to the fallen climber and three of whom had decided to take the climber’s wife to the ranger station, seven miles down trail. Since the park service asked for some idea of the climber’s condition, I queried those who had climbed down and relayed what they described to the Park Service. Unfortunately, the situation looked very bad, as these folks were unable to detect any sign of life in the fallen climber. The Park Service advised that a group of rangers would be sent up but that it would take a while due to the strong winds and distance but that a helicopter would scope out the situation as soon as possible . . . could we stay in the area and keep looking for a doctor.
Unbelievably, a doctor walked up next and asked what had happened. He was a pediatrician and an admitted non-rock climber but said he would go down if we would accompany him. We did so and sadly, he confirmed that he too could not find a pulse or other sign of life in the fellow below. We again reported that information back to the Park Service and soon after their helicopter arrived and located the victim on the ledge below the trail. We were done and headed for the trailhead.
Longs is a challenging peak, even by its easiest route, and this climb with its tragic end only goes to emphasize the care needed on both the tough climbs and the walk-ups. The day was windy and passers by stated that the climber had been spooked earlier by the wind after coming through the Keyhole. Regardless of reason, I learned a hard lesson about the physical danger of climbing, the ever present though sometimes amorphous hazard, waiting to strike both the prepared and unwary. Be careful up there . . .