Longs Peak, Long Day (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

This is an amazing experience but it's not for everyone.


I wouldn't trade the experience for the world!

There's something gratifying about getting to the top of a magnificent mountain.  This is Colorado's most popular 14-er.

Our group at the top:  L to R it's Isaac, me, Jeff and Garrett. Jeff has been a friend for almost 20 years.  We worked together when he was a TV news photographer and I was a reporter at a Springs station in the early 90's. Isaac is his brother-in-law, Garrett is one of Isaac's friends. Jeff invited me to do this and warned me that it wasn't easy.  I didn't take his warning seriously enough!  I didn't know what was coming.

Let's go back to the bottom.  You have to start early.  We hit the trail head at 4am and the parking lot was already full. You have to be off the top in time to avoid the typical afternoon storms.  Nearly 60 people have died on Longs Peak, several of them were hit by lightning.

For a while it's a nice easy trail.  I can do that all day.  My training  is running and walking at an incline so my calves and hamstrings are in good shape.  Turns out this hike is all about quads! I didn't know what was coming. 

This is almost at the spot where it gets physically difficult.  The boulder field is full of giant rocks and you have to walk, climb, jump from one to the next..kind of fun, at first.  Then the quads start to burn..this is kind of like climbing steep, over-sized stairs. It's still not dangerous in any way, and in spite of the slight pain I was felling pretty good.  I didn't know what was coming. 

Below is a spot called the keyhole, not really half way, but kind of a mid-point. You cross through it and take a left, across the back side of the mountain to reach the point where you can go up.

This is where it gets mentally demanding.  First reaction on seeing the route ahead..."This can't be where we're supposed to go!" 



I should point out that I don't like heights....at all.  Jeff warned me that would be an issue and I was prepared for a few moments of fear to work through. I didn't know what was coming. 

At this spot below, just past the keyhole, and many others like it, one misstep could easily mean a fatal fall.  It's hard not to think that way if you have that particular height hatred.

Look at these two pictures below side by side.  This is looking back at an area called the narrows.  On the left, a close-up, you can see hikers on a very small  trail.  To one side is the mountain, the other is a sheer drop-off, maybe 1000 feet.  On the right, the same shot zoomed out for perspective.  This really had the fear of heights kicking in.  Some of those who have fallen to their deaths have apparently done so here.


A couple of times you even have to climb over or around boulders that are blocking that already too-tiny trail. You are a narrow foothold or a crack-in-the-rock handhold away from the drop! 

 I know, experienced hikers and climbers who do this all the time dismiss this whole thing as no big deal. I get it. 

My mind doesn't work that way.  Even with my back to the drop-off I know it's there.  Every muscle is tensed up which only adds to the physical exertion.  I had no business doing this.  The other guys were very patient. I never froze or refused like a spooked horse in a steeple chase.  I did need some step-by-step coaching from Jeff several times to help me get through the trickiest of the tricky spots.  Finally through it, a quick rest before the homestretch.

The homestretch is a steep and treacherous final push to the summit.  It's a bit like a giant child's slide made of smooth stone, and it's got a coat of ice on it in spots!  There have reportedly been some deadly falls here too. Below, I'm almost there, 14,259 feet above sea level!

At the summit we took some time and took in the views.  It's exhilarating to make it to the top! 


I did this as a challenge to myself, knowing it would be physically hard and that the height factor would be an issue too.  Sometimes we challenge ourselves to overcome fears, and I knew I could do it if there were 2 or 3 really bad spots.  There were 7 or 8!  I would not have made it without help from my good friend and now good coach Jeff.  Thanks.

The fun at the top is short-lived because you still have to come down.  Every treacherous stretch, every dizzying, breath-taking moment from the way up would be repeated in reverse on the way down. 

I knew exactly what was coming!   


Left above:  coming back down the homestretch.  Right: Garrett and Isaac stop for a moment on the way back down through a tough section of large loose rock called the trough.  It took just as long to go down as it did to go up!  It was just as frightening for me.  I know, once again, it isn't that way for lots of people.

I read somewhere that of the thousands who try it every year, about 30 percent make it to the summit.  I'm happy to be one of them, I just wasn't always too happy on the way up...or on the way down!  Just over 11 hours up and down, exertion, exhaustion, terror all along the way..at least for me. Two days later those quads are still sore!

I'm not going to challenge anyone to do this.  One on-line account I read included an interview with a Park Ranger.  He had witnessed one death and admitted that he is surprised that there aren't more.  I am too, but maybe that's just the way my height-fearing head works.  If you have a fear of heights, don't do this!

Thanks to Isaac and Garrett for being patient and especially to Jeff for being helpful.

I said a the beginning..

I wouldn't trade the experience for the world.

I wouldn't do it again if you paid me.

We'll talk again soon.

Don Ward




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