Boulder County High Point Trip Report

Longs Peak (14,256 ft) by the Keyhole Route

Date: July 9-10, 2000
Author: Adam Helman

Any route on Longs Peak is certain to challenge and inspire. The Keyhole route is the least technical, yet is nevertheless a "classic" climb by all measures. Longs Peak, it must be noted, has been attempted by perhaps 100,000 hikers; is the most northerly of all the Colorado fourteeners; and is the highest peak among 113 named peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. The sheer eastern face, known as the Diamond, is legendary among technical climbers.

In reference to the Keyhole route, the major choice is whether to make the ascent in a single day from the trailhead, or spread the effort over two days with a backcountry camp at the Boulderfield (12,700 ft). The former choice requires good acclimatization and proper timing so as to summit and exit exposed territory before the inevitable summer thunderstorms gather momentum. The latter choice requires an overnight backcountry permit from the National Park Service. You purchase a voucher preferably months in advance of your intended climb, and, upon arrival at the Longs Peak campground ranger station, trade it in for the actual permit.

Since Longs Peak was the very first of a series of fourteeners I planned on climbing that week, it was prudent to acclimate overnight at the Boulderfield. I arrived about 7 PM the prior evening with voucher in hand. A park ranger was just shutting down the office for the day, and informed me that 8 AM was the soonest that I could exchange voucher for permit. That's pretty stupid since it means waiting 2-3 hours after daybreak at the trailhead despite the summertime afternoon storm hazard.

The six mile trail to the Boulderfield is very well maintained. I arrived at 2 PM after an 8:30 AM departure from the 9,400 ft trailhead. The going was naturally slow owing to the house atop my back and since but 24 hours earlier I was essentially at sea level in San Diego.

I met several friendly hikers at the Boulderfield, and decided to hook up for the Keyhole ascent, the following morning, with a husband and wife in their early thirties. My original plan had been to go with someone else, but he had unfortunately injured his ankle the previous week after taking a fall on Snowmass.

The Keyhole route was completely barren of snow or ice owing to a very dry winter season. Having learned from returning climbers this fact, I left my ice axe and crampons behind for the attempt.

The route is divided into four major sections, each one of which is unique and interesting. It is this diversity which is largely responsible for the "classic" nature of the route.

Starting at 7:15 AM, the keyhole was attained after some 20 minutes from camp (circa 13,200 ft). It is simply a break in the ridge that resembles its namesake albeit far, far larger. Lucky five dollar bill, folded, just sitting on a rock!! I saved it.

The "Ledges" section begins immediately after the keyhole. Essentially a traverse over rocks, routefinding is aided considerably by bullseyes blazed every 50 or 100 feet in the more prominent rocks. Follow them religiously.

The "Trough" contains most of the vertical gain past the Keyhole. Commencing at perhaps 13,100 ft (note the slight drop from the Keyhole), it is a narrow chute filled with rock and scree that extends at perhaps a 40 degree angle to 13,900 ft. It is commonly choked with snow until late in the season - although not this time.

At the very top of the Trough is the "crux" of the route (if there is any at all), wherein one must either turn right and negotiate a 30 degree slab with almost no handholds, or turn left and surmount a boulder that requires considerable limb stretching.

The "Narrows" features several hundred feet of exposure, lasts for all of five to ten minutes, and is far less harrrowing than I have read about: the trail is perhaps two feet wide on average, and there are excellent handholds throughout its length. However I can imagine that in a high wind it could become more dicey. No vertical gain here.

The "Homestretch" takes one up a series of narrow cracks on 30 degree boulder slabs, and leads directly from the Narrows to the summit plateau. It may be more comfortable, on the descent, to lower your center of gravity as much as possible and travel "on all fives".

The summit plateau is quite broad and contains some artifical windbreaks composed of the local rocks. Views are spectacular in good weather. Having started at 7:15 AM, I stepped on the benchmark at 9:30 AM. It looked silly - I was the only hiker among a dozen at the summit who just HAD to surmount a precarious four foot tall pile of rocks with the BM on top.

After the requisite photographs and a delicious Chinese sweet bean mooncake smeared with cream cheese (I love interesting food), I descended after but one-half hour: the clouds appeared more threatening than one would wish.

Return to high camp was uneventful. I presented the luck Lincoln greenback to my "guides" with the promise that (she) would never spend it. After a good rest I broke camp and returned to the trailhead by 5 PM. The shower in my Estes Park motel room felt wonderful!