Longs Peak, The Monarch of the Rockies
“The Keyhole Route is not a hike. It is a climb that crosses enormous sheer vertical rock faces, often with falling rocks, requiring scrambling, where an un-roped fall would likely be fatal. The route has narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs,” —Rocky Mountain National Park Press ReleaseRound Trip: 14.5 miles
Start: 9,500 feet
Difficulty: Class 3
Summit: 14,259 feet
Elevation Gain: 5,100 feet
Time: 10-15 hours
The Keyhole Route – A Personal Account
Written by Bella Biondini
Its prominent 14,259-foot summit daunted me for the entirety of the summer, like it has for countless others over the centuries. The Native Americans had climbed and told stories of the peak for thousands of years. The Arapaho name for Longs and its neighbor Mount Meeker translated as “The Two Guides,” the peaks standing out in the sky as a visible landmark from the plains. The sight of Longs Peak was first recorded in 1799 by French trappers and traders. The first confirmed summit was not accomplished until August 1868, when a team of seven, led by Grand Canyon explorer Major John Wesley Powell reached the top.
Since the 1900s, the peak has continued to grow in popularity despite its infamous reputation due largely to its extreme visibility from Denver and the surrounding areas. Longs Peak is the deadliest peak in the state of Colorado, with the highest failure rate of all the 14ers. Regardless, 15,000-20,000 people still attempt the summit each year, according to a Colorado Fourteener Initiative study done in 2018. Crowds and inexperienced hikers only increase the risks along with exposure and swift weather changes. Since 1884, 63 people are known to have died on or near Longs Peak, far surpassing any other mountain in Colorado. Many of these deaths resulted from unroped falls, exhaustion, hypothermia and lightning strikes.
One of the most famous deaths on the mountain was Agnes Vaille. She became the first woman to summit Longs Peak in the winter on January 25, 1925. During her descent on the Keyhole Route, Vaille slipped, falling 150 feet. Exhausted, she insisted on a short nap, but froze to death before her partner could get her to safety. The Agnes Vaille Shelter lies directly under the Keyhole, and was named in her honor, serving as a shelter for climbers.
Longs Peak towers over the landscape as the only 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park. Its vertical rock faces are covered with ice and snow for nine months out of the year, leaving only a small window for hikers without mountaineering experience to reach the summit.
*Much of the information above comes from Paul Nesbit's Longs Peak: Its Story and a Climbing Guide and Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener by Dougald MacDonald.
It was late August, a week before I was supposed to return home to New Orleans. My summer goal was to summit my first 14er. The night before our attempt we snagged the last of 26 campsites at Longs Peak campground, about 20 minutes south of Estes Park. The mountain appeared larger as we stood at its base.
It was a cool night, skies were clear. Longs Peak looked like a monster, but it was only a shadow against the stars. I strapped on my headlamp and fumbled with my boots in the dark tripping over a stump.
The trail through Goblins Forest was darker than the sky. In confusion and dismay my lungs had already begun to struggle for oxygen. I was unable to see beyond the range of my crappy headlight. I heard the sounds of the river but it was invisible to the eye. I quickly shed my layers as sweat began to drip down my back. We needed to keep a steady pace or we weren’t going to make it. I exhaled. My breathing was already raspy and my nose was running. I attempted to slow my pulse.
At 11,000 feet we rose above the tree line as the path winded out of the forest. It was an open abyss, above us only sky while below danced the far away lights of the city. The race had begun, for we were now completely exposed. With any surprise change of weather, there would be no shelter. In the chance of a thunderstorm or lightning we were the closest thing to the sky as we left the trees behind. I watched a trail of tiny lights bob in the distance, trailing up the face of the mountain. They were the headlamps of other hikers going up and up and then disappearing over the ridge. I longed for the light of the sun. It seemed as if I was walking aimlessly into the black with no destination.
We finally met the Boulder Field at 12,400 feet. I climbed over massive rocks and tried desperately to keep my footing but it was impossible. The rocks I chose creaked and wobbled with my weight. I placed my foot down carefully and slipped, bringing me to my hands and knees. I grasped my bloody palm. As we climbed upward so did the sun. I was overjoyed to see her after hours in the darkness. The landscape revealed itself, the Keyhole nearly in reach. I could see the large crack in the rock face serving as a gateway to the backside of the mountain. The sky turned red and gold. I didn’t know this was barely the beginning of what would become a tiny expedition. The temperature dropped 15 degrees as I collapsed at the Keyhole, six miles from the trailhead. I peered over the valley as the wind whipped my hair in all directions, biting at my face. I took a deep breath as my eyes wandered over the cliff's edge into Glacier Gorge. The next portion of our trip, less than a mile to the summit, would take just as long as the six we had already completed.
The wind was alarming. I struggled to put my jacket and hat back on, terrified that I would drop something, especially my phone, and never see it again. We surveyed the weather and decided that it was safe to attempt the summit. There was no rescue beyond the Keyhole, and a sudden afternoon thunderstorm, common in the Rockies, could create gusts strong enough to tear us off the mountain. We began our scramble along the ledge and into the Trough. The elevation continued to climb; we now sat at 13,300 feet. The next leg of the climb would become a test of physical and mental endurance. The altitude rose along with my heart rate. After a successful ascent of the boulders of the Trough I could see over the ridge as we carefully balanced ourselves along the Narrows. We were in sight of the final pitch: Homestretch. The flat cracked granite rock face looked far from inviting as I wedged my body upwards toward the summit.
Everything was blue. The altitude read 14,259 feet. I smiled almost drunkenly, awash in the panorama of snowcaps and rolling ranges as far as the eye could see.
Want to learn more about the Keyhole Route? Check out The Colorado 14ers : The Best Routes.