Part of the towering Colorado 14ers, Longs Peak is one of the tougher prospects to conquer, yet seems to cast a “siren’s song” over adventurers.
Name: Longs Peak
Height: 4,346 m (14,259 ft)
Location: Front Range, Colorado, USA
First Climbed: 23 August 1868 by JW Powell and six others.
Climb Time: 1 day
Best Time to Climb: June-September, possible year-round.
INTRODUCTION TO LONGS PEAK
“Truly one of the best adventures in the Rockies” is how one hiker has described Long’s Peak (4,346 m/ 14,259 ft).
Seen from far out across the Great Plains, this distinctive mountain has a sheer East Face that announces the dramatic rising of terrain that stretches the length of this continent. With over 100 climbing routes, this is a mountain that climbers, hikers and adventurers return to time and time again.
But we wouldn’t want you to think us biased, so we’ll let an authority on Colorado mountains finish our introduction:
“Longs Peak is unquestionably the Monarch of the Front Range and northern Colorado. It dominates all with sight of it. The reason for its popularity is obvious. Longs enraptures all but the most heartless soul.”
Colorado’s Fourteeners by Gerry Roach
HISTORY OF LONGS PEAK
Longs Peak is named after Stephen Harriman Long, a 19th Century explorer and US army engineer. Though his explorations only lasted six years, he covered around 42,000 km (26,000 miles). Significant discovery work was done in the Great Plains area, east of Longs Peak.
As well as this work, Long is credited with being the first to spot this mountain on behalf of the government in 1820. It was officially named after him in 1890.
Before this time, it was also referred to as Highest Peak, Long’s Peak, and Les Deux Oreilles (see below). The Native Americans called it Nesotaieux, meaning ‘Two Guides’, reflecting the starkly different attitudes of the native and settler cultures to this landscape.
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Longs Peak has featured in two 19th Century science fiction novels by Jules Verne. Long’s Peak (as it was written in the books) was the site of a reflector telescope used to track lunar spacecraft! It was around this time that the mountain’s popularity as a hiking destination also began the boom (though we are not suggesting sci-fi is responsible for this!)
Yet amongst Colorado’s 14ers, Longs Peak is one of the most dangerous mountains. Fifty-nine people have died on these slopes (data from 2014), many climbing the challenging Keyhole Route. Most have died from falls, with hypothermia being the second most common cause of death.
The frequency of deaths has increased in recent years, yet so has the popularity of the climb. This suggests it is not becoming more dangerous as a challenge, but that those climbing are perhaps less well-prepared or cautious than they actually need to be.
Some rescues have found people climbing exposed routes in jogging shoes and shorts, which is a dangerous underestimate of what this mountain demands. A sign at the Boulder Field speaks of the dangers that lie ahead of any climber, with the simple instruction at its top: “do not climb if unprepared”. Only a fool would choose not to heed this warning.
Most deaths occur in August and September; these are also the most popular months to climb.
GEOGRAPHY OF LONGS PEAK
Jutting out on the eastern edge of a jagged ridgeline that remains above 3,500 m (11,483 ft) north and south of the peak along the Front Range, Longs Peak is the dominating feature of the Rocky Mountain National Park.
The only 14er in the park, its flat summit can be seen from almost anywhere within its boundaries, despite lying close to its eastern border.
Longs Peak is also the highest point in Boulder County and the most northerly 14er in the Rocky Mountains. It rises 2,700 m (8,860 ft) from the western edge of the Great Plains, heralding the start of the great boundary that is the Continental Divide.
Between Longs Peak and Mount Lady Washington (4,048 m/ 13,281 ft, to the north-east) is the border for Larimar and Boulder Counties, Colorado. The Keyhole Route (see below) crosses this border, as it turns to approach the summit from the north. Most of the mountain lies within Boulder County and the popular trailheads are less than 90 minutes drive from both Denver and Boulder.
To the south-west is a chain of mountains pot marked with cirques. Nearest is Pagoda Mountain (4,114 m/ 13,497 ft), beyond which is the snaking line of the Continental Divide. This fault runs the length of the American continent and is responsible for the creation of many of the peaks in the Rocky Mountains.
To the south-east is Mount Meeker (4,242 m/ 13,916 ft). Longs Peak is Mount Meeker’s parent mountain, with 1.1 km (0.7 miles) separating the two summits. These two peaks’ close relationship is reflected in their first name—Les Deux Oreilles—given in 1799 by French trappers and meaning ‘the two ears’.
The two mountains are now more commonly translated as the Twin Peaks. To the south-east of the two summits is the long Meeker Ridge, site of a class III climb.
The East Face of Longs Peak is what brings it such fame and notoriety among the the Colorado 14ers, containing The Diamond (see below), The sheer cliff face is a striking feature, staring out across the Great Plains and tempting adventurers to a closer look.
At the base of the East Face is Mills Glacier, the last surviving glacier on the mountain. There are fewer than fifty mountains in Colorado that still have a glacier. It is located around 3,900 m (12,795 ft).
Chasm Lake sits to the north-east of Longs Peak. It is from these shores that many of the more dramatic photographs of the mountain are taken, taking advantage of the mirror-like lake surface. Fed by glacial meltwater, this lake in turn feeds the Columbine Falls, which freeze and are climbable for up to five months of the year.
A permanent snowfield, known as the Dove, is found to the north of the summit. The Keyhole Route (see below) passes close by it.
WILDLIFE OF LONGS PEAK
Longs Peak, surrounded by a glacier, boulder field and a high ridgeline, is far from an ideal habitat for flora. The higher reaches are almost entirely devoid of permanent inhabitants, except for ever-present lichens.
In the valleys and creeks below, Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir share some areas, with lodgepole pine and huckleberry found elsewhere. These hug to the edge of the streams in many places.
On the rare occasions that the forest opens up, long grasses are dotted with wildflowers while the boulders in the stream are covered with deep green mosses.
Typical of the area, small animals such as pika, marmots, snowshoe hares and chipmunks as well as ptarmigan can be found in the vicinity of Longs Peak. Few, if any, animals are found higher on the slopes, with the lack of vegetation and exposed conditions clear deterrents.
Three vibrant blue-coloured birds seen largely around and below the tree line are the Stellars jay, mountain bluebird and the dipper. The omnivorous mountain bluebird lives in this area year-round, though many will migrate north to mate and south to spend the winter when necessary. It is the state bird of both Idaho and Nevada.
This was also a site where local Native American tribes would come to search for eagle’s feathers, so you may get lucky enough to see one of these majestic birds of prey circling overhead.
FIRST ASCENT OF LONGS PEAK
On the 23 August 1868, surveyors led by USGS director John Wesley Powell made the first ascent of Longs Peak. Powell, William Byers and five others climbed up the south side of the mountain via Keplinger’s Couloir (see below)
The more challenging East Face was not overcome until almost a century later. Containing a thousand-foot sheer cliff known as The Diamond, it was first successfully climbed in 1960 by David Rearick and Bob Kamps. They cut the route known as D1, listed in the influential climbing book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
The record for ascents in one year is 53, set by Clerin Zumwalt in 1932. While many climbers reach the summit multiple times, few would do so in such short succession!
CLIMBING GUIDE FOR LONGS PEAK
Except for the summer season (May-September), climbing Longs Peak is a winter adventure. This means it demands sufficient knowledge of climbing on ice and snow. Without this, the tougher routes on this mountain should be avoided.
However, caution and precautions should be taken whatever time of year you choose to take it on. There is a real risk of rockfalls, exhaustion, exposure, hypothermia, avalanches, frost bite and falls. In the winter, sub-zero temperatures accompany much of the route, while in summer, thunderstorms and lightning threaten. It can even provoke altitude sickness, as a group of US special forces discovered in 2016.
But, if you are well prepared, read good advice—and don’t become dangerously fixated on the summit—this is one of the most thrilling 14ers you can take on. There are many routes up Longs Peak (some list up to 100 different climbing routes). We will discuss a few of the more popular ones briefly, with links to more detailed reports and guides so you can plan your adventure on Longs Peak.
The classic Keyhole Route is the most climbed of any 14er route. Particularly in the summer, 100+ climbers can be found lazing on the summit at the end of their ascents. But this is no hike; the Keyhole Route should be treated as a climb, and given the respect due to a route of narrow ledges, loose rocks and steep cliffs.
From Longs Peak trailhead to summit you gain 1,478 m (4,850 ft) over 26 km (16 miles). You can cut around 5 km (3 miles) off this by hiking in and camping (with a permit) in the Boulder Field before the summit day, making this a two day adventure.
However you begin, only half of all attempts finish having successfully reached the summit. Temperamental weather conditions and climbing challenges making this summit a real prize.
The trailhead leads first through a gentle incline in the forest before entering the Boulder Field. Crossing Glacier Pass, the route begins to ascend via steeper rocky steps among the boulders, switchbacking up the mountain.
Just short of the Keyhole—a hanging piece of rock that marks the edge of a cliff—the route disappears and boulder hopping is required. This leads you to the eponymous feature of the route, with the sudden drop down to Glacier Gorge alongside it (around 600 m/ 2,000 ft). It is along this edge that you now traverse, though the difficulty is primarily a mental battle rather than a physical one.
Next comes the Trough, a steep gully where you gain 183 m (600 ft) over a very short distance. Loose rocks and uneven ground often makes this section slow-going.
At the top you reach the Narrows. This exposed section of trail is a ledge with another sudden drop to one side of a similar size seen but the Keyhole. It also lives up to its name and must be taken single-file, using the hand holds in the rock wall for stability.
At the end of this comes the Homestretch, which is, predictably, the last section before the summit. The 122 m (400 ft) climb here is simple enough and the route appears well-grooved.
The descent via the same route can be treacherous, with several steep climbs and narrow ledges, so caution and allowing sufficient time are highly recommended. As attractive as the summit experience is, you’d be wise not to make your descent a rush. Most climbers begin around 2 am in order to safely return within daylight hours.
There are slight alternate versions of the route, such as the Loft Route should you wish for variation or less traffic.
Other routes on Longs Peak include:
• The Notch Couloir: A class V/5.16 alpine climb found halfway up the East Face of Longs Peak. Highly technical and with sections up to 40º, this route is best climbed in May-June when the ice and snow is hard and compacted.
• Cables Route/North Face: An old route that had cables installed from 1925 to 1973 for safety, it is now commonly used as a quicker descent route. Arguably this route is more popular among technically-minded climbers than the Keyhole Route, and is certainly a much shorter and faster route to the Longs Peak summit.
• Keplinger’s Couloir: From the Copeland Lake trailhead, this is a two-day route that tends to be one of the quietest. It is only a class III but is a long route, passing to the west of The Notch. This was the first route ever cut on the mountain.
• West Ridge: Rarely climbed technical but spectacular route leading from the Trough to the summit.
• The Diamond: There are several routes up this sheer face, the hardest being a 5.14a route, cut in 2013 by Tommy Caldwell and Joe Mills.
INFORMATION ON TREKKING AROUND LONGS PEAK
For other great climbing challenges, you do not need to look very far.
Mount Meeker, located just to the south-east of Longs Peak, is really a continuation of Longs Peak’s spectacular East Face. It is considered one of the finest of Colorado’s 13ers and proposes climbing challenges that’ll test the best. You can read a list of adventure options on Mount Meeker here.
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For a less technical adventure, a hike to the Peacock Pool or Chasm Lake may be just the right kind of challenge.
Chasm Lake is reached from Longs Peak trailhead, where the Keyhole Route starts. It is a 13.5 km (8.5-mile) return that follows the East Longs Peak Trail. At most, this route requires a bit of scrambling and is uphill for much of the way to the lake, which sits in a glacial cirque between Mount Lady Washington and Longs Peak.
Peacock Lake is just shy of Chasm Lake on the same trail. It can be found just after the Chasm Junction on the Chasm Lake Trail, down a slope on the right. Due to this steep downhill approach, this is a route that is discouraged outside of winter, as the snow protects excessive erosion of the delicate slope.
Chasm View is another less visited spot, with the destination a ridge between Mount Lady Washington the Longs Peak’s East Face. Those who do are rewarded with some spectacular views of the peak and, of course, the lake below. This is also used by climbers preparing for the East Face as the ridge provides unrestricted views of the challenging rock face.
But you won’t be able to see any of the Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers from Chasm View as this epic trail passes to the west of Longs Peak (though some take the chance of being close to bag the peak).