It’s 3 AM and my phone alarm goes off. I’m already wide awake, fueled by nervous excitement. I roll out of my car and get a quick stretch before tapping on the window of Nathan’s van. We’d slept right there at the trailhead so we could be ready to go. We had our sights set on Long’s Peak, the tallest and most difficult 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We pack our bags. Double check. Triple check. Our bags are heavier than we’d like, filled with water, food, crampons, ice axes, rope, harnesses, and other gear. By the time we finish packing, we have about 2 hours to get above tree line in order to see the sunrise.
Our timing was perfect. The sky was bloody and fiery — the texture and depth of the clouds unlike any sunrise I’d ever witnessed.
We pause again to catch our breath and take stock of the morning light, but not for long. We have a long way to go even after tree line and need to keep moving. Now began the trek through the alpine tundra, where no trees offered protection from the ever-strengthening gusts of wind.
The path through the tundra alternates between snow and rock. The rock stairs require huge steps that sap the strength in my legs. The snow is a slog, my morale weakening each time I sink up to my thighs.
As we near the peak, the path disappears, giving way to the boulder field. Few hikers take this path; most follow the desolate snowfield around the base of the peak to the Keyhole Route. Nathan and I had different intentions.
Our plan was to summit via the Cable Route on the North Face of Long’s Peak. The Cable Route is directly visible in the photo above directly to the right of Nathan’s head (the more inclined Keyhole Route far to the right). The Cable Route gets its name from a cable that used to be installed up until the 1970s when the rangers decided it conducted lightning too well. The line remains, though, beginning with a technical 5.4 vertical ascent before becoming a class 3 scramble to the summit. We plan to free solo the ascent and then rappel back down.
But the wind only grows stronger. It takes my hat, sending it hundreds of yards away in the blink of an eye. It knocks us over and we throw our axes into the snow to keep from following my hat down the mountain. At times the wind beats us back, slowing our trek. At times it propels us forward, sending us face-first towards a boulder. We estimate the gusts to be a consistent 30-40 mph, with gale force bursts of 80 mph or above.
Given the conditions, we decide it foolishly suicidal to attempt our free solo of the Cable Route, expecting that the wind would simply blow us right off the North Face.
Nevertheless, we reach Chasm View, where our summit climb was supposed to begin. We stand in awe and bear witness to the legendary Diamond of Longs Peak. In an instant, a gust comes from seemingly all directions at once and I collapse into a rock outcropping to keep from being helplessly thrown over the ridge. I remain there for a while out of sheer exhaustion, snacking on granola bars and drinking water to keep altitude sickness at bay.
Nathan proclaims Longs his favorite place on Earth, and I find that I don’t disagree. The brutality of the approach was beyond anything I imagined. Never have I found myself so pushed to my limits. And yet the reward standing here face to face with the Diamond is sweeter than anything I’ve ever tasted. It’s a moment where exaggeration becomes impossible.
We descend in good time, reaching the trailhead before 11 AM. The 11 mile trek took us up and down 4,000 feet of elevation and lasted nearly 8 hours.
We drive back to Estes to fill our bellies at Inkwell, Nathan’s favorite coffee shop in town. After recuperating for a couple hours, we fondly part ways so I can continue my journey. I head now to Vail to see Moon.
Woke up in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sleeping in Vail, CO.