Climbing Longs Peak: THE Rocky Mountain

To view Chandler Eaton’s photo feature from the Longs Peak climb, click here.

“Where can I go to take a photo of the Rocky Mountain?” is my favorite question that I’ve ever been asked while working in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). I didn’t know what to do except presume that the tourist inquiring about THE Rocky Mountain was referring to the tallest rock in the landscape: Longs Peak. No matter where you are in RMNP, you can always count on Longs to be photobombing with its unsubtle presence.

Last season, my roommate described Longs Peak best as, “A beefy thing, isn’t it?” So naturally, when determining which mountain is THE Rocky Mountain, Longs is a safe bet.

Feb 3, at 14,259 ft, I submitted Longs Peak, bagging my first winter “14’er,” which refers to a summit above 14,000 feet. Climbing the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park took 13-hours from car-to-car. I’ve never been so sure I was alive, and I guess it was the sensation of being so close to potentially deadly situations.

In the past, winter mountaineering occupied a space in the “unattainable and mythological activity” territory of my brain. Yes, it would make a cool Hollywood film, but it wasn’t on my radar of capabilities. Before this previous summer, I had never even met a mountaineer.

In the summer of 2016, while I was handling wilderness use permits in a ranger station, an older gentleman and two young adults came into the office for a permit to camp in the winter zone near Longs Peak in order to attempt to summit.

I estimated the older gentleman was in his late fifties and the younger man and woman with him were potentially his children. I was a little more certain of my estimation of their mortality. Surely these visitors from Atlanta, Ga. were going to die, based on my empirical data of having never met someone who had climbed Longs Peak anytime other than a summer day.

On a pleasant summer day, the summit can see hundreds of hikers. The Keyhole route’s traffic has actually polished some of the granite, presenting the mountain’s unforgiving exposure as a serious threat. Don’t let the impressive visitation give you any impression of safety. When I was in high school, my friend’s brother took a fatal fall on Longs. There are many to be mourned due to attempts at Longs.

Conclusively, this Georgian trio in my ranger station was not long for this earth, or so I assumed. Alas, my hesitations to give them a permit faded when they began explaining their gear. Anyone who knows that much about spikes and axes surely knows what they’re doing. After I verified their route with a ranger in the office who was a climber himself, I suggested a few specific acclimation hikes. Their plan was to ascend the via Trough.

As it happened, that Friday was my first wilderness patrol as a park ranger. My fellow ranger Ian Bojanic was taking me to Sandbeach Lake just southwest of Longs Peak to show me the ropes patrolling the trails. We listened to our park radio while we hiked. Midmorning, the radio announced that only emergency traffic was permitted further notice. There was a rescue being conducted on Longs Peak. Ian and I tried to put together the details of the incident, but the rescue was being facilitated on a different channel.

All I could think was, “I killed the Georgians, I let them die. The closest I’ve ever been to an avalanche is the Dyatlov Pass conspiracy theories; who was I to send these folks to their death?”

I was tense with worry as Ian and I hiked down the trail after patrolling up to the lake where we ate lunch on the sandy shores and stared up at Longs, shaking our heads and keeping our ears in range of the radio.

By late afternoon, we returned to the ranger station. Ian and I were informed that eleven Green Berets, Army 10th Special Forces Group from Fort Carson, Colorado had to be rescued via airlift off of the summit of Longs today – not the hikers I had assisted. On Thursday they were attempting the very challenging Kiener’s route. When two of them suffered from altitude sickness, they had to wait out the night on the mountain until they could self-rescue the next day.

Next Saturday morning, I was back in the station, handling permits and reflecting on how fun my first wilderness patrol had been. The three Georgians walked into the office with the biggest smiles pinned to their faces.

“Oh my gosh you’re alive! How was the climb?” I asked with my high-pitched over the top excitement.

“We summitted! Made it to the top of Longs,” said the older man.

“We got to see the Green Berets airlifted out!” chimed in the younger man.

“I gave them my candy bars,” said the woman.

After being stunned and stoked for their adventure and epic tale, I was thanked for helping plan their acclimation hikes. Then they continued on their way to the airport to fly home.

Eight and a half months later, I’m standing on the northwest side of the mountain. February winds screaming as snow swirls like cinnamon rolls all around us. I’m at the exact spot where the Trough route meets the Keyhole route. To the right, I see the Trough sink down to the zone where the Georgians would have camped. To my left is the formidably steep vertical feet I have left to climb before the Narrows. The finale of the route is the Homestretch, but I would have to get through the cold, exhaustion and cinnamon roll cravings before then.

The Trough is nothing but an elephant; you can eat only one bite at a time, or at least such is true for an inexperienced mountaineer like myself. My fatigue got to a point where one of my climbing partners, Aron Ralston, had me empty my pack into his as he encouraged me up the Trough step by step. All I carried was my camera and an ice axe. Our two other climbing mates were Hänna Hagen and Alex Saunders, a couple from Iowa. They were crushing it. These two badasses proved to be the coolest things out of Iowa since Donna Reed.

Aron guided the trip, considering he’s the only person to have ever soloed all of the Colorado 14’ers in the wintertime. It was an honor to have such wisdom and experience leading the challenge that we faced before us at 6:00 in the morning when we left the snowy Longs Peak trailhead.

We hiked through somewhat padded snow to the Boulderfield, which was just under six miles with Aron’s shortcuts. Once we entered the Keyhole, we were in the threshold of wind gusts as bulls eyes painted on big boulders guided our path along the Ledges. Ice picks stay on your mountain side ready to self-arrest if gravity and ice should get in your way. Luckily, snow blanketed the granite and ice on most of the “Fried Egg” route, as the tongue in cheek rangers call it.

I have to say that summiting Longs in the winter was like a spiritual journey. My body was pumping adrenaline and endorphins while my brain analyzed the data of distance, temperature, fatigue, weather, time, conditions and several other factors that could kill me. I’ll be honest, my team did the real data analysis, but I tried to keep up, both physically and mentally, with the name of the game: summiting and survival (not necessarily in that order). To combine brain stimulation with physical engagements, also with the pure and unfettered joy that I feel from being in the mountains, results in a seemingly religious experience.

The idea of winter mountaineering no longer seemed like a tall tale but an experience of feeling alive. I had summited Longs only once before. I concluded my summer Park Service season of 2016 with a patrol to the summit of Longs. I was patrolling with a climbing ranger who ate gluten-free crackers like a banshee. Summiting in the summertime was fun, and certainly not a bad way to earn income, but it was not as special as the February summit. Climbing in the wintertime is like seeing the mountain for its true self, and loving the challenge that the terrifying yet beautiful winter conditions present. At the hardest points of my climb, I thought of the Georgians. I would tell myself, “Do it for the Georgians” and continue humming Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy.”

I never could have summited in wintertime without my team – Hänna, a mountain mama inspiring me with her own badassery; Alex, breaking trail and being a master of morale; and of course Aron, leading the climb and making it all possible.

I’m left counting the days until I can return home to Rocky. Soon enough I’ll be back in my station or on a route or patrolling wilderness, always within view of the omnipotent Longs.

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