Winter 2009 Keyhole Route
14,259 feet, 4346 meter
Longs is my favorite Colorado 14er for many reasons but primarily for the wide range of routes available that span several styles and degrees of difficulty. My ongoing goal is to summit it at least once a year and preferably at least once in the winter. With this in mind it was April 18, 2009 and the next day was the last day of winter and I had not made it up there in over a year. Note that climbing Longs via any route in winter conditions is deadly serious and should only be attempted with proper experience and preparation.
I have summited Longs 42 times, most recently in July 2016. I use it for training for climbs such as Everest and K2. I've climbed up via the Keyhole route and descended using the Loft route. It was spring weather with winter climbing conditions above 12,000'. Please see this video of the climb.
The problem with Longs in the winter is mostly the winds. It can easily gust over 70 mph on a clear day and conditions go down from there with snowfall. But it was an incredibly mild late winter and the forecast called for light winds (which could mean 20 mph on Longs) so I made the decision to head up early on April 19, 2009 - the last day of winter. With such a late notice, I knew my regular climbing partners would not be available so I would be solo.
I left home at 4:00 AM with the goal to be on the trail at sunrise. Leaving the trailhead at 6:20, the sun was just starting to cast a soft glow on the pine trees. My pack was loaded with my ice axe, crampons and extra clothes plus food and water. I left the snowshoes at home since it had been a light snow year and a few weeks ago, the trail below treeline was packed from heavier than normal traffic from the winter climbers.
I made the decision not to push hard and thus took my time climbing at my normal 1,000' an hour. Not fast by the standards of a 20 year old but just fine this 52 year old. The sun continued to rise as I passed Goblins Forest then the last switch back before Alpine Brook bridge near treeline. At this point I took the winter trail straight up the drainage to the signs marking the junction to Jim's Grove. I left the deep snow at this point and was glad I had not brought my snowshoes along for the ride.
The sun was just above Denver International Airport and provided good light on the approach to Mt. Lady Washington and the Diamond of Longs. I considered taking my favorite route, the Loft, but was unsure of the conditions on the west side of the Loft. The route requires a simple but focused high class 4 move to depart the saddle between Meekers and Longs. If it was icy or snow covered, it would be a little dicey. Since I was solo, I thought it was best to stick with the more straight forward Keyhole route.
I made steady time towards Storm Pass and the turn to the Boulder Field. I was amazed at how little snow there was in this area. The Boulder Field was basically ... boulders ... void of snow until I reached the bottom of the Keyhole. I met another climber about this time so we teamed up and made steady progress towards the Keyhole and beyond.
Once at the Keyhole, we paused to determine the conditions. The Ledges were snow covered and icy in spots so we put crampons on just to be sure of traction on the angling slope. The snow was over a thin layer of ice so I was careful with my foot placement and took my time as we made our way to the base of the Trough.
I looked down on Glacier Gorge thinking how fortunate I am to live in Colorado. The weather remained absolutely perfect - cloudless, no - zero - wind, and nothing appearing on the horizon. I told myself that I didn't care how long this day was, I was going to make the top this winter day.
The Trough was snow packed and solid. I climbed slowly and steadily towards the top and made the required move over the chockstone to gain the narrows. This was the section that most concerned me since it is - narrow, about 3 feet at the widest - and if covered in verglas (thin ice) this section is deadly. But the bright sun had cleared most of this section except for a few snow covered areas.
I still took it carefully since the verglas can be sometimes difficult to see. I had been wearing my crampons since the Keyhole and still had them on. My new partner had turned back at the top of the Trough so I was solo once again. I made it to the last obstacle - a sharp move over and through a narrow gap in the rocks barring the way to the Homestretch.
Taking a brief break, I took inventory of the Homestretch. It was very clear of any snow but it was the presence of the ice that still worried me. I took my crampons off and began a deliberate climb up the sloping rock slab. I was wearing my mountaineering boots, my trusted Koflach's, but after 10 years of wear the Vibram soles are showing the age and did not provide the traction I really needed. Not to be denied, I took my time and worked my way higher leveraging every tiny flake and crack to maintain traction.
I was almost there and looked up only to recognize a climbing buddy, Tom. He was coming down from the summit. We had climbed in Glacier Gorge about a month earlier. He had take the Loft route, commenting on the challenge of route finding and the difficulty of that move I mentioned earlier. He was headed down via the Keyhole. It was great to see him as we passed one another.
Soon I was on the summit of Longs Peak this last day of Winter 2009! It felt good. I enjoyed my sandwich and another half liter of Gatorade. I called my wife and promptly left after only 20 minutes on the summit.
The down climb on the Homestretch was actually a little worse than going up - gravity sucks! I met two climbers going up but for Longs it was sparsely crowded - I only saw 5 other people all day whereas in the summer there will be quite literally hundreds.
But I made it cleanly and traversed the Narrows, Trough and Ledges back to the Keyhole. The rest of the hike to the trailhead was easy and I enjoyed the late afternoon shadows as the sun was still setting early this late winter day.
All in all a prefect day to summit Longs. My first of 2009, 16th Longs summit overall as of that date and second Longs winter summit. It was thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying regardless of the summit. Longs offers so much for climbers of all skills.