Keyhole Route
Longs Peak
14,259 feet, 4346 meter
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click to enlarge Longs Peak is one of the most popular Colorado 14ers. It is easy to reach being located in Rocky Mountain National Park but has a low success rate in reaching the summit of about 50%. Most people turn back because they start too late (need to be on the trail no later than 5-6AM), do not take enough food or water, or simply underestimate how long the day will be (9 - 14 hours depending). And it can be deadly.

I have summited Longs 43 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.

click on any picture to enlarge it.

There are guide services that do Longs but unless you want to do the Diamond (technical rock climbing), I don't think you need them. Almost anyone can summit Longs in good weather and with proper preparation but again, Longs can take lives for the unprepared or due to accidents. The park service recently put this sign up at the boulder field:

NPS sign at Boulderfield

There are three basic parts to the day: 1) trailhead to the Keyhole, 2) Keyhole to summit and 3) back down. The first part is simple enough: beautiful trail through the pine forest rising above the tree line at 10,500'. You will see the trail going left to right above the treeline. It should take between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours to reach tree line.

Above tree line, if it is windy, this will be your first test of Longs. After following the trail towards Chasm Lake, you will veer right and follow lazy switchbacks for a while and go around Mt. Lady Washington in a big U. Some people follow the trail straight towards Long's and Chasm Lake thinking that is the Keyhole route - big to enlarge You must turn right at the signs. A simple wooden horse corral is there, also a solar toilet on the ridge (bring your own toliet paper). This is a good spot for a break and to enjoy the views of the Diamond, the 1000' rock wall face that attracts climbers from all around the world. If you look carefully, you may see climbers on the face.

At the most Northern part of the trail, Granite Pass (12,080'), there are great views of where you came up and where you need to go. It is still about an hour or 1.5 hours from here to the next goal: The Boulder Field.

You continue on a slightly steeper route, not bad until the boulder field where you "scramble" over the big rocks. Be careful not to twist an ankle. There are campsites here that must be reserved several weeks, if not months, in advance via the Park Service. There are a pair of solar toilets - which some people need since exploding bowels is sometimes a by-product of altitude!

At this point most people have spent about 3 to 4 hours, maybe less. This is a good time to take a short break with food and more water - especially if it is a warm day. With the low humidity in Colorado (less than 10% on a summer day) you do not notice how much water you lose through perspiration and it must be replaced to avoid dehydration.

click to enlargeAfter another 30-45 minutes across the huge boulders, you climb a short but steep scramble to the ridgeline and the Keyhole (a right hand bias takes you up a slightly easier route through the boulders). Now it becomes interesting. Turn South (left) and follow the well marked trail along a very steep rock wall, called the Ledges.

It can be extremely windy at this point but normally dies down considerably a few hundred yards along the Ledges. If the clouds are building or it is past noon, consider carefully the lightening danger and turn back if there is any concern. You do not want to be above this point (or even treeline) in a thunderstorm.

The trail is marked with red and yellow "bulls-eye" targets painted on the rocks. Watch carefully because when you think you need to go up, you go down a couple hundred feet and then back up again. It can be confusing. On a busy summer day, there will be people all over this steep and rocky area. If there is snow be especially careful since it is a sharp 2,000' drop to the valley below.

There are a couple of moves over large smooth rocks that give some people pause. One has a couple of rebar poles protruding up, remnants of cables long since removed. This is a section where a climber fell to his death in 2010. By sticking close to the rock, both climbing and descending, it should not be an issue and many people simply butt scoot up and down.

click to enlarge After another 30 minutes, you reach a 600' couloir called the Trough. This is the point many people stop, but shouldn't. I recommend using a helmet in this section in the busy summer season. While you are tired, if you are drinking enough and snacking on an energy bar you should have the energy to climb the rock filled narrow valley.

There can be snow here, even in late July or August. It is shaded from the sun by high walls to it's South and East. Take it easy, be careful and you should reach the top in about 30 to 60 minutes. The boulders at the top of Trough can be a bit of a bottleneck. You can go straight up the obvious crack or work your way left but either way takes climbing on all fours. Carefully climb these boulders and pause to take in the next challenge: The Narrows.

click to enlargeThe Narrows is the most intimidating section of the climb for most people. About 1,000 feet of narrow ledge (3 feet wide at one point) that hugs a 1,000' rising wall on your left and a 500' clear-air drop to your right.

Not as bad as it sounds but bad enough that you need to be focused on each step! At some points, you choose between going around rocks by clinging to a tiny ledge or squeezing between the wall and the rock. It keeps it interesting! If it is wet or icy, take special care. If you are not experienced in these conditions, turn back. It can get crowded here in the summer, so take your time and let people pass you on the outside while you hug the wall.

click to enlargeThe Narrows is a short walk - about 15 minutes. However, you are greeted by another big boulder at the end that guards the next turn that takes you to the Homestretch. Again, you will use all fours to get over the boulder.

After climbing up at the end of the Narrows, you turn North and you can see the edge of the summit. SO close, yet so far away. Over the next 45 minutes, you walk upright, then on threes and finally on all fours to the 45 degree smooth granite slab called the Homestretch. If it has rained, this can be slick as ice. But again with careful concentration, you are soon at the summit edge. From the Keyhole to the summit, it takes about 2 hours, maybe more.

Congratulations, you have summited Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Enjoy the summit, sign the log, say hello to the marmots (but don't feed them!)and have some lunch ... and water. Get off by noon or at any approaching thunderheads. More people are killed by lightning than falling on Longs. This is serious and not a time to take risks. You have just spent 6 or more hours to get here and you have about the same time to return to your car.

click to enlargeFeeling exhilarated, proud and very satisfied, remember that the summit is only half-way. The down-climb has two challenges: the Homestretch and the last hour. The most common way down the Homestretch is on your butt. Not graceful, but who cares at this point.

The last hour you are ready to be in the car heading home or to a nice meal. Your legs are hurting, you are probably hot and sweaty and you may have some small cuts on your hands or blisters on your dogs. But, keep in mind that you stood on top of this big rock! Not something everybody has done but more important: you reached your goal. This was between you and the mountain ... and you won - this time! Something you will always remember. click to enlarge





This video is from June 2013 where I ascended the Keyhole route and descended the Loft route. it was Spring weather but still winter conditions.