Stories

Keyhole Route, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

In May 2006, BACKPACKER editors Jon Dorn and Kris Wagner made an early-season summit attempt on the highest peak (14,255 feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photos by Jonathan Dorn)


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Map editor Kris Wagner records a waypoint shortly after sunrise at the junction of the Chasm Lake Trail, which heads left. At this point, we’d been hiking for a bit less than two hours after a 3:30 a.m. start.

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Just missed an elk crossing the ridge below the Boulderfield (note to self: don’t bury camera in pack). Instead, I got this nice shot of snowmelt and the jumble of peaks to the south of Longs.

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As the trail winds its way past Mt. Lady Washington and makes a sharp turn southeast, it starts climbing steeply to the Boulderfield. Just below the crest, you get your first view of the famous Diamond Face on Longs’ north side.

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The view south from the outhouse in the Boulderfield. There are several designated campsites a few hundred feet behind me for climbers who don’t want to do the summit as a (16-mile, 5,000-foot-vertical-gain) dayhike.

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And the summit view. The Boulderfield is the highest official campsite in the national parks.

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Climbers ahead of us at the Keyhole. The route passes through this dramatic feature, which often howls with 747 winds, and past the small rock hut camouflaged just to the left and below the Keyhole.

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Kris pauses at the Keyhole to enjoy a vista that’s usually blasted with gusts rushing up the drainage behind him. The entire valley to the south acts as a funnel–with the Keyhole as its pinch-point outlet.

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When accidents happen on the Keyhole Route, they tend to come here, when impatient or unprepared climbers attempt to cross the so-called Ledges in snowy or icy conditions. Deceptively steep, with potentially fatal exposure below.

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Above 12,000 feet, with a winter-heavy pack and rope, the going gets a bit tougher.

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Kris negotiates the only (mildly) technical rock pitch on the route, at the top of the Trough, the long gulley that leads from the Ledges to the Sidewalk–and back around to the north side of the peak.

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Jon above the little 10-foot section of low 5th class climbing.

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Red-and-yellow-painted bulls-eyes (left of Kris’s helmet on the rock) mark the route to the summit once you pass the Keyhole.

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The final approach to the summit plateau yields magnificent views north. Just before the Homestretch (a 300-vertical-foot ramp), the route passes across s reveral sidewalk-wide ledges with dramatic exposure–death drops, truth be told.

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We enjoyed an hour on the summit with no other climbers and only the faintest breeze. Both are extremely rare on Longs, one of the most popular 14ers in Colorado, and the weather was extraordinary for early May.

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Kris rappels from the second of two eyebolt anchors on the Cables Route, a descent that was once the standard route down from the summit on the northwest side of the peak.

For a full route description, interactive map, and GPS downloads for this route, click here. Also, check out video of the route.