Backpacker Climbs a Mountain 14,000-feet-tall in Colorado, USA

And narrowly avoids death.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

** Republished from 2016 **

In July of 2016, I agreed to climb my first 14,000 foot mountain with a few friends in Rocky Mountain National Park. With a few weeks until we set off for Colorado, I wasn’t taking the feat as seriously as I should have. Had hindsight told me to train, I would have. And I would have done a lot more research before taking on the challenge. Climbing Long’s Peak without training was about to kick my ass.

Luke and Jake, a few of my friends, had asked me if I wanted to join them on a week-long camping trip in Colorado. I had a free week before I took off for the West Coast, so I figured I’d join. They had planned to hike Long’s Peak. Standing 14,259 feet in the air, Long’s is the fourteenth tallest peak in the state of Colorado.

I am an experienced hiker. I’ve been at the top of several peaks in Colorado including the infamous Pike’s Peak which is over 14,000 feet tall. I rode the cog to the top of Pike’s but didn’t struggle at all with dizziness or shortness of breath which is what Luke cited as the main struggles when climbing a 14-er.

Research, Research, Research!

Looking back, I wish I looked at climbing a 14-er as a bigger accomplishment than I did. It was single-handedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through with in my lifetime. However, when I realized just how big of a deal and 14,000-foot mountain is to scale, I found that there is a plethora of information on just about any 14-er with the ability to climb.

Especially Long’s. There are detailed guides with just about every piece of knowledge you need to know for one of the most popular 14-er’s in the United States. It is one of the most dangerous 14-er’s to climb in Colorado. Do your research online before you go to make your hike infinitely times more rewarding and enjoyable.

Six Tips to Prepare for Your Long’s Experience

There are several things you need to know before you climb any 14-er. For Long’s in particular, here are some must-knows:

  1. Acclimate yourself — head to Colorado a few days prior to climbing. Get up around 12,000 feet a few days before and hike about for a while. Getting yourself acclimated to the mountain air and altitude before your big climb will go a long, long way.
  2. Set a schedule — If you think you can wake up at nine in the morning and get up and down Long’s before the sun sets, well, you’re probably either crazy or a local (or someone very used to hiking at high altitudes). It took me fifteen and a half hours to hike the entirety of Long’s (up and back down). The recommended time to hike Long’s is nine to fifteen hours. I thought that was excessive when Luke told me. I was fit, those were merely suggested numbers for those not as fit as I was. I was wrong. It doesn’t matter how fit you are; you never know what altitude sickness will do to you when you’re that high in the air. Pro-Tip: We started the climb up Long’s at two o’clock in the morning, just as a reference.
  3. Prepare a proper packing list — “It’s only a day hike,” I thought. I could handle going one day with an average amount of water and a few light snack foods. If it rains, it’ll feel good in the heat of summer. I don’t need a headlamp, I can use my phone’s flashlight if need be. All of this is completely inaccurate. KNOW what you need to bring and come to Long’s peak early in the moonlight morning PREPARED.
  4. Eat and drink well leading up to your hike — Campfire s’mores and beer isn’t the proper meal to prepare before your hike. I thought it might be fun to start the non-taxing part of the hike with a beer buzz, but I highly regretted this because it severely dehydrated me.
  5. Pace yourself — You will encounter locals and hiking gurus passing you on the trail after starting hours after you did. You’ll want to speed up. Your hiking companions might be struggling behind you and your first instinct will be to encourage them to move faster. Don’t do this. Hiking a 14-er is a marathon, not a sprint. Trust me on this one.
  6. Train, Train, Train — Start early and train often. Run, go to the gym, swim, play sports; any physical activity you can do leading up to your hike will help. Don’t take this part of the plan lightly!

My Climb

It started off relaxed. From the trailhead to Boulder Field, it is a relatively laid-back hike, and to my obnoxious stupidity, what I envisioned the entire hike being like. For the first three and a half miles, it’s a nice hike; however, most of this will be done in the dark. I didn’t bring a flashlight, fortunately, Luke and Jake did.

We reached Boulder field around 8 o’clock in the morning after pacing ourselves through the first leg of the trail and taking quite a break for ‘lunch’. Even Boulder Field wasn’t extremely taxing, although a bit annoying to hike through.

It wasn’t until we reached the keyhole around 13,000 feet that things started to become extremely difficult. Up until this point, weather conditions were ideal, and my overall attitude was that there were only about 1,000 feet to climb and it wasn’t even eleven o’clock in the morning yet. We were right on the pace that we had intended to be and my outlook was positive.

Altitude Sickness from Hell

That’s also about the time that the effects from the high altitudes started to kick in. The route becomes much more serious and dangerous at the Keyhole. Be prepared; I wasn’t. The wind was powerful at the Keyhole, and right away grabs your attention more so than has been focused for the entire hike leading up to the Keyhole. It is said to often be very windy at the Keyhole, so, again, be prepared! A lot of gusty wind at a high altitude and steep drop-offs will scare even the most experienced climbers. I was, admittedly, terrified.

Keyhole to the Trough

The route to the Trough section of Long’s, from the Keyhole, is not much of an elevation climb, however, it is a difficult, time-consuming path that requires a lot of attention to trail markers and climbing up and over small boulders.

Climbing the Trough

This is when I was really hit with exhaustion. This is when it became the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. At several hundred points in the ascent up the Trough, I felt like giving up, taking a nap from exhaustion, and making my way back down without reaching the peak. I’ve never pushed myself harder than that 600-foot climb up the Trough to roughly 14,000 feet of elevation.

My vision started going blurred. I certainly was in no shape to continue climbing, but I had gone so far and put so much energy into getting to the point I was at that I just couldn’t commit to turning around. Actually, I did quit at several points. Jake quit. I told Luke, as he was throwing up from altitude sickness and I was hugging a rock during one of my blacked-out vision episodes that it wasn’t safe for me to continue. If Luke would have agreed, I wouldn’t have made it to the peak. But I couldn’t let him hike alone in the condition we were in.

In all honesty, the hike down seemed just as impossible as making it the rest of the 400 feet, or so, to the peak. Until you’ve been affected by altitude sickness like that, you’ll never quite understand the magnitude and toll it takes on your body and mind. I was sure my heart stopped at several points during the ascent of the Trough.

Luke and I were moving up the Trough at a clip of about a foot per minute. Every boulder we climbed up and inched ourselves towards the peak with would result in a subsequent rest while we hugged onto the boulder in the wind to catch our breath. It was grueling.

When I was at my weakest, a thirty-foot scramble at the top of the Trough (which was the most dangerous part of the hike), led to a beautiful vista view of Wild Basin which I couldn’t even enjoy. I was too focused on breathing.

Balancing the Narrows

I was dizzy and shaking from weakness. Then came the Narrows section of the trail. The Narrows is an exposed ledge on the south face of the mountain with extremely steep drop-offs. Although the ledge wasn’t as bad as pictures make it look, there were some points where you only had three feet of wiggle room. And when you’re dizzy and in extreme wind, three feet can feel like three inches between you and death.

The Homestretch

Finally, the end of the ascent; the Homestretch leg of Long’s Peak Trail all the way up to the summit. Similar to the Trough, but shorter, with an easier-to-navigate path; you can tell past climbers have made their mark on this section of the trail, as it would almost be impossible to climb this section without rope if it wasn’t for the well-carved hand and foot holes.

The safest and easiest path up the Homestretch is well-marked. Don’t navigate too far from this path or else the difficulty of the climb instantly increases and becomes more dangerous.

By this point, all I wanted to do was reach the summit so I could lie down. I pulled myself over the ledge of the summit and instantly collapsed to the floor. Other summit climbers, who were already at the summit, who are usually used to celebrating with others who summit, laughed at my inability to celebrate because of extreme exhaustion.

Luke and I enjoyed our accomplishment for a brief twenty minutes at the peak, but we had to start the descent or else we’d run out of daylight on the way home.

The most difficult thing I’ve ever done was accomplished, but not without hardships that I’ll always remember.

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