| Flatlanders on Longs Peak
Shorty didn't say a word, but we all knew what he was thinking.
It was late Saturday at the Longs Peak Ranger Station. The five of us had just arrived from Chicago and Michigan, we told him. We were going to climb Longs Peak on Monday. We were giddy with excitement. Oh, and by the way, four of us had never set foot on a real mountain before.
The aging park ranger peered at us in silence through wire-rimmed glasses. Later we would speculate on what he was thinking. We decided Shorty remained silent because if he had spoken his mind, it would have been a serious breach of Park Service protocol.
"You guys have no idea what you're in for," we imagined him thinking. "That mountain is going to kick your flatlander tails all the way back to Chicago."
If Shorty was skeptical, you couldn't blame him. Our fearless leader, my brother Mark, was the one person in our group who had climbed Longs twelve years ago, when he was in his 30s and living in nearby Longmont. Now he was a graying 50-plus guy from Chicago with a two-day stubble and a pack of Marlboros in his hand. Beside him stood my 20-year-old daughter. Her spiked blonde hair, salon tan and five-foot-ten-inch, 120-pound frame suggested she belonged at the beach, not on a mountain.
Mark looked at the door like he was in a hurry to get out of there. He probably wanted to light up, having been unable to smoke in our rental car. Or maybe he was just embarrassed at the questions we were asking.
We asked Shorty for suggestions for an acclimation hike on Sunday. "You might want to try Chasm Lake," he said, sliding a trail map toward us.
We had been reading all about Longs Peak for months. "Is Chasm Lake high enough elevation to acclimate us for Longs?" someone asked, as though one day was going to make a difference. "That's like 11,000 feet, right?" said another. A third said, "No, Chasm Junction is around that elevation, and the trail goes down from there."
"Why don't you try looking at the map," Shorty said. There it was, in black and white 11,800 feet.
Undaunted, we moved on to our next round of dumb questions. Worried about having to park way down the road, add length to an already-long route. "If we get here at 2:30 a.m., will we be able to park in the lot?" someone asked Shorty.
"That depends on if the lot is full or not, doesn't it?" Now Shorty was smiling. I couldn't tell if he was amused, or masking annoyance.
Mark wandered off for a smoke. We gave up the questions, loaded back into the SUV, and headed for our rented condo in Estes Park. We discussed Shorty's suggested acclimation hike. Someone thought they knew why he proposed it: He figured once we hiked to Chasm Lake and back on Sunday, we'd give up on the idea of climbing Longs Peak.
We didn't do Chasm Lake. We did summit Longs Peak. This is our story. I chose to tell it in intimate detail, so it's really long. If it's too long for you oh well. Skip it. But I hope you will read it, because great mountains make for good storytelling.
* * *
Mark, my beloved older brother, was the instigator. He described climbing Longs as the hardest thing he had ever done, and most rewarding. "There's no feeling in the world that compares to standing on top of a mountain!" he would say to me, his eyes blazing with an enthusiasm that's almost intimidating. (He's a really passionate guy.)
I knew better than to get caught up in that excitement. I was the more conventional, responsible brother. And I wasn't wired for heights like him. I never considered myself acrophobic I just had a reasonable respect for the potential harm to one's body posed by high places. I'd think about it, I would say, and think to myself, "for about ten seconds." Or maybe I could think about it for twenty years. He should give up by then.
Mark started the full-court press in early 2006. At Christmas that year, with the passion of a revival preacher, he took over the family gathering with a detailed description of the climb. The walk through the woods, the Alpine Bridge, breaking the tree line, the wind at Chasm Junction, the view of the Diamond, the rocks everywhere, Granite Pass, Boulder Field, climbing through the Keyhole into another world, walking the narrow paths of the Ledges, pushing your body to its breaking point up the Trough, walking above the thousand-foot drops along the Narrows, scrambling the steep rocks of the Homestretch every detail seared into his memory as with a hot iron.
Finally he sat down, watching my reaction out of the corner of his eye. "Thank you for convincing me," I thought silently. "There's no way on God's Green Earth you'll ever find me on such a place."
A conversation in early 2007 changed my mind. Funny thing about it, I wasn't even present. It was a chat between Brad and Mark, co-workers at Cimco Communications in suburban Chicago.
They were in the midst of the kind of talk that guys have as they watch age 40 disappear in the rearview mirror. The things they always wanted to do, but were now realizing they probably never would. "I always thought I would climb a great mountain some day," lamented Brad.
Mark's ears perked up. "I know a mountain
" he said.
His memorized account fell upon more receptive ears this time. Brad was gung-ho. Not long afterward, a third Cimco employee, Keith, was on board.
On the day before the 2007 Super Bowl, from my home in a very cold and snowy Northern Michigan, I spoke with my brother by phone about the usual stuff the game tomorrow, the jobs, the kids. Then he changed the subject. He had been working out at the gym and was feeling great with a specific goal in mind. "I'm making plans with several of the guys from work here to climb Longs Peak next summer. It's going to happen. You should go too."
It wasn't his most passionate appeal by a long shot. I guess I had pretty much convinced him that that kind of thing wasn't for me. My answer surprised him. Frankly, it surprised me, too.
"If you're really going up there, then I am too. Count me in." Mark had called my bluff, got to me through the back door. I wasn't going to let him go up there without coming along to join in the adventure, and to keep an eye on him. Even if I wasn't much help in other ways, I could at least try to stop him from doing something crazy. Or so I thought.
To my surprise, my wife didn't object. She saw that I needed a challenge like this, and trusted that if I thought it was safe, it was okay. I joined the local health club on Monday. We started telling friends and family about the plan. The typical reaction was, "are you sure you want to do that? Is it safe?" But when I told my youngest daughter, Maryjane, one weekend when she was home from college, her response was a little different.
"Ohhhh, that sounds cool," she said. "I want to go with you."
No way, I said. It's not safe.
"How is it safe enough for you and not for me?" she asked. She was 30 years younger than me, and in better condition.
I could see the logic of my position was precarious. I resorted to the tried-and-true tactic of parents through the ages when confronted with such a predicament. "We'll talk about it later," I said. I figured she'd get distracted with her summer social life and forget about the mountain.
That strategy fell apart when Maryjane got hired for a summer internship at Cimco. She would be staying with Mark and his family all summer. Not surprisingly, shortly after she moved in with them, word came from Chicago: Dear Daughter would indeed be joining us.
We all trained seriously, although some more intensely than others. Separated from the rest by 400 miles, I worried that I was falling behind when Mark told me they were running a "ski hill" in the Chicago area up and down 20 times, he said. So I called Nubs Nob, a Northern Michigan ski hill, for permission to work out on its slopes.
I arrived there on a Sunday afternoon. I was the only human being on a 300-acre complex with dozens of slopes and ski lifts. I stared up Scarface, a 427-foot black diamond slope. I had a full pack on my back, with two liters of water and some heavy sandals in it for weight.
There's no way I can do that 20 times, I thought. I set a goal of 10 times, and made it eight. About halfway through, plodding up the hill with a hot afternoon sun beating on me, a shadow swept across my path. I looked up and saw two huge turkey vultures slowly circling above me. They looked like they expected me to drop any second. They would grab me, one on each shoulder, and carry me away to someplace where they could gnaw on me for weeks, I thought.
Later I learned the Chicago-area "ski hill" was actually a bobsled chute, far smaller and less steep than my ski hill. They all got a good laugh at the thought of me driving my body up that slope eight times, worrying that I wasn't keeping up.
After what seemed like an eternity of training, reading, and planning, the time arrived. We would fly into Denver on Saturday, August 18. Sunday we would take a short hike at some high place to try to acclimate our bodies to the altitude as best we could. Monday we would take on Longs Peak. It wasn't a long enough window to properly acclimate to the altitude, but it was all that our jobs and lives allowed. We would have to make it work.
* * *
Up we drove toward Rocky Mountain National Park on Route 7, through the foothills and into the mountains. Pumped with adrenaline, the five of us filled the rental car with chatter, jokes, laughter. As we rounded a corner, Brad interrupted someone's story with a sense of urgency: "Hey, guys, is that it?"
Before us stood a huge and imposing peak. With afternoon thunderclouds swirling around the summit and steep granite slopes rising for what appeared to be miles above the already-high surrounding terrain, the peak looked more than foreboding. It looked
sinister. For this Midwesterner, who had never seen a mountain over 6,000 feet, "terrifying" would be an accurate word. How could we be so cavalier as to think we were going to climb that?
The chatter stopped. Nobody said a word. (Well, actually I think somebody said "holy, shit", but you get the picture.) We stopped at a roadside turnoff, snapped some photos, and thought about what we had set out to do. After six months of training and preparation, to go back to our homes without summitting would be, well, embarrassing. But all the reading, all the photos in the world can't prepare you for what your own eyes tell you when you actually look upon the mountain.
I found it easy to understand how so many cultures personify mountains, even worship them. Or consider a mountain to be the appropriate, or perhaps the only, place to worship God. Yet I believe in a God who is infinitely greater than even that mountain. "Worship the Creator, not the creation," I whispered to myself.
Mark had a different take on it. He looked at Maryjane. "We should've trained more."
We got in the car and drove on and soon discovered that the peak we were marveling at was not Longs Peak. When the true Longs Peak came into view from behind the first peak, even larger, even more imposing, we realized we had been looking at Mt. Meeker which, at 13,911 feet, is a huge mountain in its own right. Our awe was not misplaced on Meeker. It merely grew larger when we looked upon the true Monarch of the Front Range.
Sunday we drove up to the Alpine Visitor Center, took a short warmup hike, and practiced breathing the thin air at about 12,000 feet. We had long since learned that all the training in the world could do little to prepare our bodies for the altitude. How we reacted to the altitude, and what the weather would bring, were the wild cards. The forecast for Monday was about as good as it gets as far as precipitation. It did call for winds up to 40 mph. Would that be an obstacle, we wondered as we turned in early.
* * *
We awoke Monday at "an hour fit solely for burglars and drunks," to borrow the words of Dougal MacDonald. 100 minutes and one (quickly corrected) wrong turn later, we signed in at the trailhead at 2:40 a.m. Our photograph included a sixth member of the party Mark's stepson Bill, now living in Longmont, was joining us. Off we went into the night.
Bill took the lead, setting a torrid pace on the uphill trail. "Someone needs to slow him down," muttered Brad.
It turned out the mountain slowed him down to practically a dead stop. Our only Colorado resident was hammered by altitude sickness before he hit treeline. Living in Longmont, and before that at 7,000 feet in Wyoming, he thought himself ready for the altitude. But the additional altitude, combined with his too-fast start, did him in. "Enthusiasm is a great asset;" wrote Mike Donahue about this exact thing, "however, it can cause a great deal of damage if you're not careful."
(We read books on Longs Peak by MacDonald, Donahue, and Paul Nesbit in preparation. MacDonald's was by far the best reading, with wonderful storytelling and photography. But once on the trip, I found I kept recalling the advice of Donahue in his trail guide.)
We all slowed down while Mark hung back with Bill, trying to encourage him to press on. It may pass once you get warmed up, he said. Another group of hikers passed us, then a second, third, and fourth group. Bill tried to keep moving, but the nausea and dizziness were overwhelming. I backtracked for the second time to see how he was doing. Finally, Bill turned back.
I felt terrible for Bill. His mistakes were not all his fault. The rest of us had been studying, discussing and preparing for the climb for months. Bill had been left out of the loop. Lesson learned, at Bill's expense: include everyone in the pre-trip preparations. Don't assume that someone is ready because of age, or physical fitness, or where he lives.
Mark and I hustled up the trail to catch our group.
I stopped dead in my tracks. A pine tree lay across the trail in the night. "Oh my God, I took a wrong turn," I told Mark. "I know we were higher than this before I came back to you, and there was no tree across the trail. This tree didn't just fall here in the last 20 minutes." I apologized profusely as we headed back down the trail to figure out where we turned the wrong way.
Mark stopped our backtracking, bewildered. "There's only one trail," he said. We knew the few turnoffs, on paper anyway, and we didn't seem to be on any of them. What was going on? Finally, we decided to head back up and go past the fallen tree. Soon we caught up to the rest of our group, waiting for us at the Alpine Bridge.
"A guy who came through here a few minutes ago said a tree fell across the trail right in front of him," Brad said. It had fallen in the 20 minutes since I had backtracked. I felt a little less stupid.
We had lost an hour.
We hiked mostly in silence. The Milky Way cut a stunningly beautiful swath across the crystal-clear sky. I remembered looking at those same stars, that same Milky Way, with this same brother as teenagers more than thirty years ago, walking the shores of the St. Mary's River in Michigan's Eastern Upper Peninsula.
"It all comes back to God," Mark said to me then. "There has to be a God." I knew he was right. We had hardly ever set foot in a church, but we could recognize the Creator from his handiwork. And though we didn't know His name, or anything else about Him, we knew this: He was personal. What we saw all around us was not the result of atoms crashing together, driven only by some mindless forces of nature. Too much beauty, too much harmony, too much irony, to be an accident.
In time I came to know this Creator as the Lord, the God of the Bible the One who commanded this mountain that we now walked to literally rise up from beneath the sea. Did my brother remember being the first to preach to me about God, I wondered. Strange that I never asked him that question, or even thought about it myself. Until now.
On we went. The trees succumbed to the altitude. The wind buffeted us as we strode along the trail, trying to make up for lost time. We started to make out the face of The Diamond in the predawn light. A couple came down the trail toward us.
"We turned around at Granite Pass. Too windy."
"You're too early," I said as they moved by. "The wind will probably let up later." I instantly regretted making that comment. For all I knew, they may have been veterans. They didn't need unsolicited advice from a first-time Flatlander. But the day would prove me right.
The others went a little ahead while I waited for Dear Daughter to use the "Ladies' room" at Chasm Junction. When she was done, we double-timed down the trail for a couple hundred feet.
I stopped again. "Wrong way," I said. We were going down, toward Chasm Lake. Sorry, Shorty, I thought to myself. We turned around and caught up with the rest of our group on the right trail.
The sun rose over Twin Sisters, beautifully. A pause for photos, and to bundle up for the winds that we knew were coming at Granite Pass. Somewhere along here, another pair of hikers passed us on the way down. "Too windy," one of them said. "It'll blow you right off the Narrows."
Maryjane stepped over alongside Mark. The two had grown close during their summer together. "Those guys are pissing me off," she said. "We're going to the top."
Mark said later that he knew Maryjane had the climbing ability and physical stamina to summit, but he wasn't sure she had the determination to overcome the obstacles -- until he heard that response.
(Our group near Granite Pass, looking fresh before the altitude took its toll: Maryjane in the center and the guys, from left: Mark, Thorn, Brad, and Keith.)
Back and forth we went along the switchbacks at Granite Pass. "I drank from that stream last time," Mark said at one switchback. No pills or water filter back then, just slurped it up. Shorty, the park ranger, had said he drank from streams hundreds of times, with a couple drops of iodine in the water. "Tastes just like Scotch," he said. I'm not a Scotch drinker, but after tasting the pill-treated water on the way back, I have a notion to try Shorty's method next time.
Finally we reached Boulder Field. One thing that had struck me viewing Longs Peak as we viewed it from Trail Ridge Road the day before was just how high Boulder Field was. Because I knew the trail was a gradual incline all the way to it, I had gotten the impression that Boulder Field wasn't at that high an altitude. It's way up there in its own right.
That fact was driven home by the altitude sickness that started to kick in at Boulder Field. I forced myself to choke down half a sandwich, against my will. I was feeling some nausea and headache, but Brad was doing worse. Hanging around longer wasn't going to make it better. We headed toward the Keyhole.
(The Diamond from Boulder Field, with the shadow of Mount Lady Washington behind me.)
Here I discovered another mistaken impression I had reached from my pre-trip reading. Why didn't anyone tell me what an ordeal it is to reach the Keyhole from Boulder Field? Everyone talks about how bad the Trough is; I found getting to the Keyhole to be almost as tough.
Mark wasn't finding it tough. He was ecstatic. "I LOVE THIS PLACE!" he exclaimed practically at the top of his lungs. Then, in case we missed it the first time, he repeated it, several more times, until Brad begged him to stop for the sake of his headache.
As we headed up, we started passing more downclimbers, dissuaded from going further by the winds at the Keyhole. I found Mark and pressed a point that I had read in Donahue's book. "It's always windy at the Keyhole," I said, quoting Donahue almost verbatim. "We need to move right through it, and stop a little ways beyond it to assess the wind."
Crossing the Ledges or the Narrows in high winds was the last thing I wanted to do. But I knew a windy Keyhole did not necessarily mean it would be windy on the other side. "Separate legitimate concerns from imaginary fears," Donahue had written. If the Ledges were windy, that would be a legitimate concern. A windy Keyhole was an imaginary fear.
(Pressing on toward the iconic Keyhole.)
We also got word here of another unsettling development. A guy came down from the Keyhole in a big hurry, practically running across the boulders. "There's an injured lady up there," he said. "Do you guys have any rope?" We did not.
A female hiker had taken a bad fall the day before, and remained there, injured and unable to move, having spent the night alone on the side of the mountain. A rescue was underway.
Once we reached the Keyhole area, Maryjane slipped into the Agnes Vail Memorial Shelter. Here she met a family whose trip was to be intertwined with ours from that point on. A resilient six-year-old named Catherine sat in the shelter, accompanied by her parents. (Regrettably, I didn't get her parents' names, or how they chose to spell their daughter's name.) Catherine has four older brothers, her mother told me later or maybe it was five; I discovered that an altitude-addled mind has a hard time retaining numbers. At any rate, all the boys had climbed Longs Peak at an early age, but none as young as Catherine. It was an honor to be part of her rite of passage, as my daughter and I shared the same experience.
Every time we started to congratulate ourselves about our trip after that, we had to remind ourselves that a six-year-old did it the same day, and in about the same amount of time, as us.
Young as she is, however, she is not the youngest to climb Longs Peak under her own power. According to McDonald, that honor belongs to a four-year-old.
Catherine's mother, clearly the most experienced climber in the family, said the same thing as Donahue about the wind. "It's always windy; you just go through and go a little ways across the Ledges and see what it's like then," she said.
We did, and she was right. We paused at the Keyhole only long enough to take in an incredibly beautiful view. Once we started across the Ledges, the wind was a non-issue, and it remained that way the rest of the day.
We passed the injured woman, visible on a ledge about 30 feet above the path marked by the bulls-eyes. Some people were there caring for her, and help was on the way, so we moved on. More information on her situation came to light later. She had made three inter-related mistakes: (1) she was hiking alone; (2) she was the last one coming down from the summit that day; (3) she got off-trail at the False Keyhole area. She fell 200 feet according to news reports coming hideously close to becoming fatality number 55 on Longs Peak.
We came to the narrowest point of the Ledges, where the Park Service has left two iron rods in the rock for hand and foot holds. Catherine's mother helped talk us through this move.
Reading about this spot beforehand, I had entertained some hope of bypassing the only artificial hold on the route. Now I studied the potential consequences of a slip. The dropoff below the narrow ledge was not sheer, but way too steep to stop a fall. It seemed to go down forever. To go off the ledge would certainly be fatal. To bypass the hold would require stepping on a 6" wide ledge and twisting around some awkwardly placed rocks.
I decided the holds were designed for first-timers and Flatlanders, and I was both. I clamped on to them firmly. Besides, I rationalized, my daughter was right behind me, and I wanted to make sure she used them.
We all passed through the area in the same way, with Keith bringing up the rear. "Well," he said upon completing the move, "that was the scariest thing I ever did in my life."
I suppose it was the scariest thing Catherine had ever done, too, but her frame of reference was a lot shorter. The six-year old had scooted right through ahead of us. One parent in front, one behind, one or more hands always inches from, or maybe on, her body to protect against a slip but she went under her own power. Humbling, to say the least. And wonderful to watch.
(The hairy part of the Ledges. The two Park Service spikes are not visible beneath the climber (me).)
Brad was getting worse. He's a very muscular guy, and muscles crave oxygen. In addition, fairly recent surgery on both knees left him with limited flexibility for rock scrambling.
"Is the Home Stretch next?" Brad asked Mark about halfway across the Ledges. Mark did a double take. We had all pretty much memorized the route from the Internet accounts, books, and Mark's first-hand description. We had barely started the hard part.
"No, man, remember, there's the Trough, and then the Narrows, before you get to the Homestretch."
"The Narrows?" slurred Brad. He sounded like he'd never heard of it before.
Oh, brother, thought Mark. This guy is in baaad shape.
(Easy part of the Ledges, as you approach the Trough.)
We reached the bottom of the Trough and looked at 600 vertical feet of rock scrambling with a guy who looked like he belonged in a hospital bed. Brad was dizzy, nauseous, disoriented, you name it. "I'm counting on you guys to show me the way," he said, "because I feel like I really don't know what's going on." Yeah, we noticed.
Brad's safety was a "legitimate concern." Even if he made it up the Trough, he was in no shape to be on the Narrows or the Home Stretch, I worried. To turn back in his condition would be just as unsafe. I looked at some people coming down from the summit. Send him back with strangers? No way. Besides, Brad, sick as he was, would not have gone back. He was still determined to summit.
I mentioned it to Catherine's parents, hoping they would have some solution. "Oh, that's too bad," one of them said. "Make sure he's drinking plenty of water," said the other. Brad had been drinking steadily the entire trip. They were helpful and experienced climbers, not miracle workers. There is no Silver Bullet for altitude sickness.
There was only one thing to do: Keep moving up the mountain at a pace Brad could handle. Go slow, Donahue kept saying in his book. That was us. We were on about the same pace as the six-year-old.
In many of the trip reports I read, each individual proceeded at his or her pace, regardless of the others. They often get spread way out as the faster ones move ahead and the slower ones lag to the point that those in front don't know if those behind have turned back, or maybe worse. We had decided beforehand to stick together. The faster ones, Mark and Maryjane in this case, went a little ahead, but constantly stopped to wait for Brad, kind of tugging him along. Keith stuck with Brad, coaxing him from one goal to the next. I ended up in the middle for the most part.
(Looking up the Trough.)
I heard Mark and Maryjane laughing hysterically above me. About what? Nothing in particular. They were just giddy with the altitude, the sheer joy of being on the mountain, and in Mark's case, not being sick. The first time he had gone up Longs, 13 years ago, he had felt just like Brad did now. And he had made it the same way Brad was making it now: pick a goal a short distance up, get to it, rest, pick another goal, get to it, rest again.
Keith was helping Brad pick those goals. "Let's shoot for that bulls-eye," he said.
"No!" snapped Brad. "Too far. Go for the flat rock about halfway there."
"Okay, let's go," replied Keith. And so it went, for more than two excruciating hours. Brad said later he couldn't look up to the top of the Trough because it was too overwhelming. He couldn't look down to see how far he'd come, because he was afraid he'd pass out if he did. So he just kept taking it one short goal at a time. He relied on Keith to tell him how close they were getting to the top. Keith was fudging the distance a little, but Brad pretty much knew that, and didn't care.
Brad and Keith were strangers to me when we had met at the airport on Saturday. By the time we reached the top of the Trough, I felt so much respect for both of them I was overwhelmed. Brad's toughness to fight through the sickness was incredible. And Keith patiently and persistently demonstrated what true friendship is all about. I'll take both of those guys on my team, for any endeavor, any day.
Mark and Maryjane, meanwhile, seemed to find the Trough to be the funniest experience of their lives. Mark stopped to smoke a couple times, and enjoyed the stares from the few other climbers in the vicinity. There was no point to asking them what they were laughing about. They were laughing about nothing. And everything.
Catherine's dad dislodged a loose rock. It only rolled about 10 feet, slowly, before coming to a stop. We all saw it, and it was nowhere near any of us, but he dutifully called out, "Rock."
"Where," said Maryjane, whipping her head back and forth as though she didn't see any rocks. We were surrounded by thousands of tons of granite. She cackled hysterically at her own joke. Catherine's dad said something about altitude dementia.
Finally we reached the top of the Trough. The big chockstone at the top didn't seem at all bad to me as we scrambled up the right side. We looked out over yet another unbelievably beautiful view.
(Maryjane on the ridge at the top of the Trough, having the time of her life.)
After a brief rest, Brad pronounced himself okay for the Narrows, provided we stayed close and helped him keep focused. As long as he rested frequently, the nausea and dizziness could be limited to manageable levels. Or so he said. At least this section did not involve the fatigue of climbing. And there were indeed plenty of handholds in the narrowest portions. A veritable walk in the park except for that 1,000-foot cliff a few inches away.
A lot of climbers report that the Narrows aren't as bad as they expected from seeing the photos beforehand. If that's true, it's because it looks horrible in the photos. In reality it's
well, horrible. Or at least it was to this first-time flatlander. But you just do it.
We edged along the tightest spot at the beginning of the Narrows. Donahue reported that fortunately, this spot has a rock outside the walking path, which "acts like a guardrail." Working in construction, I know a thing or two about guardrails, and I can tell you that rock doesn't meet code. But it was helpful.
What Donahue didn't report was that once you get past that sort-of-guardrail rock, it's still really narrow. I crept along with both hands grasping firmly to the holds. I tried to utter reassuring words of instruction to Maryjane, right behind me now. (I insisted on keeping her close to me for this section.)
"Is this the worst spot?" Maryjane asked. "Yeah, babe, it is," I replied. "Just keep leaning in against the rock, grasp the handholds firmly, concentrate on every step." I wanted to look back to give her a reassuring smile, but I couldn't bring myself to pull my cheek away from the rock far enough.
"Are we almost through?" she asked again. "We are, honey, it gets wider up here. Just a little further." Finally I reached the wider spot and turned around to look at my little girl.
She was walking along upright, skimming comfortably from one hold to the next with her left hand. With her right hand, she was shooting video with her digital camera.
She stepped onto the wider resting spot and beamed at me with an impish grin. I stared back at her with my mouth open. I couldn't voice what I was thinking, because screaming at 14,000 feet tends to alarm people. Besides, it would have made Brad's headache worse.
(Keith on the Narrows.)
We moved on, across some other areas of that ledge that are still really narrow. Soon we stood at the base of the Home Stretch. Here again, our group didn't quite see eye-to-eye with what some other climbers reported.
"Several people wrote the Home Stretch doesn't look as steep in reality as in the photos," Keith would relate later. "I thought it looked, well, just about exactly like it looks in the photos."
(Mark leads the way up the Home Stretch. "C'mon, it's easy!")
I thought of a video on Longs Peak by Gary Roach. He said of the Home Stretch, "joyous, easy, Class 3 climbing takes you to the top," or something to that effect. Here's my take: If the slopes of the Home Stretch projected up from a nice soft grass field, it would be fairly easy. But there's not a nice soft grass field at the bottom there's a sheer cliff. If a person slipped and started to tumble, which seemed like a possibility, he would almost certainly tumble right over that cliff. That's not what I call joyous and easy.
I'm sure it's nothing to experienced climbers. I've seen the photos of people walking it upright, and in fact a couple of people in our group saw a young fellow walking down it with his hands in his pockets. I don't care. It scared the tar out of me. I don't know how anyone could say the Narrows and Home Stretch aren't the crux of the route. And the rock was dry when we crossed, other than a couple of avoidable spots on the Home Stretch where water leaked out. To go up or down it on wet rock would be nightmarish.
Nevertheless, we climbed it. The order was the same as the Trough: Mark and Maryjane first, still having a great time; me in the middle, Brad struggling up, with Keith still hanging with him.
(Looking down the Home Stretch. If I had seen this photo beforehand, I would not have climbed Longs Peak. The camera angle is deceptive - it's not really that steep - but it looks really cool, doesn't it?)
Maryjane later admitted to being scared a few times, including on the Home Stretch. She thought to herself, "what am I doing here perched on the side of a mountain with this huge cliff below me?" She felt like crying.
Tom Hanks said there's no crying in baseball. Maryjane Jarvis decided there's no crying on the Home Stretch. She swallowed her fear and moved up.
(A more accurate view of the Home Stretch. The tiny climber in blue at the bottom is six-year-old Catherine, holding her father's hand.)
We were all moving faster now, filled with adrenaline from seeing our goal within reach. The rock didn't seem as steep, and the holds were better. It was easy
and joyous. I looked up and saw Mark and Maryjane clasp hands and step up onto the summit together perfect. Mark was there to greet me when I summitted moments later.
"Welcome to Longs Peak," he said as he took my hand. Maryjane snapped a photo that I will forever treasure.
I walked over to my girl, took her in my arms, hugged her for a long time and cried like a baby.
Brad and Keith came over the top moments later. As I shook Brad's hand, thinking of what he endured to get here, and Keith's steadfast help getting him through it, my voice broke again. Must be the altitude, I thought.
(Mark welcomes Keith to the Summit.)
It was almost noon by the time we summitted. That would be dangerously late on many days, but we had perfect weather. There was not a hint that any of the infamous afternoon thunderstorms would materialize, and indeed they did not.
Most of us did the usual things on top phone calls, resting, taking in and photographing the views. My brother Mark, well
he's not usual in any sense of the word. He disappeared shortly after we all reached the summit. I knew what he was doing, but I didn't try to find him, because I knew I couldn't stop him and I couldn't stand to watch. He climbed down the east slope of the summit, out on an overhanging rock, and looked down and across the thousand-foot sheer face of the Diamond.
"I cried like a baby," he said upon his return to the summit. "It was so beautiful. And I was so scared."
Must be the altitude.
(Mark at the Summit. I'm not sure, but I think this is looking north.)
We signed the summit register and took photographs. Catherine's mother took our group photo. The three of them had reached the summit right behind us and enjoyed a full picnic lunch that she had lugged up there.
Maryjane looks sleepy in her summit photos. She had laid down to rest and, like any 20-year-old college student, fallen fast asleep. She awoke from a dream, dazed and disoriented. "Where am I," she thought.
She looked about her. "Oh, yeah. I'm on top of a 14,000 foot mountain."
"And I still have to climb down. Nuts."
(Brad at the Summit. If he looks satisfied, it's because he earned it with a remarkable display of gutting his way through altitude sickness.)
We spent a long time on top too long, it turned out. We would have probably spent longer, but when Catherine's family decided to leave, we looked around and realized we were the only ones left on top. Several of us suddenly decided we needed to start our descent, right now before they were out of sight.
Our emotional reliance on Catherine's family sold my brother short. Mark was confident, helpful, and reassuring as he led us down. Except when he got in a conversation partway down the Home Stretch with a guy climbing up. Somehow he figured out, in the brief period in which our paths crossed, that this guy knew the Loft route. Mark, interested in trying that route, started firing questions at him. They chatted about it for a minute or two, which is a long time when you're perched on a steep slope that drops off over a cliff and you feel like puking.
The guy was describing the key to staying on-route at a certain point. "Most people go down too far," he was saying. "You only go down about 40 feet, then you start going across
Mark listened intently. I had stopped paying attention when I heard him say, "It's a little harder, a little more exposure, than the Keyhole Route."
Brad stewed in sickly silence. He wanted out of there in the worst way, but he wasn't about to pass Mark and his new buddy at this spot. There was no, shall we say, passing lane. Finally we moved on.
As we started onto the Narrows, my anxiety jumped up again. Maryjane was still somewhat dazed from sleeping, and feeling sick. We had a mile of treacherous downward climbing left in front of us, and the most important person in the world to me was dangerously unfocused. I stayed close and tried to remind her to concentrate with every step in the riskiest spots.
"I'm not feeling too great either," said Keith. He was supposed to still be taking care of Brad, who was barely better than on the ascent. Who was going to take care of Keith?
Mark kept us going, making it look easy. The chockstone at the top of the Trough was no harder going down than it was on the way up. Down the Trough we went easier than going up, to be sure, but still delayed by numerous rest stops for sick climbers. We were all getting a little ornery, and the personality differences between Mark and Brad started coming out. Brad is the precise, by-the-book guy. Mark is the freelancer, never wanting to do things the same way twice. In what they both call "a healthy relationship," they are friends and co-workers. They only get on each other's nerves occasionally, like a couple times a day, or after 11 hours of exhausting physical effort.
Mark scrambled over to the right-hand side of the Trough. He was looking for a short cut to the Ledges. "Hey, guys, the rock is good over here. Come on."
"Bleep that," said Brad, pointing directly down the Trough, well below Mark. He was obsessed with following the bulls-eyes. "I see one right down there. That's where I'm gong." It was good to see Brad feeling a little better.
As we moved into the Ledges, a new concern: our fearless leader was now himself getting sick. No longer laughing or spouting encouragement, Mark had the grim look of a guy with a hangover. (I've seen him with hangovers plenty of times, but this was one time he wasn't hung over.) The extra 300-vertical-foot scramble down to the top of the Diamond and back up to the summit had taken a toll on him.
His response was to try to go faster. "We'll never get anywhere sitting here resting," he said. "The sooner we get to a lower altitude the better we'll probably feel."
That's true, I said, except that everyone looks like they're drunk after they go about 30 feet. When they rest they sober up, for another 30 feet or so. If we eliminate the rest breaks, someone might get to a lower altitude real fast like right down to the bottom of that 500-foot slope a few inches to our left.
Mark was still leading but now he stopped and turned back toward me with a doubtful look on his face. He had missed a critical turn in the trail of bulls-eyes, and he was headed toward the False Keyhole area, not far from where the injured woman had come to rest.
Brad spotted the mistake, pointing to a pair of bulls-eyes showing the way. Catherine's father had told Brad to turn around and look back at that point on the way up, to recognize the turn. Once again that family, now still in the Trough and quite a ways behind us, had helped us.
We were nearing the end of the risky part of the trip. I suppose someone could get hurt on the rocks of the Boulder Field, but unlike everywhere we'd been for the past four hours, nobody has ever fallen to their death below the Keyhole. (There have been a couple deaths by heart attack and lightning on the lower trail over the years.) The closer we got to safety, the more paranoid I became about the risk of a last-minute catastrophe for our sickly crew. "As far as getting back safely goes, this is the fourth quarter," I implored. "Let's treat it like that."
Eight glazed eyes stared back at me. Nobody compared me to Knute Rockne. Never mind, I thought, just get through the Keyhole. We counted down the remaining bulls-eyes four, three, two, one, and finally we were looking back over the Boulder Field.
A helicopter sat in the middle of the Boulder Field. A rescue party had hoisted the injured woman on a stretcher up over Keyhole Ridge and back down into the Boulder Field with rope, and lugged her across the rocks to the helicopter. The chopper lifted off moments after we passed through the Keyhole.
The slightly lower altitude of the Boulder Field brought relief for most of our party. For me, climbing down the rocks from the Keyhole brought agony. I felt like a knife was lodged in my left knee, and it went a little deeper every time I took a downward step with that leg. We faced six miles of downward steps at that point.
It had been a long day already, and we had a long way to go. I was slowing down our group something awful. They stopped to wait for me, and mercifully let me rest when they didn't need it, on the switchbacks. I tried to choke down some GORP the first food I'd had since the Boulder Field on the way up, I realized. That wasn't too smart.
Along down the path came who else? Catherine and her parents. The six-year-old would pass us one more time.
A short while later, we passed them again as they rested. They graciously offered their water to us, which I gratefully accepted, being about out of my own. It was the last time our paths would cross. Even with me as a handicap, our longer legs covered ground much faster than little Catherine's. We saw them lag far behind us on the trail for a while, and then they were out of sight. As late as we got back to the trailhead, we wondered what time they made it, and how exhausted the child must have been.
A word to other first-timers: Don't kid yourselves about the walk back. It's brutal. When you finally hit tree line, you tend to think you're almost back. You're not even close.
For the last mile-and-a-half, our eyes and minds played cruel tricks on us. Looking desperately through the trees for our destination, in failing light and with failing bodies, fallen logs turned into roads and smooth vertical tree trunks became walls of buildings. A large flat rock was the roof of a building until we were almost on top of it. We had read of an infamous sign that said the ranger station was a half-mile ahead. We were certain we had walked by and missed the sign in the gathering dusk until we finally came upon it. Like everyone else who makes that walk, we found the remaining distance to be the longest half-mile in the world.
"I know that was more than a half-mile," Brad would say the next day. "I counted the steps." We all got a kick out of that. Only Brad would count something approaching a thousand steps at the end of an 18-hour ordeal.
The last of us Maryjane and I signed out at 8:40 p.m., almost exactly 18 hours after we started. A couple hikers at the trailhead were just starting on their way up for a night ascent, fresh and chatty. Turns out one of them spent a lot of time in Mark's and my tiny hometown of DeTour, at the remote eastern end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Normally that type of discovery would lead to an animated small-world conversation, but our reaction was to grunt, "how about that. Goodbye."
Our now-psychotic minds decided we had to stop at the grocery store in Estes Park for some food and good water, as we had nothing back at the condo but more GORP, to the revulsion of most of the group. We staggered through the Safeway store like "Night of the Living Dead" zombies. The clerks paid no attention; I'm sure they'd seen that act many times before.
We barely touched the food before collapsing in bed.
At 3 a.m., I snapped awake, the repressed fear of the heights washing over me and colliding with the exhilaration of having succeeded in our quest. Still exhausted, but unable to sleep, I began writing this trip report in my head. "Maybe I should start with Shorty," I thought to myself
(Our summit photo, taken by Catherine's mother. Gotta prove we really got there it and didn't just make this all up, right?)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):