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The night was just about perfect. I have been wanting to climb Longs Peak with a very early start to try to catch sunrise from the keyhole. The keyhole, for those that don't know, is a famous landmark that acts as the gateway to the infamous last mile of the Longs Peak Trail. It can be seen in the third picture from the top. I was on the trail by 2:20 enjoying my leisurely pace in the darkness. This is one of the first times I have been completely comfortable hiking by myself in the middle of the night. I guess I am just used to it now. It was an uneventful hike until I got to Jim's Grove and was surrounded hundreds of Elk. I didn't see too many of them, but they were very loud and vocalizing all around me. I stopped for a few minutes just to listen to them and watch a few calves play in my flashlight beam. I started heading up through the cool night air and as I neared Granite Pass I noticed the first hint of an orange glow from the rising sun. I was very excited about sitting in the keyhole and watching the sun light up the surrounding mountains in a brilliant display of Alpenglow.
The Boulderfield was easier than expected to navigate in the dark, and before I knew it I was just below the keyhole. I took a couple of ten second exposures of the North Face of Longs and the keyhole before making the last few steps to my front row seat.
It was a fantastic sunrise. I was lit up along with the mountains, and everything was as if it was on fire. I took a few shots and then just sat down, had some gatoraid and a lemon drop and just enjoyed the views.
The breeze was picking up and I was getting a bit chilled so I figured it was time to move along. I strapped on my pack and was moving along the next section of this wonderful mountains...the ledges. This is exactly what it sounds like; a series of rock ledges you must traverse in order to gain the trough, a steep gully that leads you nearer the summit. I was about halfway across the ledges when I heard what I thought was a jet plane. It sounded a little different and then got louder and I realizd it was coming from across the valley. I scanned the mountains across Glacier Gorge and saw an enormous avalanche plummeting off of the upper slopes of McHenry's Peak and on the the shelf high above Black Lake. What a sight! I love watching avalanches, they are so powerful and absolutely amaze me. The sound is unlike anything else. At first it sounds like a jet, or thunder, but then you hear the snow slam into the ground below with an explosion unlike any other. Unreal!
After the excitement wore off, I was back to work. The ledges passed with relative ease with only a couple of icy spots left. Before long, the trough was staring me down. Nothing left to do but climb it and there is no sense on putting it off a few minutes...it's not going anywhere are getting any smaller. I pushed myself up this steep and formidable section stopping only to take in the view of Glacier Gorge far below...and to catch my breath for a minute or two. Below the crux, there was an icy snowfield that couyle either be crossed or avoided on the steep slabs on either the right or the left. I chose to go up the right side and scramble around the ice, but one could have just of easily climbed the ledges to the left.
I was now at the next section called the narrows, which, again, is exactly what is sounds like. It is a narrow ledge that leads you to the homestretch, the final section of the climb. I have never found this section to be as exposed as many claim it to be. I never feel even a bit nervous or overly exposed. Obviously I am cautious when there is any exposure, but I feel like a lot of people over exaggerate when discribing this section of the trail.
Once past the narrows, I was heading up the final push toward the summit by way of the homestretch. I decided ot head closer to the palisades to try my hand at a little more scrambling. This was an amazing variation. I think this might have been an old route of some sort, because I found two posts, still standing, with nails in them that looked like they must have been signs pointing the way at one time. Once nearing the top I had the option of some fun 4th class scrambling to gain the summit. This was bit more exposed that I thought it would be, but on very solid rock with great holds. I was there! The summit only a few yards away! And look who is there...BILBO!
I spent time wondering around on the summit then took the obligatory summit photo, signed the register, refueled and was headed back down the mountain. My next objective was Storm Peak, a little brother of Longs.
I didn't see anyone else, except for a guy coming down from the summit as I was hitting the trough, until I was near the bottom of the trough. That is a rarity for such a popular mountain. But the National Park is still considering this a technical climb until more snow melts off, so I guess that is keeping the masses off the mountain.
I was soon back at the keyhole and heading for Storm Peak and about to traverse a very fun ridge. I had no idea that this ridge would be so entertaining. It is a mixed 3+ class ridge with some of the best views I have seen in the park. The only way I can describe this part of my day is, simply, fun! There is not much elevation gain from the keyhole, maybe 200 feet, so it is not what I would call draining, at all. You can scamble up and over 4th class obstacles and seemingly fly back and forth across the ridge having all the fun you want. This is my kind of "hiking!"
Far too quickly (I wish this ridge was about a mile longer) I was at the summit of Storm Peak where a dominating view of Longs Peak awaited. The views into Glacier Gorge were inspiring as well. Damn it had been a good day up to that point! Now off to scale Mount Lady Washington as the final summit of the day.
I started down the North slopes of Storm wanting to get in a little more elevation gain while climbing Lady Washington, but was cut off by a sloppy snowfied that I had no interest in crossing. So, guess what?? One more time back across the ridge! This was just as fun at the first time. I was soon heading across the boulderfield and noticed a huge storm building behind me. The clouds were very slowly moving to the East in contradiction to the now overly strong and gusty windy coming FROM the East. Very strange. I knew I could out run this storm, but I also knew that if it did happen to catch up, it wasn't going anywhere in a hurry. So I aborted the plans for Lady Washington and got back to treeline as quickly as possible, just as the thunder and lightning started. I did notice a group of three climbers headin up the North Face at the time I was in a hurry to get out of there...I hope they didn't have too rough of a time up there.
I was only a mile from the trailhead when the storm hit me. This is the same storm that dropped over a foot of hail on Bear Lake. Just as I thought, this thing took its sweet time moving out over the plains, and I am thankful that I didn't have to sit through it up above the trees.
I made it home in time for the rain to sing me to sleep on the couch. It rained for the next four hours while I dozed off and watched Space Balls.
May the Schwarts be with you.
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