Long’s Peak Summit via Stettner’s Ledges to Upper Kiener’s, Descending the Keyhole -At 4 am on August 22, 2018, under a black sky full of stars Mihail Krumov and me, Rich Weston, headed back up the trail for a second attempt to summit Long’s Peak via a 5th class rock route. We had turned back the previous morning just an hour into the approach facing rising rain and wind. At 14,255 feet the summit of Long’s Peak is the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s steep, nearly 1,700-foot-tall east face, were most of the harder climbing is located, is divided into upper and lower sections by Broadway, the long ledge cutting across the face about half way up. The sheer 900-foot-tall upper east face, the famous Diamond, was visible from the UIUC Climbing Club group camp some five miles away. Our working plan was to ascend Long’s lower east face via the 800-foot-tall Alexander’s Chimney (Grade III, 5.2-5.6) to Broadway. A short traverse along Broadway would connect us to Upper Kiener’s (II, 5.2-5.4). Upper Kiener’s continues for about 1,000 feet from Broadway to the summit of Long’s while avoiding the nearly vertical Diamond by climbing along its lower angle edge. Mihail and me would descend the popular Keyhole route (II, 3rd class). It was our “working plan” because we had experienced significant rain since the Climbing Club arrived in RMNP and more was possible during our climb. The prospect of being trapped in a massive funnel like Alexander’s Chimney during heavy rain obliged us to consider other options. It took about 2.5 to 3 hours of moderate, steady hiking under approximately 35 pound packs to reach Chasm Lake at the base of Long’s where we rested briefly and replenished our water. The steep east face of Long’s Peak, crowned by the Diamond, dominates this quintessential alpine cirque. After a break of 20-30 minutes we resumed picking our way over and around the jumble of granite boulders that fill the space between the frigid lake and the orange, grey, and black walls from which they fell. The obvious changes in the morning sky told us that the pre-dawn stars were not harbingers of drier weather. We were racing the rain clock already. When Mihail and me reached the steep snowfield blocking easy access to our planned route, we stopped to examine and discuss our options one final time. To our far left was Lamb’s Slide, the moderate snow slope ascending right to left for 1,000 feet to join Broadway. During a previous Climbing Club trip to RMNP I watched a climber on Lamb’s Slide lose his footing, slide and tumble down out of control, crash into the boulders at the base, break his hip, and earn a helicopter ride. Lamb’s Slide was out of the question as we had neither axe nor crampons and we wanted a more challenging route. To our near left was Alexander’s Chimney. We could not see all the way in to it, but what was visible appeared wet, claustrophobic, and depressing, not to mention truly dangerous if rainwater runoff collected there. Alexander’s is a popular mixed route (III, WI4, M4) so the risk of significant water flow was real. Straight in front of us was the 1927 classic, Stettner’s Ledge’s (III, 5.8+ via Hornsby’s direct variation), a route I climbed about 10 years ago, although then we did not continue to the summit. I was torn. Having climbed both Alexander’s and Stettner’s previously I knew the climbing would be easier and faster on Alexander’s and time was becoming a bigger factor as the clouds continued to build. But the wet, dark setting was unappealing and the risk of hypothermia worried me. Stettner’s offered drier rock and a more aesthetic and exposed climb. But it would be a slower, more involved undertaking. The route finding is trickier, the grade is higher, and the amount of climbing at the grade is greater. Finally, we had a skimpy rack we had selected for Alexander’s, an “easy” route we did not anticipate would require a lot of protecting. We had failed to bring more protection should we decide to switch to a more gear intensive route. Mihail jumped at the challenge of Stettner’s and we began a sketchy, crab-like, ascending traverse across hard, sun cupped, steepening snow that left us about 150-200 feet above the boulders. It would have been a nasty scraping, tumbling fall. But, without incident we reached and crossed the small bergschrund, soloed some easy rock, and eventually identified a reasonable place to build an initial anchor. It had taken about 3.5 to 4 hours to reach this point. We spent the next several hours, sometimes confident and sometimes confused, swapping leads on the nearly 900-foot-long system of ledges, cracks, and flakes that is Stettner’s. Our route information consisted of a brief written description torn from Gerry Roach’s Guide to the Colorado 14ers that we consulted only once or twice. We stopped using it after we went astray early in the route. Instead we tried to read the route, the terrain, the tat, and other “climber sign”. Predictably we got slightly off route a couple times resulting in more challenging climbing and slowed progress. Mihail led the more difficult Hornsby Direct variation onto Broadway, an impressive pitch at 13,000 feet with a pack on after an already tiring day. As I pulled onto Broadway happy for the toprope it started to rain, going from a sprinkle to a soaking rain in about 10 minutes. Though we were relieved to be done with the steepest and most technically challenging terrain before the rain hit, we had about 1,000 feet of wet 3rd, 4th, and 5th class rock to cover before we could summit and begin the hours-long descent of the Keyhole route. Not cool. We stayed roped as we hastily traversed about 150 feet across Broadway and the base of the Notch Couloir to the start of Upper Kiener’s. We made the well-known move around the boulder blocking Broadway that forced us to low-crawl inches from an 800-foot-drop off our right side. That was a particularly focused moment given Broadway’s nightmarish history of climbers dying in huge falls from it. After this last bit of roped climbing the gear, rope, and climbing shoes went into our packs for the duration and rain gear came out. The wind and rain intensified, but never got severe. Mihail and I each donned our floppy hiking boots and turned toward Upper Kiener’s as the lowering clouds reached our heads and rolled into the chasm below. For much of the length of Upper Kiener’s the climber is exposed to the awesome, steep drop down the east face of Long’s to the Mill’s Glacier a thousand feet or more below. The first two pitches are listed at 5.2-5.4. At that moment with my soaked gloves and Mihail’s cold, bare hands, our loaded packs, wet, sometimes smooth granite, and less-than-ideal footwear, it felt harder. The knowledge that a slip could result in a monster fall down the east face kept us mentally locked in. In challenging conditions, on worn legs, Mihail and me quickly soloed up the opening technical pitches of Upper Kiener’s, through the 4th class staircase, and around the open-book dihedral that appears to block access to the summit. The time and deteriorating conditions dictated that we move as quickly as possible but the thick cloud we were in made it difficult to identify major features on the route. At times I could only be certain of the correctness of my position by returning to the very edge of the route bordering the Diamond and peering down into the kaleidoscopic mix of rock, cloud, and space. I felt that in my gut. After the dihedral it was just a few hundred feet of 3rd class staggering over boulders to reach the expansive, flat summit of Long’s. We were alone on top of the most frequently attempted 14er in Colorado, it was socked in with clouds, the wind was blowing, and it was alternating between rain and sleet. I’m guessing temperatures were in the lower 40s, although, with wind chill, I really don’t know. With all my layers on I got cold fast once I stopped moving. My fingers were going numb inside my extra pair of dry, insulated gloves. We had seen snow on the summit for several hours a day or two before, so we knew it could get colder still. We checked the clock for the first time since leaving the car. We were concerned when we saw it was almost 5pm. It was later than we had hoped. Mihail and me had been going steadily for 13 hours and we wanted to rest. But we still had more than seven miles and 5,000 vertical feet of wet, sometimes difficult terrain to descend, and we had less than 3 hours of daylight remaining. We were in clear violation of the mountaineering rule of “get on top early”. It was important that we begin descending as soon and as rapidly as possible. After less than 15 minutes on top Mihail and me started down the Keyhole. This circuitous route involves hiking, boulder hoping, and easy scrambling along ledges and in gullies. Under good conditions it is a tiring, moderately dangerous, but technically easy route. A fall is not likely, but the drops are big. Only about half the people who attempt the Keyhole succeed and, of the 60 folks who have died on Long’s, most were on the Keyhole. For us, at that moment, it was indeed a moderately dangerous, frustrating, and tiring slog made worse by rain, thick clouds, and our growing fatigue. We slipped and slide down the Homestretch. We staggered along the narrow, wet ledges on uncertain legs. We cursed and complained, but mostly we retreated into ourselves and suffered quietly. We felt considerable relief as we passed through the odd and amazing Keyhole feature and onto the broad expanse of the Boulderfield. Technical difficulty, weather, daylight, and route finding were no longer serious concerns. Now fatigue and injury were the biggest threats to reaching the car that day. We endured a final 2 to 2.5 hours of monotonous, painful, and exhausting boulder hoping and hiking before we wobbled to the car by headlamp at 9pm, 17 hours after we started, beaten down but intact. One final crux for me was getting in my old Subaru 9 hours after flogging ourselves on Long’s and driving solo for 17 hours back to Champaign-Urbana with no cruise control, no AC, and just AM/FM radio. That was some serious suffering.
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