Another Try at a Tough Mountain, a Rocky Mountain High A LETTER FROM COLORADO

ERNEST F. IMHOFF

August 11, 1991|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Estes Park, Colo. -- Longs Peak is an elegant rock pile 14,255 feet high in Colorado, special to technical climbers and hikers alike. Its vertical diamond face is a magnet for rock climbers; its backside east trail a scramblers' challenge offering a quick eternity 2,000 feet below.

The mountain is alluring except for its flat top. Geologists argue over whether the summit was pushed up, worn down or what. Picture God neatly slicing off a pyramid's cone 100 feet from the tip, and that's Longs. The summit is four acres, allowing a crowd of climbers to see the beautiful views on the Continental Divide or just lie down and pant.

I've just had my second great adventure on Longs Peak, yet I also found surprises on lesser alpine summits. Therein lies my story from Rocky Mountain National Park, 60 miles northwest of Denver.

Six years ago I tried to hike up Longs Peak but gave up before the top. Total embarrassment for a peak-bagger of 80 mountains. It was a perfect Colorado day but I was done in by a thin September ice coat, a headache, eye problems dimming trail markers and terror over the almost sheer east and south faces on which the trail balances delicately.

Mainly, it was the terror. I like walking more than crawling uphill. For the first five hours of hiking in darkness and dawn, the trail, starting at 9,530 feet high, was huffy and puffy. Normal stuff. Then at 13,000 feet I hit the Keyhole, a ridge cleft where wind blew through in powerful gusts. It's a junction where hikers turn left, see vertical walls and begin using hands as well as feet. Or they just freeze and go down.

A few hundred feet of that was enough for us. I mean me. I had a friendly guide, Terry Kennedy, who'd been up Alaska's 20,320-foot Mount McKinley and said more than once, "I think we can do it". My humiliating decision was further etched in chagrin as we descended and passed fresh-faced hikers amazed we'd summited so early. I kept quiet and walked with Terry up nearby Mount Lady Washington, precious little consolation.

For six years I thought about Longs and vowed to try again. Once in the interval, I even spent a day atop Twin Sisters Mountain across the valley, simply staring up at the Diamond on Longs Peak. Mountain gravity pulls the mind uphill.

Three weeks ago, I tried Longs Peak again. Eye problems were fixed. I was in Colorado to hike elsewhere with a friend, Margot Smit, with whom I'd been to the top of other state 14,000-footers, Pikes Peak and Mount Sherman. I signed in alone at the trailhead at 3 a.m. (Half my hikes are alone). Soon I joined others under starlight and flashlight. A few hours later, after a stunning sunrise over the Plains, we were at the Keyhole.

Again, the cliffs were still tough. One moment I hung on to two spikes. Another time I slid on my belly. Breathing was short. But the remaining two miles and 1,200 feet up was, as they say, do-able. One Smit trick against mountain sickness was drinking extra water for days. We walked and crawled The Ledges, a steep Trough and The Narrows for one person only. We stuck hands into 300 feet of cracks in The Homestretch. Then The Summit.

I waved to a new friend, a comforting off-duty ranger, Greg Russell. He waved back, and later we'd return to the Keyhole together. "Nice going," someone said to me. "Thanks. The same." At 14,000 feet the oxygen fight beats talking. I saw gorgeous views everywhere -- Pikes Peak 103 miles away; nearer, dozens of other peaks, lakes, Wild Basin below, the high Trail Ridge Road to the north. A sense of place for a mountain-lover.

"The cloud's early today." Someone said it quietly and people looked straight up. Usually the thunderstorm develops at 1 or 2 p.m., giving people good time on top, but today The Cloud came early. It was 10:45 a.m. and time to go. I had had seven minutes on top. The Cloud hailed on us going down. I stopped often to breathe hard. I was down in six hours and ecstatic.

The 7 1/2 -hour climb and seven-minute summiting were plenty to excite. But contemplate? I expected little out of the ordinary the next few days, but the Rockies showed me thrills of a more leisurely kind.

I hiked up an alpine meadow off the 12,000-foot-high Trail Ridge Road. On the horizon of Marmot Point four small krummholz trees sprouted. Next time I looked they had moved. A closer look. Not trees, they were the antlers of four bull elk grazing in silhouette on top.

Gradually I came within 30 yards and stayed with the quartet for two hours. One by one they would get up, eat, amble, lie down, chew, look at me, chew and get up. A species once almost annihilated for food or sport, the elk heard the clicking camera but showed no fear. I lay on my stomach and just stared. The sun was warm, the wind was cold, a pleasant version of much higher elevations where you can get sunburn and frostbite simultaneously.

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