Wednesday, September 23, 2009

RMNP Day 4: Key Hole on Longs Peak

Today our destination was supposed to be the summit of 13,281-foot Mt. Lady Washington, the mountain just northeast of Longs Peak.

Longs Peak is on the left, Mt. Lady Washington is on the right:

We woke up at 4:30 and arrived at the trailhead at 6:00 a.m., just as the sky was beginning to lighten on the eastern horizon. Since we remained on EST throughout our trip, that early wake-up call wasn’t a complete shock.

In addition to avoiding the usual afternoon thunderstorms, we had to arrive early to ensure a parking spot. Despite this, we still got one of the last spots in a lot that holds about 40 cars.

The hike begins from the Longs Peak Ranger Station at an elevation of 9400 feet. We would be following the famous Longs Peak Keyhole route for most of the way.

Roughly two hours later, and 3.4 miles from the trailhead, we made it to the Chasm Lake trail junction. This destination by itself is one of the best hikes in the park.

After reaching Granite Pass, and a fairly long section of switchbacks, we began looking for the unofficial “social” trail to the summit of Mt. Lady Washington. We were told by a park ranger that the trail was located somewhere above the switchbacks, but before the Boulder Field.

Unfortunately, we never found it (on the way up or on the way down). So, we switched to the unplanned “plan B”, which was to continue up the infamous Boulder Field to the Keyhole.

Camping Rocky Mountain style: campers and/or park service built rocks rings around tent sites to help keep wind and snow at bay:

“Are we out of this godforsaken Boulder Field yet?!”

The Boulder Field is an extremely rugged section of “trail”, roughly 2/3 of a mile in length and climbs about 800 feet. It requires scrambling, use of hand-holds, rock hopping over boulders, and a great deal of route finding.

Just below the Keyhole is the Agnes Vaille Shelter, built as a memorial after Ms. Vaille died there on January 25, 1925, shortly after becoming the first person to climb the Keyhole Route during the winter:

The Keyhole is the famous notch on the northwestern flank of Longs Peak. Hikers summiting the mountain pass through the Keyhole to reach the west side of the ridge and the final approach to the summit.

Beyond the Keyhole the trail becomes a bit more technical with moderate (frightening from my standpoint) exposure. You can see pictures of the path beyond the Keyhole by clicking here.

At an elevation of 13,250 feet, the Keyhole provides outstanding views of Powell Peak, McHenry Peak, Glacier Gorge and Black Lake, which can be reached from the Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead.

It took us about an hour and 45 minutes to do the 1.3 mile roundtrip up and down the Boulder Field (including about 5 minutes of picture taking). It was roughly half-way down that Kathy blurted-out her completely apropos comment. We were both pretty tired of negotiating the rocks at this point.

This is an extremely difficult hike – maybe the most difficult hike we’ve ever done. In addition to the length and the amount of elevation gain, the rocky terrain makes for a long and tiring day.

Trail: Key Hole on Longs Peak
RT Distance: 13.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 3850
Max Elevation: 13,250

Paul Nesbit's classic - a history and climbing guide for Longs Peak:

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, hiking gear store, and more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My husband and I hiked to the keyhole this summer too. I found the boulder field especially hard because I have short legs, but it certainly ranks as one of our epic hikes.