With curly hair and a slightly chubby appearance, the ginger lady operating the monza red Avis rental car shuttle bus had some welcoming words and a weather forecast for us. “Thunderstorms are expected in the afternoon. But that is normal. They usually go by within minutes. What I am sayin’ is: Don’t change your plans!”
We had just landed at Denver International Airport, about thirty miles northeast of the city, into blue skies and ninety-one degrees. Less than twenty-four hours later, we found ourselves in close-to-whiteout conditions with forty miles per hour wind gusts at nearly 13,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. And we had to decide whether to turn around or keep going.
Ethan and I had set our sights on climbing Longs Peak over this Labor Day weekend, at 14,255 feet part of Colorado’s Fourteeners, with the trailhead for it’s easiest route about a one hour drive away from Boulder inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
On Saturday, a campsite was quickly found in a maintained campground off of Hwy 7 and only a short drive away from the trailhead. “You should be off the mountain by noon,” Ethan quoted from an online resource, referring to the fact that thunderstorms are likely to build starting midday and causing adverse conditions for climbers. “We should start early,” we concluded in unison.
With that knowledge planted in our heads, we were out of our sleeping bags at 2.45am, improvised breakfast in the beam of our headlamps on the damp, wooden picnic table, and were at the trailhead at 4am. This being a holiday weekend and a popular mountain, we were far from alone. The reflectors of about twenty to thirty cars glittered as the rays of our headlights bounced off them as we steered our rental car into the parking lot.
At a starting altitude of 9,500 feet, we took it slow. Our headlamps were strong enough to illuminate the trail before us when turning left or right; however, any light was absorbed by the blackness of the aptly named Goblins Forest around us. It was pretty warm, in the fifties, with no wind. Climbing upwards in the dark, with Boulder’s city lights glowing in the distance, felt eerie and peaceful simultaneously.
Once we left the protection of the forest and got above the treeline into alpine tundra territory, we were starting to feel the total exposure to the elements. The wind blew into our faces with gusts up to 30mph, enough to warrant holding on to one’s headgear and possibly even stopping to avoid getting knocked over. At this point, we were aiming for the Boulderfield, a talus-littered area at about 12,800 feet, marking the beginning of the more challenging climbing of this trip.
“Have a fun one!” a girl in shorts who had passed us with her group of three about two hours earlier shouted at us over the wind gusts. Her group was already coming down the mountain. It was close to 7am. “It’s just too dicey,” another young fellow wearing an oversized hoody and a black baseball hat turned sideways informed us. “Sometimes I gotta be a pussy,” he let us know.
Despite those more or less expert opinions, we wanted to press on until we, ourselves, deemed it unsafe to continue. Reaching the Boulderfield, we encountered windy but surprisingly sunny conditions. We spotted more than a dozen people in the area, some already on the way further up the mountain.
After a brief moment of deliberation, we pressed on, aiming for the Keyhole, a particular rock formation on the ridge connecting to the summit of Longs Peak. It is shaped like a keyhole, hence the name, yet missing about half of the “roof” portion, making it an incomplete oval. One must cross through the Keyhole and continue with the summit approach from the other side. As we were about halfway up the ridge, dark clouds formed within minutes, approaching from the west, first engulfing the summit and then dumping snow on this upper part of the mountain. The snow was blowing almost vertically with the wind, and we experienced close-to-whiteout conditions, with the terrain getting more and more slippery by the minute.
Some people climbing with us pushed on, but we decided to turn around. The gusts were too strong, and the possibility of losing one’s footing on the more exposed part of the climb on the mountain’s west side was just too high.
We monitored the situation from the base of the Boulderfield, with the weather frequently changing from snow to sunshine and back to snow showers. “Alright, let’s go!” we said almost unanimously and started our retreat.
It seemed that the clouds had won the battle, and snow showers and rain further down the mountain accompanied us all the way down until we were below the treeline. My legs and feet were soaking wet for a good two-thirds of the descent, I was cold and hungry, but with the wind gusts, I was determined not to stop. Standing still for just a few seconds would have sucked the remainder of my body heat right of me. So we pressed on with no breaks until we had reached lower altitudes.
About two miles from the trailhead, the rain stopped, the clouds broke up, and the sun brought some desperately needed warmth to our bodies and souls. After about 7.5 hours of hiking and 13 miles covered, we were back at the trailhead parking lot. “What? Is it only noon? Oh my god, it feels like 6pm,” I exclaimed, exhausted and sleep deprived. Definitely bummed out about our failed summit attempt, we felt good about our decision to turn around and trusting ourselves. It can’t always be sunshine and rainbows. In conditions like this, you must recognize that the real goal is to make it back safe and alive.