Climbing Longs Peak

Climbing Longs Peak – The Keyhole Route

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A hiker traverses a rocky ledge in Rocky Mountain National Park.
My new friend Miguel starts out across the section known as the Ledges while climbing Longs Peak.

Once past the Keyhole when climbing Longs Peak, the path is no longer a hike but becomes a mountaineering route. From here feet and hands are needed for climbing Longs Peak. The remaining 1.3-miles and 1,000’ of elevation gain to the summit is not for the faint of heart or those with vertigo. My new friend Miguel and I set off towards the summit at a flurried pace. Just in case the weather decided to change, we wanted to summit as quickly as possible. Even with our hurried pace, it would be nearly three hours before we returned to the relative safety of the Keyhole.

Follow the Bull’s-Eyes When Climbing Longs Peak

A red and yellow bull's eye painted on a rock.
After the Keyhole the path ahead is marked with these red and yellow bull’s-eyes that make pathfinding easy in good conditions.

The terrain immediately after the Keyhole is intimidating. The path is perched on a slanted granite wall where one miss step means a very long fall with a sudden deadly stop. This section of the trail is aptly named the Ledges. The nice thing is that the path ahead is very easy to follow all the way to the summit. The park authorities have painted red and yellow bull’s-eyes for hikers to follow.

The Ledges

A view down a nearly vertical cliff face with bull's eye markers on the rocks below.
A view of the path as it descends down the section known as the Ledges. Notice the bull’s-eye markers indicating the way ahead when climbing Longs Peak.

The trail leaves the Keyhole and onto ledges along the slanted granite wall. During the section known as the Ledges, the path circles about a fourth of the way around the jagged peak above. At first, the path rises slightly before descending nearly 100’. I found this undulation along the cliff’s edge to be disheartening. I want to be climbing Longs Peak, not descending. Thankfully, this part isn’t terribly difficult and while the exposure is extreme, if taken carefully it can be confidently crossed with little concern of a fall.

The Trough

A hiker stands on rocky terrain looking up at the treacherous path ahead.
Miguel surveys the path ahead as we start our ascent of the section known as The Trough.

All day I had seen hikers with helmets climbing Longs Peak. I kept wondering why they needed helmets when they had no rope. Upon arriving at the section known as The Trough I realized why. The helmets aren’t to protect the hikers from a fall but rather falling rocks. Inside The Trough, hikers climb steeply up loose rocky terrain. This is one of the most dangerous sections as fellow climbers can easily dislodge large rocks sending them down the narrow trough onto fellow hikers below.

A hiker uses hands and feet as he climbs up a bouldery terrain.
Miguel nears the top of The Trough. This section is the most difficult and dangerous when climbing Longs Peak.

Luckily, Miguel and I were the last ones climbing Longs Peak for the day so no one was above us to kick anything down. We tried to stay on opposite sides of The Trough as it switchbacked up the side of the cliff wall. This entire section is a lung burner and progress was slow. At the top of The Trough, hikers are presented with a rock climbing obstacle. It is necessary to shimmy up a 10’ rock ledge. This is one of the toughest sections of the hike. If you fall you most likely won’t die, but broken bones are certainly possible along with cuts and bruises.

The Narrows

A hiker walks across a narrow rocky ledge.
The uneven jagged terrain of The Narrows requires caution to cross safely.

Once at the top of The Trough we found ourselves perched on a narrow ridge. The trail continues mostly flat across a section appropriately named the Narrows. The Narrows is a cliff ledge that crosses the south side of Longs Peak. This area varies in its width but narrows to less than 3’ in two areas. The hardest section is having to duck underneath an overhanging boulder while sliding across the ledge. The cliff edge drops 1,000s of feet straight down into the valley below. On a whole, the view of the Narrow’s ledge is much more terrifying than the actual feat of crossing it. So long as you take your time and watch your footing it is easily maneuvered. I, however, would not want to attempt this in the snow or even after a drizzle of rain.

The Homestretch

A hiker climbs up a crack on a slopped granite wall.
The section known as the Homestretch looks more intimidating than it actually is. Use caution and it can be surmounted.

Past the Narrows is a slanted granite slab known as the Homestretch. This is the final 300’ climb to the Summit. Looking at this from the edge of the Narrows I was intimated. You look at it and think at any moment a climber could slip and slide right off the edge of the mountain. It is, however, very easy to overcome. It does take hands and feet climbing, but there are good handholds found in the crevices. I never felt like my life was in danger during the climb. I was, however, sucking air and exhausted from the strenuous climb of the day.

Longs Peak: The Top of Rocky Mountain National Park

At 7.5-miles I finally crested the Longs Peak summit. It is a flat peak with sweeping 360-degree views of the surrounding Rocky Mountain Landscape. The air was thick with smoke from the fire to the west, but the views were still outstanding. Seeing no rain clouds in sight we wandered around the top of the peak and checked out the different views from all sides. Once we had taken it all in we started our slow descent back down the mountain.

A hiker sits on a boulder overlooking the Rocky Mountain landscape.
The views from the top of Longs Peak are some of the best in Colorado.

The Descent

A view over a cliff edge with steps leading down.
A view back down the section known as the Homestretch looks intimidating.

The entire way up the final 1.3-miles I was dreading the descent. I was concerned about the steepness of the terrain and how I would fare going down. Much to my surprise, it was actually easier to descend than to ascend although rough on the knees. We took it slow. It took almost as long to descend the sections back to the Keyhole as it had to ascend. Once back at the Keyhole the descent becomes much easier, although still rough on the knees. We rejoined Jennifer and the three of us returned to our base camp in the Boulder Field. We talked with Miguel for a little while and ate some snacks before we separated and he returned to the trailhead. Jennifer and I then settled in for a night in the Boulder Field.

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