The Journey to the Summit
We woke up just after sunrise on the day of the big hike. It took a bit of time to prepare our massive campfire-cooked breakfast, which included bacon, eggs, potatoes and cheese jam-packed into freshly heated tortillas. You aren’t allowed to build a fire on the mountain, so we made the most of the last hot meal we’d have in a while. After filtering water from a nearby stream, we filled up our water bottles, loaded our packs and headed to the mountain.
Located at 9,400 feet, The Longs Peak trailhead presents hikers with the challenge of high altitude before they even take their first steps on the trail. This was my first time hiking in high altitude, and I found myself struggling much quicker than I thought I would. I was out of breath and sweating a quarter-mile in. Carrying a 30-plus-pound pack on my back didn’t help. But we slowly began putting miles of wooded trail behind us.
The first part of the hike was a bit monotonous, with switchback after switchback weaving us up a dusty trail surrounded on both sides by an endless sea of evergreens. We took a quick break at a waterfall then continued on, and we soon found ourselves above the tree line. The hike averages a 13-percent incline with some areas reaching almost a 45-percent incline, so it’s never exactly a leisurely stroll. But we finally reached the Boulder Field around 7 p.m.
The field is just as it sounds—an enormous open area that’s filled with thousands of boulders, some that are as large as cars. We set up our tent in a designated camping spot, ate a cold dinner of prepared rice and jerky and went to bed. Before I knew it, I woke up to the sound of heavy feet shuffling outside of our tent. It was around 5 a.m., and hikers who were attempting a one-day trip to the summit were already well on their way. We layered up, downed some Clif bars and began what would be the hardest part of our 15-mile trek.
The trip through the Boulder Field included a lot of jumping and scrambling. You’re literally just leaping from rock to rock on a journey up to the Keyhole, which is a notch in the mountain that’s become known as one of its most distinguishing features. Once you pass through the Keyhole, the climbing route to the summit begins. That moment went down as my first real wow moment of the hike. It’s where we first got a real glimpse of mountain views. And if you’ve never climbed a mountain, you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “real” mountain views. We sat and took a minute to enjoy the snow-capped peaks staring back at us. I felt like I was on the set of a movie. I swear the clouds were close enough to reach up and touch.
Next we hiked the Ledges, which is a section made up of very narrow ridges that jut out of the side of the mountain with nothing between you and a terrifying drop. This section is one of the most dangerous of the hike (and where the man fell and died the day before). With no actual trail to follow, it was all about navigating from this point on. Rather than following a path, we followed a series of red and yellow bull’s-eyes that marked the best route. At one point, I lost my grip at a slot-like section between two giant boulders, and I slid backwards about 10 feet before Dylan caught me. I sat there for 10 minutes before I found the courage to press on.
We soon reached the Trough, a broad gulley area of the mountain filled with loose rock that features one of the steepest stretches of the entire hike. Once we finally made it through most of this treacherous section (which we kindly named the death march), we climbed over a slightly tricky spot to meet the bottom of the Narrows. The Narrows is a sheer vertical rock face that’s trimmed with a teensy little ledge, which juts out over thousands of feet of nothingness. But this time, that little ledge was our walking space. Thankfully, there were a series of boulders and hand holds that assisted us on the constricted path, but I still leaned my body inward and bear hugged the mountain almost every inch of the way. When you’re at 13,000 feet on the side of a mountain, every single step matters.