Earlier I was making a list in my journal of fears I hold: fear of failure (duh), fear of the appearance of failure, fear of discomfort. It might make some of you laugh, but I really do have a fear of discomfort despite my moving to Wyoming, by far the coldest and most rural place I’ve ever lived, and despite my endeavors to spend time outside in ways that could be seen as plenty uncomfortable to most reasonable people.
Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve done, though, was last weekend. Matt, his brother Michael, in town from San Francisco, and I woke up at half past midnight Sunday morning, drove for just under three hours to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and began the 7.5-mile hike to summit Longs Peak via the popular Keyhole Route. Longs Peak is what’s known as a 14er, a peak at over 14,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude, weather changes can be drastic and unpredictable, exposure to the elements is dangerous, and lack of oxygen can cause all kinds of problems, including altitude sickness.
Sounds fun, right? Or does it just sound uncomfortable? Granted, a 7.5-mile hike doesn’t sound like a whole lot, even when you consider how that’s a 15-mile roundtrip. People do that many miles or more backpacking with overnight equipment all the time. However, consider that you gain just under 5,000 feet in elevation throughout the duration of the hike, and it becomes a different story.
Several hours before sunrise, we donned our headlamps and extra layers in the trailhead parking lot, deployed our trekking poles, buckled up our backpacks, and began. Walking in the dark in the middle of the forest is an interesting activity. It’s surprisingly calming – one foot in front of the other, seeing no further than the small hazy circle of the headlamp. My body knew it was missing out on sleep, but was simultaneously and primitively exhilarated. In my peripheral vision I spied other headlamps’ beams floating between trees.
The higher we climbed, the colder it became. I switched which hand held the trekking pole so I could alternate warming my fingers inside the pocket of my down jacket. After 3.7 miles out and 2,395 feet up, we reached the first privy (aka primitive toilet). We were noticeably above the treeline. The sky above was wide and pulsing with bits of light. People sat quietly beneath their hats and hoots, nibbling on dehydrated trail food. Our packed snacks included CLIF bars, bison jerky, bananas (not for me, thanks), Trader Joe’s trail mix, and dried mango. The National Parks Service recommends bringing 3-4 liters of water per person for the Keyhole Route, so water was by far the heaviest thing we carried.
The horizon shone pink over the granite boulders while we were at about 12,400 feet above sea level. The sun peeked over the horizon. One foot in front of the other. It grew colder despite the mild sunlight; the sun seemed too far away to warm us. The wind picked up enough to blow us off the trail which, at this point, had deteriorated to mostly steps formed from chunks of naked rock.
We began passing people going the opposite direction, people descending from the summit. This was our first hint that the wind would get worse. And then, just before reaching the Boulderfield, I did the #1 thing you’re not supposed to do on a hike like this- I fell into a stream.
This was especially ironic because the vast majority of the water we’d encountered thus far had been frozen, and there were chunks of ice floating in this little stream as well. I’d been about to step over the stream when a strong gust of wind (and I mean like a 50-60 mph gust) appeared, I lost my footing on the icy rocks, and I toppled over. I tried to catch my fall with my right hand (hello, purplish bruise above!), but ended up in the water confused for a second before getting back on my feet.
Thankfully the water rolled off my water-resistant Prana pants and down jacket. It promptly turned to ice on my GoreTex hiking boots. I’d been wearing a glove that soaked up all the water, numbing my right hand, so Matt switched his right glove with mine. I always have cold hands; I’ve tested negative for Reynaud’s disease, but may still have the syndrome.
Needless to say, I was somewhat disheartened. The temperature of the water had also shocked me a little, and it can be difficult to catch your breath at high altitude. Once at the Boulderfield, we reached privy #2.
People have stacked stones atop one another to form rings in which you can sit and be sort of protected from the wind. I wouldn’t say I was pleased to sit for the first time in ~6 uphill miles, but my agitation-turned-anger at the wind was significantly mitigated.
While I chatted with other hikers, Matt and Michael made the short but treacherous trek up to the Keyhole, the area through which you pass to the other side of the mountain, which is much more exposed. From the Boulderfield to the Keyhole, and the Keyhole to the summit, are by far the two most difficult parts of the hike, folks say. Less hiking, more climbing/scrambling.
I can’t be sure, but from what Matt, Michael, and the following pictures tell me, the hurricane-force winds on the other side of the Keyhole made it all but impossible to summit.
After goofing around up there for who knows how long, the guys came back to join me in the semi-functional wind shelter for snacks before we officially gave up on the possibility of summiting that day. Wind has been known to take people to their deaths on Longs Peak before, so I think this was a smart decision.
Back across boulders we went!
Hiking downhill may be the least comfortable form of walking ever, especially many miles of it all at once. It finally began to warm up enough for us to remove layers of clothing on the way down. I managed to not fall in any more streams, hooray!
It was our impression that day that no one summited, with the possible exception of a few macho guys. We advised those who asked on the way down against reaching the summit, and that the wind would grow much worse.
I removed my gloves at long last about two miles from the trailhead. We started to pass people in shorts and t-shirts, and then small children, so we knew we were close.
I celebrated at the car by quickly changing into my Tevas. It was still before noon, but felt like late afternoon. Much barbeque and beer were in order, obviously, so we stopped in Fort Collins on the way back to Laramie.
Moral of this story? Don’t fall into streams! Wear gloves! And, maybe, being uncomfortable for a relatively short time can reap big rewards, even if you don’t summit.
Love to all.