Eleven years ago, I completed my first Colorado 14er by hiking to the top of Quandary Peak, which is near my home in Breckenridge, CO. Over the next few summers that followed, I managed to reach the summit of a few more 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado.
But it wasn’t until after I’d climbed more than a dozen 14ers that I started seriously considering setting a goal to climb them all. What had started as a fun hobby soon became the challenge of a lifetime, and one that would take me to the summits of 58 mountains in a span of 11 years.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have friends join me for every climb. Our good friends who now live in Maryland, Roger and Courtney Mecca, were with me for my first handful of Colorado 14ers. John O’Conner, John Kivlan, Jeb Marsh, Will Kruger and his wife Kirsten, are also a few of the names you’ve seen in the pages of my blog, Summits for MS, over the last several years. They, and many others, have created and shared numerous memories with me during our adventures in the mountains of Colorado.
John O’Connor and I were fortunate enough to complete the majority of our list of 58 summits together, and as this summer approached, we were down to just seven mountains left to go. Unable to get our hiking and climbing season underway until mid-July due to busy schedules, we set a lofty goal to finish the 14ers before the end of summer.
While seven doesn’t seem like a large number, the challenge ahead of us was going to be a tough one as we had saved some of the most difficult and far away mountains for last. Little Bear, Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, El Diente Peak, Capitol Peak and Longs Peak were all waiting for us, along with a hard to obtain permit to climb the privately owned Culebra Peak.
With John Kivlan joining us for Culebra and Little Bear, and John O’Connor and I managing to reach the summits of both Wilson peaks, El Diente and Capitol, only Longs Peak remained as our final summit to reach. We were determined to find a way to accomplish our goal before snow would cause us to wait until next summer.
Longs Peak is an iconic mountain. It sits in Rocky Mountain National Park and the peak is climbed by hundreds, if not thousands, every summer. Because of this, John and I were both excited at the prospect of finishing with Longs, and daunted by the possibility that we’d be sharing our success with a hundred others once reaching the summit.
Sadly, our weekend plans to climb Longs were derailed by rain and snow in the High Country. It was late September and with limited opportunities left, John and I took a Tuesday off of work and headed towards the Longs Peak trailhead on Monday evening.
We arrived where we planned to camp for the night shortly after 10pm and quickly headed off to sleep. The roundtrip distance to complete Longs was over 14 miles and we estimated anywhere from 10 to 14 hours to complete the peak. Because of this, our alarms were set for 2:15am!
My eyes felt like they had just closed when the muffled sound of my alarm, buried in my sleeping bag, woke me up. We wasted no time in packing up and heading the few miles down the road to the trailhead. With headlamps in full glow, we set out upward along the trail and above tree line.
With the sun not expected to rise for at least three hours, we would be hiking in the dark for the first portion of the morning. Thankfully, the trail is well traveled and we were easily able to make our way to the first junction where we would head left toward the Loft route.
There are several routes up Longs and the most popular route, the Keyhole, can be quite crowded. John and I had decided to ascend the less popular Loft route in the hope that we’d have the climb to ourselves. As we passed the intersection and worked our way up towards the Loft Couloir, we were happy to find ourselves alone on the route.
The only real challenge we were contending with was the dark. We were above tree line now and off the well traveled trail, but we were fairly confident we were headed in the right direction. We continued to work our way up and across boulders to the base of the couloir. As the sun began to rise, we entered the Loft Couloir and quickly encountered more challenging terrain. The route was mostly free of snow and ice, but we took extra care as we worked our way up the steep slope.
Soon, we reached a point where there was no where to go. In front of us was a vertical wall covered in ice. We searched and soon found the exit ramp out of the couloir. The ledge led us out across the terrain to easier ground. We were now on the south side of Longs. To reach the summit, we would drop down to the west face of the mountain and traverse north across the peak to connect with the Keyhole route, just below the final pitch to the summit.
We worked our way up and across the mountain. The climbing and route finding was both fun and challenging. As the sun fully came up, we were greeted with clear skies and calm winds. It was the perfect day to be on the mountain.
After a few hours we came to the final pitch before reaching the summit, aptly named “Homestretch”.
While not a technical climb, the last 300 feet to the summit require a good deal of scrambling and therefore, some extra mental fortitude, due to the steepness of the slope and the exposure below. It was hard to believe that we were only a few hundred feet shy of reaching our goal!
We worked our way up and soon enough, we were at the top. I think I was in disbelief that I’d finally achieved my goal. Eleven years and 58 summits later, we’d done it. Even more amazing, there was only one other person on the summit when we arrived. In hindsight, we should have asked him to snap a quick photo of us!
After gathering some information on the condition of the Keyhole route from the other climber, we hung around and enjoyed the summit to ourselves for close to 30 minutes. I know the moment was especially powerful and meaningful for John, who had just lost his father in August.
The return route down the Keyhole was a special way to complete the mountain. Combining the less traveled Loft route on our way up with the classic Keyhole route on our way down proved to be the perfect tour of Longs Peak. The day couldn’t have been better.
Believe it or not, the record for completing all 68 of Colorado’s 14ers stands at less than ten days! At 11 years, I wasn’t breaking any records. What I was doing was creating lasting memories with friends in the mountains. Along the way, I started to share my stories via Summits for MS in an effort to build awareness about Multiple Sclerosis and to raise money for research and services to help those battling the disease. As many of you know, Kimberly was diagnosed with MS over eight years ago. She’s the strongest, most passionate person I have ever met. Falling more and more in love with her everyday is effortless. She’s supported me during this adventure and she’s understood the reasons why I’ve been away for so many weekends to climb mountains.
To learn more about the National MS Society, or to donate to the fight against MS, please visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/