* SUMMIT ELEVATION: 14,255 feet
* TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 4,850 feet
* DURATION: One Day
* SNAPSHOT: Your first taste of thin air on a nontechnical ascent
THE HIGHEST POINT in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, an imposing pyramid called Longs Peak, towers over a cluster of incisor-sharp granite spires with names like Spearhead, Pagoda Mountain, and Sharkstooth. Longs beat back numerous summit attempts until 1868, when one-armed John Wesley Powell, who later notched the first descent of the Grand Canyon, bulled his way to the top via Keplinger's Couloir. These days, there are 150 lines of varying difficulty established on Longs, including those up the 2,000-foot Diamond, the largest wall in Colorado. "It was my playground when I was in college," says Tom Hornbein, who, in addition to being the first person to successfully ascend Everest's West Ridge, has climbed Longs more than 70 times. "It has all the flavors of so many different mountains." Fortunately, this formidable Front Range peak also has multiple walk-up routes that will test your cardiovascular limits and deliver your first real taste of altitude. Longs will also hone your ability to spot alpine lines, and before you bite into your celebratory summit sandwich, you'll need to cultivate a climber's steely nerve and cope with relatively safe but dizzying exposure.
** The Route
When snow-free (August to early September), the 4,850-foot KEYHOLE ROUTE 15 miles round-tripis a thrilling nontechnical walk-up that requires no rope, crampons, or ice ax. Get an alpine start by leaving Longs Peak Ranger Station no later than 2 a.m. to beat the storms and the herds of Denverites who crowd the trail all summer. Hike through pine and fir forests and vast alpine meadows up to The Boulderfield (12,760 feet). Your objective is a keyhole-like opening in the northwest ridge formed by a large overhanging hunk of granite. Slip through the hole, traverse left over a half-mile of ledges, and scramble up a long scree slope called The Trough. Ready? You've reached 13,850 feet, but the Keyhole's final half-grand is the most challenging. Shimmy around a truck-sized chockstone, squeeze through a gap in the boulders, and emerge to breathtaking views on the south side of the peak. Now hitch up your Jockeys: You need to cross the knee-buckling crux called The Narrowsa five-foot-wide, 200-foot-long shelf jutting out a thousand feet off the ground. Once across, let the adrenaline bath drain, and then continue up the ramp of granite slabs, thankfully riddled with edges and cracks for hands and feet. Pace yourself. Suck oxygen from the rarefied air. Just when you think you can't go any farther, you're on the summit.
GUIDE The Colorado Mountain School offers a one-day climb up Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route for $150 to $300, depending on the number of clients. The fee gets you to the top and includes a seminar on altitude-climbing skills like rest stepping (supporting your weight on the rear leg while relaxing the forward leg) and pressure breathing (blowing through pursed lips to force oxygen into the lungs), pacing, and nutrition. (888-267-7783, www.cmschool.com)
Brighten up your pre-dawn start with PRINCETON TEC's versatile MATRIX headlamp. LED bulbs provide hours of candlepower on just two AA batteries, and a high-beam setting will keep you on course through The Boulderfield. ($40; 609-298-9331, www.princetontec.com) PATAGONIA's R3 RADIANT fleece jacket seals out the chill, thanks to thick pile that provides a critical layer of insulation on Longs and, later, Rainier, Orizaba, and McKinley. ($138; 800-638-6464, www.patagonia.com) Simple yet bombproof, MARMOT's LIQUID STEEL pants will stop wind, rain, snow, hail, and whatever else Mother Nature throws at you. ($250; 800-882-2490, www.marmot.com)
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