On Friday, June 3, ten members of an unspecified U.S. military special forces team were rescued from Longs Peak in Colorado after suffering altitude sickness. It was the first of two helicopter rescues so far in 2016. This week, the 14,249-foot mountain claimed its first life. One of 53 fourteeners in Colorado, and the highest in Rocky Mountain National Park , what makes this particular summit so dangerous?
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“Longs Peak is the most visibly prominent peak in the front range,” explains Outside contributor Ty Brookhart, who grew up in nearby Gold Hill, where he could see the mountain from his back porch. “You can see it from both Denver and Boulder, so much like Rainier to Seattleites, it’s something any outdoorsman wants to check off their list.”
Longs is the mountain on the back of Colorado’s state quarter, and fans of classic science-fiction may remember it as the location of a 200-inch reflector telescope in two Jules Verne novels, From the Earth to the Moon, and Around the Moon. Astronomers would have hard a hard time installing a giant telescope on the mountain’s summit; it wasn’t successfully climbed by a white man—John Wesley Powell—until 1868; three years after the first in Verne’s series was published.
Local Arapaho men were probably the first to climb the mountain. They used tall peaks like this one to place traps for eagles. As part of a ritual, they would hide in brush-covered pits atop mountain summits, fasting for days at a time, and bait the birds of prey to get in close using a coyote carcass. It’s said that as many as 50 to 100 eagles could be captured at a time using this method; the feathers were used in ceremonies and worn as decoration.
It’s technically possible to summit Longs in a single day. But that’s going to be a day that includes 15 miles of hiking (round trip), with 5,000 feet of elevation gain. The National Park Service doesn’t consider the most popular route—the Keyhole—a hike at all, but rather a technical climb. It recommends visitors wear helmets.
“Longs is, well, long,” Brookhart says. “People end up exhausted, low on blood sugar, dehydrated, and sick with altitude as they approach the most difficult sections. Both the Narrows and Homestretch portions of the climb deserve respect and focus. It’s a huge test of confidence as it’s wide, open, steep, and fully exposed to drops of 100 feet or more.”
This is the area where a 61-year-old man from Greeley, Colorado, slipped on ice, and fell to his death on October 2. His body had to be recovered by a long-line helicopter operation.
The Parks Service won’t quote an official number of deaths, but does provide lengthy safety instructions for climbers. “Many accidents on the Keyhole Route occur on the way down from the summit when fatigue or the false assumption that, ‘I’ve done the hardest part,’ can lead to inattention and poor decision making,” it advises, going on to warn against summit fever, getting lost, slipping and falling, solo travel, shortcutting, and ever-changing weather conditions.
“Because it stands well above most other peaks in the area, Longs creates its own weather,” says Brookhart. “I’ve seen clear days turn very quickly into high winds, and very, very cold temperatures. Unlike New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the weather here isn’t usually enough to kill you on its own, but hypothermia can lead to poor decision making can often lead to a misstep. And a misstep here kills.”
Contributing to changeable weather conditions is the sheer length of the hike. The NPS advises climbers to allow 12-plus hours to complete the hike, which typically means hitting the trailhead around 2 or 3 in the morning. The local rule of thumb suggests that if you haven’t summited by 10 a.m.., you should turn around.
It takes so long because the hike up to the Keyhole portion of the climb is five miles long, and from there you’ll be walking and climbing over boulders, at times completing Class 3 scrambles.
“After you go through the boulder field, and through the keyhole, you step out onto a narrow series of off-camber ledges running parallel to each other,” says Brookhart, who’s climbed the mountain several times. “This route traverses the very steep west side of the peak, toward the Homestretch, and the area available for your feet ranges from zero to 18 inches. Worse, some apparent routes disappear and cause climbers to backtrack.”
Backtracking causes its own problems on the narrow route. With up to 15,000 climbers attempting Longs each summer, overcrowding on the trail is a real issue. “Meeting another climber here is akin to meeting another vehicle on a one-lane mountain road with no guard rail,” says Brookhart. “Any mistake here in wet, snowy, or icy conditions is severe, and as history has shown, often deadly.”
“I’ve seen several experienced climbers stopped in the Narrows crying, and shivering as they get exposed to the west side’s winds,” Brookhart says. “They were afraid to go further, but watched as over-zealous neophytes motored past them, unaware or apathetic to the risks.”
The success rate for the Keyhole route up Longs Peak? Just 47 percent. Most people attempting the climb are smart enough to turn back when they realize they can’t complete it. But, like Mount Washington on the east coast, it seems like the real killer at Longs isn’t the climb itself, or even the often extreme weather. Instead, it’s the relative accessibility of the peak, combined with its fame, that draws in thousands of climbers who are often ignorant of the risk, or who just ignore it.
“The high elevation may affect your judgment,” states the NPS’ official Keyhole route brochure. “Careful descent is the best treatment.”