While Colorado is filled with mountain peaks, one in particular seems to have captured the widespread allure of sightseers and adventures alike – Longs Peak.
The only mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park that reaches an elevation of more than 14,000 feet, Longs Peak is known for its beauty, but its beauty isn’t what made it famous, or in the words of some, infamous. Not only is Longs Peak the “14er with the highest failure rate” among those who attempt the climb, it’s also often considered the deadliest peak in Colorado based on death toll.
If you pay attention to news that comes out of the Centennial State, you’re likely quite familiar with headlines the pop up over summer and fall about people that have gone missing or died on the Longs Peak. While some of these cases result in rescue, many leave someone dead on the mountain.
There was the recent case of Jens Yambert who went missing following an attempted summit during strong winds and winter weather. His body was later recovered at the bottom of a 200-foot fall.
There were two late-season cases, those of Micah Tice and Ryan Albert, in which hikers were believed to go missing on Longs Peak. While search parties were launched, they were eventually called off due to the massive risk that comes with sending search crews up on the peak amid hazards posed by winter weather. Both of these men are believed by most to be deceased.
Unfortunately, the list goes on.
Between 1915 and 2017, it’s been determined that 374 visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park have died while they’re there. Of those 374 deaths, 67 have been associated with Longs Peak, 70% of which were the result of a fall, with other reasons including hypothermia, cardiac events, lightning, and exhaustion. Keep in mind that this number doesn’t include deaths that occurred over the summer of 2018 – another deadly year on the mountain.
Before we take a look at why Longs Peak is so deadly, let’s take a brief look at the history of the mountain.
The History of Climbing Longs Peak
Named after explorer Stephen Harriman Long, Longs Peak is the largest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. It reaches a maximum altitude of 14,259 feet, which makes it the 13th highest peak in the Centennial State.
The first recorded summit of Longs Peak took place in August of 1868, when a party led by John Wesley Powell summited via the south side of the mountain.
Since that summit, the peak has become one of the most popular mountains in the state. In fact, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people attempt the trek to the top every single year – a number that’s growing. This compares to 35,000 on Colorado’s most popular mountain – Mount Bierstadt and around 1,000 on some of Colorado’s less popular peaks.
That being said, more than half of the climbers that attempt Longs Peak will never see the summit, making Longs Peak the fourteener that’s got the highest failure rate.
This high failure rate likely comes due to the peak’s popularity and its difficulty. Most people likely “bite off more than they can chew” in a sense, quickly realizing this and turning around. Keep in mind that peak that’s as difficult as Longs tops it in popularity.
Now that we’ve taken a look at a few of the numbers behind the peak, let’s look at what makes the standard route to the summit so dangerous.
What is the climb like?
Compared to climbing other mountains around Colorado, Longs Peak is tricky, but it’s far from impossible. It actually ranks around 15 when it comes to Colorado’s most difficult mountains above 14,000 feet. That rank of 15 comes on a list of more than 50 peaks.
It’s definitely not the hardest climb, but it’s an entirely different experience than the easiest routes on the list, mostly thanks to its “Class 3” nature, which means rock scrambling and extreme terrain is present.
With a standard route to the summit that requires no additional safety or climbing equipment, Longs Peak has a high appeal among experienced hikers. The normal high-altitude hiking set-up is generally enough to get the job done – as long as one is prepared to incoming weather.
The main route, called the Keyhole route, is extremely long and physically taxing, boasting 15 miles of distance round trip and more than 5,000 feet of vertical gain. Aside from being a strenuous endeavour, certain sections feature loose rock, deadly drops, and frequent ice. Storms are also a big risk on this peak, with the weather that lies ahead covered for a majority of the approach. That hidden weather is also known for changing quickly, frequently dropping hail and bringing deadly lightning to the mountainside.
Because the hike is so long and because afternoon storms tend to be such a risk factor, most hikers start the trek up Longs Peak at around 3 in the morning.
First, the route winds uphill through dense forest for several miles. Most navigate this stretch by starlight and headlamps alone given the early recommended start time.
Despite a lack of visibility, the transition into the next phase of this trek is quite apparent when the woods open up to a wind-scraped mountainside. Even if hikers can‘t see that they’re above treeline, whipping gusts tend to make it very obvious. This mountain is known for its extreme wind.
Once above treeline, the approach toward Longs Peak continues for several more miles, seemingly getting steeper by the step. Hikers continue up switchbacks that get more rugged with each foot of elevation gained. Though this portion of the hike is enough to have many headed back to the car, the most extreme portion of Longs Peak is yet to come.
Following the series of switchbacks, hikers enter a massive boulder field, greeted by a sign that reads: “A trip, slip, or fall could be fatal. Rescue is difficult and could take hours or days. Self-reliance is essential.”
The sign is morbid, but the description it gives of what lies ahead is spot on.
At first, scrambling through the boulder field is easy, but that doesn’t last for long. Boulders get larger and larger, quickly turning this part of the route into a whole body effort.
During our hike to the summit, this is where the sun made its first appearance of the day, illuminating a massive several hundred foot rock face beneath the summit in a pinkish orange.
While in the boulder field, hikers are able to easily see the “keyhole” feature on the ridgeline that lies ahead. The “keyhole” is the namesake for the standard route and is perhaps the most crucial spot of the climb, for only after passing through the keyhole is one able to see what weather likely lies ahead for the rest of the day.
The keyhole opens up into a massive mountain bowl that often collects early morning clouds. From here on out, it’s extremely exposed with no cover over a long, steady grind through rocky terrain that only gets more and more difficult. After the keyhole is where the costliest accidents occur. After the keyhole is where people are most likely to die – seemingly every year.
The next stretch of the route consists of a traverse across boulders. Tiny Colorado “C’s” mark the path, though these can be easy to miss, especially in the case of ice or snow coverage.
Eventually, this leg of the journey leads to a section called “The Trough”, a rocky gully filled with loose rock that climbs 600 feet. Ice in this section can be an extreme hazard, as well as debris falling from climbers above.
Things don’t get easier after “the Trough,” as this section quickly transitions into the most infamous portion of the climb – The Narrows.
The Narrows consists of a cliffside traverse where hikers have just enough space to step beside a deadly drop. The wind whips hard here, often at a high enough speed to blow a person off the side of the mountain in a single gust. This portion isn’t exactly simple either, as some badly positioned rocks put hikers at a massive exposure risk. The uneven wall on climbers’ left side also poses the threat of bumping one off their balance in one misstep.
Once climbers make it past The Narrows, there’s one final portion that leads to the summit. It’s called the Homestretch. I thought this section was the most exposed, though this was also where my party started to encounter early morning ice, which added a new layer of difficulty and risk.
The Homestretch consists of steep rock slabs with limited handholds and footholds that climb approximately 300 feet up the mountainside. There are several vertical cracks in the middle of the slabs found on this leg, making it possible for hikers to use these for support. That being said, the steep, relatively smooth nature of this portion would likely make a slide deadly.
Thankfully, the summit is waiting for climbers at the top of this final stretch. It’s wide and flat, making it a perfect place to relax momentarily before making the return trip down the same route and the same risks.
Most people looking at the description could start to guess at why this mountain is so deadly, but let’s take a deeper look at a few of the factors that seem to contribute to most of the deaths.
Why is Longs Peak so deadly?
The biggest safety concern with Longs Peak seems to often be a lack of experience among those who attempt the climb.
The trailhead for the main route is easy to find in one of the country’s most iconic national parks. This aspect alone tends to attract a wide range of skill levels to the trail, from seasoned climbers with the proper gear to people that will start the approach in sandals without water. Most fourteeners are far less accessible, working to weed out the novice hiker.
This convenient location at a popular tourist destination also poses another threat to experienced hikers that may be visiting. While the long route and elevation gain might not typically be an issue for these hikers on the trails around their hometown, Colorado’s extremely high elevation makes altitude sickness a deadly threat. Altitude sickness is something that can threaten anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness. Many experienced out-of-state hikers assume this is not the case, though they’re dangerously wrong. Tempted by the convenient chance to bag such an iconic peak, many experienced hikers ignore the risks of the high altitude.
Another big issue with Longs Peak is found in the weather of the area. First, the weather here seems to change quickly, capable of bringing strong winds, blizzard conditions, and deadly lightning throughout many months of the year – even on a warm summer day.
Second, the weather that hikers encounter during the most dangerous portion of the hike is hidden along much of the route – until the Keyhole feature. This means that bad weather can sneak up on hikers. These hikers are then faced with the decision to turn around or to push on, and many choose to take the risk. It’s important to remember that it’s always acceptable to turn back and try again on another day – and this is what many people choose to do.
The other risk factor that seems to be most prevalent on Longs Peak is the extreme nature of the terrain. Just like it says on the aforementioned mid-route warning sign, the terrain is unforgiving. A simple mistake can have dire consequences.
Not only is much of the route exposed, it’s also a long trip to safety with no cover over terrain that’s so rugged you’re forced to travel at a slow rate. Running isn’t an option. Hiding isn’t an option. The only option is a long, slow walk on a fixed route that’s prone to disaster.
Tips for climbing Longs Peak
Even though Longs Peak is dangerous, people will continue to climb it. To those that are considering this endeavor, it’s important to understand the risks associated with the mountain and the activity.
First, watch the weather. Being aware of what storms might be blowing in and adjusting your plans accordingly can mean the difference between life and death. Know that afternoon lightning and hail are common, and also that the winter weather will hit at that higher altitude earlier in the fall or stay later in the spring.
Aside from watching the weather, one crucial tip is to start early. Aim to be above treeline before sunrise, and far past that if possible. The recommended start time is 2-3 in the morning. Starting this early is important because it helps you avoid common afternoon storms.
What you’re bringing with you up the mountain is also important. Make sure you’ve got the right gear and that you know how to use it. Always bring extra water and make sure you’ve got extra layers, including something waterproof. Carry a paper map and a compass you’re familiar with so that you can use them in case your technology fails.
One final tip is to never forget that it’s always acceptable to turn back. Stubbornly charging into a storm on Longs Peak is dangerous and it’s something that can get you killed. Ignoring signs of dehydration or altitude sickness can turn deadly in such extreme terrain. Pushing through injury is something that often leads to an expensive rescue.
Longs Peak Records
As most of the piece covers a rather serious, and sometimes morbid subject, we felt that we should end this piece on a happy note. Here are a few of the spectacular records set on Longs Peak by some amazing people.
One man, Jim Detterline, climbed the mountain 428 times before passing away in a solo climbing accident near his hometown. During the course of his 60 year life, this former park ranger climbed Longs Peak an average of more than 14 times a year (his first climb was age 30). What’s perhaps more spectacular is that Detterline is said to have helped save more than 1,000 people across the Rocky Mountains. This resulted in him earning the US Interior Department’s Valor Award.
The record number of summits by a female is held by Lisa Foster, who broke the record for most female summits on her 73rd trip up the mountain in August 2015. As of January 2019, she’s climbed the peak 113 times.
Another hiker, William Butler, climbed the mountain at 85 years old, making him the oldest known person to summit the peak. He did it without a lot of modern gear, too, as this summit happened in September of 1926 on his birthday.
All of those feats are amazing, but perhaps the most impressive feat on Longs Peak belongs to Clerin Zumwalt, who summited Longs Peak 53 times in a single year – that’s obviously more than once a week on average and keep in mind that many weeks out of the year Longs Peak is essentially unclimbable.
A natural feature so iconic in the Centennial State that it’s on the country’s Colorado-themed quarter, Longs Peak is a mountain known far and wide. It towers over the Front Range in a way that beckons the city dwellers below to visit its vast hillsides full of risk and awe. Many dream of climbing it, far fewer attempt it, and less than half of those hopeful people will reach the summit. A force of nature to be approached with respect, Longs Peak is exactly what a mountain should be.
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