A late 1940s story with pictures
Exactly why anyone would get hooked on mountain climbing is anybody’s guess. For me, the pictures of Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and the books detailing the history of climbers who were rescued, or not, from falls and fog were enough to curl anyone’s hair. Having little hair to curl, I was fascinated by the challenge of Long’s Peak, and possibly wanted to join that august group who had climbed the mountain and survived. In the late 1940s hundreds had climbed the mountain, but I had not. Dozens had died on the mountain, but I had not, – yet. A few very old pictures of the climb are included at the end of this narrative.
Our small group included brother A.T. Settles, and Ogle Bailey, a maternal uncle who was about 55 years old at the time. Our preparation for the climb included trudging up Iron Clad south of Allenspark, then up the Twin Sisters two or three days before our ascent up Long’s Peak. As prairie dwellers we believed the exercise and conditioning of a few days would be adequate for adjusting to the altitude and the big climb. We were almost correct.
Long’s Peak is a magnificent 14255 feet rising together with Mount Meeker on the eastern edge of the park. For the experts, the east face is an awesome 1700 foot vertical drop to Chasm Lake immediately below. For the sane climbers there were two acceptable routes to the top at the time. Both routes had sustained numerous casualties from the perils associated with such heights. The perils include falls, injuries from falling rocks, limited oxygen and its associated maladies, and exposure, any of which may be terminal. I had no interest in any of these maladies, still I read with considerable interest the tales of Enos Mills and others who had documented their climbs with pictures and cautions.
The two sanctioned routes were to follow the cables up the east side, or go around the ledges and up the final stretch on the southwest corner of the mountain. In our wisdom we opted to do both, ascending one and descending the other. The experts advised that we go up the cables and down the ledges for safety’s sake. A major hazard regardless of your route is the weather. The typical pattern for Colorado summers is beautifully clear early mornings, and gathering clouds sometime thereafter. The weather-related hazards in the summer include clouds, rain, freezing rain, wind, sleet, hail, ice, and snow. On my two trips to the top of Long’s Peak, and in spite of meticulous planning, we were snowed upon on both occasions following perfectly clear early morning climbs in July.
We planned our climb so as to leave the parking lot and be well up the mountain before dawn. An hour or so after dawn we emerged above timberline and into the boulder field which includes a small shelter and a stable for horses, the end of the trail for those on horseback. From the boulder field to the summit is where the actual climb begins, and probably averages a slope of 45 to 60 degrees up the east side of the peak.
From the boulder field two-thirds of the way to the summit, there were two cables permanently attached to a rock fault along the route. The cables were about 50 and 100 yards in length, and ascended over a smooth face of sheer rock. The lower level of the fault was on the shady side of the slope in which both ice and snow was scattered, making secure footholds impossible. The cable was an actual lifeline, and losing ones grip was hazardous to your health. A few folks had lost their grips, and had perished in the process. Today the cable has been removed from the two sanctioned routes, and non-technical climbers are required to scale the mountain through the back door.
From the cables, the remaining climb to the summit is taxing, but not noteworthy. Arriving at the top reveals a startlingly flat surface almost perfectly square and equal to the size of four football fields placed side by side. Carrions are evident everywhere around the summit as evidence that others were here before, and chose to commemorate their accomplishment by erecting a small pile of rocks on the top. These dozens of monuments are the only distraction to the magnificent views in all directions.
We had packed a light lunch, and chose to eat and drink before descending from the summit. Shortly after our arrival Ogle explained that he was having some difficulty with headaches and GI distress. He ate only a few bites of food, and drank precious little. With this stimulus, we decided it was appropriate to take a few pictures and start our descent as soon as possible.
Going down the final stretch and along the ledges was a somewhat frightening experience. While clouds were gathering and threatened to obscure our route back down the mountain, we still had no guide and no experience identifying exactly where we should go. The final stretch along the southwest corner of the mountain was a valley of solid rock with no path and randomly placed boulders along the way which could dislodge and maul anyone in route, as had happened on many occasions. It descended a thousand feet or so in a straight shot without interruption.
We managed the final stretch without incident, and once at the bottom we believed we saw the passage around the crown on the mountain called the ledges. As the name implies, the ledges form a path of varying width and slope along the peak from the south to the north side of the crown. The problem with the ledges is the 80 degree drop to the valley several thousand feet below if you lose your footing in loose sand, gravel, snow, or ice. In several places the ledges narrow to insignificant, and may include a slope of 40 or 50 degrees, all downhill. Prayer is an involuntary companion during this portion of the journey. As we were leaving the ledges it started to snow, adding an additional measure of urgency to our rapid descent.
Surviving the ledges, we proceeded north along the mountain to a point called the keyhole. This is the exit from the west elevation back onto the east side of the mountain, the boulder field, and the comfortable path back to civilization. The problem with the keyhole is what came to be known as the false keyhole. During limited visibility the false keyhole was the terminal destination for at least one climber. The false keyhole appears first along the route, and unlike the keyhole, passing through it leads to a sheer drop of a hundred feet or so. We peered through the false keyhole just for the experience, then backed off appropriately. Several hundred yards beyond we found the keyhole and escaped down the east side of the mountain.
The following pictures are relics from this first climb, digitized after 50 years from 35mm slides.
Long’s Peak with a light dusting of snow: From left to right Mt. Meeker, Long’s Peak, and Martha Washington
Telephoto from highway in 2005
Long’sPeak as seen from boulder field stables