Things to know before hiking Longs Peak
Done as a single day outing, the standard Keyhole route on Longs entails 15+ miles of hiking, 5,000 ft. More than 60 people have died on Longs Peak and the majority of those have been on the Keyhole route. Longs is a fantastic mountain, one that is a serious undertaking and must be undertaken with respect. If you're considering climbing Longs, are 10 things to know that will help ensure a safe, strong experience on the mountain.
1. More than 50% of those who attempt Longs don't reach the summit. The silver lining is that it shows that many people are smart enough to realize it won't be their day -- a humbling lesson Longs is adept at teaching. Not reaching the summit shouldn't be considered a failure -- many people will learn a great deal about themselves and the mountain in the process and go on to successfully summit at a later date.
2. Longs is not a good first 14er. Over and over again, many hikers decide that Longs will be their inaugural 14er. Even at a quick clip, Longs can take 10 hours to hike and many people will spend 12 - 15 hours on the mountain. If you are new to 14ers, it is a very good idea to start with some of the less difficult summits: Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Mount Sherman, Quandary Peak and Handies Peak are all much better mountains to serve as a first 14er. While it is not as difficult as the toughest summits (Little Bear Peak, Capitol Peak, Crestone Needle, Sunlight Peak), Longs has plenty of difficult, class 3 scrambling.
3. Longs is not a great place to bring your out-of-town friend for a little hike. Many visitors want to hike Longs because it is one of the two most popular 14ers (along with Pikes Peak). Unless they are fit, experienced and acclimated, there are much better summits for them to enjoy (many well under 14,000 ft. If they are insistent in climbing Longs, doing one or two warm-up mountains over 13,000 ft.
4. Starting early is essential. A general rule is that you don't want to be starting the Keyhole portion of the hike after 6 AM -- and it's 5.5 miles from the parking lot on a long trail and a big boulder field before arriving at this locale. Getting on the trail at 2 - 3 am is considered a best practice (though if you can score a camping spot in the boulder field, you can obviously push that start time back).
5. You’ll have over 5 miles of hiking before beginning the climb. Over 10 total miles of the Keyhole route is the approach and descent. Weary legs, lungs and eyes looking at the difficult 2+ mile passage to the summit have often decided to call it a day right then and there. Physical conditioning is important, but so is the mental aspect. Remember, your day doesn't really start until the keyhole.
6. Weather is always a factor. Weather can move in any day, any time, with any forecast. In 2014, over twenty people were hit by lightning in Rocky Mountain National Park, resulting in two fatalities. From the time you breach treeline below Chasm Lake to the summit, there are very few places to escape a violent storm. A good rule for Longs is to summit no later than 10 am, though the earlier the better.
7. Trust the judgement of Rocky Mountain National Park rangers. Rangers often patrol the area between the boulder field and the Keyhole, making sure everyone is safe and offering help if needed. The rangers are experts at gauging Longs Peak's temperament and very often, they will shut down the Keyhole if they see storms, strong winds or rain moving in. Sometimes this may not be apparent to the hiker, but these rangers know what they are talking about -- and they prefer everyone stays safe.
8. The Keyhole is a very crowded route. On weekends, the trail up to Longs can seem more like a pilgrimage. Despite being a difficult mountain, many people still insist on giving it a go, even if they may not have the experience or fitness to perform well on the peak. Certain areas are prone to bottlenecks, such as the top of the trough and along the homestretch.
9. It’s difficult to secure camping. If you are attempting a spontaneous summit, you’ll likely have to start from the Longs Peak Trailhead or camp at the Longs Peak Campground at 9,500 ft, a few miles from the start of the trailhead.
10. When you reach the summit, you are only halfway done. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that your are far from finished when you reach the summit of Longs Peak.