Colorado's Fourteeners

The Pioneers of the Peak
Keyhole Route
Longs Peak Ranger Station to summit: 6.9 miles, 5,000 feet.

route profile

Since the removal of the cables, the standard route available to the nontechnical climber is the Keyhole route. Drive south from Estes Park ten miles on Colorado 7, and turn right, going for one mile west to the Longs Peak Campground and Ranger Station, at 9,400 feet. From here, an excellent trail leads six miles to the Boulderfield. Hop over the abundant boulders for one mile to the prominent Keyhole at the southwest corner of the Boulderfield. Just to the left of the Keyhole lies the Agnes Vaille Shelter Cabin, which shelters more snow than anything.

Once the Keyhole (13,100 feet) has been passed through, the route is marked by red and yellow paint spots that lead over"the Ledges" and then descend into the broad couloir known as "the Trough." It is six hundred steep feet up the snow and/or talus of the Trough to a notch at the top of it.

At the notch, the still-marked route swings to the south side of the peak and immediately crosses the most spectacular part of the climb, "the Narrows" ledges. The Narrows are fairly exposed, but they are broad enough to be crossed easily if there is no snow. If there is snow, which is a possibility well into July, an ice axe is a necessity for a safe climb of the Ledges, the Trough, the Narrows, and the Homestretch. The Narrows lead to the bottom of the Homestretch, a short, shallow couloir leading directly to the summit. This section will be extremely slippery if the rock is wet. Descend via the same route.

Do not underestimate Longs. It is a long climb, and if it is snowy or icy, the Keyhole route requires an ice axe and the ability to use it correctly.

The National Park Service permits backcountry camping only in designated areas. Permits are required, and reservations well in advance are strongly recommended for the peak summer season. The backcountry office phone number is (970) 586-1242.

Longs's physical dominance made it a natural goal for climbing, and its allure was intensified by the first documented ascent of the Matterhorn, in 1865. Colorado had its own Matterhorn in the form of Longs Peak, and reports from climbing parties that the peak could not be scaled only fueled the fire for an ascent. Finally, on August 23, 1868, a party led by the indomitable John Wesley Powell, which included newspaperman William Byers, reached the summit via the south side after a long approach from Grand Lake.

This climb was widely acclaimed as the first ascent of Longs, but the testimony of an old Arapaho Indian in 1914 indicated that the peak had been climbed previously by one"Old Man Gun," who had trapped eagles on its summit. Although the Powell party did not notice an eagle trap on the summit, it may easily have been overlooked in the four-acre expanse, and there is little reason to doubt that the peak was indeed climbed by Indians prior to 1868.

After the first documented ascent, two prominent people emerged in the history of Longs Peak: Reverend Elkanah J. Lamb and Enos Mills. Lamb made his first climb of Longs in 1871 and then made the first descent of the east face via a couloir now known as Lambs Slide, appropriately named because the Reverend quite inadvertently made much of the descent on his seat instead of his feet. In 1878, Lamb became the first regular guide for climbs up Longs, operating out of his lodge to the east of the peak.

He charged $5 to guide parties up the peak and once said, "If they would not pay for spiritual guidance, I compelled them to pay for material elevation." By his enthusiasm and his completion of the first trail to the Boulderfield, Lamb contributed immensely to the popularity of climbing Longs. His work was taken over by his son, Carlyle, in 1885. In 1902, the Lambs sold their lodge to Enos Mills, who carried on their tradition of expert guiding in excellent fashion.

Mills was a naturalist of some repute, and his knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area added greatly to a climb of Longs. He constructed the Timberline Cabin in 1908 and made a total of 297 climbs of the peak. Most important, Mills's great love for Longs Peak and the surrounding area spurred a drive to protect the region, which culminated in the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915.

In 1925, two sets of cables were installed on the north face of the peak to aid in climbing, and until 1973 the majority of climbers ascended by the "Cable Route." In 1927, the Boulderfield Shelter Cabin was erected at the foot of the north face. Many climbers rode on horseback to the cabin and then climbed the peak the next day. The cabin, however, lasted only until 1937. On July 20, 1973, the cables were removed from the north face and the circuitous Keyhole route became the easiest and most popular route. Climbing Longs has become increasingly popular in recent years, with as many as four thousand climbers reaching its summit in a single year.


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