SueW, BobP, JennyN, AlanS (read Alan's story here)
Sue had wanted to climb Longs Peak since moving to Colorado in 1986; she tried once that first summer with co-worker Julie Funk but neither of them were in shape and they abandoned the climb before even reaching tree-line.
Bob also attempted to climb Longs in 1986 (before Sue and Bob met) in May - when the mountain was still snow-covered. Crampons, ice axe, etc equipped, he and Mike Loving started at the usual ~3am at the trailhead. While the weather started out nice, clouds closed in, and then snow began. Finally the clouds lifted and a check of the topo map showed they were almost to the top of Mt Lady Washington, a 13er northeast of Longs - the Longs Peak trail wraps around Mt Lady Washington. To reach Longs, they'd have to backtrack downhill a ways before starting up again. With the weather worsening, they said "we'll be back". 9 inches of snow on the truck at the trailhead showed they made the right decision.
Jenny has climbed Longs twice before (at only 19 years old!) and was willing to be tour guide for Sue, which turned out to be non-trivial.
Alan has climbed all the Colorado 14ers at least once, including Longs 4 times, and joined the trip at the last minute; he was going along for the fun of it. His goal was to help Bob and Sue on the hike and to have some fun along the way.
Sue had been discussing a trip to Longs with Jenny since summer 2002 when Jenny took a group up on a weekend that conflicted with Sue's schedule; Jenny agreed to go again sometime with Sue. So in June 2003 Sue started training for Longs with her first 14er, Grays Peak. Later hikes included most of the way up Humboldt, then Bierstadt as well as some local hikes. Finally the decision was made to hike during the week of Sept 1-5, when Agilent (where Sue works) was shut down. Jenny had already started back at school at CSU, but was willing to take a Tuesday off. So Sept 2 was the date.
Horror stories abound of the incredibly long time an average person takes to climb Longs in a single day -- starting from the trailhead (over an hour's drive away from Fort Collins) at 3am is required to reach the summit before the noon thunderstorms start. Then of course you still have the 7.5 miles downhill to go! Also horror stories abound of the exposure on the Narrows between the Keyhole and the Trough, and also the nastier exposure on the Ledges before the Homestretch. Given Sue is afraid of heights, these sections will take even longer for Sue than for the normal mortal.
So the decision was made to try to go partway up the night before and camp out. Many web pages agree that a permit is needed for any overnight in Rocky Mountain National Park, but there isn't much information on how to get such a permit for the Longs Peak sites, though many of the other campground now have scheduling on the web. A phone call to the camping information line revealed that reservations for the Longs Peak backcountry campgrounds are only taken in person or by snail mail... and this was less than a week before we were going. The backcountry sites are reputed to fill up months ahead of time for weekend dates; but for Monday night there were still openings at the Boulderfield - sweet! So a quick drive up to RMNP to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (the backcountry permit office is right next-door) got us a permit for a two tent campsite at the Boulderfield for $15.
Per advice from Alan to leave early, we attempted to leave Loveland at 1:30pm on Monday Sept 1, but everything takes longer than you think, and Sue forgot to call Alan to tell him when were leaving :-( ... so Sue and Bob hadn't had lunch when we picked up Jenny in Loveland at 2, leading to a quick trip through Wendy's (later events show we may have chosen... poorly) before leaving Loveland.
We drove up to the trailhead, scored a great parking spot from folks who'd already come down, and re-packed a little before setting out ~4pm. Packing sleeping bags, tent, etc it was a slow hike up the 6 miles to the Boulderfield. About a mile from camp at sunset Alan and Jenny, the strong hikers, took off ahead to find campsite and start setting up. Bob and Sue trailed in after full dark - thankful for the moonlight. Since we only had one tent, Bob was a gentleman and let Sue and Jenny have the tent; Alan and Bob bivied outside. Note that Bob carried both the tent and his bivy sack. Bob's pack with the tent, bivy, misc. stuff, and three liters of water was 39 pounds. Sue's smaller pack with 3 liters of water was 29 pounds.
MRE's (military's Meals Ready to Eat) make great lightweight hot dinners - with the heaters you don't need to haul a stove around. You can buy just the dinner and heater (not the full pack) at many outdoor shops like Jax in Fort Collins. So Bob and Jenny and Sue had MRE's for a toasty warm dinner before turning in for the night. We don't know what Alan had for dinner. But we know we don't want it!
Sunshine didn't hit the Boulderfield campsites till well after sunrise; so we procrastinated a bit on getting moving. Alan woke up feeling ill; so after pumping some water for us through his filter (thank you Alan!) he decided to abandon the summit attempt and just lie down for a while. A little later he packed up and headed down. There was plenty of water up there in Boulder Brook.
Meanwhile, about 8:30am Jenny, Bob and Sue headed from the boulder field campsite up towards the Keyhole. The hut there is an amazing piece of work for that altitude and probably has saved many lives in storms! Then, the Narrows, which tested Sue's fear of heights pretty well. The bull's-eye trail markers painted on the rocks are life-savers; we can't imagine trying that route without them. Then up the trough -- we were lucky there were few people climbing above us because the amount of loose rock in the trough is amazing. Then, the Narrows. Sue's terror of heights was tested severely here -- Jenny and Bob were amazingly patient and calm. Then the Homestretch, which in reality is no steeper than the teeth on Horsetooth Rock in Fort Collins; but after the Narrows and the Ledges Sue was just totally terrified. Also the altitude was affecting Sue enough that there weren't many brain cells still functioning.
Jenny and Bob talked Sue through getting up to the summit, and wow what an achievement! We took pictures, ate some of the Hershey Bar that Alan had brought up to thank Sue for getting the camping permit, and talked a little more to R.P. Dexter (another CAP person who would have camped with us if we'd had room on the permit). A call to Alan via ham radio (2m) caught him about tree-line on the way down, still not feeling well. :-( An airplane was circling the summit (hey, we've done that!) so we snapped a photo of it, and Jenny flashed it with her signal mirror.
Then everyone on the summit saw the clouds moving in from the west... We all beat feet out of there and down the Homestretch; our threesome had been the last to summit so we were last to get off the top. We had graupel (snow pellets) mixed with light rain, and plenty of thunder telling us to run fast before the rocks got wet and slippery, but again Sue's terror through the Ledges slowed us way down; but we did meet 3 people coming up the trough at 1pm in very light snow! One was a runner who summitted, ran back down and passed us on the Narrows; the other couple we never saw again...?? Our concern was for the rocks getting slippery when wet and we wanted to be down before that happened. Not even to mention the lightning danger. Again the exposure on the Narrows and a wrong turn by Sue slowed us more; R.P. ahead of us also took a wrong turn on the way down and backtracked to our position, so Jenny went ahead with him to ensure we were on the right route while Bob stayed behind to coach Sue. Finally the Keyhole was reached; Jenny went ahead to start taking down the tent. Bob soon joined her breaking camp. At this point Sue consumed the last of the water she had brought and was looking forward to catching up with Bob and Jenny, who were carrying extra.
Alan had filtered some extra water and left it behind for us even though he was feeling bad. Alan gets huge points for this! Sue drank half a quart on the spot, then made another half quart of Gookinaid. We had iodine tablets, but the filtered water had no yukky taste issues.
Frequent thunder kept us scared and wanting to keep moving. We left the Boulderfield downhill about 4pm, and reached the bottom about 7:30pm. Jenny took off and went on ahead. Unfortunately she came down with nausea herself by the time she reached bottom. Bob and Sue talked with Alan a bit more on the trip down via ham radio. We had no cell coverage at the Boulderfied on T-mobile or Verizon so the ham radios were very useful.
We were all very glad to be in the car driving by 8pm, though Alan and Jenny continued to feel sick on the way down. Cause? Since neither recovered at trailhead nor down in Loveland back at 5,000 feet, it likely was not altitude sickness. Plus, Alan has hiked all the 14ers at least once and is very familiar with the symptoms of altitude sickness. Jenny normally gets horrible headaches from dehydration and didn't have a headache, so it wasn't dehydration. A likely cause was food poisoning - remember the Wendy's on Monday 2pm? Bob and Sue had chicken sandwiches; Alan and Jenny had hamburgers. Moral? Eat more chicken. Alan started feeling ill ~7am Tuesday; Jenny started feeling ill ~6pm Tuesday. That's a good timeframe for potential food poisoning! We'll never know for sure, but as of Thursday Bob and Sue are still fine, Jenny (youthful energizer bunny) was back to normal by Wednesday morning, but Alan was still queasy. Sigh.
All four agreed it was a long and grueling hike, but very worth it! Sue is ecstatic she made it up and once is enough - she won't ever do Longs again :-), but more 14ers without that kind of exposure would be fun!
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