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Seventy Years of Climbing on Longs Peak

Seventy Years of Climbing On Longs Peak

John L. J. Hart

OVER a hundred years ago Longs Peak (14,255 ft.) was a landmark and nothing more. To the French trappers it was Les Deux Oreilles; to the Indians it was Nesotaieux, or the Two Guides. It stood out so high above the surrounding country that Major Long, approaching the mountains in 1820, confused it with the “Highest Peak” seen by Lieutenant Pike in 1806, the present Pike’s Peak, first discovered and best known of Colorado’s peaks. After the whites occupied the plains and the Indians were driven westward into the mountains, Longs Peak became well known to them. They climbed to its summit in order to trap eagles, desiring their feathers for purposes of adornment.

When whites finally reached the base of the peak, the idea of climbing it, of course, arose, but the nearest settlement being distant about two days’ ride, attempts were very few. It was not until the year after the Weisshorn and Lyskamm were first climbed that the eastern summit of Longs Peak, less than a thousand feet lower than these Swiss peaks, was first ascended by white men. The direct traverse from this eastern summit (now named Meeker after the Indian agent murdered in the Ute War of 1879), to the highest summit is extremely difficult and has probably been made only once in each direction. At that time, of course, the traverse seemed impossible.

The peak was a puzzle; three sides were explored and they all seemed impossible. As a matter of fact today the summit is attained by a route which circles the peak, gaining altitude on each side and avoiding the precipitous stretches. The fourth face, the southeast face, although precipitous, is possible to able-bodied men, and was the route by which the first ascent was made. This has always been the least accessible side. In fact the party first ascending it attained its base only after carrying their equipment over several peaks almost as high as Longs Peak. And thus on August 23, 1868, three years after the first ascent of the Swiss Matterhorn, Longs Peak was conquered by Major Powell, who also made by boat the first descent of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

Within five years, the ascent by this southeast “Homestretch” route became a regular occurrence. Climbers of this period were F. H. Chapin of the Appalachian Mountain Club; Albert Bierstadt, the painter; Anna Dickinson, the author; F. V. Hayden, the geologist, and Isabella Bird, the travel writer. Among the early guides to the peak were the Reverend E. J. Lamb; his son Carlyle Lamb; and Rocky Mountain Jim of Muggins Gulch. The Reverend Lamb, clad in a long overcoat, even descended the upper half of the northeast face, which is the most precipitous, following a ledge, now named “Broadway”, until he was off the mountain. Then being unable to reascend the peak, he was forced to adopt the only obvious route, an ice couloir some two thousand feet in height, sloping at about forty-five degrees. While attempting to descend along the edge of this, he slipped on some ice and only escaped death by catching on a projecting rock. He finally got to the base of the mountain by cutting steps in the ice with a pocket knife. The couloir became known as the Lamb’s Slide by people doubting his story. In September this couloir has some resemblance to the main couloir on the Aiguille Verte, although it is much easier earlier in the year.

In the beginning his son, Carlyle Lamb, was the chief guide. In his first three years (1874-1877) he made fifty-five ascents of the peak, starting from his home five thousand feet below the summit. This was before climbing was done on a wholesale scale in the Alps, the three years occurring in the interval between the first ascent of the Blaitière, and that of the Meije. Almost a hundred people went on the peak annually at this time, Enos Mills started guiding twenty years after the first ascent. In the next seventeen years he made 257 ascents of Longs Peak, as well as ascents in Europe and British Columbia.

The number of persons reaching the top annually has constantly increased. Twenty-five years ago it was between seventy-five and eighty. Fifteen years ago the number had become 280, the next year 623; eight years ago 1285, and five years ago about 1500, from forty-two states of United States and foreign countries. And thus the peak has progressed in one hundred and twenty years from trappers to trippers.

The guides appear always to have charged five dollars a head. The Reverend Lamb said, “If they would not pay for spiritual guidance, I compelled them to divide for material elevation.” The guides have preferred taking large parties up the regular trail rather than attempting real climbing elsewhere. Although this trail is extremely varied, both in terrain traversed and in view, it is not difficult. It has been ascended by a boy of eight, a girl of twelve, a woman of seventy, and a man of seventy-four. On the other hand, it has had its accidents,—a woman has died of exhaustion, a man has accidentally killed himself with a revolver, and another has been killed by lightning, on it.

Longs Peak offers extremely good rock-climbing, but until very recently no advantage seems to have been taken of this fact. A very good club, named the Rocky Mountain Climbers’ Club, had a brief existence in Colorado some twenty years before the present Colorado Mountain Club was organized. It was this club which financed the ascent of the Grand Teton by the Spalding-Owen party (the second or first ascent). About the year in which the Requin was conquered, a party of this club made the first ascent of the southwest face of Longs. The route is quick, interesting, impressive and safe, presenting no more difficulties than the north route on the Aiguille de I’M, and yet no guide appears ever to have made this ascent except Enos Mills, three years later. Mills seems to have been the only guide to display any initiative during the period of fifty years between the first descent of the northeast face and the first ascent thereof. He repeated Lamb’s descent of the northeast face thirty-two years later, and made the first ascent of the north face, both by himself.

The search for new routes began about eight years ago with the first ascent of the northeast face by Professor J. W. Alexander of Princeton, alone, and his second two days later. This ascent was made entirely on the exposed face of Longs Peak, without using Lamb’s Slide, now called Mills Glacier, to avoid the lower half of the face. Professor Alexander subsequently made the first descent of the south ridge (not yet ascended), a new route on the southwest face, and (with Dudley Smith) the first ascent of the northwest ridge.

The enterprise and ability of Professor Alexander in opening up new routes on the mountain has greatly stimulated climbing interest in it, for he had made ascents in the Alps, one being a summit of the Aiguilles du Diable in the Mont Blanc region.

Two other climbers with European experience, Colonel Bruns and William F. Ervin, have found the two most difficult routes on the peak. One leads up the northeast face, directly under the summit and as straight up as is possible. It lies far to the left of Alexander’s line, as one views the great precipice. The other route is up the northwest face.

Even before Professor Alexander’s ascent one route had been added to the “Homestretch” or regular route. This new way is situated on the north, where the northeast and northwest faces join. About three lone ascents were made here prior to Alexander’s arrival, one by Roger W. Toll. He later became Superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park, in which the peak lies, and had placed here in 1925 an iron cable to aid climbers. Since then Longs Peak has been frequently traversed, using this north route for either the ascent or descent.

The northeast face has become a well known climb, at least twenty-three people having accomplished it to date. A guide named Caldwell has led a party using this route for ascent and descent on the same day, and has also guided a woman on the descent of this route using the rappel. Another guide, Moomaw, has made, I believe, two ascents. This route has resulted in four fatal accidents, which shows that it must not be used by inexperienced climbers. I find it hard to compare with any Alpine courses. I have always considered it to be about equal to the Grand Dru by the usual route, which, incidentally, was not climbed until seven years after Lamb’s descent of the northeast face.

The rock of Longs Peak is a fine, firm granite, with good holds. It is an ideal mountain for trying new ways. The last one thousand feet, precipitous on all sides, has eight routes at present and I believe that more can be worked out by expert climbers. On the adjoining mountains also many fine new routes of Alpine difficulty are to be found. This is true of Meeker and Pagoda, and along the whole Continental Divide from Chief’s Head to Flat Top Pass, between Estes Park and Grand Lake, a group which has several steep, long ice couloirs. The accommodations for climbers on Longs Peak are splendid. There are three hotels at about 9,000 feet, and a cabin at the Boulderfield at about 10,000 feet, so alpinists finding themselves near Colorado may combine Alpine comfort with the pleasure of exploring routes of Alpine difficulty on virgin rock and ice.