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Longs Peak

Longs Peak

Robert M. Ormes

IT happened that I was in the Rocky Mountain National Park last summer helping the Fox Movietone News with one of their occasional projects to over-and under-paint the Sensational Sport of Mountaineering, when it was vigorously rumored that the Longs Peak Ranger Post was vacant. My amateur standing was already ruined, so I went around and timidly inquired whether rangers always had to wear a hat. Oh, they could fix that up: there was a practically new one around for half price.

After all, I thought, in times like these one must be prepared to wear a hat. And it was worth it. By the end of the summer I could pilot my hat through any storm that blew, and carry on a conversation at the same time.

There were some amazing people on the mountain. A minister of some rather obscure faith came up one day and led his flock of 108 women and children, almost all of them ill-shod and ill-clad, through a biting storm to have prayer-meeting at Chasm Lake. A hard-looking little fellow with a hard little walking stick marched up the mountain, signed his name, and returned, all in the space between lunch and tea time. A fine stout looking party of six men, with six new pairs of boots, six brand new ice-axes, and the best of cameras, barometers, field-glasses, clinometers and maps, came to the campground at dawn one morning and set out up the mountain with the even unhurried pace which builds the appetite for climbing as the climbing proceeds. When they reached the Boulderfield at about ten, it turned out be one of the finest mornings of the summer—sunny and calm, but not hot. The mountaineers took a brief rest, drank sparingly from the little brook that runs under the boulders, and then picked their way across to the Keyhole, where the trail overlooks the magnificent cirque of Glacier Gorge. At this point they held a brief consultation—and scurried hastily down the mountainside.

Any mountain is worth a visit; most of them deserve two or three; but there are few with as much air circulating around them as Longs. The old Keyhole trail, to begin with, is astonishing when you consider it is a walking route. It spirals three-fourths of the way around the loaf-like summit on a series of inconspicuous ledges. The alternative route for tourists is only passable because of a hundred or two of cable which serves as handhold.

It is great fun to tag along with a party of tourists—there are probably 1000 in a normal year who have never had an acquaintance with anything more than a hill—and watch the emotional and aesthetic impact of a round trip by way of the Keyhole and cable. They move incredulously along from position to position under the upper edge of the great W. face which sweeps down in parabolic curves to the colored lakes below. They labor up the scree-filled trough with a false sense of security, and then come out on the Narrows ledge with a false sense of danger—wall above, and wall below. There is a tendency to crawl and cling and cringe at this point, until someone remarks that the path is as wide as a sidewalk, and leads off with a studied stroll.

Most of them had pictured the summit as a pinnacle scarcely large enough to hold the party, and they discover three acres of basking ground, flat enough for tennis courts. They rest, lunch, and look off into the distances for recognizable landmarks. There is some grave speculation about the way down, and most of them are uneasy as they start over the curve above the E. face. But there is almost a path, and the cables are easy—you just hold on and back down—and then there is nothing to be mastered but the scree slopes leading down to the trail on the Boulderfield. This return route would be almost dull but for the stopping place under the cables where one steps out over a great hollow corner at the edge of the E. face. From here the E. routes look incredible even to one who has been on them.

There are variations on the traditional routes. One may come up to the final Narrows and Home stretch by way of a long, long walk from Wild Basin; one may come up the W. face into the trough section from Glacier Gorge. One may leave the trail and take to the N. ridge before reaching the trough. This route is called the N.W. Couloir. It involves a stretch or two of simple rock-climbing in place of the tedious trough, and then an airy walk up the crest of the ridge.

More in the nature of rock-climbing is the S.W. ridge, which separates the trough from the Narrows. Professor Alexander used this one in his descent after he had made the first climb of the E. face cliff. Ernest K. Field describes a vivid experience on this part of the mountain; he had just left a ledge and was on some rather thin going 15 or 20 ft. above it when lightning struck. It appeared to the walking party below that he was sheathed in flame. He peeled off, and when he came to, he was facing out, his heels caught on the ledge and his knees doubled up.

On the N.E. face, overlooking the Boulderfield, there is a horizontal band of cliff, narrowest at the E. side where the cable goes through, and widest where it forms the flank of the N. ridge. From left to right there are half a dozen routes: two very good hard-rock chimneys, named for Ev Long and Zumwaldt, an arete called Mary’s Ledges, the left and right dovetail routes, and Field’s route on and against the N. ridge. The dovetail routes are branches of a couloir, with the attendant hazards of rotten rock near the top; the right one is reported as very tough country. Zumwaldt’s is a beauty— long enough to justify some of the walking to reach it—one of those curious position-climbs that make a man think he is rather an acrobat after all.

It is the E. face which makes Longs a great mountain. For the sake of simplicity, it may be divided into three parts: the lower third on which there are six routes, all leading to the same Broadway ledge which runs across the mountain; and above Broadway, the great central face which has never been scratched by a bootnail; and to the left of it a well-broken S.E. face on which the climbing may be varied for any desired degree of difficulty.

Field’s route on this latter part is a long chimney at the right edge; it has been climbed only once and I have reason to believe that it is at least moderately tough. The ordinary route proceeds 100 ft. into the base of the Notch Couloir, out to the right where it rounds a small arete and then through some curious channels of rock to the giant staircase, where it joins the Field route. There is complete freedom of choice from here until one comes up to the steep flanks of the S. ridge. It is possible to work back into the head of the Notch Couloir, or choose any of two or three aretes to the ridge. The length of the climb and the exacting quality of the lower face, tend to keep most parties on the giant staircase all the way to the top of the great E. cliff whence the summit is approached on easy rocks.

Of the six routes up to Broadway, one follows the arm of Mills Glacier, and is of course quite simple when the snow conditions are favorable; another follows the rocks to the left or E. of the glacier and then cuts across it; while the remaining four are more properly on the face.

The best known and most used represents a splendid flight of imagination on the part of its first climber, who struck across the Mills Glacier arm about halfway up to Broadway and then followed the wide, polished watercourse now known as Alexander’s Chimney up to the point where it is blocked by a huge chockstone. A neat little sloping ledge took him out on the bare, clean face 100 yards or so. The next was a neat bit for a solo climber—20 or 30 ft. up the face, with a very thin five near the top of it where the purchases are vertical. Another ledge took him back into a yellowish bowl near the top of the chimney and he finished the climb to Broadway on some easy rocks to the left.

At the far end of the cliff from Alexander’s is the N. chimney, a drainage cut below the central face. An ice tongue runs up into it from the glacier, and then one sets foot on some of the slidingest mud and rock on the mountain. The climbing would be quite easy were there not so many rotten rocks in with the good ones. I made a trip up the N. with Joe Scordos late in the summer and each of us in turn had to contend with rocks the size of basketballs which we rolled into our laps in the process of testing for holds. On the way down by the same route we nudged a rock over a short rappel we were about to take, and cut a 40-ft. piece off one end of the rope as clean as if we had used a sharp knife.

Field’s chimney, modestly called the Second Chimney by Field and Gorrell, who had made the only climb before this summer, is paralleled to the N., and perhaps 50 yards to the left. It is a tough nut to crack—our party used a direct-aid piton to master a rotten overhang in the middle and again on a vertical stretch just under the last easy section. Few have tried the chimney, and rightly, for it is not an exhilarating climb. All too recent is the memory of Gerald Clark who slipped and was marooned under the dripping overhang during a night of storm and died of exposure as he was lowered to the glacier the next morning.

The most stimulating route is the Stettner; it is incorrectly called the Ledges; ledges are generally assumed to be on the horizontal instead of the vertical. One is on the wall for some 700 ft. There is but one recess, almost filled by a big block where the party may sit down and wonder what comes next. The rest of the time they are on the face, on a lean-back traverse with palms up and fingers pulling against the feet to give them friction, spread-eagled above the block looking for a chinning hold. Kneeing and fisting their way up a roll-edge crack, or leaning out to use the finger against the toe on a slab edge. The dignity of balance climbing is at first ruffled and presently cast aside, and before long the climbers are tussling with the rock with all the strength of both hands and arms, and they keep it up until they come out at the leftward traverse above Alexander’s route.

Every rock climb has a character of its own which is far more than a matter of length and difficulty. There are treacherous, easy climbs, gay romping climbs, quiet methodical climbs, versatile climbs, simple astonishing climbs. The Stettner is hard, sunny and exacting—the rock-climber’s route on a rock peak.