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Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado's Favorite Fourteener

Longs Peak: The Story of Colorado’s Favorite Fourteener. Dougald MacDonald. Englewood, CO: Westcliffe Publishers, 2004.240 pages. Paperback. $24.95.

From a speeding airliner high over the American West you gaze down upon many mountains. But even the ones that should be familiar are flattened and can be devilishly hard to identify. Recently I flew from Oakland to Denver. Partway into our descent, probably around 25,000 feet, I looked out and spotted a highly distinctive peak. I blurted out: “God! Look at that!” My seatmate must have thought I was seeing an engine on fire. No, it was that massive, beautifully shaped mountain known as Longs Peak. It must have been 40 miles distant, yet my ancient brain cells had instantly recognized it.

Dougald MacDonald has produced a riveting book about Colorado’s most splendid mountain. He begins with a step-by-step account of a hike up the “tourist” route, and we are swept along as if we had a guide hiking with us. This adventure, the Keyhole Route, is not exactly a stroll, as it involves a 4,850-foot elevation gain and a 15-mile round trip. This well-crafted introductory section makes the reader long for more. And you’ll soon get it.

Most mountains have little recorded history. We may know who made the first ascent, or be aware of a few notes from this Journal, but let’s face it: no book could be written about 99.99% of the world’s peaks. But because of its prominence and height (14,259 feet) Longs lured many early adventurers, and their exploits have not faded into obscurity. MacDonald tells of the “discovery” of the peak in 1820, the controversy surrounding the first ascent, the explorations of Enos Mills in the early 1900s (he climbed the peak nearly 300 times), and the 1925 incident where Agnes Vaille died during a winter ascent.

Accounts of some of the famed routes on the east side of the mountain form the core of the book. The Stettner brothers and their 5.8 route in 1927. Bob Kamps and Dave Rearick’s “sneak” ascent of the Diamond in 1960. Royal Robbins and Layton Kor climbing two routes on the Diamond in a four-day period in 1963. The first winter ascent of the Diamond, a five-day effort by Kor and Wayne Goss in 1967. The exploits of modern-day speed climbers (Tommy Caldwell and Topher Donahue did five Diamond routes in a single day!). A fact I was unaware of: there are 75 separate routes on the eastern escarpment of the mountain. Fascinating stuff!

Other sections of the book deal with accidents (54 dead so far), winter climbs, geology, and natural history. This last topic, though well done, seems out of place here, since little is specific to Longs Peak. Three full pages about quaking aspen and elk? Better to have omitted this and inserted more climbing history.

The many photographs are sublime, especially the ones by Topher Donahue. Some of the color shots are of startling definition, a far cry from so many cheaply prepared mountain books. Oddly, the photographers are not credited next to their photos; you must get this fine-print information at the end of the book. A minor flaw in MacDonald’s near-perfect tome.

Steve Roper