On August 1, 2020, my friend Tim and I took on Longs Peak - a Colorado bucket list highlight for me. That day and the physical exertion, mental space, and resulting satisfaction will forever be etched in my memory. In light of my latest drawing project, I wanted to document what it was like for me personally to reach the summit - and what it took to get there.
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1:15 am - Our alarm goes off, even though I hadn’t slept for a second. There were moments between when we turned off the lights at 9 pm and when the urgent wake up sounded that I thought I might have dozed off, but I was too excited. A nervous excitement. The kind that keeps your heart rate elevated, along with the effects of the high elevation where we rested. The trailhead parking lot had been full since we arrived a few hours prior, nabbing one of the last available slots for Tim’s van - our BNB for the night, if you consider a two foot wide camping pad a bed, and some granola and a few bites of apple a breakfast. But it was a comfortable place to pretend to sleep, with the sound of slamming car doors starting well around midnight as the extremely early summit-baggers began their journey.
1:51 am - Only six minutes later than our intended start time, we reach the trailhead, headlamps scanning the darkness around us. Trees flanked the sides of the trail like slim soldiers, as we kept our heads down to avoid catapulting over a root or rock. Tim had gotten little to no sleep, just like me, which I thought would have kept us at an equal pace, but it didn’t take long for me to realize I was going to have to kick it into high gear to keep up and not lose him amongst the blackness. My heart was beating out of my chest, my lungs aching at the sudden increase in exertion, as the lack of oxygen and sleep challenged my already exhausted body. But my legs pressed forward.
Once above tree line, we could see the thin strand of tiny headlamps dotting the hillside ahead of us, and upon reaching the Chasm Lake intersection, the view down the trail behind us was lit up like a strand of Christmas lights. While I’m often not fond of hiking around throngs of people, this felt different. We were all out with a common goal - to sufferfest our way to the top of one of Colorado’s most impressive peaks. It was in that moment that I remember feeling particularly emotional. It was also where I finally reached my flow state.
Sunrise, approximately 5:30 am - The time between Chasm and us arriving at the Keyhole was over the course of a few hours, but it went by quickly. I was finally able to ignore the fire in my legs and lungs, and had attained my hiker’s zen. We chatted, we switchbacked, we zigzagged between rocks, we slowly gained more and more visibility with the approaching sunrise, and soon we were at the base of the boulder pile leading up to the Keyhole. Scrambling our way up, we were greeted by first light, a welcomed warmth, and a snack break.
Other hikers who climbed across the rocks next to and below us moved slowly, as we were already over 3,800’ in gain since the start, and it was here that I felt it - delightfully ruthless elevation sickness. Even though we had planned to eat in preparation for the last grueling push after the Keyhole - the point where people claim “the hard part is just beginning”, in spite of it being less than 2 miles to summit - I was overwhelmed with nausea, and could only take a few more bites of my unappealing breakfast. Closing my eyes in the sun, I hid my distress from Tim, since in all honesty, elevation sickness is not something to take lightly, and I didn’t want him urging me to turn back. Irresponsible from my growing summit fever, we slung our bags over our backs, and climbed through the Keyhole - pushing forward.
The following sections of the hike all came with their own difficulties, but it was in the Trough - an extremely steep gully of somewhat loose rock over 600’ in gain - where I once again battled with my body. My chest ached, my legs seemed to be dragging like logs behind me, and I had started to experience occasional heart palpitations - another delightful side effect of sudden elevation increase. I really should have turned around, but we were so fucking close, and as usual, my stubbornness won, so I resolved to stop often and just breathe. While this is no easy feat at over 13,700’, the end was practically in sight, and I knew I could make it to the summit if I took my time. After a vertigo-inducing section of exposed ledges and one last push up the Homestretch, which was only 300’ but felt eternal, there it was.
6:34 am, 14,259’ - The summit. Although the nausea had returned, and I could tell my body was withering from lack of air and calories, the 4 hour and 43 minute, 7.6 mile slog had brought us to stand on top of an absolutely magnificent earthly creation. My palpitating heart sung. The wind was calm, the sky was clear, and the mountainous land stretched out before us as we towered above it all. I have attained no better feeling from any other physical activity than the one that I receive from peak bagging, and I don’t know that I ever will. It is absolute bliss.
While some peaks have just barely enough room to scoot around a few other hikers at the top, Longs’ summit is a wide, nearly flat stretch of rocks, allowing plenty of space to spread out and pause before turning back. After a mere 15 minutes, we were on our way down. We cruised easily back to the Keyhole, where we took a break to stretch and finally eat. The sun was shining with intense warmth as we made our return trek to the trailhead.
10:48 am - 8 hours and 57 minutes after our alpine start, we were back. Since the last three miles pulverized the life out of my feet, it felt amazing to sit and stretch once again. We were exhausted, exhilarated, sore, and stoked beyond belief, as we basked in the glory of the sun and our accomplishment.
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That particular feeling is one that keeps me coming back for more time and time again. Hiking, particularly in pursuit of summits, is a physical and mental endurance journey each and every time, and I love confronting the feelings of doubt, hesitance, and even fear that arise without fail. The challenge is good, the reward is great, and the views from the high pinnacles scattered across our planet’s surface is something I will never take for granted.