I've been hiking 14ers for the past couple years. And so far, I've uniquely summited 16 of them. Early on, I learned that it's OK to turn around if a climb is too difficult to conquer.
That is the sign of a true hiker, I'm told.
Nonetheless, that feeling of regret and resignation stays with you for days, even weeks, and all you can think about is giving that darn mountain another try. And that’s why I still can’t get over the fact that I didn't get to the top of 14,259-foot Longs Peak, the hardest 14er I've ever attempted.
It all started just after midnight two Mondays ago. I had arrived a few hours earlier to my girlfriend's apartment in Loveland with the hope of sleeping off a week’s worth of work. I was unsuccessful. I was nervous and pumped to climb a mountain that I'd wanted to climb since I moved to Colorado two years ago. Still, I had to go.
The mountain, as many like-minded adventure seekers can attest, was calling me.
We got to the trailhead just before 3 a.m. Many Longs Peak conquerors would likely say that was a late start, especially since the days were getting shorter and shorter. Therefore, my girlfriend Ariel, Out There Colorado contributor Spencer McKee and our friend Alyssa, who regularly climbs 14ers, tried to make up for lost time by bolting it.
I was in a funk early on. Much of the hike was above timberline, which was bad news for my sleep-deprived, slightly dehydrated body. Still, I tried my best to enjoy it. Occasionally, I'd look back and see all the headlights behind me, all the people that was attempting a feat that, I'm told, has about a 50-percent success rate. We passed a couple folks, and a couple folks passed us.
One hiker said to me, "We're in for a long day, huh?"
Just as the sun rose, we got to the base of the infamous Keyhole. There was a sign describing all the dangers of this route: loose rocks, steep slabs, exposed narrow ledges. To paraphrase, do not mess around or you could die. By then, I was exhausted and cold. The bottom half of my face was numb. I couldn’t feel my hands. One hiker came up to me and asked if he was going in the right direction, and I tried to tell him, I really did, that yes, he was, but I gave up speaking and displayed a weak thumbs up.
To get to this point was quite a feat. We hiked up a little over 6 miles, gained nearly 4,000 feet of elevation and reached 13,200 feet. In my opinion, I thought the trail was harder than some of the 14ers I've climbed.
We didn’t have much time to think about what we wanted to do next, though. My girlfriend and I decided to turn around, simply because we didn’t want to deal with the wicked winds and the bitter cold. Plus, we were both pretty tired, but I’m sure my girlfriend could have kept going.
We knew it was the right decision. And plenty of hikers before and after us chose the same fate.
Our friends, however, kept going. They said they were the first ones that day who got to the top. We were surprised by this outcome. Not because we didn't believe in them. We just didn't trust the conditions. The park rangers back at the trailhead told us that they didn't think anyone would summit, saying the path was too icy, and too dangerous after the Keyhole.
We waited for our friends at the trailhead. Two hours later, they arrived. Their faces said it all: shock, exhaustion and delight. They didn't think they were going to finish, but they said something inside them pushed them to the top.
But they also said it was a crazy idea to keep going. It was icy, it was really windy.
My girlfriend and I thought maybe we should have kept going. But our friends said that turning around wasn't a bad idea, and that we should try Longs Peak again next summer, perhaps sometime in July, when conditions are ideal. And even though the feeling of turning around stung, we agreed.
We knew we still accomplished quite a feat that day.