Climbing Longs Peak, Keyhole Route Description

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Green, Stewart. "Climbing Longs Peak, Keyhole Route Description." ThoughtCo, Feb. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/climbing-longs-peak-keyhole-route-description-755733. Green, Stewart. (2017, February 13). Climbing Longs Peak, Keyhole Route Description. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/climbing-longs-peak-keyhole-route-description-755733 Green, Stewart. "Climbing Longs Peak, Keyhole Route Description." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/climbing-longs-peak-keyhole-route-description-755733 (accessed October 20, 2017).
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Climbing Longs Peak: The Keyhole Route Description

The East Face of Longs Peak towers above frozen Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photograph copyright Ethan Welty/Getty Images

Longs Peak, one of Colorado's most beautiful mountains, is also one of its most popular Fourteeners or 14,000-foot peaks to climb. The Keyhole Route, the regular and most traveled route to the summit, requires no technical climbing during summer months, generally from early July to mid-September depending on how fast the snow melts. During the rest of the year, climbers need to consider an ascent of Longs Peak via the Keyhole Route to be a technical mountaineering climb with snow and ice covering parts of the route.

Keyhole Route is Dangerous

The Keyhole Route, rated Class 3, is one of the more difficult and dangerous standard routes up a Fourteener in Colorado. An average of one person a year dies each year while climbing Longs, most from falls, lightning strikes, and exposure to the elements, including hypothermia. The route requires scrambling across airy granite slabs and up steep gullies. Inexperienced and nervous climbers may like to be belayed with a rope on some sections. Use your best judgment to safely ascend the route and safeguard your fellow climbers.

Long Day of Climbing

The Keyhole Route, spiraling around Longs Peak, travels 8 miles from the trailhead to the summit or 16 miles round trip, which makes a long day of hiking and scrambling. Begin your climb before dawn so that you climb the difficult upper part of the route to the summit and then descend to a safe elevation before the daily afternoon thunderstorms begin. The scrambling upper sections can be difficult and dangerous if they're wet or covered with corn snow. Lightning also is an ever-present danger on Longs Peak.

Climbing Seasons

The best time to climb Longs Peak is from early July to mid-September. Expect clear, sunny mornings perfect for climbing above timberline. Afternoon thunderstorms begin building to the west and moving across the peak by mid-day. Expect violent thunderstorms with heavy rain, corn snow or graupel, and lightning. The spring months of May and June are usually fine for climbing with stable periods of weather. Treat the climb, however, as a technical outing and bring an ice ax, crampons, and rope. Likewise, mid-September to late October is fine for climbing but expect snow on the upper elevations and possible snow storms and freezing temperatures. For current Longs Peak conditions, call Rocky Mountain National Park Information at (970) 586-1206.

Being Safe on Longs Peak

Be prepared when you climb Longs Peak and bring the Ten Essentials, including warm clothing and rain gear. An ice ax, crampons, rope, and other climbing gear may be needed, depending on conditions. If you're coming from a low elevation, give yourself a few days to acclimate before attempting the ascent to avoid altitude sickness. Use caution when climbing and descending the upper route sections. Be especially careful not to knock rocks down since other climbers are below you. It's a good idea to wear a helmet to protect your head. Keep an eye on the weather and don't be afraid to turn around in bad conditions.

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Keyhole Route Planning Information

Mt. Lady Washington is the rounded peak to the left. The Diamond is the sheer face on Longs.
Early morning light floods across the North Face of Longs Peak and the Keyhole Route. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

Longs Peak Climbing Information

  • Mountain: Longs Peak
  • Elevation: 14,259 feet (4,346 meters)
  • Location: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
  • Range: Front Range
  • Coordinates: 40º 15' 17" N, 105º 36' 55" W
  • Map USGS Longs Peak; Trails Illustrated #200
  • Route: Keyhole Route
  • Difficulty: Class 3. Moderate. Hiking on a trail and scrambling over rock. Exposure, steep terrain, loose rock. A trail does not go to the summit. Route-finding is required. Only a non-technical hike/climb from July to mid-September.
  • Trailhead Elevation: 9,400 feet
  • Elevation Gain: 4,850 feet from trailhead to summit
  • One-Way and Round-Trip Distance: 8 miles and 16 miles
  • Restrictions: No dogs allowed on the trail or mountain.
  • Camping: Longs Peak Campground (NPS) at the trailhead. Other campgrounds are in the area. No car camping at the trailhead parking area. Camping at the Boulder Field by permit.
  • Lodging: Hotels and motels in Estes Park to the north
  • Nearest Town: Estes Park
  • Contact Information: Rocky Mountain National Park, 1000 Highway 36, Estes Park, Colorado 80517; 970) 586-1206

Directions to Trailhead

Longs Peak is in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Colorado Highway 7, the Peak to Peak Highway. From Estes Park to the north, drive 9.2 miles south on CO 7 from its junction with US 36 to a right (west) turn to Longs Peak Ranger Station and Campground. From the south, drive 10.5 miles north on CO 7 from the junction of CO 7 and CO 72 and make a left turn to Longs Peak Ranger Station and Campground. Drive a mile west to the Longs Peak Trailhead.

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Longs Peak Trailhead to The Boulder Field

The Boulder Field is a long but most flat section of the trail up the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak.
The Keyhole Route crosses The Boulder Field below the North Face of Longs Peak. Head southwest across the boulders to the obvious Keyhole notch in the northwest ridge. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

Longs Peak Trailhead to Chasm Lake Trail Junction

The first 3.5-mile segment of the ascent goes from the Longs Peak Trailhead and Ranger Station to the Boulder Field on the north side of Longs Peak. From the trailhead, hike west up the East Longs Peak Trail. After 0.5 miles you reach a marked trail junction, keep left on the main trail. The trail slowly ascends through twisted limber pines in Goblins Forest at 1.2 miles, following slopes right of Alpine Brook, until it switchbacks up a steep section and crosses the creek on a log bridge. Keep left at the Jims Grove trail junction 2.5 miles from the trailhead and pass timberline. Continue up the north side of Mills Moraine and, after 3.5 miles, reach the Chasm Lake trail junction at 11,550 feet. Keep right at the junction.

Chasm Trail Junction to The Boulder Field

The trail swings northwest from the Chasm Lake junction and slowly ascends the northeast flank of 13,281-foot Mt. Lady Washington for 0.7 miles (4.2 miles from trailhead) to Granite Pass, a gap between Lady Washington and 12,044-foot Battle Mountain. The pass offers great views west of jagged peaks along the Continental Divide. At the pass is another trail junction. Keep left on the main well-worn trail and hike easily up a slope to the 12,400-foot-high northern edge of The Boulder Field, a tumbled mass of boulders of all sizes that spills north from the North Face of Longs Peak. Hike through the boulders, passing a desolate camping area (permit only) and toilet, to the south end of The Boulder Field at 12,800 feet (six miles from trailhead).

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The Keyhole and Agnes Vaille

The Agnes Vaille shelter is just below the Keyhole.
From The Boulder Field, clamber over more boulders to the Keyhole, an obvious notch in the northwest ridge of Longs Peak. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

The Keyhole

Above The Boulder Field, clamber over boulders on the cairn-marked trail to the obvious Keyhole, a pronounced notch in the northwest ridge of Longs Peak at 13,150 feet. The Keyhole (not to be confused with the False Keyhole farther south up the ridge) is the key to the route, allowing access from the east side of Longs Peak to the west. The route becomes much more serious and demanding at the Keyhole, making it the turn-around point for many hikers unprepared for the terrain or the weather. If the weather appears to be turning bad, don't continue past the Keyhole. The wind is often very strong at the Keyhole too.

Agnes Vaille Hut

The Agnes Vaille Hut, a beehive-shaped stone shelter, lies just below the Keyhole. Agnes Vaille, a well-known climber in the 1920s, died here after making the first winter ascent of the East Face in a grueling 25-hour climbing marathon in January 1925. While she and her climbing partner Walter Kiener descended the North Face, Valle fell 100 feet and landed in a snowdrift unhurt. She did, however, suffer from extreme fatigue and hypothermia in the frigid conditions and was unable to continue down. Kiener went for help but when rescuers arrived she had already died. Herbert Sortland, one of her rescuers, also died after breaking a hip and freezing to death.

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The Keyhole to the Trough

Note the yellow and red bulls-eye dot painted on the boulder on The Ledges.
Traverse across slabs and broken rock on The Ledges from the Keyhole to the base of the Trough, a deep rocky gully. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

Keyhole to the Trough

The distance from the Keyhole to the summit is about a mile, but it is a hard, time-consuming mile with lots of route-finding, exposure, and scrambling. From here the route spirals around the west and south sides of the mountain to the summit. The route is marked with painted yellow and red bulls-eyes at crucial spots.

Climb through the Keyhole to the west side of the northwest ridge and go left. Look right for spectacular views across Glacier Gorge, a deep glacier-excavated valley to the west. Work up left from the Keyhole on ledges, slabs, up to a V-slot, and then across the Ledges above the top of a big slab. Continue traversing across the face and 0.3 miles from the Keyhole, reach the Trough, a steep wide gully that angles up right for 550 feet from 13,300 feet.

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Climbing the Trough and Walking The Narrows

The Narrows is one of the best parts of the Keyhole Route with solid rock and lots of exposure.
Cross The Narrows, a high rocky sidewalk that swings around the south face of Longs Peak. Just watch your step if the weather turns bad. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

Climbing the Trough

The Trough is filled with snow both early and late in the climbing season and may require crampons and an ice ax. If snow is still in the Trough, avoid it by keeping left on the dry rock. During peak summer climbing season, the Trough is dry. The gully has both solid rock sections as well as rubble, watch for loose rock. Take care not to dislodge anything that may tumble onto climbers below. Wear a helmet to protect your head from klutzes above. Climb the Trough for 550 feet to 13,850 feet on the west ridge of Longs Peak, finishing with a 30-foot scramble up a rock wall and past a tricky chockstone (hardest part of the route), to a sudden airy view of Wild Basin to the south from a platform.

The Narrows

From the top of the Trough, the route traverses the south face on an exposed ledge system called The Narrows--it's not as bad as it looks. Cross the ledge for 300 feet, passing a couple sections that narrow to four feet. It's usually dry with firm footing. Scramble up right on broken ledges and around a rib for another 400 feet to the base of the final section--The Homestretch. Again, it looks worse than it is.

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The Homestretch to the Summit

The Homestretch, lying above 14,000 feet, offers fun scrambling on perfect alpine granite.
Climb cracks and slabs up The Homestretch to the summit of Longs Peak. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield

The Homestretch

The Homestretch, the easiest route through the summit cliffs, is a steep rock groove that has been polished by climber's feet over the past 140 years. Scramble up diagonally cracks on steep granite slabs for 300 feet, using lots of good handholds and footholds. Follow the painted route markers to keep the difficulty at Class 3. If you stray off-route, the difficulty quickly increases. This section can be difficult and dangerous in bad weather or if there's snow.

Longs Peak Summit

Above The Homestretch, scramble a few feet more onto the large, flat summit of Longs Peak. Take some deep breaths. Eat your lunch. Take in the stunning views of surrounding peaks and the distant prairie shimmering in the afternoon sun. Don't forget to record your achievement in the summit register, along with the thousands of other climbers that climb to the 15th highest summit in Colorado every year. If you want to stand on the actual high point, you'll have to climb atop a big boulder.

The Descent

While on top, keep an eye on the weather to the west. If thunderstorms are building, it's best to start down before rain and lightning comes. The upper sections of the mountain can be treacherous during and after thunderstorms. Reverse the route to descend. Novices will sometimes freeze up before downclimbing the steep and exposed Homestretch. After leaving the Trough, pay attention to the traverse across the Ledges to make sure that at its end, you climb down to the Keyhole. Some returning parties mistake a higher notch called the False Keyhole for the real thing. Plan on spending about half the time it took you to ascend to complete your descent back to the trailhead.