Long's Peak - Kiener's Route

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

August 8, 2004

Dave Svilar

 

KIENER'S ROUTE  Can be done 5.3 without variation.

I had read in more than one place that Kiener's Route on Long's Peak was the "best mountaineering route in the lower 48."  Indeed it is hard to argue with the route's position as it cris-crosses along Long's east face taking the path of least resistance.  Highly skeptical of this boasting I set out to determine this for myself.  Saturday night was spent with old Snohomish High pal Stuart and his fiancée in Boulder.  Attempts to persuade Stu to join me were futile as he had been domesticated long before his first serious run-in with the opposite sex. 

On a reconnaissance trip in June my eyes had been opened to the mayhem that ensues at RMNP trailheads.  I pulled into the trailhead for Long's after 11 p.m. and immediately retired to the confines of the canopy-covered Toyota bed.  On the first trip I learned that for some reason, sleeping in one's car without a permit ($20) is a federal offense at the Long's Peak trailhead.  These people really take their mountain seriously, and to avoid dreaded permit fees one has to be especially clever in RMNP.  I knew the last ranger to check the parking lot comes through at 10 p.m. so my timing was impeccable.

It's hard to recall exact figures on the ungodly hour in which I awoke, but it had to have been early.  Even after several miles of hiking I found myself sitting in the dark on the Lamb's Slide waiting for some semblance of light to show on the horizon.  People in Colorado always brag about blue skies, which is true, for every season except summer.  Ironically, for enthusiasts of high peaks the weather is downright scary in the summer.  Each afternoon the Colorado skies go from clear blue to deep, dark gray which most often means lightning.  The one saving grace of this sort of weather is that it is very predictable.  Most anything can scare me, but what really scares me, even more than a full-time job is a thunderstorm.

I felt good about my jump-start on the morning and worked off my glee by prancing around on the frozen snow with my crampons made of recycled Pepsi cans that I had strapped onto my tennis shoes.  Standing at the bottom of the Lamb's Slide I could finally get a look at my objective as the sky began to fill with light.  The Rockies are a dry, barren place in the summer, so any chunk of snow that survives past May is bound to give a Coloradoan a ------ (edited by Mom).  The Lamb's Slide, a 40 degree snow slope that gains 1,000 feet below the east face of Long's is Colorado's most vaunted bit of year-round snow, and is probably how they get away with calling this a 'mountaineering route.'  I wondered how my make-shift shoes/crampons would hold up on the steep snow.  Luckily, as my crampon on the right foot was coming loose I found myself at Broadway.  Another celebrated Colorado mountain feature, Broadway is a ledge that would not be noteworthy except for the fact that it cuts across the dizzyingly steep east face.

DIAMONDS ARE FOR A FEW SECONDS  Spectacular but fleeting morning rays on The Diamond.

After a few steps on Broadway the sunrise rewarded me with the highlight of the day: the Diamond, the most impressive feature of the impressive Chasm Cirque, glowed a shade of orange as a result of the morning's first rays.  The ledge, which supposedly had a few fifth class moves turned out to be mostly 2nd-class.  Based on the recommendation of climber's I passed on the approach I decided to take a minor variation, which would make the difficulty of the moves 5.5 instead of 5.3.  Upon reaching the technical portion I found a couple who were pitching it out.  It was weird passing them without a rope, but I reminded myself, "I am an extreme athlete.  I am amazing."  I set off on the technical difficulties before I had time to convince myself of the truth.

BROADWAY  Taking a breather on the spectacularly situated ledge.

 

OASIS  Brilliant colors amid the sea of brown that is Upper Kiener's.

There was supposedly three pitches that involved fifth class climbing.  In case I found myself in a jam I had brought rock shoes, but my new tennis shoes performed brilliantly and soon I was on the mellow 3rd-class slopes of Upper Kiener's.  I picked a line that stayed close to the edge of the Diamond and would periodically sneak a peak over the edge of the massive cliff just to get a sense of the dramatic exposure.  Each time I peered over the edge I would picture myself climbing a route on the face - a climb earmarked for the future.  The route appeared to end at a headwall near the summit, but after some confusion I found a 'catwalk' that took me around the obstacle and then onto the summit.

To my surprise there were only 13 people on the flat, expansive summit.  I was expecting hordes, but apparently they had not arrived yet.  I usually neglect to take summit photos, but made sure to capture myself on the summit since Long's is Colorado's most sought-after summit.  Visible anywhere north of Denver along the Front Range, Long's Peak is the only 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I do not claim to know all the history involved with the mountain, but it is true that people spend months of strict, regimented exercise with the goal of reaching where I was standing. 

14,255'  Standing at the summit of Long's Peak.

I chose the cattle trod route for my descent, otherwise known as the Keyhole Route.  Packs of frenzied climbers (hikers) swarm this route by the one hundred each hoping to tag another Colorado 14er.  I was surprised to find the route to be quite entertaining and actually involve some use of the hands.  Although I did not appreciate it at the time, views looked straight down into Glacier Gorge, which I later determined to be the most beautiful area in RMNP.  With each downward step my lungs were rewarded with larger gulps of oxygen, and I found myself giving into the 14er frenzy.  Perhaps I was just yearning for some company because each group that passed received unsolicited encouragement, "almost there - you're looking strong" or "what a lovely day - you can make it." 

KEYHOLE  There were no less than 15 people swarming this rock feature.

After passing through the boulder field the trail becomes desolate and horribly monotonous.  To make matters worse, the builders of the trail installed switchbacks where they had no businesses putting them, which made the trail seem to drone on endlessly.  However, I did have time to reflect on whether this was America's "best mountaineering route."  In short, I can name 20 routes in the Cascades that are better, but that is not to say that Kiener's Route does not deserve recognition as an outstanding climb.  The Diamond may very well be the best alpine wall in the lower 48 states, so it is remarkable that a route as easy as Kiener's winds through this astonishing playground.  My thoughts started to drift towards winter when this route would truly be a challenge.

-written October 2004

Take Me Home